From the beginning of my life, I have been marked out as an intellectual, especially given my early fondness for reading and acquiring a highly complex and multilingual vocabulary. It so happens that I was born in a farming family in Western Pennsylvania and raised in rural Central Florida, neither of which are known for being the sort of locations that cultivated intellectuals. Suffice it to say that during the course of my childhood (and long afterward) I had to deal with what I thought of as highly anti-intellectual behavior, where it seemed that people were envious and hostile of my God-given gifts of a good memory and a quick mind and a love of sound logic and argumentation. Nevertheless, I have seldom felt at ease even when surrounded by other self-professed intellectuals, because I have never viewed my intellect as making me qualified to rule over humanity like one of Plato’s philosopher kings or even made me superior as a human being to the unwashed masses of humanity. To the extent that I acquired my intellectual knowledge through voluminous reading and extensive education and an interest in observation and conversation with what was around me, I never saw it as impossible that plenty of other people would be able to acquire greater intellect themselves, if they so wished, based on the gifts they had also been given.
What are the ways that one can be anti-intellectual? We have already discussed the way that one can be hostile to or envious of those people who have devoted much of their time and energy to the acquisition of intellectual knowledge, especially through voluminous reading, or have a high standard of education. Yet this is not the only way that one can be anti-intellectual. Not by a long-shot. The author Thomas Sowell wrote a book on the relationship of intellectuals and society and proved himself to be anti-intellectual, if one defines that as having a sinecure that allows one to be unaccountable to the general public (in academia or journalism) where one is often wrong but never in doubt of one’s own sagacity. That too is a type of being anti-intellectual. So too is being hostile to intellectual processes by which one forms ideas and tests them as they are practiced in the world. It could be said that those people or institutions that have been hostile to literacy among the people because it would lead to a decline in the respect of governing institutions have been anti-intellectual because of their lack of interest in cultivating the intellectual capacity of others. And so it goes.
These different ways of being anti-intellectual are often complex in their relationship with each other. For example, it is quite likely that a prejudice against intellecutalism inherited from parents who had a reflexive (and not necessarily unjust) hostility to those who were unaccountable cultural elites of immense destructiveness led them to be hostile to those who were intellectual of a different kind. There are many ways for an intellectual to be anti-intellectual, if someone views themselves as being the source of what is reasonable and disdains those who engage in argumentation and rhetoric that is in disagreement with one’s own views, or if one considers oneself an elite that is hostile to the wider acquisition of intellectual capacity on the part of the general public, which would then be more equipped to critique one’s own intellectual accomplishments. We may see, therefore, that being anti-intellectual is an immensely complex matter, where it is possible to be anti-intellectual because of a hostility to intellect as well as a hostility to particular (mis)uses of intellect, or a hostility to the development of intellect by those who are not part of a privileged class.
Why is this so? It just so happens that intellectual is a word that as many shades of meaning. On the broadest level, an intellectual could be used to describe anyone who has an approach to life that focuses on the acquisition and use of knowledge and information, often of an esoteric kind that does not appeal to others. Additionally, there is a social aspect to being an intellectual, in that there is a class of people whose professions allow them to be free of accountability to general society while also in the position of seeking to influence others to support their worldview, which has not tended to produce the best results for society. Even more specifically, an intellectual can be defined in the sense of a public intellectual, someone who writes and speaks in order to support a particular worldview that is based on abstract ideas rather than practical experience. And to the extent that others have a mistrust of those who like to read too much and too widely, or a distaste for corrupt intellectual elites, or have a marked bias for the practical and empirical rather than the abstract and theoretical, there are a great many roads to being anti-intellectual. So rather than having the term be a useful label in order to deal with those who are hostile to others on spurious grounds, the term is a muddled one that merely opens the conversation to discussing how someone is intellectual, and how we could very easily be intellectual, even without that necessarily being a bad thing, even if one happens to be a pretty obvious intellectual oneself.