Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why Australia hates thinkers: the untold story

Recently, I read a thought-provoking opinion-piece of the title used above: ‘Why Australia hates thinkers.’ The writer (A. Simmonds) put together a disconcertingly persuasive argument that Australia doesn’t like its academics, and she speculated intelligently on the causes of this situation.
In my own experience, for what it is worth, I’ve never come face-to-face with this sort of anti-intellectual fervour. I live outside a smallish country town that is very middle-Australian. If I’m asked what I do for a job, I tell people the unvarnished truth: I’m a philosopher. Often the locals don’t know what that means, which I think is fair enough. But after I explain, they are usually interested. I have never felt any sort of explicit or implicit antagonism towards what I do. I think philosophy is valuable, and I try and infect other people with my enthusiasm for what I do.
Maybe I have never had a bad experience because, while I expect ordinary folk to be interested in what my job involves, I never expect them to be impressed. Philosophy in particular, and academic research more generally, is not inherently self-justifying. People are entitled to be unsure about whether my job really contributes to the world they live in—especially because, as an academic researcher, their taxes pay for my wages. If I want people to be impressed by what I do, then I think the onus is on me to show them that my profession is impressive.
Still, maybe I have just been lucky. I have certainly heard anecdotal horror stories, and (as mentioned above) Simmons makes a pretty good case that intellectuals are not held in high esteem in the Australian community. Is it really true that only 5% of the panellists on Q&A have a research background? That is frightening.
Simmons supplies a wealth of sensible reasons why we might see this antipathy between academics and ordinary Australians. But I think there is another reason for the hatred, as well as the ones she considers, namely: Australia hates thinkers because thinkers hate Australia.
Perhaps that is an overly tendentious way of expressing the point. And it goes without saying that I am pretty keen on academics—I share many of their values, admire their skills and value their views. After all, I am an academic myself.
But one thing I don’t share with many of my brethren is what seems to me their very dim views on Australian society. Now I am speaking in generalities of course; there are countless academics who love the society around them and support it in immeasurable ways. And everything I say below is limited to my own experience, which of course might be quite unrepresentative of the true perspectives of Australian academia. But in my experience a sizable amount of scholars (and research students) in the humanities and social sciences hold very deprecatory views about their country and fellow citizens, and that in conversation, in lectures and at conferences they espouse those views with the confidence that everyone else present is assumed to hold them too.
Let me give a few examples. The main one is racism. In my experience, lots of academics think that ordinary Australians are, by and large, racist, or that they harbour closely related vices. If it is possible to explain any social phenomenon by appealing to racism, then that is the chosen explanation. If Australians worry about immigration and ensuing cultural changes, then that is because they are racist and xenophobic. If Australians worry about international terrorism and religious extremism, that is because they are racist and Islamaphobic. If Australians patriotically celebrate their national days, then that is because they are insular and in denial about the country’s colonialist and racist past. And so on. Now it is certainly true that racism could (and for at least some Australians unquestionably does) explain these views. But there are a host of reasons, rational and irrational, morally acceptable and morally worrisome, that could also explain them. In my experience, academics can display a tendency to impute the worst of motivations to any political standpoint with which they disagree.
I find the racism example perplexing because I don’t really understand the motivation for it. It seems to me that calling someone or a society racist is a very serious accusation, and that it is a basic moral principle to only impute the worst of motives to a person when you have powerful reasons to do so. There are many subtle issues at work in teasing out a person’s reasons for their socio-political views, yet some academics display all the nuanced subtlety of a mousetrap to this task.
While the racism attribution perplexes me, a more understandable scorn of middle Australian might arise from the academic’s carefully considered political or social views. For example, many academics I know have political views that are well out of step with those of the ordinary population. Often they are far-left egalitarian, but sometimes they are far-right libertarian. And accompanying this is a view that the larger population’s political perspectives are not merely wrong, but are beyond the pale of acceptability. To have voted for John Howard, for example, or to be considering voting for Tony Abbot in the forthcoming election is not merely mistaken, the assumption seems to be, but is on a plane with complicity in Nazism. Reading the comments section on the academic-journalism website The Conversation contains innumerable instances of academics dismissing an article or argument merely on the grounds that it is right-wing, or aligns with a position portrayed by the Murdoch press. On this footing, academics dislike Australians because of their politics.
Sometimes (and this is a separate point) this dislike can be related to the deeper theoretical standpoint held by the academic. Lots of social and political theories tell stories about the larger population that cast that population as dupes of a larger ideology. They are mindless drones so inculcated into capitalist or patriarchal or colonialist belief-systems that they are unaware of what is really happening in the world, and—short of having their consciousness raised through the appropriate university degree—are incapable of critically reflecting on it. Blinded by the overarching dominant paradigm, the population is entirely unaware of its own motivations for its views and practices. Indeed, the views in question might not even be political in nature—people who hang on to the idea of ‘objective truths’ might be cast as victims of a socially constructed worldview that utterly distorts accurate understanding of the world. On this footing, then, the thought is that some academics hold theoretical views that are bound to offend the people that the theory in question aims to explain.
Now there are a few objections one could make to what I have been saying. It might be charged the most academics in the humanities and social sciences simply do not hold the views I am suggesting they do. As such (i) academics aren’t lightning fast in ascribing racist and xenophobic views to middle-Australia; (ii) even if academics do share different political views to middle-Australians, they accept that the vast majority of Australians have at least some decent reasons for their positions and that rational debate with them is possible; and (iii) academics don’t cleave to theories that cast ordinary people as mindless dupes bereft of reason and autonomy. Perhaps I am myself, in expressing these views about some of my peers, only replicating the very vices I am attributing to those peers, namely, of hasty generalization and a tendency to impute the worst of motives.
However, there is another objection that may be made, which is that—while many academics do in fact hold these views and do in fact behave in these ways—they are totally justified in doing so. They have conclusive evidence that Australians are racist, powerful arguments that Australian’s political views are unacceptable and irrational, and solid evidence for believing that most people are un-reflective pawns in an ideological conspiracy.
Suppose this is the response given to what I have said. If so, though, it hardly seems fair to complain if one is then disliked by the society. If an academic has an explicit and conscious view that middle-Australia is racist, say, then of course they must expect that middle-Australia will be less than enthusiastic about hearing from that academic and about footing the bill for his or her salary. How could it be otherwise? No-one likes to be told they are immoral or stupid, or that their views are not a product of a reasonable thought process. No-one likes to be scorned or sneered at, or treated as if they are not worth including in discussion and decision-making. It seems to me there is less need to cast about looking for other cultural reasons for Australian disdain for its academics when there is an obvious reason staring us in the face.
So my final point is this: if we as academics have considered views that are bound to be offensive to the wider population (because our considered views are, effectively, that they are immoral and stupid), then we need to accept that they will take offense. If we don’t want to give offence (either for moral or pragmatic reasons—given that in a democracy the public has a hand on the purse strings) then we need to be a lot more sensitive, and perhaps a little less self-righteous, than we currently are.

