Friday, May 25, 2012

Intellectuals, Elitists, and Public Discourse

This is the first of three entries on related concepts.

After a discussion he had with Noam Chomsky, Pete Dominick(on his Sirius/XM program Stand Up!) wondered aloud and discussed with his producer why intellectuals aren't given the platform they once were, and much of the discussion revolved around the anti-intellectualism, cynical political framing of issues, and people being distracted and uncaring toward matters of politics.  I sent a couple tweets on the matter, among them "Chomsky and other intellectuals are not palatable because, in part, that inability to 'talk to the level' of the audience." and "It's not talking down inherently, but can easily come across as exactly that.".

To elaborate, I'm saying that for someone to be considered an intellectual by at-large society, they must not only be considered a luminary of the tighter community of their own background or chosen pursuit, but by the actual at-large community.  For this to occur, the person must be more than intelligent.  Their points and perspective must be coherently perceived by more than those people already in agreement.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a person who I would feel safe saying most people who recognize his name would say he is an intellectual, and if they know his field would also consider him a relatively trustworthy source of information and opinion on matters relating to, at least, his field and in some cases more than that.  To be fair, Tyson's field of expertise is generally one that doesn't lend itself easily to liberal vs conservative stereotypes, but much more important is his ability to communicate and connect with people.  He is enthusiastic and friendly, unoffended but assertive, he motions with his hands and is animated in his body language.  He also tends to not get caught up in necessarily using complicated words.  This is not to say he dumbs things down, or doesn't use large words or get into minutia for a point he is making, but in general I think his language, which is easy to understand and relate to, and his favorable disposition both contribute to people liking him and respecting him.  Is he the most knowledgeable person in his field?  Tyson would probably not say say so, anyway.  But that matters little in the broader perception and public acknowledgment of the points he makes and issues he weighs in on, because he is the person more people identify credibility with.  He might make arguments from more cerebral people and those arguments are bolstered from his style of communication.

Compare this with Chomsky:  Granted, much of what he addresses is political and also his target audience are people who've read his books or are otherwise already familiar with his perspectives.  He is cerebral, perhaps overly thoughtful for his energy, and does tend to also use a wide vocabulary and even jargon which the average listener or viewer or audience member, unless already familiar with the concepts he speaks of, isn't going to easily follow.  This isn't an altogether bad trait, as it can engender a better informed specific community in which he is held in high regard.  However, I don't think Chomsky is as effective as he could be or  held in as high a regard in broader society as he could be, and what has become the popularized way for public policy to be discussed in the media where aggressiveness and argument-oriented wittiness are the prized manner of discourse.

In summary, all of this isn't to say style and medium should overwhelm the content of the idea a person is attempting to convey.  Rather, they must both exist for the other to matter.  Good ideas only rise to the top when people are able to understand and effectively spread it to others. Further, perhaps as much as ever, our attention spans and programming demand an engaging and entertaining experience.  So if the leaders and spokespeople are not the best at not only energizing their own adherents, it only serves the best interest of the organization, the ideology, and ideally the public interest for there to be followers or like-minds to attempt to make an argument for the same thing but in a different way, to avoid misunderstandings and fundamentally just contribute another voice to the public discourse.

*Edited on 8/4/12 for better clarity