Do we need public intellectuals in New Zealand?

10 min readDec 27, 2020

What is the role that a public intellectual plays in society? Do we have public intellectuals in New Zealand? Do we need them?

Published on the Objektion Project here.

Photo by Sulthan Auliya on Unsplash

New Zealand doesn’t really have public intellectuals the way other countries do. We seem to have experts, politicians, celebrities, businessmen and women, and those made famous through their actions or efforts in other areas. None of these groups are people are tasked with thinking on behalf of our society: people who focus, most likely through philosophical approaches, on the way we think, and question what we are progressing towards. Some might say that public intellectuals are an unnecessary and elitist part of society that New Zealand can do without — we don’t need others thinking for us, we don’t need lofty and hard to understand ideas; we just need experts in their fields informing our politicians who will make the right choices.

I wish to argue to the contrary. We do need public intellectuals, and we do need to be conducting open reflection on the nature of our society and our progress, if we are to progress with the ambitions that we have.

It’s important to first understand what put these current public figures at the top of our society, and what gave them the credibility and the space to be able to speak, and for us to want to listen to them. For politicians this is quite easy: they gain their legitimacy through being elected under the democratic political system that we have. We listen to them because they are, most of the time, in the seat of power. They can change the conditions of our lives, and, under Common Law, give us the right to live our lives freely, so we should listen to them to be able to hold them to account, and to ensure we maintain those rights we believe are important.

For the other public figures, it is less clear. I believe that we take an experience-based approach to their legitimacy, as a general trend. This means that people who have experience in something because they have done something big, for example running a large company, or starting a revolutionary movement, or standing up to the Crown on behalf of the rights of Māori, are able to have a place in the public sphere and speak about their experiences to us. We listen to them and we trust them because of these experiences. These must have been positive or influential experiences though — they can’t have failed at everything, as whilst these people may find a platform to speak about failure, we often only want to hear from those who have succeeded.

This focus on people with experience could be a kind of historical baggage that we have taken with us into the 21st century, from the beginnings of the country New Zealand in the 19th century. People with experience were valued and listened to, because they had already built their own legacies, and once we had developed small communities, where we knew everyone by name, we would trust those with significant experience in the country, and not necessarily those who had just arrived. This small-town thinking gave the experienced an elevated place in the society.

The same is somewhat true of Māori customs. The kaumātua, or elders, of a whānau, hapū, or iwi, play an important role not only because they have experience through their many years living in the world, but also because they possess ancestral knowledge, and are guardians of tikanga (customs) of their people. They are listened to and gain their legitimacy because of the role they have been granted within the community, and they support this role through possessing knowledge and having a wide experience to be able to guide the community.

These factors combined therefore influence what has become an experience-based legitimacy to public figures in New Zealand. This is not necessarily the same elsewhere. In countries such as France, public intellectuals are able to obtain this position because of the large amount of knowledge that they possess, or because they have published many books, and have gained the necessary qualifications for their position. They are listened to and trusted because they have proved that they have a body of knowledge to inform the public, and the ability to generate and maintain meaningful discussions on topics important to the functioning of the society.

Yes, many of these public intellectuals are academics. I am not so certain that New Zealand has any academics, or any public figures in general, who could be classed as public intellectuals outside the fields of science and economics. The only exception I think would be those Māori who have, through their knowledge and experience, shown themselves as capable leaders and sources of knowledge in the public sphere of the country, and not just their iwi.

There is a benefit to privileging experience over knowledge and qualifications to produce public intellectuals. We ensure that those who inform us know how to act in the world, and we get information and stories about what has happened, we learn from experience, and we are firmly rooted in the physical world, rather than in an idealistic or reflective world. Many of those in the public sphere are there because they have played an economic, political, or technological role. We are only beginning to see the emergence of climate leaders, and increased recognition of Māori leaders in the country. This means that the reflection that is happening in the public sphere is very limited to certain visions and certain domains, privileging the mathematical and scientific approaches, and undertaking reflection based on personal experience in companies or politics.

What we are missing is a reflection outside of experiences of what is possible. When all our experts are there because of their experience, we fail to be informed by people who can imagine the world as something different: we will only hear from those who are successful in the current system, and through their success have gained a platform to be able to speak. Their belief in the current way of doing things here is strengthened because it worked for them, and they have a vested interest in continuing it, because it allowed them to become a ‘somebody.’ Those who have knowledge, but not successful experience, are pushed to the side under the auspices that they haven’t yet proved themselves to be someone worthy of a space in the public sphere.

Knowledge and experience should not be mutually exclusive either, and this delimitation of the two doesn’t mean that all those with experience have no knowledge. Rather, the privileging of one approach limits the extent to which we have a free-thinking and imaginary public sphere, it limits the ideas that New Zealanders have access to, and it limits the possibilities for us to imagine a greater future from a different perspective.

I would venture to argue that these experience-based public figures are public intellectuals only in a very limited sense. They do inform public debate and opinion, and in this way we can call them public intellectuals. However, they do not seem to be tasked with reflection outside of their own experiences, taking in the nuances of the situation and presenting new ideas into the public sphere. And without this task, or request, from the public, they have not initiated it themselves.

