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The shrinking space for public intellectuals

Talking about the public role of intellectuals in today’s world, and more specifically in India, is of great significance given changes taking place in culture and politics. It is not simply enough to talk about the role of Indian public intellectuals in the making and preserving of critical mindedness and democratic engagement in Indian academia. One should also pay attention to the role which could and should be played by public intellectuals in promoting moral and political excellence and civic friendship among the future generation of Indians.

However, to do so, public intellectuals in India need to challenge the traditional assumptions that have reinforced positivistic methodologies, apathetic scholarship and an increasing fascination with a calculative leadership which refuses to listen and to learn instead of leading.

Fortunately, many Indian intellectuals—such as Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Dipankar Gupta, Arundhati Roy and Bhiku Parekh—continue to engage with Indian public and strengthen the concepts of democratic dissent and civic questioning. Yet, we should not forget that the notion of critical thinking and the business of questioning, more than being an act of political partisanship, are essential components of the definition of “intellectual” in modern times.

Decline of the Intellectual

When Thomas Mann left Europe in 1938 to escape Nazi terror and to settle in the United States, he responded to a journalist upon his arrival in New York by saying: “Wo ich bin die ist deutsche Kultur” (wherever I am, there is German culture). Today, if any of us here present situates oneself in Thomas Mann’s footsteps, he or she has earned the right to say: “Wherever I am, there is human culture and a struggle for human dignity.” But unfortunately, in the age of political demagogy and #Trumpization of politics, things seem to be quite different from the time of Thomas Mann.

The 21st century represents in general a separation between intellectuals and the public space. Seldom have intellectuals and the political world diverged so much. As such, intellectuals are no more described as “superheroes of the mind”, but simply as critical idealists who look beyond the scope of our everyday life. Today, critical intellectuals are an endangered species. Today’s intellectuals have a fear of the political and it seems as if the political has also a terrible indifference to what could be called “intellectual”.

Many others have seen this process as a decline of the intellectual. This decline is usually described as a process of distancing from the public sphere toward an increasingly professionalized, corporate and managerial world. In other words, intellectuals are losing their public authority and their moral legitimacy of speaking truth to power, while becoming incapable of carrying on their independent and critical functions as thinkers and animators of ideas.

The move away of the intellectuals from the public sphere can be described as an effort to renegotiate the purpose and boundaries of the public sphere without taking into consideration the ethical imperatives of a dialogue with the political. As such, today’s intellectuals seem to think that since all moral truths are relative, there is no more a need to represent a moral voice in a voiceless world. The attempts of the intellectuals in the academia and other professional institutions to pretend that it is politically correct and wise to be dismissive of moral imperatives in the public sphere is a way of coinciding the humanitarian urge of our world with the special needs of career-making.

Salaried, tenured and pensioned, many intellectuals find themselves chained to the wheel of a respectable career and profession which grounds their capacity of critical mindedness in a non-adversarial context. More precisely, narrow professional self-interests have destroyed the so-called public interests of the intellectuals. Quickly and unrepentantly forgetting their moral and political responsibilities, many intellectuals in today’s world have degraded and abandoned the idea of public sphere evolving into uncritical supporters of mass culture.

The new stars

It is by virtue of this uncritical public stance that political and cultural experts and media pundits have replaced intellectuals as the sociological actors of our contemporary world. Engaged solely in discussing facts—that is, facts dictated by the economic laws of the market or by the political decisions of governments around the world—today’s media celebrities are no more interested in discussing values.

As such, with the rise of the post-industrial global village, dominated by media networks and technology-led communication in which critical voices are often drowned, what can be called the “epidemic of conformism” has completely paralyzed and rendered impotent the critical questioning of the intellectuals.

That said, the category of “intellectual” remains a problematic concept and difficult to define. However, in order to question the role of intellectual engagement in the context of twenty-first century, we need to start with some of the salient features of the intellectual in history. It goes without saying that the intellectual has always been a social-historical figure that has emerged from a cultural background, but with a public function that relates to a universal consciousness.

