In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said (pronounced sayid) defines the intellectual as simply that educated person – “an oppositional figure” – who speaks out against injustices in his society. The intellectual is not merely one who has obtained an advanced degree in a particular field of study. They have to be someone actively engaged in speaking truth to power in the service of their society and those who are not able to fight back when bullied by the power structures of society. Said’s characterization of the intellectual disqualifies many educated persons from claiming the status of intellectual.
An intellectual cannot afford not to take sides – be on the side of the underdogs – in national discourses of power, oppression, and exploitation. They are either vocal and therefore with the mass of oppressed or otherwise underprivileged people, or they are silent and therefore with the oppressive structures and institutions of society. They can also join the oppressive power structure and win the title of “intellectual prostitute” for their pains and in their pursuit of material gain.
Before going further, let me make a small but significant disclaimer: In this essay, I use the masculine pronoun to refer to all intellectuals. I hope our dear mothers and sisters will forgive me for taking this easy way out of the “he/she” conundrum. Great female intellectuals are to be found in all walks of life and have made incredibly great contributions to all aspects of human civilization. Thus, my use of the masculine pronoun in this small essay is merely for ease of reference. It is certainly not meant to marginalize or otherwise downplay the tremendous contributions of females to the world’s intellectual wellbeing and resources. A great small book titled Essaying the Past by Jim Cullen uses “she” and “her” throughout the text, making me wonder, why Dr. Cullen, are there no “he” intellectuals in your world? But of course, I understand that Jim’s decision to use the feminine pronoun was driven by the need for ease of reference. I use “he” and “his” here for the same reason. Moreover, some of the not so complimentary actions of intellectuals discussed in the essay are mostly perpetrated by male intellectuals, though females are also sometimes culpable.
In Said’s formulation, the intellectual who keeps mute over the injustices inflicted upon their compatriots or joins the oppressive system may write and publish many books in academic presses and articles in learned professional journals. However, the fact that they condone the tyrannies and injustices in their home countries renders them disqualified for the title of an intellectual. These kinds of educated people are mere academics or professionals contributing to the production of knowledge in their fields or otherwise belonging to and serving their special professional and special interests. By their active participation in the tyrannical system or their silence, they aid and abet tyranny and injustice where they could have helped neutralize these negative forces from the lives of their peoples. Said suggests that the intellectual cannot afford to either be part of an oppressive structure or to sit on the fence and maintain passive silence in the face of injustice or aggression.
Most studies of the intellectual characterize him as an outsider, an exile to mainstream society, even if he lives within his own country, a character marginal to whatever public he finds himself in. Ironically, the marginality of the intellectual derives precisely from his inextricable immersion in society. At once existing outside of society, he is perpetually embedded, energized and motivated by his engagement with issues of social concern. It is his hatred of injustice, his total identification with the plight of the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the otherwise powerless victims of structural violence that at once makes him an outsider and the quintessential insider and champion of social justice. Unable to partake of the ordinary joys of belonging, he nevertheless is the epitome of belonging. It is his feeling of belonging that makes him an unyielding champion of a just social order while at the same time keeping him perpetually outside of his society.
Of course, some of the worst atrocities against human kind both in Africa and around the world have been committed by people who would characterize themselves as intellectuals. Almost all of Africa’s founding fathers held academic qualifications ranging from masters degrees to PhDs. Kwame Nkrumah held a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Economics (1939) and a Bachelor of Theology (1942) from Lincoln University. He also held a Master of Science in Education (1942) and a Master of Arts in Philosophy (1943) from the University of Pennsylvania. By the time he left America for the United Kingdom, he was on the verge of finishing work on a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, for all his great contributions to the forging of a new nation in Ghana and the advancement of the pan-Africanist cause, Nkrumah was able to justify passage of such oppressive laws like the Preventive Detention Act of 1958 under which people were detained for up to five years or more without charges, without trial and without the benefit of habeas corpus merely because Nkrumah saw them as potential threats to Ghana’s peace and security. One can understand that Nkrumah was faced with a particular difficult task of founding a new republic at the height of a cold war which threatened to sabotage Africa’s emergent independence. But as Africans faced with a particularly malignant problem of unjust rulers, we cannot afford to overlook injustices and oppression merely because the perpetrator has also made great contributions to the advancement of society. Under no circumstances may acts of injustice and oppression be condoned, especially when they are perpetrated by intellectuals who should know better than to assume positions of infallibility. There are always alternative ways of doing things, alternative choices to be made which may achieve the same or better results.
