Not so long ago, my cousin tagged me in a David Hopkins article titled “How a TV sitcom triggered the downfall of Western civilisation.” The claim is an obvious hyperbole, but it did lament the pervasive anti-intellectualism that seems to be dominant in the media and entertainment, or so was his take.
Hopkins’s argument hinged on his original view on the sitcom Friends, on how derision and mockery of Ross’s intellectualism at the hands of his idiotic companions is a symptom of cognitively defunct pop culture.
He further bolstered his stance with his own experience as a chess coach back in 2004, and recalled his students being subjected to bullying.
I would like to make it a case that things are not as bad as he makes it sound, and given the writer’s stature, such claims can only be made if a substantial number of the population nod their head in agreement with him, and perhaps a few more decided to do so after reading that particular work.
Granted, geeks, nerds, and intellectual-types never fared well in popularity contests and in fact, as claimed by Hopkins, are victims of bullying -- where Hopkins recalled from his own experience, I can jibe in with statistics such as that of the UK-based Anti-Bullying Alliance survey, which reported that 90% of British students were bullied due to their intelligence or talent (quoted in a Huffington Post article from November 11, 2012).
The research further continued that 27.3% of the 1,000 surveyed in the 11-16 age group quit an activity for fear of being bullied.
And despite all this, it seems to me that popular culture is not so derogatory of intelligence.
The brutal ostracising of geeks and their lot is not a sign of hatred of intelligence, but perhaps yet another case of the majority harassing the minority for merely being different, and the misuse of wielding greater power
For a start, take comic books. While reading comics falls under the category of nerdy endeavours, a sliver of the works is adapted to blockbuster film and highly rated television series, giving pop culture many of its most iconic heroes and notorious villains.
The most recent successful attempts saw the string of box office hits by Marvel, starting off with Iron Man and continuing with Civil War
, all of these constituting the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Here we witness Robert Downey Jr’s brilliance shine through in his role as Tony Stark, one of the techno-wizards of the Marvel universe and whose superpower is essentially his prodigious intellect, which he relentlessly uses to perfect and upgrade his Iron Man armour, more than living up to the fabled reputation of his alma mater, MIT.
Then there is the Incredible Hulk. The polar opposite of the true persona behind it, Bruce Banner, whose genius level intellect, a trait very much aligned with his career’s demand in physics, and soft spoken mannerism contrasts sharply with the temperamental half-wit of a beast he becomes as the Hulk.
Not to forget Hank Pym, another brilliant scientist, bestowed with the gift of massive intelligence, who discovers the Pym particle to craft the size-changing suit in the Ant Man
Furthermore, the Marvel movie plot devices did borrow from the scientific lexicon. The alien Tesseract cube shown in The Avengers
is not merely a fictional term that sounds cool.
It, in the dead serious field of mathematics, is the name of a four dimensional geometric shape analogous to a cube.
Even putting movies aside, video games have their touch of intellectualism.
The critically acclaimed and commercially successful BioShock Infinite
has its story and plot rooted in American exceptionalism symbolised by World’s Columbian Exposition, with the many-words interpretation of quantum mechanics serving as the crucial plot element.
The Valve’s magnum opus, Half Life
, goes so far as to name Gordon Freeman, its protagonist, as an homage to Freeman Dyson.
Or take Portal
for instance. This classic by Valve corporation throws in an allusion to something as obscure as Russell’s Paradox, and there are scribbles of Schrodinger’s wave functions.
Not stopping there, the game depicts pastiches of Emily Dickinson’s “The Chariot,” Emily Bronte’s No Coward Soul is Mine
, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Reapers and The Flowers.”
Even on the musical frontier, which does sink quite low with its obsession of unworthy topics, there seems to be a tinge of respect for worthier figures from the most unexpected of places.
In “Saint Pablo,” Kanye proclaims himself to be the closest thing to the legendary Einstein this generation has.
Ignoring the merit (or should I say lack of it) of this claim, it clearly reflects that people definitely pay respect to the scholastic titans.
So, I suppose a compelling case has been made thus far. Society does value intelligence and intellectualism.
It regards it as a desirable trait, one that they gladly confer to its fictional heroes.
Even rappers pay homage to those who possess it in abundance in their egotistical boosting and lyrical swaggering.
Is pervasive anti-intellectualism a delusion then? No.
Given the plethora of pop culture icons, only an infinitesimally small slice presented here is clustered in the relevant time frame of Friends.
But this stance does not hold. These works of fiction venerate smart fictional characters and acknowledge the nobility of their real counterparts.
I would attribute the confusion over what constitutes as intellectualism as a failure to grasp it. The brutal ostracising of geeks and their lot is not a sign of hatred of intelligence, but perhaps yet another case of the majority harassing the minority for merely being different, and the misuse of wielding greater power.
And this is good news. While the fierce wrath of anti-intellectualism haunts society, its exorcism should now seem a lot easier -- the steps which Hopkins astutely identified as: “Read a book, learn something new, do not get sold to the consumerism culture, and protect the nerds.”
Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza writes from Tehran.