Public Expectations of the Intellectual

As we did recently during our Public Intellectuals in Canada class, I want to reconsider what we define as the public intellectual in terms of what we expect of them. While reading George Elliott Clarke’s Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path, as well as thinking of Clarke’s quote about Pierre Elliott Trudeau being made up of many contradictions, I was struck by how the public often pigeonholes a specific intellectual into a specific role. Even if this is an unconscious, inadvertent consequence of the public seeking out the opinions of intellectuals, the intellectual often becomes relegated to one area of expertise.
What this suggests is that we, the public, hope to understand the public intellectual definitively. First of all, the way we value the output of public intellectuals is tied to our various societal values, in that we often seek out intellectuals whose values align with our own, and in turn we usually rebel against those whose values fall far from our personal perspectives. Within this search is the further suggestion that, as a society, we believe identity is somehow fixed, and so naturally we attempt to superimpose that fixed sense of identity onto those intellectuals who, for better or worse, are representative of cross sections of the public. What Clarke – a public intellectual – does in Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path is rattle the perspectives of those who attempt to reduce someone like Pierre Trudeau to a single, definitive entity.
PETNo matter which figure we place at the fore of this conversation – Trudeau, Clarke himself, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Atwood, Thomas King, and so on – we must accept there is no way to limit an intellectual for the purposes of easy categorisation. For one, all identity is subject to change. Perhaps more importantly, the label intellectual is indicative of learning, and learning is a constant and continuous process. Due to a host of reasons, the public should never expect an intellectual to confine themselves or their intellectual process.
Here’s an analogy I actually believe is representative of the overall issue. Many people will tell opinionated celebrities “Stick to movies(/writing books/making music) and leave the politics to the politicians,” or some other variant of the same statement. This is not just dismissive, it is telling of how people view many of those in the public eye. There seems to be some constantly in flux system of value that society uses to judge which opinions are or are not worth listening to, in terms of intellectual discourse.
Moreover, when this system feels in place there’s a sense that the public are the gatekeepers to the intellectual kingdom. Despite the fact an individual’s bestowed the status of intellectual, there’s an authority the public holds over them. After all, without the public there would be no public intellectual. Yet it feels as if there’s a tendency on the part of the public to hold the gate’s keys too tightly in the way many dismiss particular opinions they deem outside the realm of the intellectual. As a society, we seem to have put our value system in place not just to limit the identity of the individual, but it also becomes a system with which the public scrutinises intellectuals we determine are outside that system.
CarlinFor instance, I don’t imagine anybody would consider a comedian like Adam Sandler an intellectual whatsoever, but I’m more inclined to characterise George Carlin, and to a greater extent Lenny Bruce, as such. I can’t help believing countless people, on both sides of the political aisle, might try to run Carlin or Bruce off American college campuses were they alive and touring today, given they both battled with the limits of intellectual freedom and censorship. Comedians like these two are an especially curious case when it comes to the concept of the public intellectual; a case I believe illustrates my point(s) perfectly.
Carlin and Bruce each had their uniquely rough style, but whether people could withstand the sometimes so-called obscene nature of their perspective almost became the barometer for a larger implication: do we expect public intellectuals to be safe, non-provocative, and in a perverse way do we somehow expect them to be, for lack of a better word, pure?
LennyComing full circle, there are likely people who would feel unsettled by listening to George Elliott Clarke’s unflinchingly honest portrayals of racial injustice and sexual relationships throughout his work. To some, Clarke’s status as public intellectual could come into question simply because of their personal squeamishness about confronting certain subjects as openly as he so excellently does. So, considering the examples of Clarke, the first Trudeau to be Prime Minister of Canada, as well as Bruce and Carlin, what is it we expect of our intellectuals? Do we expect them to be one-dimensional, non-complex, and sanitised? And if that is what the majority of society expects, then I believe it’s clear where the problem lies: we expect too much.

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One thought on “Public Expectations of the Intellectual

  1. Pingback: The Price of Intellectualism | Postmodern Misanthrope

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