The Social Responsibility of the Intellectual: A Call to New Citizenship

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 23, 2007


Knowledge that Works
In the 1970s and 80s, intellectuals took a more public face and increased their involvement in political and civic life. They formed social movements and created vast followings among young people who served as their propaganda machinery. They changed the public debate to focus on the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. They raised questions about the lopsided nature of governance where the majority was ruled oppressively by the minority and the tenor of our institutions was elitist. They raised questions and consciousness about injustice, poverty, inequality, illiteracy, health disparities, and many other problems within Liberian society, even across the African continent.

For some of us, our student days in college was very long time ago, when we observed and even risked our limbs and liberties in support of Liberian intellectuals as they rightfully engaged the issues of their times. Their passions were real and the societal ills that they challenged were enormous. Those conditions have not all disappeared. In some cases, conditions have worsened to levels far beyond the hunting and gathering stages of social development. No doubt, improvements are beginning to bring about renewal.

This paper is written against the backdrop of dismal failures of past scholars who traversed academia, politics, and social activism. I look back deep into an era which witnessed intellectuals that were shrewd in their pursuit of wealth and power, while acting as if they had the interest of the poor at heart. As intellectual, political and social heirs of this tainted past, what should new citizenship among intellectuals look like? Is there is a new kind of citizenship that would stop Liberians from yawning with disgust when the word “Liberian intellectual community” is used?

That Liberian scholars have contributed negligibly to the social development of the country can be disputed depending upon one’s vantage point. That certain groups of Liberian scholars have been a contributing presence in many circumstances of strife and conflict is a painful reality that we must come to recognize.

But if present day scholars are to make up for the wrongdoings of their predecessors, we must temper our goals. Our actions must be cautioned by the failures of the likes of Amos Sawyer, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Dew Mayson and others. Centuries from now, when Liberians look back at how our country rebounded from chaos and collapse, as I look back at the era before, while writing this article, it is my hope that they will say that the country recovered not merely by the intellectual power of its academics, but because of our persistent commitment to the well-being of the ordinary Liberian, which amassed us integrity and the trust of the public.

How would we accomplish this feat? Being different, means recognizing the value of knowledge or conceiving the value of knowledge differently. If knowledge is power, and the ability to sway people’s thinking is the outcome of using knowledge, then to be successful is to use knowledge toward selfless purposes. Once knowledge is viewed as a personal asset, rather than one to use for constructive social action, knowledge loses its potency and value. Because many before us rode their knowledge to selfish ends, they detracted from the essence of intellectual life. Simply put, the attitude that we have about knowledge affects the purposes to which it is used.

As the Liberian state evolves in its political life, should not the role of intellectuals in the reconstruction of the society change as well? In this vein, I have wondered often about the social responsibilities of Liberian intellectuals in the new era. I have also wondered about the depth of influence that intellectuals tend to have on the ideas and belief systems of citizens and the political direction of society. No where, and at no time, do I see the importance of this matter than now, when our democracy is just one year old.

Intellectuals Defined
Let me start with the argument that some readers might raise. What is the operational definition used here for intellectuals? First, a disclaimer is important. I am not one who subscribes to the view that the traditional credentials that are used as markers for identifying intellectuals or scholars are sufficient gauges or guarantors of capacity and/or productivity. Hence, my definition of an intellectual is productivity-based and not rooted in credential. Productivity in an academic setting is fourfold: teaching, research, writing/publishing, and public service. For the purpose of this conversation, these four pursuits must amount to “self-determining/liberating social change.”

In a context such as ours, where many degree carrying individuals have languished in mediocrity, it would be a disservice to readers to equate a degree and the characterization – intellectual. Intellectuals in my mind, far exceed those with terminal degrees. People who have acquired academic knowledge, technical and professional competencies and skills and are capable of producing substantively in their areas of expertise to the extent that they can enhance societal understanding are in my view intellectuals. With that caveat, for purposes of formality, the targeted group for this paper is those with terminal degrees.

