In the famed words of “Desiderata”, we should “listen to others, even the dull and ignorant, for they too have their story”. It is a humbling injunction and one we would do well to heed, lest we fall into the quagmire of intellectual arrogance.
Has anyone figured out why, with all the intellectuals in this country, no one has managed to convince Julius Malema away from his “obviously” misguided and half-informed ideas and ideals? Think about it; here’s a young man who’s sticking to his guns about the economy, as well as women’s behaviour, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I don’t like Julius Malema, nor do I remember ever agreeing with a single statement he’s made. But I find that the intellectual storm around him is more important than most of us realise. I believe we should ask, “how have we failed to sway him away from his ideas, to our more enlightened ones?”.
The answer came to me when I was listening to Barney Pityana, head of the University of South Africa. Speaking at the gala dinner preceding the opening of the Thabo Mbeki Intellectual Leadership Conference, Pityana spoke of “Intellectual arrogance and intellectual integrity”. Before this, I’d never really thought about such concepts, and certainly not the implications and results they carry for both the quest to create an environment of robust debate, rich with diverse ideas, which would result in conclusions that allow society to develop.
Pityana talked about how many in the intellectual arena; as researchers, academics or analysts, had long concluded that they had reached the scientific summit, and could learn very little more. He spoke of how people are able to reach definite scientific conclusions without having to provide any evidence, or taking regard of evidence which disproves such conclusions or even enriches them.
I believe this tendency isn’t limited to formal intellectuals, but those who present themselves in public as thinkers; people of informed opinions and opinion leaders. I believe that there are so many people in our society who have afforded themselves a monopoly on knowledge and insight, infallible analysis, definite wisdom and superior intellect and opinion. With their arrogance, they pose the most serious threat to the development of our county, and they have already begun to drive our society, contrary to their own beliefs, away from civilisation and towards the abyss of self- righteousness and intellectual authoritarianism. It isn’t only politicians who are capable of using their authority destructively. It is also the media which has the ability to influence opinion and belief without being challenged. It is the public figure, the actor, the business woman, the community leader and even the school headmistress who is able to speak with authority above the less discerning, suppressing all reason, fairness, logic and truth to express a view they believe to be right, or advance their cause, idea or belief.
What we have observed (and really here I’m using Julius as an example of a much broader problem) is that opinions and views which come from the uneducated or the poor are disregarded as howling voices of ineptitude. “How can they tell us anything if they never passed woodwork, or even peered through the window of an institution of higher learning?”, we argue.
But this kind of behaviour or logic isn’t very enlightened. It should trouble us because in essence, all the things we say in our writing are meant to influence in some way, the lives of the “inept”. To disregard them, instead of listening attentively, respectfully challenging their opinions and views, and offering alternatives in a humble and convincing manner, should be the only alternative.
But consider the probable damage of this arrogance and lack of integrity. In Antjie Krog’s book, “A Change of Tongue”, a mother speaks to her daughter of the time when Afrikaners took over power in 1948. The Afrikaner receives such “ridicule, disdain and revile from the press that they had to find another way of doing things. Everything we were was worthy of ridicule, our language, our political leaders, our intellectuals, our newspapers, our universities, our music, our literature, or what we dared to think of as one, even our bodies – fat, coarse women and bearded, spitting men. Nothing we had was worthy of respect. We were simply lazier, more stupid, more over the jam”, her mother says of the time. “…those English journalists were craft masters of humiliation. We stopped reading their newspapers – why should we expose ourselves to ridicule? We didn’t go to their universities; we didn’t listen to their radio programmes.”
This real or fictional conversation should give us a sense of the danger we face today because it means that by the time the English press started to warn South Africans about human rights violations and oppression, the Afrikaner didn’t even notice.
If we continue, through our arrogance, to ridicule Malema and those he exemplifies, we will cause more damage than his ramblings.
Is there no argument that says that a progressive nation is one which is enriched with diverse opinions and ideas, from all corners of society? How could we, as intellectuals, contribute to our nation building if we are not able to pass on our informed ideas, reason and knowledge to those who are uneducated or ill informed?
How is it possible that so few of our eminent intellectuals have not been able to call Julius Malema to lunch and engage him on his ideas? How is it that we mock him as an absolute invalid and howling voice? Does anyone imagine that such arrogance will get him to backtrack from his “wrong and foolish” ideas? How is it that in a democratic society, bursting with university graduates, experienced businesspeople, internationally recognised intellectuals, we are failing so badly?
South Africa is a country where all ideas should have a place in society, whether expressed by an absolute fool or a genius.
It is truly strange that those of us who regard Nelson Mandela as a stalwart and moral compass, have failed to learn anything from him. If we could have learnt one thing from him, it is in my view, his humility and ability to listen to all respectfully, including his enemies. Our intellectual arrogance has put us in a much bigger danger than the “ramblings of Julius Malema”. DM
For the full text and background of “Desiderata”, read Wikipedia.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.