The Avoidance of the Intellectual

Someone on Twitter tweeted this quote from Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual. Not a bad way to think about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it.

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.


  1. Bill Michtom April 20, 2015 at 1:20 am | #

    Sharing witH UIUC chancellor Phyllis (Not So) Wise.

  2. Hangaku Gozen April 20, 2015 at 1:54 am | #

    I recently made some online comments on LinkedIn in response to Carmen Maria Machado’s article in The New Yorker, “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!”
    I was angry over the fact that so many public colleges and universities whine about not having the money to hire more full time/tenured faculty, but continue to hire administrators to the point where there’s an associate dean for every damned thing on campus—associate dean of athletic field maintenance! associate dean of social media! (That last one is fact: a local state college actually hired a PR person to manage the school’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.)

    Later, someone said to me, “Given you’re still looking for an academic position, aren’t you afraid some associate dean will see your comment and blacklist you?” I replied, if getting a job at a state college means I have to swallow my anger at the decline of publicly-funded campuses, then I don’t want it. I’d rather work as a TA in remedial composition at a community college for the rest of my life than STFU. It’s moving to see Edward Said’s comment about this, and I’m glad you posted it, if only to remind us why we decided to devote our lives to scholarship and learned commentary.

  3. Benjamin David Steele April 20, 2015 at 8:33 am | #

    The problem is to be a genuine public intellectual is almost by necessity to be in a position entirely outside of the dominant system, whether of politics or academia. To be independent of mind requires to some extent one to be independent in position. If one’s entire career and identity is tied up with being an academic or whatever, it is unlikely one can function as an honest critic. I’m sure many an academic suddenly discovers the full importance of free speech after they lose their job. The same goes for those who work in mainstream media or any other field that operates as a gatekeeper of knowledge.

    • JW Mason April 20, 2015 at 9:01 am | #

      f one’s entire career and identity is tied up with being an academic or whatever, it is unlikely one can function as an honest critic.

      This seems like a good example of the avoidance Said was talking about. The suggestion that it’s impossible for academics, journalists etc. to take principled positions, is a perfect excuse for those who fail to do so.

      Cynics are the best friends the powerful could ask for.

      • Benjamin David Steele April 20, 2015 at 11:40 am | #

        It’s important to read what I write carefully because I intentionally write with specific meaning in mind. I word things precisely for a good reason. That sentence you quoted isn’t making an excuse, but an explanation.

        It isn’t just about someone having a career. It’s also about identity. Not everyone identifies with their career, and their can be many dangers to not having any identity separate from one’s career.

        That is a basic psychological insight.

        My point isn’t that having a particular career is problematic, but rather one’s relationship to that career. That is why I stated it that way emphasizing “one’s entire career and identity”. I never claimed that every academic solely identifies as such.

        The implication is that an academic or any person would be wise to maintain a deeper and broader sense of identity that goes beyond career position and aspirations. No one is just an academic. Every academic is also a human, a citizen, a community member, etc. Along with those basic identities, a worthy academic should identity as a truth-seeker and maybe much else.

        I see that as a potentially optimistic vision. We are so much more than we often take ourselves to be. It’s good to remind ourselves of that. We shouldn’t constrain our aspirations to anything so narrow and shallow as career.

        Those who mindlessly attack the views of well-intentioned people are the best friends the powerful could ask for.

  4. Jeff Doyler April 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm | #

    Will Obama have the moral courage to recognize the Armenian genocide?

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