Getting The Better Of Self-Appointed Intellectuals: Why We Must Continue To Think And Generalise

Getting The Better Of Self-Appointed Intellectuals: Why We Must Continue To Think And Generalise

by Narayan Surya - Thursday, December 26, 2019 08:12 PM IST
Getting The Better Of Self-Appointed Intellectuals: Why We Must Continue To Think And GeneraliseThe world is full of embarrassing pronouncements by intellectuals.
  • In the eyes of the intellectuals, the only job of the masses is to submit to them, to follow their views.

    But most civilisational success stories in the world are success stories of the masses, or rather, men who do and not men who talk.

In an episode of Dirty Money, a Netflix TV show, John Hempton, a well-known investor, says, “the truth is usually a simple story, and it’s not hidden. But lies are well hidden”.

Unfortunately, we live in the times of “evidence based policy commentators”. What it means is that, if you, as a common man, think something to be true then you must be “generalising” without sufficient “evidence”.

If you think communism does not work, you are wrong. If you think incentives are important, you are wrong. If you think if you give free money to the poor people they will not work, you are wrong.

If you think that certain religions are more “peace-loving” than others, you are wrong. If you think UK’s Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, you are wrong. If you think the Democrats have gone far too much to the side of Islamists, you are wrong.

If you think there is such a thing as jihad, you are wrong. If you think Mughal ruler Aurangzeb was a tyrant, who destroyed thousands of temples out of his fanaticism, you are wrong. The list is endless.

The connecting theme is the following: whatever the ordinary people — anyone who is not an academic, or an ‘intellectual’ — consider to be true out of their lived experiences is false.

The reason why they propagate this narrative is obvious. Unlike a carpenter, a plumber or an engineer, none of whom have to struggle to make themselves relevant — for the world cannot survive without them — these intellectuals have to prove to the world that they are relevant.

But, barring a few exceptions, the society does not really need them. So, they have self-appointed themselves to educate the society that its views — views that have formed out of real, lived experiences — are wrong. And, the anointed few have descended upon earth to fix them.

Fortunately, they are faced with an insurmountable challenge. For their mission to succeed, they need to destroy the ability of humans to make inferences based on our observations.

Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for them, we are fundamentally empiricists. We learn from our experiences. When we drink hot tea, we blow air onto it. Why? Because, most of us, while growing up, have gotten our tongue burnt.

Similar examples are all around us. The wiser amongst us learn from others’ experiences. Some countries try communism before moving to markets and freedom. Others directly adopt the better system. And it is precisely this ability — the ability to extrapolate from our experiences, our mistakes, our successes — that these chosen ones view as an obstacle.

“Do not generalise”, “Do not stereotype”, they admonish! When confronted with sensible generalisations, they are all too eager to label them as “fascists”, “racists”, “bigots”, “sexists” etc. Little do they realise that generalisations aren’t borne out of thin air, they contain truth in them.

For example, when an airport security guard frisks suspicious people, he is obviously generalising in going by appearances. But, unlike intellectuals, his decisions have consequences.

He must, therefore, use whatever crude means he has at his disposal to minimise any risks of mishaps. Yet, given that mishaps almost never happen, intellectuals are then free to turn around and cry hoarse about racial profiling, with scant respect for the possibility that this may simply be an individual who has acquired the necessary skills on the job and is doing it efficiently.

The unfortunate reality is most humans work in jobs with three constraints. Unlike intellectuals, they do not have the luxury of abundant time.

Relatedly, unlike intellectuals, they work under severe informational constraints in that they rely on very scarce information while making decisions. And lastly, unlike intellectuals, they cannot just pontificate, they often have to produce results that have consequences. I can do no better than quoting Eric Hoffer on this last bit.

One of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation. The intellectuals who idolized Stalin while he was purging millions and stifling the least stirring of freedom have not been discredited. They are still holding forth on every topic under the sun and are listened to with deference. Sartre returned in 1939 from Germany where he studied philosophy and told the world that there was little to choose between Hitler’s Germany and France. Yet, Sartre went on to become intellectual pope revered by and educated in every land.
Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath, p.3

The world is full of such embarrassing pronouncements by intellectuals. Noam Chomsky, for example, heaped praise on Hugo Chavez in 2009 in creating better world. Hardly a surprise today that it is a disaster.

In fact, one would struggle to find examples in history where intellectuals have been on the right side.

And there is a reason. Intellectuals have nothing but contempt for the masses. To quote Eric Hoffer once again,

Not only does he doubt that the masses could do anything worthwhile on their own, but he would resent it if they made the attempt. The masses must obey.
Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, p.42

Listen to the questions these people ponder over. Invariably questions start with a presumption that leaves little room for, typically, conservatives to challenge any notion.

For example, “how to fight rising populism?”

Assumption being that populism — a sufficiently vague term to capture anything they oppose — is necessarily and universally undesirable. That millions support “populist” parties must automatically mean that those people are wrong.

As if, there is something fundamentally wrong about people wanting to protect their culture.

Another question, “how to stop increasing polarisation?”

Indeed, if all of us are reading The New York Times and regurgitating parroted versions of that propaganda, then there is no polarisation.

But, what is desirable in such a world is something I struggle to see. Intellectuals lament over increasing polarisation because that is a result of them having lost the monopoly over propagating narratives they deem correct.

In short, in the eyes of the intellectuals, the only job of the masses is to submit to them, to follow their views, when, ubiquitously those views fail any validation from the real world.

And yet, unfortunately, most civilisational success stories in the world are success stories of the masses, or rather, men who do and not men who talk.

United States of America is a proof of that! Millions of European men dared to act, face the challenges of nature, the ocean, the weather to build an extra-ordinary nation. We have no count of the number of men who failed.

Those who only talk have no fear of failure. Because most talk is cheap. Those who do, or dare to do, have the risk of a failure. If they succeed, intellectuals pontificate about why they succeeded and what could be done to improve their success. And if they fail, they ruminate over why they failed. There is immense pleasure—if you are a man of words—in having no pressure to produce anything tangible.

But, fortunately, the world can only have so many men of words. The men of action, whether they strive fame, money or power, will act. And they will do so from their empirical observations.

Men with superior observation skills understand patterns, are able to form meaningful generalisations, and they are also the ones who eventually succeed. Be it at being a good carpenter, or at being a good detective, or at starting a big tech company.

The empiricists amongst us will never die. That is what makes us thinking species. The intellectuals may wish as much as they want to outsource the menial jobs to us and keep the thinking to them. But, as Steve Jobs said, it is usually the thinker who is also a doer.

We will continue to think, to generalise, as we should. The smart ones amongst us will generalise in ways that will improve the humanity in ways that intellectuals can only analyse post-facto. Like doing the dishes after the cooking. The real cooking is done elsewhere.

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