This emphasis on the universal task of the intellectual and its presence as a socio-political figure in the public space, reinforces the distinction between “intellectuals” and “academics”. Moreover, with “intellectuals” the focus is not only on the transmission of ideas, but with the act of universalizing awareness through a process of questioning. In other words, the critical mode of questioning which is proper to the work of intellectuals is an engagement with the problem of questioning itself and not only the capacity to question and to doubt.

So perhaps the basic question of intellectual questioning is about the meaning, validity and legitimacy of questions. Therefore, by definition, society for an intellectual is a space of active questioning and unlimited interrogation in such a way that the questions of freedom, justice, equity and equality can always be posed anew and not taken for granted.

The first intellectual

So, it doesn’t come to us as a surprise that the history of political thought began with an act of intellectual questioning, that of Socrates, the Athenian philosopher and gadfly, against his judges who condemned him to death. If Socrates can be considered as the first public intellectual in the history of humanity, it is certainly because he is something other than a simple Athenian picked out of the crowd. He is an individual who takes his distance from his own heritage by questioning the nature of Greek myths and ideas.

Socrates’s main accomplishment is to call into question the conventional forms of authority and heteronomy in his time. As such, Socrates is not only a philosopher-citizen but also a philosopher-dissenter. This idea of “dissent” is the key feature to the existential presence and epistemological attitude of the intellectual in all times. Though the term “intellectual”, as we know it today, has been fabricated very late in human history, the critical function of intellectual thinking and the dissenting attitude of those who went against the tide, has always been a mode of being of disobedient minds all through history.

It is with the Dreyfus Affair in 19th century France (when Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned in 1894 on charges of leaking secrets to the German army) that the category of the “intellectual” became recognized for the first time, accompanied by a slightly different interpretation of its “public” role. Despite the ideological differences among intellectuals during the Dreyfus Affair, both sides agreed that the intellectual should be engage. But what an intellectual like Emile Zola saw at stake in the Dreyfus Affair was to use his ideas as a way to denounce injustice. Zola’s pamphlet, J’accuse, became the critical spear of many writers, artists, journalists and academicians who jointly signed a “Manifesto” and declared Dreyfus innocent and wrongly imprisoned.

Intellectuals are not only individual thinkers, but also public servants of humanity who stand for something far larger than the discipline from which they originated. They are constantly balancing the private and the public. That is to say, an intellectual’s personal commitment to an ideal must have relevance and respect for the society. This is how the intellectual engages himself or herself with the changing issues of society while remaining true to certain ethical principles. This is how intellectuals appear as the moral conscience of their societies.

As such, one of the tasks of the intellectual is to think. But can we think without disobeying and without questioning and without dissenting? “The most thought-provoking thing about our thought-provoking age”, wrote martin Heidegger, is, “that we are still not thinking.” Thinking, Heidegger observes, is questioning. To think is to put the world and ourselves into question. In other words, thinking is determined by a person who questions. It involves not only our receptivity to freedom but also the necessity to disobey. The call of thought is, thus, the call to freedom. There has been, since Socrates, the tradition of a public intellectual as the supporter and guardian of civic freedoms.

In conclusion

Let us ask what public intellectuals should stand for and fight for in today’s world. Passive intellectualism and intellectual elitism are both precisely what intellectuals cannot afford at a time when they are trying to bring together a global community of shared values in order to confront global challenges all together. However, it happens that the specialization of intellectual life together with the dominance of mass culture have provided the disappearance of the charismatic public intellectual figure and the decline in the quality of what we call “public”.

Today, intellectuals play no more the role of critical counter power to liberal oligarchies and populist regimes around the world, and they have lost their ability to think independently without being an actor of the “celebrity culture”. With the banalization of cultural life, intellectuals have been transformed into insignificant figures who find their homes in the universities and think tanks around the world, where they have no moral legitimacy in their specific disciplines.

This is an age of “#Trumpization of politics”, an age of ignorance, arrogance and mediocrity. This is an age which has brought with it the rise of populist politicians and loudmouth demagogues around the world. However, the rise of the demagogues is the symptom, not the cause of erosion of public trust and engagement. But what is often lost in the debate is the role that needs to be played by the intellectuals as agents to transform the public discourse and move the society toward new social imaginaries and new modes of thinking. It is time, once again, for public intellectuals to be the uncompromising fighters on behalf of human dignity.


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Posted on : Jan 02, 2019