Edward Said and public intellectuals

September 25, 2022

An intellectual is one who can speak the truth to the power centre and should be able to stand sane and with the truth and refuse to take sides

Edward Said and public intellectuals


he mother-country is a worldly thing; the man who wants to play the angel will always be a bad patriot: Ernest Renan

A few weeks after 9/11, when everyone in the West was convicting Islam and Muslims and equating them with terrorism, I received the transcript of Noam Chomsky’s talk, which he delivered after the attacks. In that talk, he highlighted the atrocities committed by the US government and how the International Court of Justice had declared it a terrorist state due to its involvement in Nicaragua. He tried to remind the world that what had happened on American soil was a retaliation. However, when the conspiracy theorist tried to blame the US for 9/11 as its plot to occupy Afghanistan, same Chomsky refused to buy those theories and held Al Qaida responsible.

One can imagine how difficult it would be for someone to say anything different if not contrary to what the whole world was forced to say after 9/11. But Chomsky said it. One can also imagine how tempting it would be to suspect the US for 9/11. Chomsky did not do that, either. However, the bigger and more complex challenge was to oppose what his state and society believed in at the moment of heightened threat. This is exactly the definition of an intellectual Edward Said gave in his famous Reith lectures in 1993. An intellectual is one who can speak the truth to the power centre and be able to stand sane and with the truth and refuse to take sides.

Said did the same. We all know that Said is inseparable from Palestine and the Palestinians’ struggle. He extensively wrote on Israeli atrocities but did not spare Arafat and PLO’s corruption and bad policies.

Up to this point, it sounds simple. The issue gets more intricate when one probes further. For example, who and what makes an intellectual? Is it the society that assigns the role, or does an intellectual assume it?

Honestly speaking, Said did not get into such philosophical details. However, he resided upon two definitions, one by Julien Benda and the other by Antonio Gramsci. Both definitions were given at the start of the Twentieth Century. Both have described intellectuals in binaries, laymen and clerks from Benda, and teachers and organic intellectuals by Gramsci. Benda’s clerks were clerics known for their holy and secular academic goals but devoid of worldly gains. Gramsci’s organic intellectual is a prime agent of his non-violent revolution.

The non-violent revolution is a term for proletarian hegemony. These organic intellectuals are committed to edifying the masses in their strife for freedom. Their efforts revolve around breaking the shackles of Filipino thinking, a term to denote traditional ideology consisting of cultural clichés. Said preferred the Gramscian definition; but who assigns this role to someone and how? Gramsci thinks that every person is an intellectual, potentially but may not perform that role. In first of his six lectures, he tackled this conundrum. In his opinion, the intellectual is bestowed with the potential of challenging and posing serious questions to orthodoxy and dogma and takes the responsibility of representing the people and issues vanish to worthlessness. To do this, the intellectual cannot ally with governments or corporations. It is still not simple. Many oppressive projects carried out by governments and corporations in the ’80s and ’90s are now being taken over by non-state actors. They are acting independently of both. Every such group has its think tank, which fulfils the definition of an intellectual. At times they pose serious questions to the power centres, as well. They raise slogans like freedom fighters that make them look like anti-status-quo. However, they only fake this anti-power façade to get people’s anger vented. Can we call them the intellectuals Said talked about?

Secondly, does the truth only bother the power centre? What about telling the truth to the pressure groups that now evidently exist not only in societies like ours but in the Western world as well? Does an intellectual only need to worry about being killed, kidnapped, or tortured? What about a common man who is more equipped to scold, criticise and ridicule using his social media access? We have seen the power of social media in the ephemeral Arab spring. Equally, we have seen its sway in Brexit. We also have seen its potential in gathering a mob to burn a Sri Lankan manager in Sialkot. How can an intellectual survive such a threatening situation comprising oppressive state apparatuses, non-state militias, mob persecutors and firebrand leaders? If such a situation prevails for decades, can a society have an uninterrupted supply of public intellectuals?

Thirdly, it was easy for Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali and people like Gore Vidal to use a forum to say things. If mainstream media did not publish your work, they could write books. Said, Chomsky and Zinn could keep their university positions despite being dissidents. Parallel media could air their talks if they were blacked out elsewhere. However, making more noise has now become a source of greater confusion. Everything is refuted in no time. A verbose person is more popular than an academician. Not in Pakistan only, but everywhere in the world, reading serious stuff is suffering a downward trend. A public intellectual may not be able to describe a complex notion in three lines of Twitter.

Edward Said raised a pertinent question, but since these lectures were delivered, the oppressive powers have become almost imperceptible. The oppressive structures are far too subtle and harder to recognise. Thousands of other mechanisms have been invented since 1992 to mask the power. The million-dollar question at this juncture of history is: what should be the minimum a public intellectual must do to be recognised as such? Said may say the same thing. An intellectual should be able to identify the power to speak the truth to. An individual deconstructs the slogans, clichés and dogmas without being an ally to any power broker and caring about false gods and false allegiances. On Said’s death anniversary, one way of remembering him is to revaluate his views and works and try to take those further. These six lectures contain his views that are relevant to us. Reflecting upon them can teach us a lot about ourselves.

The writer is a clinical   psychologist, he can be contacted at akhtaralisyed@gmail.com

Edward Said and public intellectuals