What does “intellectual” mean? It is an adjective, describing a kind of activity, and it is a noun, meaning a person with a particular cultural and professional orientation. Laura Kipnis is a noun intellectual who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about another noun intellectual, Ian Buruma, losing his job as the editor of the New York Review of Books.
Kipnis presents her concerns, however, as being of the adjectival intellectual kind:
I suspect that The Review’s parting of ways with Mr. Buruma will change the nature and content of intellectual culture in our country…
What I found, writing for The Review under Mr. Buruma, was a rare opportunity—or rare in a periodical with significant circulation—to take intellectual and stylistic risks…
What’s painful about the stance of many now claiming the #MeToo mantle is the apparent commitment to shutting down voices and discussions that might prove distasteful or unnerving. What use is such an intellectually stifled version of feminism to anyone?…
One consequence of Mr. Buruma’s departure will be a new layer of safeguards we won’t even know are in place, including safeguards from the sort of intellectual risks The New York Review of Books always stood for….
A risk taken by an intellectual is not necessarily an intellectual risk. Buruma lost his job because he published an essay in which the disgraced Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, accused of sexual violence by multiple women, cast himself as a mistreated and misunderstood victim of social-media mobbing. Of the essay, Kipnis herself allows, “I understand why many found it sniveling and dissembling.”
That’s not the same as saying the essay was sniveling and dissembling; it’s akin to the kind of apology in which someone apologizes for other people having felt offended, rather than for committing an offense. But Kipnis wants it made clear that she is not defending the essay. She is defending the idea of the essay—the unexamined idea of the essay, the essay stripped of its existing content and value and meaning. This is, perhaps, “intellectual,” in the sense that calling something an “intellectual exercise” is a pejorative.
It was that sense of intellectual—the paradoxical sense, in which it describes thinking about something without really thinking hard about it—that Buruma brought to the decision to publish the essay. He might have survived publishing it, but what apparently finished him off was when he talked about publishing it, in an interview with Slate’s relentlessly thoughtful Isaac Chotiner. Under Chotiner’s focused, thorough questioning, Buruma revealed that he hadn’t bothered to learn the background of Ghomeshi’s case and to check the claims he presented. He chose not to really know what he was publishing, and presented this ignorance as a collective decision shared by his colleagues (“the office stuck together,” he told Chotiner).
That was a risk, but it’s hard to follow Kipnis in calling it an intellectual one. People (including the staff of the New York Review of Books) didn’t get angry about the piece because it challenged their settled values or beliefs, but because it argued from a false set of facts. They read it, got angry about its defects, and spoke and wrote about what was wrong with it.
Does the incident, as Kipnis warns, “change the nature and content of intellectual culture”? From what prior condition does it change things? Here’s a pivotal exchange between Chotiner and Buruma:
There are numerous allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi, including punching women in the head. That seems pretty far on the spectrum of bad behavior.
I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation. How can I be? All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime. The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern. My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.
“The exact nature of his behavior” is not “really my concern,” said the editor who gave a writer a forum to complain about the consequences of his behavior. This may be the culture of intellectuals, but it’s hard to defend as intellectual culture.