Another reason that this reflection and concept-level discussion doesn’t happen in the public sphere is because of the belief that everything needs to be simplified for ‘the general public’ to be able to understand it. We have such a focus on making new concepts and communicating things in a clear and easy to understand way, that we forget about what it is that we are talking about in the first place. We have lost sight of the product itself and begun a discussion of the marketing campaigns instead.

The COVID-19 response by the Government is a perfect example of where we are going wrong in focusing on how we say things rather than just presenting them. We have developed a four-level system of alerts to keep the public informed on the extent to which we are locked-down, and what economic and personal activities are allowed to continue. The idea behind this would seem to be that people need clear guidance and frameworks within which to work and act, and by providing these frameworks in a crisis it adds clarity and assurance to our decisions. These frameworks however are very loose, seemingly made up on the spot, and lack the rigour required of a framework that sufficiently supports our thoughts and actions amidst a pandemic.

As a result, we are all debating the framework instead of the ideas behind such a framework and the policies that influence it. We were discussing ‘what is an essential good?’ last week, and this week we are discussing ‘what counts as safe business practices’ and ‘when can we go back to level two?’ The framework has provided a framework for discussion, and we can debate the things that are in the levels based on the problems that we are facing in the practice of such a framework. But why are we not debating the approach in general? Why are we not debating the necessity of four alert levels, why are we not discussing the necessity for lockdown and the multi-tiered approach? Because we are focusing on the marketing and not on the policy. We are discussing what has been given to us by the Government, and not the actual situation that we are facing outside our doorstep.

We have all these fancy concepts such as ‘bubbles’ to supposedly help us understand who we are allowed to make contact with and who we are not. It seems fairly clear to everyone else in every other nation that when you’re in lockdown you don’t make contact with anyone besides the people you live with. Why do we need this concept of a bubble? What it does is it gives people a tool to feel important, it gives them a concept which doesn’t relate particularly well to reality but that they can play with and discuss, and thus feel part of the larger discussion. It’s a way for people to grasp their circumstances. We begin to ask, who is in my bubble? How big is my bubble? When will others join it? We don’t ask, why am I at home? What are the risks of the virus to my community? The idea of a bubble removes all of this from our thinking, it distances us from the real circumstances we are facing, and makes the lockdown much more palatable. It simplifies the situation in a way that causes us to forget what we’re really doing. The concept of a bubble doesn’t make sense anyway: bubbles pop pretty quickly, they meet other bubbles when they are blown by the wind, and merge to form larger ones. Or maybe they’re talking about the bubbles you find in beer and soft drinks: when you open the bottle they all float up to the top and pop that way. Are we all going to pop once the lid is loosened at level two? Either way, why are we even in bubbles?

Similarly, after the Prime Minister began her well-intentioned refrain of telling us to be kind, seemingly every business who could afford to advertise begun echoing this sentiment like parrots in a pet store. We were told by supermarkets and banks and tradespeople and petrol stations to be kind and stick together. Why did they feel the need to jump on the kindness bandwagon? Marketing, perhaps, and to be seen doing the right thing. But what else does it point to? If we are all telling each other that we need to be kind, and if we have so much advertising telling us to be kind, then kindness itself cannot be as large a part of our culture as we would like to think. Are we scared that other people won’t be kind to us, and that we’ll be persecuted or catch the virus due to someone’s irresponsibility? Isn’t this question of the marketing of kindness much more valuable to discuss than the nature of bubbles? It’s really happening but no one seems to be talking about it.

Our ‘intellectuals’ are spending too much time thinking about how to say what they want to say, and how to come up with the concepts to present the guidance they want to present, that they have forgotten about the actual guidance itself. And we, as willingly as lambs to the slaughter, just believe that the public discussion should be around these concepts and not about the real world problems that we are dealing with. This Government’s response has proved them the masters of a propaganda machine that even the country’s media are willing to participate in. They present the Government’s ideas and echo the Government’s mantras like there’s no tomorrow. Such narrow mindedness is not unusual if the level of public discussion doesn’t open the minds of the people to what they are not discussing or thinking about.

Hence why we need real public intellectuals. We need people to see past the propaganda and the concepts designed to ‘make it easier for us to understand’ but that actually disfigure the reality we need to be confronting and cause us to act on shallow, imaginary concepts that don’t relate to the world. People who do the thinking on behalf of the society, and present this to our society, who are not journalists that are tasked with making short sentences and writing articles about their wine drinking habits because there ‘isn’t much going on at the moment.’

There’s a lot going on at the moment. There is a lot to be thinking about, and reflecting on, which doesn’t include bubbles and alert levels. It does include what the concept of social distancing is (let’s call it what it is — we are not allowed to be ‘social’ in the way we were before), and how we are changing as a result of it. It does include why our Government is using these concepts to manage a crisis. It does include how our culture is changing, what aspects of our culture are strengthened or shown during the crisis. There’s a lot going on at the moment. Why aren’t we discussing it?

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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