The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I’m presenting a couple of short papers and attending various panels and presentations. It’s a very educational conference for me and an especially good opportunity to reconnect with other law professors, lawyers, judges, and graduate students associated with therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the psychologically healthy and unhealthy properties of law and legal systems. The conference draws participants from all over the world and serves as a useful indicator of topics that are getting a lot of attention in the realm of law and psychology. The thick program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering.

My own talks have taken a broader focus than my specific work on various employee relations topics. On Monday, I presented on the topic of intellectual activism, the term I use to represent the ongoing process of using scholarship and research to inform law reform, social change, and public education efforts on compelling issues of the day. On Tuesday I presented on how the basic tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence can inform a healthier, more meaningful culture of legal scholarship. It marked the first time I’ve presented at a conference an article I wrote three years ago, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (link to free pdf, here).

Jensen and Hedges on progressive intellectuals

These presentations happened to coincide with a lot of thought I’ve been devoting to the role of scholars and scholarship in shaping public opinion and positive change. Here are two writers whose ideas have recently sparked some of that thinking:

Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor, author, and activist, believes that intellectuals have a responsibility to question the status quo and to challenge abuses of wealth and power. In the introduction to his short book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), he writes:

One of the jobs of intellectuals is to identify the issues to which we should be paying attention, even when — especially when — people would prefer to ignore problems. Intellectuals today should be apocalyptic, focusing attention — and a lot of our attention — on the hard-to-face realities of an unjust and unsustainable world. Today, the distribution of wealth and power around the world fails to meet even minimal moral standards. . . .

In his book and in a shorter piece adapted from it posted to Alternet, Jensen makes some broader points about the role of intellectuals in our society. He believes that intellectuals should question and shed light on how power and wealth are distributed in our society. Those in advantaged positions, such as professors who have the privileges and protections of tenure, are specially obliged to engage in such questioning. Jensen is especially critical of liberal intellectuals who don’t challenge the status quo because it would hurt their professional and social standing.

In another piece posted to Alternet earlier this year, progressive political writer Chris Hedges, whose early opposition to the Iraq war cost him dearly in terms of professional standing, issued an even sharper critique of liberal intellectuals:

The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve. They know what lies must be told—the biggest being that they take moral stances on issues that aren’t safe and anodyne. They have been at this game a long time. And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.

My thoughts

We face many serious, even urgent social, economic, and environmental challenges right now. Those who are privileged with the protections of tenure and academic freedom should embrace a social responsibility to be researching, understanding, and speaking out on matters of importance.

Of course, there will be disagreements on understanding, analysis, and solutions. Indeed, notwithstanding my general agreement with Jensen and Hedges on these matters, I firmly believe that academe should represent a wide variety of viewpoints on social, political, and economic issues. I also believe that institutions of higher learning should not be uniform, and this includes making room for those of more pronounced political, social, and religious leanings.

But the main point holds: Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later. Such qualities of purposeful, long-term thinking and action should inure to the benefit of society.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need, (Part I) - Ground Experience

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