3 comments:

Michael Cowley said...

Hugh, I think a large part of Simmonds' problem is that she appears to confuse the opinion of the loudest voices in all forms of media (including the dreaded online commenters, whether on News Limited sites or The Conversation) with that of the public at large. If you take the views of commenters, the twitterati and media "elites" (I hate the abuse of this term by those to whom it truly applies) like Andrew Bolt as representative of the Australian public, then despair is the appropriate response. And I admit it's very hard not to when you spend a large part of your time online and feeling superior [pauses to sip latte].

But when you talk to actual people - ie those who live more than 10km from the CBD of a capital city [wanders out to the balcony to see what's happening in Fortitude Valley], it soon becomes clear that people hold an astonishing diversity of views that are far more nuanced than those portrayed in much online discussion.

It's hard not to conclude that those who complain about widespread anti-intellectualism are actually part of the problem.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike; yes, good points all. I agree we should distinguish the loud voices of anti-intellectual commentators from the diversity of opinion in the wider community. I am regularly surprised at the sorts of people who, for example, did a university subject or two in politics, law or sociology, and are pleased to be able to talk about it. I think there is a lot of healthy intellectual curiousity out there in the general population.

It's an interesting thought that if we focused on what the commentators say, that Simmonds perhaps provides a better account of what's going on in that context. But if we look at what the actual people think, a more diverse and nuanced picture emerges.

Right, I'm off to enjoy my (soy) latte! ;-)

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