Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On Anti-Intellectualism in New Zealand

I saw this article in The Spinoff and got all excited, because it was about anti-intellectualism in New Zealand.  Then I got all disappointed because the headline was needlessly insulting and the article was a book excerpt, from a book which seemed to be subtitled “Why Gordon McLauchlan is not nice”.  I think New Zealand deserves a better article about anti-intellectualism in New Zealand.  This is an attempt to provide one.

My aims are modest.  I’m going to offer a possible definition of an intellectual, I’m going to show how intellectuals are frowned on in this country, and I’m going to suggest that intellectuals have value.  I’m going to offer proof of these things.  Like you, I am not sure what the point of this exercise is.  I hope to supply at least one point by the end.

People often use ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Academic’ interchangeably.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to defend intellectuals.  And academics are indefensible. 

I find it more useful to frame things this way:

A simple way of looking at people is that we are a species of primate who think, feel, and do things. For any given phenomenon, whether it is a banana, or cancer, or the United States Election, most people will think about the phenomenon, have feelings about it, and/or do something about it.  Different people put different amounts of emphasis on thinking, feeling, and doing.  An intellectual is a person whose first or strongest reaction to a phenomenon is to think about it.

Let’s be clear from the start - everybody thinks, everybody feels, everybody acts!  We’re talking about which of these you do the most often, or the hardest, or the soonest, or for the longest.  

I place the banana before you.  

If you are a person of action, you eat the damn thing, but you still have thoughts and feelings while you do.  

If you live in your feelings, you might enjoy the warm glow of experiencing my generosity, or feel revulsion at the sight of an under-ripe green bonita.  But you will still eat it or throw it away, and you’ll think thoughts while doing so.  

If you are an intellectual you will likely reflect on the tenuous nature of banana clone culture,  and the pros and cons of genetic modification or a search for heritage varieties to save the fruit-which-isn’t-a-fruit from extinction.  But you’ll eat the damn thing, green or not, because I gave it to you and you’re too socially anxious to turn it down.  And you’ll feel something while you eat, even if all you feel is some banana in your mouth.

There are arguments and counter-arguments for putting Thinking first, or Feeling first, or Doing first, and they’re interesting but ultimately silly.  Everyone needs to do all of these things.  Everyone is biased towards one or the other.  Everyone would do well to strike some kind of balance. What I’m arguing in this essay is that being biased towards Thought is disapproved of in New Zealand culture, in a way that being biased towards Feeling or Action is not.

So I should prove it.  Proving it in a non-bullshit, non-hand-waving kind of way is actually kind of hard - proof itself, and the process of proving things, are intellectual concepts.  Citing a large number of peer-reviewed studies about how everyone is into emotions and actions but not into thoughts is, when you think about it, kind of contradictory - if everyone is so anti-intellectual, where did all those peer-reviewed studies come from?  

After a week or so of brow-furrowing and chin-stroking, I have settled on the kind of compromise no one will be happy with (The Only Kind!!) - that is, given that it’s so hard to form an intellectually sound demonstration of how anti-intellectualism is definitely a real thing, I’m going to attempt interesting hand-waving and plausible bullshit.  I’m going to talk about the kinds of things people say, the kinds of people who are venerated in our society, and experiences I’ve had which I think other people will have had too.  Nope, none of this constitutes scientific proof.  But then what’s a scientist?

Let’s get on with it.

That’s as good a place to start as any - the concept of Getting On With It is a key one in New Zealand culture.  From the foreword to the definitive guide to Middle New Zealand Culture, Foreskin’s Lament: 

Tupper: Important? Important my arse.  The best mates I’ve ever had, we never got past the time of day.  What’s important? You just get on with it.

‘You just get on with it’ - and then where do you get?  If the old myths have failed us, if that stoical expression of national self-survival ‘just get on with it’ - has become the slogan of a willed self-ignorance, then McGee wants to know why.
Greg McGee, All Black trialist and playwright, used the phrase in 1981 to highlight the clash between the worlds of a future playwright and a future All Black.  12 years later Don McGlashan turned it to comic effect in The Wedding Song:

My friends, we’ve come to witness something wonderful
So let’s get on with it

Getting On With It is a value in Middle New Zealand society, one so strong that writers of songs and plays can drop the phrase into their work as shorthand for an entire worldview; one so strong that people routinely use it to end debate in board meetings, or on talk radio, or down the pub.  Getting On With It implicitly rules out reflection:  ‘It’ must be an action.  ‘It’ can not be a series of thoughts.

