By Siri Gamage –
The term intellectual is often used in the Sri Lankan media particularly in the context of political reporting. For example, Shyaman Jayasinghe questions the use of this word in a recent meeting organised by Viyath Maga this month in Boralasgamuwa, Sri Lanka (Colombo Telegraph March 11, 2017). At other times, especially before Presidential or Parliamentary elections, some university academics affiliated with major political parties appear on stage or in press conferences as ‘intellectuals’. Does the media use this term correctly? Who are the intellectuals? What should be their defining features and role? Has this term been vulgarised in the Sri Lankan context to mislead the voting public? If so, where are the true intellectuals? These are some questions we need to discuss due to the ‘incorrect usage’ of this term in the popular media today.
Intellectual is one who uses his/her intellect for articulating contemporary issues in society from a historical, political, sociological, cultural and other perspectives for the benefit of the humankind and possibly policy and decision makers who do not have the time, training or capabilities to grasp the nature of such issues together with a vision for their solutions. Thinkers who are able to grasp long term trends in human society and its culture or various sub systems and predict multiple possibilities/solutions for the human kind whether in a given nation, region or the world also deserve to be called intellectuals. Intellectuals can also be innovators and/or specialists in various fields but unless they are proposing something generally applicable to the human society, he/she could be called a ‘specialist’ rather than an ‘intellectual’.
Intellectual is someone other than the average Jo bloke on the street, a functionary in a government administration, a university academic who reproduces knowledge inherited from his/her teachers and old textbooks imported from the West, or a journalist who performs his/her normal duties of reporting. An intellectual ought to be presenting a view, proposition, argument, theory or a perspective that is insightful, illuminating, cutting edge, or contributing to present understandings in an original way. This is quite different from pumping out jargon, a position, ideology or an argument on behalf of a political party or an organisation of professionals. Intellectual is also different from those holding positions such as academics, professionals, politicians, businessmen/women, clergy or others who carry various titles. He/she should be holding an intellect that is acquired after a sustained period of systematic study of a subject and able to articulate a vision and all other things mentioned above in an easily understandable way. However, we have to recognise that all intellectuals are not good communicators. Similarly, all good communicators are not intellectuals.
Quoting other sources, Wikipedia defines intellectual as ‘a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of society, and thus he or she gains authority as a public intellectual. It also state ‘Coming from the world of culture, either as a creator or as a mediator, the intellectual participates in politics, either to defend a concrete proposition or to denounce an injustice, usually by producing or by extending an ideology, and by defending a system of values’ . The distinction between intellectual and public intellectual is an important one as some intellectuals can be armchair thinkers who do not convey his/her ideas that well for public consumption, do not engage in public debates at a given point in time or even does not propose a course of action associated with their new ideas or vision. A public intellectual is one who does not accumulate knowledge, insights and understandings for his/her own use but shares such things with the general public or different audiences for the common good in a non-threatening way. By doing so, he/she introduces changes in society, culture, ways of thinking and acting, starting new movements and the like. In short, such intellectuals become leaders manifestly or latently while defining moments of history, social trends, political upheavals, common parameters for human progress, and pin point wise paths for human coexistence and development in a holistic sense. Visionaries who provide leadership for various organisations including those which serve the interests of the least advantaged in societies can also be intellectuals. Karl Marx is considered an intellectual because he advocated a different way of interpreting society, social struggles, etc. from a historical and class perspective. The Buddha is considered an intellectual for developing a critique of existing religious thought at his time and proposing a new way of understanding human suffering, its causes and a way for human liberation. There are many other notable intellectuals recorded in human history and even today contributing their thoughts in various fields.
Merriam- Webster dictionary defines intellectual as referring to the intellect and its use, guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience, given to study reflection and speculation, and engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an intellectual is ‘a very educated person whose interests are studying and other academic activities that involve careful thinking and mental effort’. We can find other characterisations of the term in various dictionaries and publications but these few are sufficient to get us thinking and reflecting on this topic with a view to correcting media usage in Sri Lanka.
Intellectuals are ahead of time in terms of how they grasp the realities, impending issues and challenges and pathways for human liberation. Thus they are able to not only predict the nature of future trends and events before scientists who come up with various propositions based on systematic analysis of relevant data are able to do. Intellectuals almost occupy a mind characterised by intuition and ability to read the future. However, when looking at the human history and historical figures who contributed to the development of knowledge, technology, science, philosophy, religion etc. in substantial ways, we come to realise that all intellectuals were not operating on the basis of intuition. Lifetime commitments to the pursuit of knowledge, discoveries are also characteristic features of intellectuals. Reading one’s culture alone is not enough to be qualified as an intellectual.
Thus the question arises as to whether someone educated in social sciences or humanities and holding a position in a university, profession or a research organisation can simply be called an intellectual? Being educated is a quality associated with the intellect and intellectual but this does not mean simply having obtained a degree such as a doctorate or an honorary doctorate at that. Unless the person is a critical and innovative thinker and holds a deep understanding of a given field of study and able to link such education and knowledge with the contemporary issues and future trends, it is not proper to call such individuals intellectuals. Likewise, we should not be calling individuals who associate themselves with political parties and therefore able to develop a public profile due to the favours received from their political masters as popular intellectuals. Popularity in the national context promoted by various media alone does not qualify one to be called an intellectual either. Intellectuals ought to be securing deep understandings of phenomena through sustained study, reflection and critical thinking and sharing understandings and predictions based on them with the fellow humans thereby receiving universal acknowledgement for their endeavours and achievements. The bar is very high to be an intellectual. We need to remember that not all Nobel Prize winners even are intellectuals.
Intellectuals also show self-discipline, selflessness and a high degree of altruism. Common good of the people rather than one’s own welfare is the motto of such people. They are motivated by a love of the humanity and the planet as a whole rather than petty ambitions of a given group, clan or collection of people. If someone is advancing the cause of a selected group of people such as the professionals, politicians, university teachers, trade union members, armed services personnel, they ought to be called leaders rather than intellectuals. However, this does not mean that they do not possess varying degrees of intellect. Even among the masses without university degrees, there can be gifted intellectuals. Among those who engage in partisan politics, there can be intellectuals if they go beyond the party political platform, ideology and imperatives and engage in course changing critical discourses by using the gift of intellect. Among the literary figures –past and present – there are intellectuals who read beyond the lines and come up with creative work that defines certain cultures and ways of thinking on one hand and provide thematic artistic products with a deep historical, cultural and/or political message on the other. One such figure in Sri Lanka was Ediriweera Sarachchandra. E.W Adikaram was another – though he was popular during his time as an independent thinker rather than as an intellectual. His colleagues considered Newton Gunasinghe in the field of (Marxist) anthropology as an intellectual. One may consider late Maduluwave Sobhita as an intellectual even though his heroic deeds including deep commitment to social justice at a time of societal crisis was the defining feature of his personality.
This discussion shows that intellectuals are a rare commodity and they don’t come cheap. Therefore, the media needs to re-consider the use of the term in their reporting so that those who truly deserve to be called intellectuals –irrespective of the country, nationality, ethnicity or gender – can be recognised so. Those who aspire to be designated as intellectuals by self-promotion should never ever be allowed to have a free ride, as self-promotion is not a characteristic of an intellectual. Likewise, those who want to take the country toward dictatorship of one kind or another by using misleading political rhetoric should never be called intellectuals. One question I did not discuss in this article is whether the title ‘intellectual’ can be bought and sold or conferred on someone? The answer is self-evident. Finally, the words Viyath translates into Sinhala as learned – not intellectual.