The Role of Intellectuals in Society

by Roger Alford

In doing research on Aung San Suu Kyi, I recently came across this wonderful discussion from 2005 on the role of the intellectual in society. It comes in the form of a dialogue with Alan Clements in his book, The Voice of Hope: Aung San Suu Kyi: Conversations with Alan Clements.

Clements: I brought with me a quote from Václav Havel in which he explains the role of the intellectual within society. When I first read it, I instantly thought of you. He writes, “The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressures and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems … and for this reason, an intellectual cannot fit into any role that might be assigned to him … and essentially doesn’t belong anywhere: he stands out as an irritant wherever he is.”

Suu Kyi: I would agree with everything that Václav Havel says. I would say that basically, in order to become an intellectual you’ve got to have a questioning mind…. Intellectuals are very important in any society. Because they are the ones who, like in the quotation, are provoking people, opening them to new ideas, pushing them along to new heights. This is one of the tragedies of Burma–the intellectual is not allowed any place within the society. And the real intellectual, of the kind described by Václav Havel, would not be allowed to survive in Burma.

Clements: Why?

Suu Kyi: He would either have to repress his instincts as an intellectual, or he would have to leave Burma, or he would have to go and sit in prison. He’s got to choose between those three.

Clements: So by function, a totalitarian regime attempts to create a mindless, featureless society by crushing the intellectual?

Suu Kyi: The intellectual with his questioning mind threatens the totalitarian mind which expects orders to be carried out and decrees to be accepted without question. There will always be clashes between the authoritarian mind and the questioning mind. They just cannot go together.

I think it is easy in a free society to forget how important an intellectual is to the welfare of a country. The right to question and doubt is taken for granted. Freedom of thought and expression are a given. Skepticism of the system is encouraged. Intellectuals are often discouraged because they too are taken for granted. “I’m just an intellectual,” we sometimes think.

As you go about your work today give thanks that you are an intellectual in a free society. As you watch the Commander-in-Chief tonight propose his agenda for his Second Term, marvel not with what he says, but that he is accountable for every word and deed to the intellectuals–the Doubters-in-Chief.

The same cannot be said of much of the world. Over one-half of the world’s population live in closed societies. Burma, of course, is rising. It no longer is among the worst of the worst. That dishonor goes to the forlorn citizens of these fifteen Asian and African authoritarian regimes: Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Ossetia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

In a free society intellectuals are encouraged to speak their minds with reason and integrity. Our colleagues living under authoritarian regimes must speak with equal measures of insight and courage.

One Response

  1. It strikes me how many Western intellectual jurists just accept that international law is dominated by power. Most of them don’t even see how outrageous it is that individuals cannot sue states in an international court for human rights. Guantanamo, torture and killing with drones depend on the political ambitions of the US politicians, not on law.

    Mauritius cannot sue the UK at ICJ to get the Chagos back. This is another way how power works in international law.

    Jurists have internalized such facts as facts of life and became blind to their outrageousness. But it does not differ from the national authoritarian regimes in any way. After all, tyranny is just a system where those in power have always the last word.

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