My friends, we’ve come to generate a number of contrasting viewpoints
Each based on inquiry conducted in a logical fashion
None intended to be considered final or dogmatic
But rather weighted according to their objective merits
Whatever objective can be considered to mean
So let’s Get On With It

reads as a fairly tedious joke, but not as something a Real Person would actually say. Getting On With It means Doing It, whatever It is, and regardless of whether It’s the best thing to do.

But this is old-person talk: Get On With It, like A Good Keen Man or Hang On a Minute Mate, are phrases that were already dated when McGee was writing, and the emphasis on Doing Stuff probably had a lot to do with New Zealand’s history as a mostly rural society.  As we moved into the city our cliches moved away from practical concerns and into the uncanny intersection between the corporate world and Self Help books.  Ask Maya Angelou:

At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Angelou seems to be a Very Nice Person, but this quote, and more importantly the uses it is put to, are suspect in the extreme.  Since we are apparently being categorical here (Angelou almost certainly wasn’t, but her misusers usually are), what if what I said was ‘the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides”?  What if what I did was cure cancer?  Are we seriously stating that revolutionising mathematics, or saving lives, are less worthy of remembering than the fact that we were rude, or hadn’t showered that day?  

How did racists from the southern United States feel about Angelou’s work?  Is that feeling more important than her work?  

Of course not, and Angelou herself is far too smart to have thought so.  But her interesting insight, taken away from its context, has spread through public debate, pop psychology, and management theory.  Imagine a job interview.  The candidate leaves. The panel confers thus:

Well she certainly smells awful.  And she personally insulted two of us during the interview.  But she is the most highly-qualified electrical engineer in Australasia.  And she invented the diode.  So regardless of how we might feel about her she’s clearly the best person for the job.

Impossible. In urban societies, getting on with it is no match for getting on with people, and getting on with people is emotional work.  What you say and what you do are largely irrelevant, provided you make people feel good.  Have a shower.  Smile and listen actively.  Let someone else invent the diode.  At the end of the day, people won’t remember the CV you perfected, or the diode you invented, but the way you made them feel.

So much for the shit people say.  What about the people who say shit?  

Well at the end of the day there’s a New Zealander who has made the phrase ‘at the end of the day’ his own, even if Angelou used it first.  And his appeal is certainly based on how he makes people feel, rather than what he has said or done.

You are reading this on the internet.  John Key is a divisive figure on the internet.  But he is not a divisive figure in New Zealand.  In New Zealand he is the most popular Prime Minister of his lifetime.  Arguably (well I’m arguing it, so clearly it’s arguable), only Michael Joseph Savage approaches him in terms of continuing public approval.  I do not intend to start a lefty-righty-shouty-shouty discussion of whether John Key is a Goodie or a Baddie.  I choose him as an example because he is a politician, and all politicians are guilty of saying one thing and doing another.  Which means that what they say and do is irrelevant: they rise or fall based on how they make people feel.

John Key makes New Zealanders feel good by speaking to them the way they think people should speak.  John Key says things like “There is much more good gained from having a fully functioning financial market than there is not having that”.  His opponents like to seize on this kind of awkward phrasing as a suggestion that he is insufficiently smart to be in his position.

This is a total misunderstanding.  

John Key is plenty smart.  His popularity stems from his ability to hide it.

Key is a qualified and experienced currency trader.  This means his work prior to entering politics was based on an intimate knowledge of abstractions based on abstractions, a mastery of the jargon and at least a passing knowledge of the maths involved in making such castles in the air at least seem to float.  This is intellectual work. In a society which valued intellectual pursuits, an aspiring leader would emphasise these skills.  

But the key to John’s popularity has always been the deliberate downplaying of the nerdy side of his pre-political career.  As with many divisive internet figures, the things which his detractors call embarrassments - his broadly NiuZilland-accented mumblespeak, his grammatical manglings and malapropisms, his nonchalant dismissal of experts and processes as eggheads and red tape - these are not blunders but a very carefully constructed persona designed to appeal to a public who instinctively mistrust the idea of thinking, especially in public.  Contrast the wild popularity of this approach with the awkward semi-truce between Helen Clark and her public persona, where her MA in Politics and her career as a lecturer were seen as alienating barriers between her and ‘ordinary kiwis’ rather than quite good qualifications for a job in politics.  

But even the most popular politician can’t match the popularity of a National Hero - if a politician is approved of by half the country that’s a rare success; the people we call heroes would be mortified by such low ratings.  New Zealand’s Heroes par excellence are of course the All Blacks; but that fruit is too low-hanging for my liking - let’s consider instead Sir Ed.

Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Everest; he and Tenzing Norgay are considered the first humans to do so.  It’s momentous, but in terms of advancing the human race it’s not as momentous as, say, splitting the atom or inventing temporal logic.  So why is it that Hillary is a national hero, where Rutherford is merely a household name, and Prior is just who?

Well, it’s because he knocked the bastard off.  

Many New Zealanders have been the first in the world to do something.  Hillary glows warmly in the national imagination because he did something arduous and physical, and spoke about it (if at all) humbly and phlegmatically. 50 years on in a Guardian profile this deliberately-honed air of unreflecting simplicity stands out as Hillary’s defining quality.  The reporter quotes an Italian mountaineer:  “I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and the summits”, and an English one: “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life”.  I don’t believe for a god damned second that Hillary is less intelligent than either of these two climbers.  I don’t believe that their inner life is richer than his. He chose his words well: “Well, we knocked the bastard off” is a great line, one that I’d be proud to have come up with, and I write lines for fun and profit.  It’s also a value statement - the Value is Doing.  Doing has value.  Talking is suspect.  Thinking is a matter best kept private.

Hillary is more proud of his charitable work in Nepal than the mere climbing of a pointy rock.  This is another key to his abiding popularity, as charity is emotional and practical work: inspired by empathy, it consists in doing things to materially improve lives.  Hillary’s career - climbing mountains, helping people, saying as little as possible, hiding any tendency towards reflection, is deeply admirable.  And it’s a model for popularity in an anti-intellectual society.

I’ve been talking about the things people say, and the kind of people who are looked up to in New Zealand, and I’m aware there’s a seductive counter-argument hovering over all of this:  Get On With It and We Knocked The Bastard Off are not the only things people say in New Zealand.  John Key and Edmund Hillary are not the only people admired in New Zealand.  You can’t go around saying “Why do we celebrate X and not Y” all your life.  Y gets celebrated plenty; if you want it celebrated more, go celebrate it.  

This isn’t wrong.  It’s just separate to what I’m getting at.  I’m not saying it’s bad to like Edmund Hillary, or you personally should admire A N Prior more than John Key.  I’m saying anti-intellectualism is a cultural trait, and because it’s not easy to define or prove a cultural trait, I’m trying to find it by looking at how lots of things are looked at.

Look:  Hillary is universally admired.  Richie McCaw is a great way to get clicks on websites.  Sylvia Ashton-Warner is mad popular in education circles.  Keri Hulme is a big hit with certain literary types.  There is a possible universe in which Sylvia Ashton-Warner is universally admired and Keri Hulme is a great way to get clicks on websites and Sir Ed is mad popular in mountaineering circles and Richie McCaw is a big hit with certain sportsfan types.  We live in the first universe, not the second.  This speaks to our values.  I’m not saying it’s bad just yet.  I’m attempting to convince you that it is so.

The best way to discover that New Zealand is anti-intellectual is to grow up intellectual in New Zealand.  If the key to passing a High School exam is to Show What You Know, the key to leaving High School unscathed is to Hide It At All Costs.  I’m going to lurch into anecdote here for a second: my own High School career was a litany of A pluses and beatings.  The two were correlated.  Family members of mine who are much smarter than me learned early to pretend otherwise, and had a better time as a result.  A quote from a friend: “One of my biggest regrets from my school years was that I let my wish to be liked overpower the benefits of being smart. I felt like I had to tread a fine line between achieving enough to get through but not trying too hard and look like a nerd … I have a great appreciation for education now and a desire to know more. I'm sure that desire was there when I was younger but I suppressed it as my desire to fit in was greater.”  

Social acceptance is a powerful force.  There’s a lot of young people who feel that naked displays of intellect are socially unacceptable.  But those young people don’t form those ideas in a vacuum.  What happens in schools is a raw and intensified version of what is happening in society at large.  So if young people feel intellectual pursuits are socially frowned upon, it’s ultimately because they got that message from older people.  Like their parents. Like their National Heroes.

Like their teachers.  Here’s a little something I learned at teachers’ college: the New Zealand curriculum doesn’t just regulate academic achievement, it lists social competencies as well.  Here’s one way to tell if someone is failing in social competencies: they are involved in bullying.  Either as bully or victim.  You might think Punching Someone In The Face is more anti-social than Not Avoiding Being Punched In The Face.  You might think that, but the school system doesn’t.  As far as it’s concerned, you need to work out a way to Not Get Punched In The Face, or you’re as bad as the guy who punched you.  The official edu-speak is Managing Self and Interacting With Others.  If Others keep Interacting you in the face, then your Self needs to Manage a way out of it. Turns out my friend above was more successful in the education system than he thinks.  

