As a rule, when intellectuals contribute to public debate on any issue of public concern in any country, it is an entirely wholesome development, and one deserving every encouragement. That is truer if the intellectuals involved know how to communicate even the most abstruse area of knowledge vividly, clearly, compellingly. For, when we say we desire ‘informed public opinion’, one of the best ways of bringing that about is by encouraging well-trained minds on any subject relevant to a public policy question of general concern to help their fellow-citizens by throwing a bright light on the subject. That is why news and current affairs editors everywhere try to maintain a roster of experts that can be called upon to comment on issues occasioning public controversy.
But you do want to believe that when experts of various kinds, and intellectuals of various kinds, participate in public debate they will be guided by certain norms. You want to believe, for instance, that they will not lie, distort facts, and slant the evidence in outrageously tendentious ways…and so on. You expect that the owner of a highly trained mind will be a discriminating handler of ideas, of argument and of evidence. You expect a more than nodding acquaintance with the basic rules of logic, like the ad hominem rule (don’t attack the man, attack the argument. Or in the language of soccer: attack the ball not the leg of the player with the ball). You also expect, if we are to be frank about this, a certain courteousness, arising from the belief that your opponent in a public debate is not Lucifer incarnate but simply someone with a different point of view, or a different reading of the evidence. There is absolutely no point in public debate if there is no possibility of movement based on the soundness of the reasoning and the weight of the evidence.
I am, of course, stating an ideal; life is about ideals. I know that in real life the truth is a bit more complicated. Public debate has far more rough and tumble to it than decorousness. Most of the time, we are not dealing with the vigorous but polite exchanges between top lawyers arguing different sides of a case before an appellate court. Nevertheless, it still comes as a shock – does it not? – when a mind you know has been trained to a high level engages in public debate the way a thug would.
What follows is a composite portrait, but wherever you are in the world today you must know at least one example of the kind. So, when is the intellectual participating in public debate a thug? I propose the following characteristics:
- When there is evidence of belief in a pure creed about which there are no doubts. All the issues are settled and settled for all time.
- When ‘inconvenient facts’, that is, facts that challenge the theory or creed are resolutely ignored.
- When there is evidence that only certain sources of information are deemed valid; or the person involved selectively exposes themselves to only the ‘right’ sources of usually creed-confirming information or views.
- When he or she has clearly become a general in the brutal army that enforces the creed, whatever it is. That includes policing purity and denouncing deviators.
- When he or she is a smasher of opponents of the creed. When the attitude is that opponents are not to be debated; they must be utterly and completely destroyed.
- When he or she is a master of verbal violence; an aggressive, in -your –face opponent, meaner than a junkyard dog , and possessor of a rich, dense vocabulary of terms of abuse and denunciation.
- When there is evidence of the acquirement and willing deployment of sulfurous eloquence.
In my youth, a lot of these people were Marxists, and some of them were teachers in the universities that I attended. They were wild. One of the terms of abuse they hurled promiscuously in public debate that has stayed with me over the years is this one: ‘You Capitalist Roader!’ Still not sure what that means.
But I do not want to pick on Marxists (and I am often Marxian myself). Intellectual thugs erupt from all kinds of piazzas of passionate belief and commitment. What matters is that they are a nuisance. They foul the public sphere and make reasoned public discourse more difficult than it already is. When one has spoken you want to reach for a gigantic air freshener …and spray, and spray.
Finally, is it fair to ask if these people are intellectuals at all, that is, people given to study, reflection and speculation?
Photo credit: flickr user nathangibbs