Saturday, November 24, 2007

Intellectual or Charlatan?

What makes a person an intellectual?

To us plebs it’s one of those words that you’re sure you know exactly what it means but ultimately, when asked to explain, don’t. I asked a few friends in my local pub what they thought it meant. The responses varied from ‘clever and different’ to ‘clever and trying to get a message across.’ All had romantic connotations with the term and conjured up images of Soviet dissidents and other opinion formers that brought about change to society. To my friends the term implies ‘somebody clever that tries to bring about change for the good.’ They also defined it as someone with a superior intellect. When asked to explain how this intellect is measured they were all at loss for an answer.

According to Wikipedia, which I will quote generously, “an intellectual is one who tries to use his or her intellect to work, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas.”

This definition seemed a bit too all-inclusive so I delved further.

The expression “man of letters”, has been used in many cultures to describe contemporary intellectuals. The term implied a distinction between those "who knew their letters" and those who did not. The distinction thus had great weight when literacy was not widespread.’

So with literacy now widespread and the ability to express oneself with the written word thus of not such a great distinction, the question remains: How can we conclude someone is an intellectual?

Clearly the ability to string ambiguous and important sounding sentences together does not automatically qualify one as an intellectual. Not anymore. I would venture that the opposite is true because anyone with some form of intellect will take into consideration the level on which people communicate and thus adapt the style of writing to be understood by all. Charlatans use indistinct terminology to masquerade as something they are not; using words as the magician uses props. Safe in the knowledge that most who do not really understand will subconsciously categorize it as something too clever for them and consequently something they will not voice their opinion about because it can, and will, expose their ignorance.

I guess what I’m saying is that the ability to bullshit does not automatically equate to intellect. It just makes for more entertainment when the bullshitter happens to be intelligent as well.

Nowhere does any definition describe the term intellectual as someone who ridicules those who are not considered intellectuals or those that disagree with them. Yet this seems to be something that’s often a prominent feature amongst the self-appointed intellectuals.

This brings me to Ronald Suresh Roberts.

Is he an intellectual, charlatan or both?

When will he move on to become the self-appointed ‘power behind the throne’ in yet another third world country and where will this be?

Will he go down in history as an intellectual that my grandchildren will learn about at school?

I shudder at the thought.

In many definitions, intellectuals are perceived as impervious to propaganda, indoctrination, and self-deception.”

That Ronnie is not.

I will rather go with the Dutch definition of an intellectual as someone who has ‘unrealistic visions of the world,’ or the Hungarian one as being ‘too clever’ or an ‘egg-head.’

It just seems more applicable in this case.

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