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

University of Amsterdam (photo: DY)

University of Amsterdam (photo: DY)

In the summer of 2013, I traveled to the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I presented a couple of short papers and attended various panels and presentations. It was a very educational conference for me, not to mention 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 week-long 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.

I used my speaking opportunities to take a broader focus, extending beyond my more subject-specific work on workers’  rights and employee relations topics. I first presented on 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. Later in the week, 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 in 2010, “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’d been devoting to the role of scholars and scholarship in shaping public opinion and positive change. Here are two writers whose ideas 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 facts, figures, analysis, and solutions. Indeed, although I generally agree with Mssrs. Jensen and Hedges on the public role of intellectuals, I’m sure we have points of contention on specific political, policy, and cultural issues. I also believe that academe should represent a wide variety of viewpoints on social, political, and economic issues. Institutions of higher learning should not be uniform, and this includes making room for those of more pronounced political, social, and religious leanings with which I happen to disagree.

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.

In addition, those blessed with the protections of tenure should be willing to engage in smart risk-taking and sacrifice of privilege in order to speak truth to power. I have often remarked that many tenured professors are too timid to take advantage of the academic freedom accorded to them by virtue of their more protected status. In making these points, I am not calling for reckless bombast and bloviating. Rather, tenured professors should be open to taking principled stands on matters within their areas of understanding and expertise, grounded in research, analysis, and wisdom.


Editor’s Note: I slightly revised this piece in January 2017. For additional commentary, my 2016 law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), builds considerably on the ideas and opinions expressed here and shares many of my personal experiences in doing social justice work. It also provides an annotated bibliography of books broadly related to intellectual activism. Click here to access a pdf copy without charge.

3 responses

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

  2. Pingback: Transmodernism and Peacemaking In a World of Extraordinary Need | Ground Experience

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