I address two issues in this paper. I have observed a glaring vacuum in the participation of Liberian intellectuals, at least, the ones in the Diaspora, in the national reconstruction debate. The isolated spaces in which I have made this antidotal observation are the array of internet and paper popular presses, where vibrant exchanges are occurring about the course of our country. I fear that with these public spaces devoid of a critical mass of contributions from Liberian intellectuals, this slice of our political and social life is left wanting. In response, some of our public officials and citizens occupy these spaces with callous rhetoric to sell points of view that lack substance.

Professionals Championing the Cause of Social Justice
I have also observed two other new tendencies that are essential components of a democracy that are worth mentioning. When Francis Zayzay, an accountant challenged LPRC’s financial statement, he broke with tradition and spurred an informed understanding of the issues by those of us who are lay people, when it comes to matters of fiscal management. Robert Kilby’s insightful critique, which followed coupled with James Harris’ poignant political/cultural commentary, enhanced our knowledge further where the LPRC’s response created doubts and suspicion. It is hard to dispute that these undertakings by Liberian professionals have enriched our public discourse. These are healthy indicators that our political development is on the course to change making and transformation.

Governance: Sirleaf Administration Style
Equally, the fact that several people in the Sirleaf administration, including the Budget Director, Augustine Ngafuan and even the President’s office have written in the popular press to begin correcting misstatements and misconceptions indicate that we are on the right track. Holding the PRESS accountable and disputing facts or perceptions are all indicators of political maturation. Journalists ought to be held accountable as do ordinary citizens for the facts that they convey to the public.

Yet still, Harry Greaves, on the other hand, has repeatedly written rebuttals to criticisms, but failed to make public information that concern what many have come to see as “sweet heart deals” with a Nigerian oil company. Public rebuttals can either make or break a public official. In the case of Greaves, he has eroded his credibility sufficiently that many of us are wondering when President Sirleaf will deem it fitting to severe her public relations with Greaves. Some will go far to suggest that like other Liberians who revived “old and seething” hatred, Greaves has used his knowledge for sinister and destructive purposes and the time for him to be let go is far past due.

The Waning Presence of Liberian Intellectuals
Now, let me address the first issue that I raised – the appearance that the national debate in the popular press is witnessing a decline in the participation of Liberian scholars or academics with terminal degrees. The ideas of our politicians and that of all citizens ought to be evaluated for efficacy and social implications. It is the social responsibility of scholars and professionals alike to perform this political role. Ideas are powerful tools for change making and we have also seen it being used to maintain the status quo ante.

Scholars’ particular enterprise – knowledge building offers resources for change making that need to be accentuated and made a vital part of the reconstruction project. In a new era where challenges abound relative to the reconstruction of the Liberian society, are there roles that Liberian intellectuals can play to put our country on the path to sustainable democratic change? Many!

There are two primary approaches to intellectual life, perhaps even more. There are many who engage in personal edification and knowledge accumulation. The result is often intense personal growth in knowledge that accrues to them professorial ranks, publications, patents and prestige. There are others whose intellectual life is geared toward raising consciousness among ordinary citizens because they identify with and are acutely aware of the torment of oppressed peoples. This intense awareness often spurs a sense of outrage and they use their knowledge to design alternative structures to ease misery and foster social justice. Each intellectual must choose which path resonates with their heart desire.

Liberian intellectuals can and should participate responsibly in decisions shaping our country as architects of social change because collectively, we represent a wealth and variety of expertise that can definitely set the country on a course to recovery. Intellectuals have to be part of the efforts in creating a new social order that allows Liberians to enjoy access to equitable opportunities in all spheres of their life. This should be in spite of cultural, ethnic, language, economic, religious, and political backgrounds. Gender and social status should also not be hindrances in this regard.

If any group should be promoting pluralism of thought and conscience through its work or nurturing a new citizenship politics; with the combination of civic engagement and intellectual rigor, it is our scholars. During the elections, I observed an onslaught of critiques and political commentaries expressing thought, some objective and others subjective regarding the capacity of those vying for leadership to assume their respective posts. Since the elections, it now appears that the debate has waned and a critical mass of Liberian intellectuals who added their voices to the discourse has retrenched to their academic perches. Others would argue that a political kin of some of the vocal Liberian intellectuals is in the Executive Mansion, and therefore, they have to protect their own. Is or should that be the case?