Other independence era leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Hastings Banda, Leopold Senghor, Houphouet Boigny, and Julius Nyerere, and more recently Laurent Gbagbo among others, all held higher education qualifications that placed them firmly in the category of intellectuals. Yet, most of these African intellectuals proceeded to impose unjust social orders on their societies simply because they lacked the capacity to recognize that they might be mistaken in some of their ideas. It is to be said for Nyerere that once he recognized the error of his ways, he happily stepped aside and allowed an alternative system to replace his failed experiment. That is the mark of a true intellectual – the capacity to recognize error, say sorry, and take corrective measures in the interest of social wellbeing. Of course, we also have those African leaders, some very close to home who, much like cows in a library, carry upon their necks such intellectual titles like Sheikh, Doctor and Professor. We may term these delusional fools “underdogtuals” for they lie prostrate at the lowest bottom of the pseudollectual ladder, making funny noises that are never heard in the real world.
The true intellectual recognizes above everything else his human fallibility. He certainly expresses strongly held beliefs and opinions and could prove extremely stubborn in upholding and defending them. But he never assumes a position of infallibility and certainly never suggests that his version of whatever issue is at stake is the only correct version. He always leaves room for the possibility of error, and depending on his level of maturity as an intellectual, is always prepared to revisit and revise his position in the light of strong evidence suggesting that he might be wrong. In short, the true intellectual is a perpetual student, both of academics and of life. One of the greatest intellectuals of all time, the Greek philosopher Socrates famously confessed that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.
The true intellectual will not be co-opted by power structures that bear the tiniest bit of responsibility for human suffering. He is utterly incapable of inflicting premeditated injustice except as a response to injustice inflicted upon him or some other victim. In Africa however, and admittedly in all parts of the world, people who consider themselves intellectuals often serve as the spokespersons and legitimating signposts for oppressive and unjust social orders. Every tyrant has a crop of intellectuals around him, with some others waiting in the wings, licking his boots, and hoping to be co-opted into the system for monetary and other benefits. Some go out of their way to produce works on the tyrant’s non-existent achievements, or to praise the tyrant’s non-existent magnanimities as a way of attracting favorable attention and perhaps landing a lucrative job from the tyrant. Because tyrants are generally insecure and have grossly over inflated egos in constant need of stroking, they are famously susceptible to intellectual sycophancy because it tends to confirm their own unrealistic estimations of themselves. But those intellectuals who prostitute themselves to unjust power structures and corrupt institutions for mere monetary gain are not true intellectuals; they are mere academics out to line their pockets and utterly heedless of the lessons of history which show just how badly intellectual prostitutes almost inevitably suffer. They are victims of self-inflicted mental blindness who assume convenient truths to convince themselves that the only way they could escape what appears to be a life-long cycle of material poverty is to court the favors of the tyrant. Indeed, it is their obsessive preoccupation with material gain that pushes them into the thorny arms of the tyrant and makes them sell their souls to the devil. The true intellectual does not dismiss the necessity of material comfort; but placed against the necessity of dignity, principle and integrity, material comfort pales into utter insignificance in the mind of the true intellectual.
Then there are those intellectuals who will neither sell their souls to the devil nor actively fight the injustices in his society. These seem to be in the majority. Having obtained higher educational qualifications, they are well aware of the nature of structural violence in society. However, they tend to lean more towards silence largely for reasons of self-preservation, cowardice, or mere laziness. African intellectuals belonging to this group are often prolific writers and great scholars working for some of the world’s greatest universities or corporate institutions. However, they maintain a stony silence while their own people are bullied and killed by tin pot despots. They place the conveniences of being able to freely land at their home airports and bask in the communal glory that greets them back home to the inconvenience of having to stay out of the country while waging a battle against unjust social orders. They claim to be not interested in politics; yet their entire professions deal with politics, a subject they engage on a daily basis. These are the types of intellectuals the sociologist C Wright Mills call “inactionaries.” They convince themselves that they are not doing anything bad, that they are independent beings who have no bone to pick with the unjust system as long as it does not attack them or theirs, or that they are not interested in politics. Assuming these convenient truths, they manage to willfully maintain what they feel is a clear conscience and go about their lucrative business. It is to be said for these inactionaries that they seldom sell their souls to the devil either.
The true intellectual neither sells his soul to the devil nor remains mute over social injustices. Marginal to society, he is embedded in a sea of social concerns. His entire being is animated and inspired by an irresistible urge to speak out against tyranny and injustice in all their various forms. He cannot survive long in an environment of intolerance and censorship. He will allow others to control anything about him but his mind. He is a fiercely independent individual who finds it hard to belong, yet inextricably and almost literally belongs to his community. And he will not be silenced, except by brute force that renders him totally incapable of talking truth to power. Some of the greatest intellectual treasures of all time were produced by intellectuals in prison or on the verge of being murdered by unjust regimes. Two classical examples are Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates.