Role of intellectuals in society | Sunday Observer

Role of intellectuals in society

19 July, 2020

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘Society’ as ‘a large group of people who live together in an organised manner making decisions about how to do things and sharing the works that need to be done’.  Etymological details show its origin from the Latin word ‘Socius’ which means ‘companion’ giving the basic meaning to the word ‘society’ as ‘companionship’. 

Plato’s Republic expressed the view that individual human beings found it difficult to be self-sufficient and therefore they formed communities and societies to achieve their common goals through mutual assistance. 

Distinct classes

He said the separation of functions and specialisation of labour as the key to establishing a worthwhile society.  Each need of such a society, such as growing vegetables, animal farming, carpentry or producing garments, is taken care of by an individual or a small group of individuals so that everyone in the community has his/her needs fulfilled while contributing their services, knowledge and labour, to sustain and improve that cycle of production and consumption.  This eventually resulted in a community organised into distinct classes according to the importance and the value of their role in providing a particular component of the common good. 

Members of such societies began seeing the necessity of some other services such as adjudication of disputes among members and protecting the territory and the interests of the community from possible attacks of external (external to their established group) forces.  Carrying the principle of specialisation of labour a step further, Plato suggested, the formation of ‘guardians’ consisting of soldiers and adjudicators, thus completing the basic structure of modern societies. 

The class of guardians, the governing body of the people of each country is expected to be formed by the people for the people.  Of course with all the discoveries, technology and innovations of the past, human society has advanced to what it is today, a complicated yet sophisticated system of global networks which sociologists and anthropologists describe as humanly created organisations or systems of inter-relationships that connect individuals in a common culture.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘intellect’ as ‘the ability to think in a logical and analytical way and understand things, especially, at an advanced level’.  An intellectual then can simply be defined as a person with a highly developed intellect.  Therefore, intellectuals in a society are not only the elitist class producing economic, social, legal, educational and philosophical theories but also the ones with a vision of man and society with the capability to motivate and mobilise all segments of society to activate and share their views in the ways beneficial to the whole society. 

One of the misconceptions in today’s world is the acceptance of people who have gathered qualifications handed out through formal education systems around the world as intellectuals.  Certificates with standard combinations of letters such as BA, BSc, BCom, BEd, MBBS, LL.B, MA, MSc......, PhD do not make one an intellectual though there can be intellectuals who have earned such certificates using their true intellect. 

If ‘educated’ means to be resourceful, to be able to formulate serious questions and challenge standard doctrine when needed and being able to find one’s own way then an educated person can certainly be an intellectual too. 

Norm Chomsky

Norm Chomsky, in 1967, discussed: a) to speak the truth and expose lies b) to provide historical context and c) to lift the veil of ideology as the three main responsibilities of intellectuals which are true in today’s society. In addition, intellectuals usually try to organise and enforce their authority over the public in two different arenas, in civil society and in political society.  It is achieved in civil society by raising the bar on the standards of literature, philosophy and art which will inspire the free consent of all social groups to the dominance of one. 

In political society the dominance is achieved by coercing the obedience of any social group who has not consented to the dominance of another.  It is interesting to see that intellectuals who are willing to inspire and persuade people in the civil society will not hesitate to coerce people in a political society.  However, a society without a functioning group of intellectuals is deprived of certain luxuries and lacks insight into its problems that require intellectual attention. 

Intellectuals should lead the dialogue among groups of concerned citizens on topics such as: ‘Is the average citizen responsible for the deaths of innocent people due to a war a democratically elected government has declared on another country?’ 

It is the responsibility of the people, in general, to speak the truth and expose lies.  Intellectuals in the society have even a greater responsibility than the average person since more often than not the intellectuals are a privileged group in society.  In the so called ‘free’ societies intellectuals are allowed to express their opinion in public without the fear of being arrested and or tortured.  Intellectuals usually have the knowledge and also the access to literature so that they can explain the history behind an issue in question and show the evolution of the problem. 

They can explain the reasons why the problem has not been solved yet, and also what went wrong in previous attempts of solving it, if any.  Because of their advantages and privileges, such as, access to information, political liberty and freedom of expression, intellectuals have even a greater responsibility, to speak the truth and expose lies, than the average member of society. 

It is not surprising to hear things that are not true from a politician.  But it is significant to notice the absence of any response by intellectuals to such unethical behaviour, irrespective of the status of the perpetrator.  A major factor in determining the preparedness of intellectuals to adopt a dissident stance is the fear of the consequences.  The scope of academic freedom has declined considerably and the universities are functioning more and more like corporations.  Funding agencies are gaining control over the academics and their intellectual properties.

Casualisation of labour

 The casualisation of labour in academic life and the gradual reduction of state funding are increasing the insecurities of intellectuals who then would be reluctant to say or do anything that might rock the boat or irritate the representatives of the big business that increasingly populate the governing bodies of the universities.  It is almost always easier to serve the interests of the powerful and say and do nothing rather than stand up for what is right by speaking out.  Irrespective of all these difficulties a true intellectual should not be aiding and abetting anyone in hiding or distorting facts intentionally for their personal gain.  Therefore, the role of an intellectual is to have the courage to face problems in life deriving the general from the specific in preparation for change through many means such as, social behaviour, literary or artistic work committed to a cause.  Intellectuals would not distant themselves from the issues of society since they are an integral part of that society.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]