Honestly, some Liberian intellectuals have assumed positions in the current government and are preoccupied with governance. I honor these colleagues for their public service.
But not all Liberian intellectuals joined the government, which has left me wondering about the seeming vacuum in scholars engaging in the discourse within the popular press.

It is easy to claim from an elitist vantage point that the popular press is not the domain where publications add value to the credentials of academics. But I am prone to respond that a country with approximately more than 60% illiteracy and where access to scholarly publications even among the educated people is scanty, the popular press is a venue where a larger percentage of the literate people access information. This medium then deserves the dissemination of knowledge from our academics and professionals for public consumption.

To the contrary, if there is limited traffic from Liberian intellectuals in the form of quality contributions to the national discourse on reconstruction, Liberian intellectuals could marginalize their historical significance. There may be political and social limitations, even personally imposed sanctions on some Liberian intellectuals; because of their long-standing ties to many allies within the Sirleaf government. Political kinship to the Sirleaf administration should hopefully not deter a vibrant exchange of ideas on the state of affairs within our country. Because there is a greater responsibility to the Liberian people that should impel Liberian intellectuals to take greater role in shaping the public debate and dialogue.

The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals
I see no greater social responsibility for intellectuals in general and Liberian intellectuals in particular than the following. We have a charge to work to remove impediments to the broader understanding of trial and tribulations facing our country. Removing barriers, providing avenues through which citizens can increase their understanding of issues from multiple perspectives are avenues through which the freedoms that intellectuals should cherish, will be cultivated and sustained.

This paper is not a call for every Liberian intellectual to be a social critic, writing frequently in cultural journals or in public spaces. I am not asking Liberian intellectuals to offer political opinion on everything that occur, if that is not what they see as their source of intellectual contribution to society. But I am suggesting that a greater share of our citizenship commitments to participation in the political and social life of the country rests upon us. And one of the best ways to utilize this resource is to participate in the ongoing dialogue about nation building. Liberian intellectuals must find a rightful balance between uniting their intellectual pursuits with social justice to kindle change. Or else, we will be unable to prevail over the societal ills that have eaten at the core individual and collective sovereignties.

The involvement of all citizens in the political and cultural life of the country is critical to realizing a constitutional democracy, but to those whom much is given, much is required in return. The engine, which will give our democracy a solid and sturdy heartbeat, has to be generated by Liberian scholars. This is not a call for fiery rhetoric, because it alone rarely brings about meaningful change, unless it is preceded by compassion and social action. Our predecessors neglected aspects of this work, although their sacrifices were noble. This, they did to their peril – a loss of public trust. If we allow a vacuum to exist, it will be occupied by those with less than optimal understanding of the issues.

This is not an indictment of any kind directed at non-scholars because the cadre of Liberian professionals of all stripes: entrepreneurs, journalists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, poets, nurses, doctors, etc are making immense contributions to elevating the national discourse on reconstruction. Where I see a short supply of contributions is among my scholarly colleagues. This might just be my perception, but I think it is worth offering it, although unsolicited.

Clearly, without the vibrant participation of the educated citizens in society, a fledging democracy is likely to starve for oxygen - new and innovative ideas. The impelling force that brings all Liberians together is our love for country and people. And hopefully that love is the very root of our social responsibility to the future of Liberia.

In Liberia, the life of an intellectual has been one where material resources needed to adequately support scholarly pursuits have been extremely hard to come by either from public or private sources. The larger public has in my view not granted much stock to intellectuals perhaps because scholars themselves have done too little to increase their stake in society, with some exceptions, and this is an opportunity.

This condition will not improve, if Liberian intellectuals resign to their ranches in the ivory towers. The popular venues for debate and dialogues on nation building will be dominated by political and cultural commentators. While there is ample space for cultural critics, a meaningful dialogue is absent when a critical mass of professionals and intellectuals are not participants in the public discourse. Our reading audiences need sophisticated perspectives on the prevailing issues of our times to grapple with conditions that require well-thought out solutions. If politicians realize that the marketplace of ideas is devoid of complex thinking actors, they are more likely to obfuscate as the likes of Harry Greaves have become fond of doing.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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