Intellectuality in Brazil

Intellectual. Is this a positive or a negative attribute? Asked in such a direct manner, I thought it would be difficult to ever get a negative answer. But surprisingly, most people I talked to didn’t answer it was positive without hesitating first or at least mentioning that it can be both positive and negative. Even among educated people.

We all know that the topics that dominate Brazilian conversations are football, other sports (like UFC recently), soap operas, personal life of celebrities, Big Brother, etc. And this doesn’t go only for the uneducated masses. It’s a national phenomenon that spans beyond social classes with less change than one would expect. Whoever dares escape these talks is instantly called a “pseudo-intellectual”, “cult” or something along these lines (as this post illustrates). All of them are negative labels which ridicule the preferences of those who deviate from the pattern. But what is the difference between a “pseudo-intellectual” and a person with genuine intellectual interests? I understand that calling yourself an intellectual can be seen a pretentious attitude, just as calling yourself “handsome” or “smart”, and I agree that showing disdain for everything that is popular is radical and arrogant. But I also have to admit that there are clichés which almost call for ridicule: for example, a group of “slacktivists” which post left-wing propaganda on Facebook and show up wearing Guy Fawkes masks in vague “anti-corruption/ anti-capitalism” marches which don’t have any concrete objective and end up as little more than a social event that gathers people who share the same style under a political pretext. The result is that some people will see them as yet another category: there are “metalheads”, “jocks”, and “bearded, Che Guevara style hippies”.

“Outraged” population protests against corporate greed and social inequality.

But is this enough of a reason to treat any demonstration of intellectual interest with such skepticism? Does it make sense to allow people who reduce intellectuality to a style, a subculture, to “stain” the word and give it a negative meaning? Let’s consider the definition of the word, as given by The Free Dictionary online:

in·tel·lec·tu·al (adj.): 1. a. Of or relating to the intellect;  b. Rational rather than emotional; 2. Appealing to or engaging the intellect; 3. a. Having or showing intellect, especially to a high degree; b. Given to activities or pursuits that require exercise of the intellect.

Seriously? Is there any way in which this can be generally seen as something bad? It doesn’t make sense. A society that thinks like this doesn’t seem healthy.

But OK, even though the word has acquired negative associations it is still clear that it’s not completely bad. In the end, people who call themselves intellectuals are accused of being pretentious, so up to a certain point it is still seen as a quality. But up to what point? To call yourself an intellectual is conceited. To simply use the word “intellectual” is pompous. To post in social networks and demonstrate any interest for intellectual topics is ostentatious. To discuss intellectual subjects with friends is showy. Summing up, to show any hint of any intellectual interest whatsoever is pretentious, arrogant and therefore reprehensible. In the end, we all know that being intellectual is something positive but we feel we have to keep it a secret at all costs. How can this make any sense? How can the manifestation of something by definition good be so discouraged?

For some reason, it seems that considerable cynicism and paranoia has developed in Brazil related to this topic. When someone merely mentions the word “intellectual” everybody immediately thinks of “pseudo-intellectual”, “hippy leftist intellectuals”, etc. The word didn’t use to be part of my vocabulary until recently. I’ve always been interested in philosophical debates, I’ve always liked questioning and discussing polemical and ideological topics, and have always hated remarks such as “you can’t talk about x”. But this interest of mine has been regarded with a lot of cynicism by most people I interacted with. And I hardly even think of myself as a great example of an “intellectual”. I have little discipline, haven’t read as many books as I would have liked to, and I consume quite a lot of popular entertainment. Despite all this, it has happened fairly often for somebody to interrupt my conversation with people who shared my interest with remarks such as “Why are you talking about this?? It’s so boring! You’re crazy”. Although I admit I sometimes lack the social intelligence or sensitivity to determine whether the topic is appropriate for the moment, I am convinced that this is not the main reason behind this negative reaction. The constant rejection of these topics seems general and it has made me repress this side of me and avoid such conversations. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

