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When scholars turn slayers of reason


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“… I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty of representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publically to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), TO BE SOMEONE WHO CANNOT BE EASILY BE CO-OPTED BY GOVERNMENTS OR CORPORATIONS, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously” – Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, London: Vintage, 1994, p 9, capitals added

This lengthy quote from an impeccable and outstanding Palestinian-American scholar is a timely reminder to all intellectuals in Sri Lanka that the country’s destiny rests very heavily on their courage to speak truth in front of power. 

Never in the history of this nation that its intellectuals are ethically, morally and above all patriotically forced to express their erudite but dispassionate, independent and fearless observations, views, opinions and philosophy, particularly in relation to the current constitutional and political crisis. 

The stand they take in this time of unparalleled controversy will go to prove their intellectual integrity, honesty, dedication and love towards their fellow citizens. They can either stand on their own and be counted as a formidable force to depend upon for worthy advice in times of crisis and be respected by the society at large or become mercenary writers, speakers, opinion makers and apologists to a particular faction or group and mortgage their erudition for personal advantage.     

Scholarship, acquired through rigorous learning under dedicated teachers and scholar preachers over many years is an individual’s asset that cannot be stolen or destroyed. It is the ceaseless accumulation of that asset that pushes a nation, its society and culture to the apex of glory and civilisation, and bestows a proud legacy upon endless generations. 

When that scholarship becomes a saleable product in the political market and bargained away for money, status and privilege the bearers of that scholarship not only lose their intellectual stature but also public respect. This is the unmitigated tragedy of Sri Lanka’s commercialised politics where some of its so called intellectuals have decided to market their intellect to the highest political bidder.  

When social anthropologists, historians, political scientists, legalists, economists and experts in other fields look at their respective objects or data through politically warped lenses how can they claim that their explanations, arguments, logic and conclusions are objective and unprejudiced? They fail to educate their listeners and readers and deliberately deprive the latter the opportunity to make informed choices. 

These comprador experts are hirelings who betray the society that produced them. Their pen is certainly not mightier than the sword. While one is astonished to witness the intellectual gymnastics of some of our renowned scholars to produce what Donald Trump would call “alternate facts”, one is also enthralled at the courage of some others who are daring to speak the truth at this critical point of time.    

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Islamic traditions have a special and venerated place for esteemed intellectuals, teachers and preachers not only because the value they place on knowledge itself but also because of the expectation that this elite would stand up and fight against injustice, corruption, oppression and other intolerable evils. That expectation will be crushed when intellectuals become mercenaries working for power seeking politicians and fraudsters.

The country today stands at a T-junction. One direction points towards democracy, freedom and rule OF law and the other points towards dictatorship, oppression and rule BY law. It is the patriotic duty of the nation’s intellectuals to guide the masses to make the right choice. History will judge these intellectual class harshly if it fails to do so.

(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)


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