Intellectuals and the People

By Abel Merawi

Intellectuals-and-PeopleNovember 6, 2019 ( -- George Orwell remarked how some ideas are so foolish that only intellectuals could believe them, for no ordinary person could be such a fool. The historical records of the twentieth century, including the two world wars, are enough to show how dictators were supported by intellectuals even when they are under no pressure. The intellectuals that supported eugenics shared the dream of Hitler in improving genetics, resulting in the holocaust that took the lives of millions of Jews. Before discussing the work of intellectuals any further, it is better to define the term with its categories of intellects. Later, we will explore the mentality of intellectuals with a special focus on how they affect society. I found the book of Thomas Sowell called ‘Intellectuals and Society’ to be insightful and will attempt to present his ideas in relation to our national context.

Intellectuals can be defined as people who primarily deal with ideas and whose end results are ideas applied to social, economic and political issues. Some are public intellectuals who deal with researches to be used for public consumption; others are private intellectuals who work for private organizations, and there are dual intellectuals who shift from public to private matters. In relation to the political, economic and social system, they can be classified as loyalists who support the status quo, reformists who work to improve the system, and radicals who work to destroy the current system. In all forms, we find intellectuals with the vision of the anointed and they are the focus of this article. These are the sort of intellectuals that assume to be better than the society and desire to control and decide for the people. These sorts of intellectuals are found in the political arena of Ethiopia as well, as they pose to be appointed the guardian angels of the people.

Just as intellectuals have worked with the people to improve the overall progress of society, there are also many intellectuals that destroyed the fabric of society by acting as the master of society that can guide the people as children. Adam Smith in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ states that it is wrong of intellectuals to consider the people as pieces on a chess-board since every person has a distinct mental ability. T.S. Eliot said, “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.” The misconceptions of such intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ is that they discard every other counter-argument by assuming only their views are special and right.

Moreover, there are no consequences on the intellectuals for being wrong. Sowell argues that doctors or engineers could face legal consequences for being wrong, but ‘social engineers’ face no liability if their works lead to social disasters. He further argues that the problem with such intellectuals emanates from their self-proclaimed importance of knowing everything even outside their fields of expertise. When I watch the media, I am amazed by how many people speak as experts in all fields ranging from economics, politics, sociology, history and so much more. I think it is important for every intellectual to stick to what he/she knows and stop misleading the people. People know the daily problems they face better than the intellectual who study them from afar. As the saying goes, “a fool can put on his coat better than a wise man can put it on for him.”

Ordinary people think of intellectuals as people with abundant knowledge and who rely on logic rather than emotions and popular beliefs. However, the devotion of the ‘anointed’ intellectuals to their ideals is commonly evident in their erroneous arguments. A. Schumpeter said, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.” When they don’t lie, they filter reality to make it fit their ideology. Sowell remarks, “The verbal virtuosity of intellectuals filters words as well as facts, through what might be called verbal cleansing.” This is done by talking about abstract people in an abstract world, people who do not represent the actual people and a fictitious world that is totally different from ours. Thinking in terms of abstract people in an abstract world makes it possible to glide over important facts. But reality does not go away when it is ignored. In Ethiopia, we have seen ‘intellectuals’ fabricate facts and present them as history to make one ethnic group feel like the other has oppressed them in the past. The catastrophic outcome is clearly manifested in the people who are killed, injured and displaced by a mob rallied around the evil propaganda of these intellectuals.

The other danger intellectuals pose to the people is when they work as loyalists with politicians. Ayn Rand points out, “Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” Contrary to this, it is common to see intellectuals use politicians to become famous and to also see politicians use intellectuals to give legitimacy for their wrongdoings. When the intellectuals present the will of the government as the will of the people, injustice is given legitimacy. To illustrate the point, Ethiopians have lost their private property in the name of public property, when it is clear that it is becoming government property. We have seen economic proclamations and state of emergency used to control the people, and so-called intellectuals making it appear as if it benefits the people. The working class has been indirectly forced to pay for the government just because the new projects are presented as beneficial to the people. Sowell states, “the word ‘public’ is used as a euphemism for ‘government’ for the transfer of decisions from private individuals and organizations to politicians, bureaucrats and judges becomes easier to carry out when the awareness of it is reduced.” The intellectual is not supposed to trick the people but show the truth. However, the reality points to the opposite as it is rare to find intellectuals who argue against such policies.

It is wise for the intellectuals to realize that the societal values of the people have gone through centuries of trial and error, making them more important than their new-found theories. Paul Johnson said, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance.” The arrogance and untested assumptions of intellectuals have brought folly to the people. It is worth remembering how intellectuals in the past dedicated their lives to form social cohesion in building nations. Sadly, as Sowell puts it, “intellectuals in nations today are largely engaged in creating tribes out of nations.” Real intellectuals have the duty to themselves and the people. They ought to empower and unite the people. Ayn Rand in her book, ‘For the New Intellectuals’ states, “The intellectual is the eyes, ears, and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields. A free society had to be an informed society.” Accordingly, intellectuals must show the truth by dispelling myths and stereotypes, combat outdated ideologies, and apply their knowledge to solve problems, so as to create a unified nation.  


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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