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April 4, 2012

In defense of quiet activism

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Written by: M P

By Maria Patsarika

Last week I went to an interesting talk about the role of social sciences in these days of financial, political and social crisis and insecurity for Greece. Throughout the talk a critical question was lingering in the air, like the elephant in the room: “Why do most social scientists and intellectuals typically engage in theory only, insulated in their safe academic cocoons? Why are they not out there by the side of the Greek people?” Eventually the question was uttered and sparked off a challenging debate.

Most of us have asked this question before, perhaps not in such an outright way, nor necessarily driven by political, ideological conviction – but with a genuine zeal for civic action and change. After all, not much can be done ex-cathedra, through top-down rhetoric; real change happens at a grassroots level. Intellectuals have always received a great amount of criticism for their airy fairy approach to social and political problems and their overly academic and unintelligible language, which fails to engage everyday people and mediate between the public and the government. Quite rightly so. These are symptoms of the pathogeny of the intelligentsia, which account for its longstanding tradition as elitist and excluding.

One should not confuse, however, the above reasonable criticisms with arguments about intellectuals’ dual, professional and public role. The first relates to social scientists’ duties as teachers and academics; the second is, indeed, to capture the essence of society’s problems, elucidate them openly and inclusively and point to new directions. The issue at stake, therefore, does not concern what role intellectuals should play, rather which is the appropriate site and medium for them to voice their work. Or, to dare the question: are the media and the public sphere in general enabling social scientists’ authentic engagement with the public, in an inclusive way and free from political, or other, influence?

Together with the free circulation of goods, services and capital, modern times have witnessed an apotheosis of free expression and the demise of the expert. Unfortunately, however, a lot has changed in the way freedom of speech is perceived since Voltaire defended it as a universal right. There is a tendency nowadays to sanction all that is public, regardless of its validity and soundness; to exculpate the vulgar and the extreme in the name of an erroneous understanding of pluralism and democracy. Under these conditions, the cases of pseudo-intellectuals, of “transvestite intellectuals,” as the speaker of the talk poignantly called them, have dangerously increased, thus debasing the quality of intellectuals’ public interventions and presenting a false image of the role of the academic. The power of publicity is exactly this: it legitimises mannerism and pose, the popular and the loud, and dresses them up as intellectual and worthy before the public eye.

It is pertinent to mention here in passing that this form of public engagement, of “loud activism” as I will call it, has always appealed to the mass media for its immediate, guaranteed impact. The temperamental, indignant, politician-like intellectual makes a more successful story than the quiet, bashful academic whose views are usually lost amidst the TV panels’ hullaballoo. It is no surprise   that a selected range of intellectuals only are usually invited to TV shows and debates, whose stories incidentally also appear in the press – let alone the political interests that arbitrate in the process. This means, however, that the public identifies the role-model that is projected by the mass media with the approachable, engaged, and knowledgeable intellectual, thus often rejecting as elitist and disengaged the academic who does not happen to be in the limelight.

It is also interesting to observe that it is usually the social sciences academic who is the most vulnerable to public critique. After all, it is the very nature of social sciences that invites criticism and welcomes multiple interpretations of social phenomena. The social scientist engages with everyday issues, such as unemployment or education, which concern all the society and are, therefore, open to public debate. It is, thus, easier to embrace unquestionably the authority of an astrophysicist or a nanophysicist, whose research areas are largely unfathomable to everyday people, than for a historian and a sociologist to gain kudos in the public domain. This, however, does not necessarily make them non-experts. And yet, the enduring divide between positive sciences and social sciences has meant that the first are associated with an almost innate righteousness and objectivity, while the second with a subjective and wishy-washy outlook to research. The stigma thereby spills over on to intellectuals, whose authority largely relies on their erudition and sharp understanding and intertwining of phenomena, as opposed to the “harder” data and ready-made evidence that technology and economic statistics provide.

Last but not least: each to their own. Some people are gifted with eloquence and a charisma for public engagement and speaking; others work more efficiently at the backstage. Above all, it is the quality, motivation and ethos of the intellectual that distinguishes him or her as conscientious, thorough and engaged in the public sphere, rather than the locus of engagement. Let us resist the blame culture that has so far inflicted great damage on Greeks’ sense and practice of citizenship and focus instead on what each one of us can do best for the benefit of Greece. “Έκαστος εφ’ω ετάχθη…”






6 Comments


  1. Barbra Blankenberg

    Very nice style and superb subject matter, nothing at all else we need : D.


  2. Brian Kennedy

    I’m not sure that intellectuals are supposed to ‘mediate between the public and the government’ – I think what you said for social scientists is more valid – ‘to capture the essence of society’s problems, elucidate them openly and inclusively and point to new directions’.

    I’m also not to worried about the demise of the expert – the trend you illustrate was very marked when TV altered the modes of communication from the ones that were prevalent for newspapers. It was much lamented by writers who had to provide ‘hooks’ to kep peoples’ interest over the commercial breaks. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the Internet will reverse this? Anyway, it has always been lamented that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

    Finally, if it’s true that social sciences academics are the most vulnerable to public critique, then this means that their opinions are relevant, and debate is good for truth – after all, isn’t the UK Royal Society’s motto “Nullius in verba” – take nobody’s word for it?


  3. Marge Schibi

    Hello, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this article. It was practical. Keep on posting!


  4. Kirstie Tragesser

    Your place is valueble for me. Thanks!…


  5. James Randall

    Having spent time in Greece in January there is nothing like experiencing this sort of activism first hand!



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