The Land of Scared Ideas

Sixty or seventy years back, higher education for the people of Bengal was a rare commodity. Racial and socioeconomic barriers held locals back; as did sparse infrastructure and low public spending on education. So, people who made it to college would become instant celebrities, representing their villages to the whole wide world. They became the talk of the village, representing their respective districts to the whole world and were often accorded heroes’ welcome when they returned. Yet it would’ve been so easy to resent the educated, colonial upper-classes and their intellectual traditions! You see, in British India or early East Pakistan, getting an education was as much a struggle as it was an act of defiance. Thankfully, the common people adopted a unanimous, positive view of higher learning, even though they themselves may have remained unlettered.

Fast forward to the 21st century: there are now hints of anti-intellectualism in the air. Anti-intellectualism is a fear of or hostility towards intellectual disciplines and their practitioners. Think of it as xenophobia against the educated. Today, religious schools shun modern science. Secular schools prioritise GPA over learning. In public discourse, schools of thought that don’t fit ideological narratives are undermined and cast aside. In our own reenactments of the Nicean Council, chronicles are cherished or thrown out based on who the writers are.

Today, alternative modes of analysis and strategising are viewed with suspicion. Numbers that disagree with official data are suppressed. Inconvenient history is swept under the rug and new back-stories fabricated, to respectively endow or withdraw favour. Research that hints at corruption by lawmakers is considered seditious; or at least, agenda-driven. The full force of organised, populist armies is thrown at dissenters, who find themselves overwhelmed by its sheer quantity and vitriol.


No politician deigns to address serious questions or concerns of citizens; but every single one is positive that (s)he has their unquestioned support. The media limits itself to reporting events and documenting sensations and tragedies. On news items and comments, there is a palpable pressure to choose a side, instead of forming a nuanced, informed opinion. Also, “Beshi jaano?” (do you know more than me?) is now an acceptable reaction to almost all questions and arguments.

Talk-show discussants are now generally viewed as partisan, with the audience aware of their allegiances from the get-go. It is now possible to name ‘experts’ who will endorse (or criticise) a policy or law or person for you. Researching, analysing and ideation are not skills appreciated in either bureaucracy anymore. University teachers and civil society members are thought to change as administrations change (if that is so, there is no wonder that many such teachers are merely reflectors, and not the source, of knowledge). These shifts are not specific to a single party’s reign; they represent a long accepted way of doing things. For those whose primary occupation is to work with ideas, there remains no last bastion, no last man standing.

It would seem like a strange development: why now – when millions more are educated (compared to 1946 for example) – should there be growing fear of the educated? We know that people fear what they don’t understand. So, logically, there should have been more anti-intellectualism during colonial times. But unnoticed and unmeasured, anti-intellectualism grows. It would be surprising if our politicians have any appetite for such developments. Having reaped the benefits of educated segments, recent administrations were supposed to be more accepting – and even nurturing – of dissent, rational thinking and public intellectual discourse. Yet here we are, wondering how to adapt our truth to the opinion of a few others.

Sadly, anti-intellectualism is neither new, nor geographically isolated. Hostility towards and persecution of intellectuals is rife in history: Copernicus and Bruno were killed for suggesting that the Earth was not the centre of the universe (15th century). Servetus, who correctly described blood circulation in the 16th century, was burned at the stake. Combustion theorist Lavoisier was guillotined during the French Revolution (1794). All of them represent targeted killing of intellectuals whose ideas threatened the status quo.

Around 1917, the Bolsheviks were persecuting Tsarist intellectuals. General Francisco Franco’s ‘White Terror‘ rampage murdered 200,000 civilians – mostly writers, artists, teachers and professors (1936-75). Having deposed the Argentinian government, its military quickly took to targeting and exiling thought-leaders of the university (1966). The Pakistani Army targeted and massacred our own visionaries, leaving them in innumerable found and lost mass graves (1971). Cambodia’s Pol Pot ordered that 15 intellectuals be executed in each commune. It was ‘thought purification’. Even people wearing glasses (i.e. with a possible habit of reading) would be put under arbitrary suspicion (1975-79). Nepal imprisoned intellectuals for non-violent protests (1987) and in the same year, Fiji’s military government sent a dire warning to dissenting intellectuals and shut down media outlets. Despite the #AwardWapsi movement, Modi’s government has been called the most anti-intellectual Indian regime in history. There are dozens of other examples. Suffice it to hypothesise that anti-intellectualism peaks during times of conflict and tumult.

Banishing sound intellectual traditions from public life is taking a toll on the world. Today, there are serious debates about whether more guns will increase social security i.e. save more lives; or if more debt will resolve the debt crisis. The best practice in stopping overseas civil wars is injecting weapons and dropping bombs at the same time. Viewed as a whole, these indicate a dire dearth of new ideas. In the cult classic movie Idiocracy, in director Mike Judge’s increasingly-stupid world, a wrestler was the POTUS and electoral democracy, little more than a spectacular reality show. Now visualise Donald Trump: punching his way to nomination; defending the proportions of his digits and reproductive organ in front of a mesmerised audience.

Philosopher John Searle suggested that radical movements reject the idea that knowledge is the means AND the end. Thus they come to hate both intellectualism and institutions that breed it. Knowledge, to such activists, is only important for taking action, and even then – not a very vital one. Searle continues, “Far more important than what one knows is how one feels.” Blindly placing ‘feelings’ before ‘thought’ creates the perfect breeding environment for anti-intellectualism. Perhaps Isaac Asimov best summed it up when he wrote, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Originally published on The Daily Star


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