Unclench your fists, please. Relax. The title has nothing to do with women, but everything to do with provocation. It’s a title that I’m sure has raised your eyebrows. Unfortunately, if you are expecting a sexist diatribe, you will be disappointed. The title is a rather playful representation of a trend toward gratuitous provocation in contemporary journalism and commentary. Usually, this trend both angers and disappoints readers, and rightly so.
Now, while provocation is not in itself a bad thing, to be meaningful and significant it really needs to serve some kind of wider purpose. It is not enough to merely provoke.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that much intellectual discourse is characterised by contrariness. What I mean is that a steady stream of evaluations, considerations and challenges to ideas, ideologies and ‘common sense’ notions is a necessary component for cultural improvement. In order to adjust our views, a certain degree of intellectual provocation is necessary.
Of late, however, there seems to be a particularly egoist strain of this in the figure of the ageing provocateur. Usually, they have a background in radical politics, or else had sympathy with its aims, but often their contemporary writings would seem to suggest otherwise. Think the recently passed Christopher Hitchens, or even ‘our very own’ Germaine Greer or Bob Ellis. Greer’s essay on Aboriginal masculinity, ‘On Rage’, created a furore in 2008, while Ellis’s recent ruminations on sexual politics are pungently redolent of Les Patterson, albeit more loquacious.
The fascinating thing about these ageing provocateurs is not that they’ve become reactionary, but that their style follows a fairly common pattern. First, we will have what seems like a provocative premise, often encapsulated in a downright offensive title. An example of which is Hitchens’s ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, which is what I’ve riffed on for my title. Then once they’re into the argument, you realise just how shallow or unchallenging or utterly fruitless it is. Hitchens’s article, for example, insists on the biological imperative of men to have a sense of humour. The argument goes that having a sense of humour compensates for other aspects of appearance or character that might mitigate against a male’s sexual selection. Men need to be funny, he claims, while women have no innate requirement for it. Setting aside most of its ridiculous gender and ‘heterocentric’ assumptions, it actually says more about men than it does about women. But the title betrays an obsessive need the ageing provocateur has to piss people off. It should have been called something like ‘Why Men Need to Be Funny’ because that, in the end, is the concern of the piece. But the problem is not just what these sort of pieces are called, it’s also the intention behind them.
No doubt, these ageing provocateurs see themselves as heirs to Socrates, with a commitment to ‘question everything’. They know very well that, as Orwell suggested, accepting an orthodoxy is always to inherit unresolved contradictions. And so, in order to appear an intellectual powerhouse, rhetorically watertight, and a demigod beyond the grasp of ideology, they take what appears to them to be an orthodoxy and set their talents to undermining it. When they were younger, they undermined conservative orthodoxies, but no longer. Been there, done that. Enough people know how to provoke reactionaries these days. Doing that is so passé now.
The ageing provocateur must cast him or her self as a maverick. Most of them were mavericks back in the day. But now, they can’t be seen to be doing something as popular as bashing conservatives. So they take aim at progressive pieties. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Yet again, this question about purpose comes up. It may be an uncharitable provocation to imply that this sort of thing is all just attention-seeking egoism. But hey, if it’s good enough for the old chooks, then I can have a peck too.
No doubt, the ageing provocateurs see themselves as partakers and purveyors of ‘the life of the mind’, but in practice, it’s the life of their mind. The exchange of ideas is not as important as a demonstration of their intellect.
Provocation is certainly part of being a public intellectual, but this must be tempered by a commitment to challenge the status quo in service to human freedom and knowledge. I’m not proposing a proscription against combative language or a more gentle articulation of challenging views. I’m making a humble suggestion that intellectual provocateurs (ageing or otherwise) find better reasons for writing vituperative screeds against someone or something. Pompously demonstrating one’s vast knowledge or writing ability and pointlessly starting flame wars of attrition are just not good enough reasons.
A more suitable and helpful purpose for intellectual provocation is surely to introduce a new concept or argument into the ‘marketplace of ideas’, in order to open people’s minds, enrich our culture or improve our social discourse and practice. Provocation should not be there solely to get you attention, make you seem relevant or hyper-intelligent, or to plug your books. There has to be more to it than that, right?