What intellectuals should do —Ishtiaq Ahmed


We need to believe that all human beings possess two basic properties. First, each one of us can reason, even if in some people the skill is rudimentary and akin more to intuition than reflection. Second, each one of us has a conscience that helps us make moral decisions. The task is to improve the ability of people to reason through better education and to sharpen their conscience
In my article last Tuesday, I seemed to sound too despondent to some of my readers who wrote back to express their concern. I did not, however, write my article ‘The limits of intellectual influence’ in a particularly pessimistic mood; it was just an attempt to be ‘realistic’, so to say. Let me try to commend a more cheerful role for intellectuals.
We, ‘intellectuals’, can thank our stars that the monopoly over knowledge or truth is no longer a coveted and restricted domain of some clerical class â€" Brahmins, Christian priests or our redoubtable ulema. The ability to read and write and seek knowledge is now widespread to the point that the genie can no longer be returned to the bottle.
Modern society has made possible the existence of an independent and conscientious corps of intellectuals everywhere in the world. Independent intellectuals are now practically the main defenders of public interest. Whatever else globalisation might be doing, it is also making possible for more and more individuals to connect with international movements for the free flow of information and ideas.
However, governments have at their beck and call paid intellectuals and experts who come into motion as soon as exposure of corruption, nepotism, bribery, inefficiency or police brutality becomes public. Equally, corporate interests now maintain a fleet of ‘experts’ and eminent personalities on their payrolls or committees who can be deployed to promote their interests.
I remember that after Margaret Thatcher stepped down as prime minister she was in great demand from big business to support their interests. For example, she went public to support the ‘right to smoke’ as part and parcel of her ideology of ‘individual choice’. She was to be paid a very large fee for taking part in that campaign funded by the tobacco industry. She herself was a non-smoker and remains so! The decision was so outrageous that leading British physicians criticised her vehemently and vociferously. For once, despite her otherwise pugnacious defence of unbridled capitalism, she capitulated and withdrew.
I used to be thoroughly shocked whenever I came to Pakistan during winters and saw people glued to TV programmes sponsored by tobacco companies. It was even worse to watch live cricket matches on TV interspersed with advertisements for cigarettes. Clever TV comperes would embellish such programmes with theatrical skill and wit thus earning huge fees while the cigarette manufacturer reaped huge profits. I believe such publicity is no longer allowed.
When the evidence that global warming was a result of emission of various gases and substances could not be dismissed any longer experts speaking on behalf of the oil industry tried to argue that global warming might not be a bad thing after all: the world would get greener and land previously under icy glaciers could be put to use for human habitation. Fortunately this did not sound convincing enough even to the most naive and the Bush administration has now promised, most reluctantly, to look more sympathetically at the issue although the USA remains outside the Kyoto Agreement.
All this has been possible because journalists, columnists, academics, researchers and other publicly-engaged individuals did not give up fighting for the right of ordinary people to enjoy good health and be protected from invidious advertising gimmicks and pseudo-scientific explanations. The democratic space that modern society furnishes provides an opportunity to call into question activities of powerful government and private interests. Such freedom is not a given and can be reversed. We should defend it always.
Concerned intellectuals must see to it that open debate and the right to criticise government and public figures is never compromised. Also, faith in ordinary people should be steadfast however frustrating the experience that men are swayed rather easily by demagogues and advertisement wizards.
We need to believe that all human beings possess at least two basic properties. First, each one of us can reason, even if in some people the skill is rudimentary and akin more to intuition than reflection. Second, each one of us has a conscience that helps us make moral decisions. The task is to improve the ability of people to reason through better education and to sharpen their conscience by informing them about what is happening around us locally, regionally and in the world as a whole.
Assuming that this is a massively unjust world in which resources, statuses, power, influence and capabilities are unevenly distributed can we not agree on a minimum programme of searching the truth and defending the public interest?
I think most people do not expect ideal solutions to be worked out for their welfare. This is a fixation of ideologues. Most people just want things to function smoothly and conflicts resolved fairly. Also, most people remain in the cultural groups such as religious communities they are born into. Many of them, however, can be won over to good causes. At the same time the fanatics should be isolated and never appeased. Respect for religion should not mean concessions to repressive and outmoded religious laws and practices. The greatest crime against humanity is to maintain a socio-economic order that keeps people down through poverty and ascribed low status on the basis of caste, creed, colour or gender. The current religious revival has achieved one great thing that must be mighty pleasing for big business: it has pushed questions and concerns about poverty and distributive justice off the political agenda and instead fixed the focus of the dispossessed on milk and honey and cool breeze and multiple houris in the Hereafter.
At the present stage of world affairs we need to build consensus on three things: opposition to fanaticism in all forms; campaigning against war, poverty and social stigma whether deriving from caste, ethnicity, religion, sect or gender; and, seeking peaceful resolution of conflicts. These three tasks require action both within our societies, religious communities and nations as well as on the international plane.
We should always be prepared to be abused and threatened and much worse. The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), very perceptibly put a high premium on civil society as a counterweight to the tendency of the state and big capital to act brutally if not kept at bay by the rule of law. To Gramsci’s idea of civil society one can add that only an open society can tolerate an autonomous civil society and be a genuine, egalitarian democracy.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se

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