Can intellectuals be activists?

31 Jul

At university one learns that thought prevails upon action, that intellectual work has at least as much value as organizing. However, the principle that radicalism is to be discussed rather that enacted protects the interests of the institution. Paulo Freire said that you can only fight your own oppression. Only yesterday I wrote that “Privilege should imply responsibility” – doesn’t this suggest that responsibility is reserved to an elite which could “teach” others how to be free? At the very least, it implies that the so-called privileged in our society are free themselves, which is far from true. What is too often defined as activism can simply serve to maintain one’s rank by avoiding risks since, as Denis Rancourt points out, “There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.” Rancourt’s definition of activism detaches itself from “dogmatically non-violent” forms of organizing and instead privileges direct action, and he denounces anyone who does not directly confront power as complicit with the oppressor (post). In this light, activities such as building community or political blogging do not qualify as activism, and theorizing is only”Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation.” Intellectual thought, then, needs to serve action and reflect on it but should never stand on its own. At the theoretical level, ideas not only have limited reach but tend to maintain (and justify) the status quo.


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