All these words.

All these words and if you want to, you can disagree.

New Zealand is an anti-intellectual country, but I can’t prove it.  For anything I can say or think, you can find opposing things to say or think.  That’s the fun and frustrating heart of intellectual activity - you never knock the bastard off. There’s always more.  But for now I’m done stating the case that this country is the way we all know it is.

I now want to talk about why intellectualism is not something to be anti.  

I’m going to start small and obvious. Balance is good.  It is good to do things, and it is good to feel things, and it is good to think things.  A New Zealand where we crap all over athletes and worship Post-Structuralist film critics would be at least as bad as the one we now live in.  Ditto Vulcan Zealand, in which we are all brains and muscles but do not know why The Others Cry.  The three defining characteristics of God’s Talking Monkey Project - our feelings, our thoughts, and our actions, are designed to work in tension with each other, each with their weakness, each with their unique strength.  What I’m saying is it’s silly to be against thinking, in exactly the same way as it’s silly to be against feeling or doing.  I don’t want a school system where the physics jocks mercilessly beat the budding mountaineers.  I just envisage a place where everyone can go have pimples for a while then come out ready to do whatever they like.

But more than that, though even that would be enough:

Thinking helps!  

Of course it’s not good to think too much, but to quote some public intellectual:  
“…of course too much is bad for you, that's what "too much" means you blithering twat. If you had too much water it would be bad for you, wouldn't it? "Too much" precisely means that quantity which is excessive, that's what it means. Could you ever say "too much water is good for you"? I mean if it's too much it's too much. Too much of anything is too much. Obviously. Jesus.”  

So of course it’s not good to think too much, but thinking solves problems that blind action and raw feeling cannot.  Thinking gives us cantilevers and Dad Jokes and symphonies and integrated circuits.  Thinking is how you reach the next step when you’ve done all you can and you feel there’s no way out.  Thinking is the one and only human habit that can never be switched off: even when you feel nothing and cannot move, your thoughts will continue to race until your heart ceases to fuel them.  

And I’m just going to come right out and say it: a bit of thought would have prevented many of the great evils of this century.  Unthinking action flies planes into buildings and plunges nations into ill-advised wars.  An emphasis on feeling over reflection causes demagogues to rise and cat videos on youtube to turn into shouting matches and whole countries to make decisions they instantly regret.  One of the great criticisms of intellectualisation or (to use its slave name) overthinking is that things never get done.  But it’s worth asking what’s worth doing.  There are a lot of things that should never get done, if you think about it.  If you think about it, you can make the world a better place in which to feel and do.

But more than that, though even that would be more than enough:

It’s fun to think!

Just like it’s fun to laugh.  Just like it’s fun to climb a mountain.  Just like the reason anyone willingly does anything. If your friend signs up to run a marathon, and you ask them why they would bother, you are a dick. If your friend spends the summer collecting and classifying all the arthropods that live on their back lawn in the hope of finding a new species, and you ask them why they would bother, you are a dick.  And your friend is really cool.  That Spinoff headline that started this whole thing -  “Why are New Zealanders so fucking intolerant of anyone with a brain, ie intellectuals?” - that’s just part of the problem.  Intellectuals aren’t the only people with a brain, they just use it a certain way.  Marathon runners don’t lack a brain any more than bug-hunters lack a body. People test themselves, body and mind, for fun, and to get better at things, and whether that test takes the form of pavement-pounding or soul-searching or bug-bothering, it is a deeply human impulse and one which deserves nothing but respect and support.

But that’s, just, like, my opinion, man.  I said at the start that I hoped to supply at least one point by the end, and even by my own lights things are looking shady.  But here’s one I’m willing to stick my flag in:  you’ve read this whole damn thing, and that is an intellectual exercise.  You could well disagree with all or most or just one of the things I’ve said, and that too is an intellectual exercise.  You can take to your blog or your Facebook or your Real Life Friends and tell everyone all the reasons why I’ve got my head stuck so far up my blog that I can see the source code, and that is another intellectual exercise.  We can agree on nothing else and still agree that ideas mean something.  That it is important to think things, and say why, and it is important to hear what other people think, and why, and believing that these things are important is intellectualism, and it makes as much sense to be anti-intellectual as it does to be anti-mountaineer.

Also, Gordon McLauchlan seems nice enough.