But is it like this everywhere? My girlfriend, who is Romanian, is surprised with the reactions here. In Romania, she says, at least in the educated middle-class, intellectuals are mostly associated to progressive, democratic movements. They are the ones who freed the country from the communist dictatorship which devastated the nation and left it in a state from which it hasn’t completely recovered. But there the intellectuals “won” and when the Western World talks about the victorious story of liberal democracy, they appear as heroes. It’s not like everyone is deep and ideological, but at least those who are tend to be praised and not shunned. In Brazil, on the other hand, there seems to be a tendency to associate intellectuals with anti-capitalist reactionaries who still hold a grudge against any sign of non-socialist ideologies after being traumatized by the military dictatorship they fought against. Rebels who, if it weren’t for the Army, could have established a communist dictatorship and who today are seen as “defenders of a bankrupt system which failed wherever it was implemented”. Before anyone thinks that I endorse this view, I’d like to point out that it’s not necessarily my opinion. I’m only describing a hypothesis of what may be the popular stance, based on what I observe.

“But there are many leftist intellectuals who make a living out of defending scum. And the worst part is that they influence the opinion of a lot of people.” – Capitão Nascimento

During my exchange in Sweden I used to hang out a lot with people from France, Germany, Iceland, etc. It’s not like we were always having deep intellectual conversations, but I never noticed any of them display any negative reaction when the conversation turned to philosophical/ political/ ideological topics. In the US, however, the situation seems more similar to that of Brazil, at least judging by popular series such as “How I Met Your Mother” or movies like “God Bless America” and “Idiocracy”. But of course, personal experience is not enough to make any conclusive argument, so enough speculation for now.

In this How I Met Your Mother episode, Ted’s friends make a fart noise every time he makes an intellectual comment.

God Bless America scene, in which Frank makes a speech responding to a cynical workmate.

The fact is that, for whatever reason, Brazilian society as a whole is cynical and generally views any intellectual attitude as snobbish and pedantic. A good citizen is “humble” and “friends of the people”, whereas sophistication is elitist and undesirable. Some might think this hypothesis goes against the previous one, since anti-elitism is usually associated to left-wing politics. But this is not necessarily a contradiction. It would be naïve to expect a popular opinion to always be coherent. And in any case, this is exactly my point: no matter what the position in the political spectrum, everybody has their own reasons to regard intellectual attitudes with cynicism. Yes, it is true that modesty is a virtue. But when this mentality becomes radical it ends up being detrimental to progress. People always talk about how important it is to “invest in education”, but they often forget that education is not limited to school.

ed·u·ca·tion (noun): 1. the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge and of developing the powers of reasoning and judgment; 2. the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession; 3. a degree, level, or kind of schooling: a college education; 4. the result produced by instruction, training, or study; 5. the science or art of teaching; pedagogics.
– The Free Dictionary Online

Education is an ongoing process which accompanies every individual from birth until the end of their consciousness. School is only an instrument and it’s responsible for merely one phase of education. An educated population is not only a population who has attended school. An educated population consists of people who develop skills for self-development and who make good use of them throughout their lives, even years after their school graduation.

In the movie “Idiocracy” (which I recommend to all), in a dystopian future, the smartest man on earth is constantly ridiculed and accused of “talking like a faggot”.

If at times you get home tired after a hard day at work and you want to relax by watching a soap opera, Big Brother or football, ok, no reason to be ashamed. Understand if somebody criticizes these forms of entertainment without taking it personally. If somebody suggests that any of these activities are per se enough reason to define you as an inferior being, judge the person as an arrogant and simplistic person and not as the ultimate representative of the intellectuality. But if you have trouble remembering the last time you saw an interesting documentary, a smart movie, read a significant book or had a deeper conversation, then ask yourself: do you really value education? If your answer is no, this is also your right. But at least let those of us who do express ourselves peacefully.


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