A simple definition of ‘intellectual’ is a person who engages in ‘critical thinking, research and reflection about society.’ These attributes are largely conferred on men and women with many degrees and perhaps a teaching job in a university. But there are many people with these attributes who don’t have many degrees or a teaching job. No society can prosper without vibrant interventions of intellectuals.
No nation can make progress without input of intellectuals who use instruments of critical thinking to see what others cannot see or refused to see. An intellectual is perpetually engaged in interrogating the society – interrogating everything with the aim of making right those things that have been going wrong. A more vivid definition of the role of an intellectual in the society was given by the French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who, in his sweeping style said, “The Intellectual is someone who meddles in what does not concern them.” If we ride along with Sartre, one can say, the intellectual is expected to engage every issue – by shaping arguments with critical thinking and opening up new frontiers of thought. At the end, the intellectual helps the society understands itself, questions the unquestionable and proposes solutions. It goes beyond diagnosis. Its goes all the way to treatment and possibly full recovery.
No scholar was as thorough as Edward Said (1935-2003) in shaping the role of the intellectual in the society. He was of the strong opinion that: “The role of the intellectual is not to consolidate authority, but to understand, interpret, and question it… Indeed, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating.” Beyond this point, Edward Said said an intellectual is expected to always be in a state of ‘exile.’ The exile here can be metaphorically defined as a situation whereby the intellectual is detached from ‘power.’ The sympathy of the intellectual is to the truth and wellbeing of the society. The allegiance of the intellectual is to the TRUTH. An intellectual is always uncomfortable with status quo, no matter how good it may appear to the irresponsible beneficiaries, the gullible and the fairly educated. Widely held belief is that an intellectual participates in politics only to denounce injustice.
Edward Said was a symbol of what and who an intellectual is and his works, and interventions reflected his definition that an intellectual is ..”someone able to speak the truth, a … courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticised and pointedly taken to task.” Noam Chomsky is an embodiment of this point.
An intellectual can see through the lies and deceit of those in authority. He constantly asks questions and defers only to the truth, justice and values that move the society forward. An intellectual can only be in awe of superior arguments and concrete facts. The intellectual does not ignore reality. He or she always draws from realities because they have the concreteness that is tangible. Of course, an intellectual is a human being and may have tribe, religion and other human identities, but universality of the truth makes the intellectual oblivious to anything outside the boundary of reason, fairness and justice. Justice is justice – and it is universal. Injustice is injustice no matter the identity involved.
Economic hardship, anxiety about material achievements and many other insecurities are having adverse effect on capacity of many university teachers to be intellectuals. Meet a professor and strike up a conversation. Within minutes one gets the hint that you are dealing with a specimen of the degeneration affecting all dimensions of life. In the face of injustice they keep silent. In the face of lies they look the other way. They are largely found cheering deceitful manipulation of religion or ethnicity. They remorselessly champion mediocrity and defer to power.
In Nigeria, life is very difficult and one can often find it difficult to pick a hole in an intellectual who becomes a sycophant – a mere praise singer, a lowly beggar of favours from powerful people. An intellectual can cease to be one the moment he/she genuflect and creep before power and cheer thieving politicians. How can you be an intellectual when you lead the crowd of what Slavoj Zizek described as purveyors of “immature utopian expectations”? How can you be an intellectual when you are evidently “mentally passive”? You never speak truth to power and you assume you are an intellectual? You can’t be an intellectual if you accepted the limits imposed by the society. An intellectual is loyal only to the good of the society and the truth. We really need to have intellectuals.