What is the role of intellectuals in our social media driven world?

What is the role of intellectuals in our world? A world that is almost anti-intellectual in its orientation – in the sense of being ephemeral, with fleeting attention spans, where the loudest – and most powerful voice – wins.

 I came across this speech by Dr.Edward Said, one of the leading Arab intellectuals whose book Orientalism, I have read and re-read a few times, during my grad school days and subsequently. Said points to various definitions of who or what constitutes an “intellectual.” That is truly the starting point of this discussion, isn’t it? Said points to various ideas of what an intellectual can and should do, and this short piece will build on that, to argue for a more engaged role for intellectuals – than to sit in their ivory towers.

NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 8: Professor and writer Edward Said poses February 8, 2003 in his office at Colombia University in New York City. He died on September 25, 2003. He was a fervent defender of the Palestinian cause. (Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images)

For starters, lets clarify what we mean by an “intellectual.”  We tend to think of academics, think tank type people, researchers, writer, artists as intellectuals. But is that all?

Said points to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian journalist, writer, revolutionary who argued that everyone is an intellectual. Of course, there are the “traditional intellectuals,” such as teachers, writers, priests etc. and the “organic intellectuals,” journalists, PR men and women, and those connected to special interests who help those groups gain more power, influence etc.

There is another definition of intellectuals, that can be helpful.

Said points to the French writer Julien Renda, who argues that “Real intellectuals are never more themselves when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth; they denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority.” These are men like Socrates, Jesus, Spinoza, etc.

The trouble with today’s intellectuals, Renda points out is that they have given up their moral authority to the sectarianism, mass sentiment and class interest. In other words, today’s intellectuals are too busy promoting their institutional, religious or other interests of “their” people, instead of focusing on the common good, even if it goes against their own sectarian benefits.

For Renda, according to Said, the real intellectuals are those who risk being burned at the stake, for their principles and for the truth, that they articulate.  I will copy Said’s entire paragraph here, as it is very illustrative. Said writes of Renda:

“After World War Two, Benda republished his book, this time adding a series of attacks against intellectuals who collaborated with the Nazis as well as against those who were uncritically enthusiastic about the Communists. But deep in the combative rhetoric of Benda’s basically very conservative work is to be found this figure of the intellectual as a being set apart, someone able to speak the truth to power, a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task.”

Is this vision of an intellectual that is pointed out, relevant today? I would argue that it is true today, more than ever.

The State Department official who resigned recently, over President Biden’s handling of Israel – waving all procedures and checks and balances – to arm the country with weapons that it has used against Palestinians, with many thousands of civilians dying each day, can be considered an “organic intellectual,” who could be a great example of standing up for one’s beliefs.  This falls in line with Gramsci’s definition of an intellectual embedded in his/ her field of work and embodying certain expertise, best practices and ethical norms of behavior.

As a scholar who studied representation – and he is best known for studying and presenting how Arabs and the “orient”, was represented and continues to be represented in the West. His book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient is considered a landmark book where he argues (and shows) that the East has been ‘otherised’ as different and inferior by influential thinkers for hundreds of years. This ‘otherising’ has big impacts not just in the world of academia or international affairs, but also in the world of policy, politics, business and education.

Separately, Said argues that “The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public, in public.”

  He further points out that the role of the intellectual is to “confront orthodoxy, and dogma, to be someone who cannot be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”  In other words, it is someone who can be original, brave and unafraid to take on the orthodoxy.

Said also suggests that an intellectual has to be original and represent a point of view or a world-view. When he writes that “When one reads Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell what mattered was that visible presence (which is what made an impression) that was of Russell or Sartre, and not of some anonymous functionary or careful bureaucrat.” This is crucial, as we witness many world events today. He reminds us that it was because of the representations, the values and ideals that Jean Paul Sartre held that he opposed France in Algeria and Vietnam.

Said quotes another intellectual giant from the U.S.: C Wright Mills. Mills wrote ““The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communication – that is, modern systems of representation – swamp us. These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are increasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centered. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.”

What does this mean? It means that one maintains what Said calls a “perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along.” These half-truths can come from government propaganda, PR agents or shills for any political ideology. This struggle against conformity is what is needed from today’s intellectuals – who risk ostracization, loss of job or other opportunities and infamy – for going against the majority.

To summarize: the role of intellectuals is NOT to : repeat the propaganda of other parties – governments, special interests or others but rather to : investigate the truth, to the best of one’s ability and to represent that truth to the best of one’s ability. That seems like a simple task and can be simple, intellectually.

However, despite availability of all kinds of information and skills in analysis, what we are need more of, is courage. Intellectual courage to state the truth and stand by it. This, in my view, is the role of an intellectual.

 To show some chutzpah, in the face of propaganda and lies.  


To read Dr. Edward Said’s speech click here.

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