Susan Bassnett: How can intellectuals be so unreasonable?

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Different cultures have perceived the role of intellectuals in different ways. At times writers, thinkers and academics have been seen as subversive figures – persecuted, even executed by a repressive state; while at other times they have been seen as fundamentally important to the intellectual health of the nation. Intellectuals have led revolutions and brought down governments, or have become martyrs to the cause of free speech. Here in the United Kingdom, however, intellectuals are pretty marginal. Indeed you could say that British intellectuals are dismissed equally by left and right, and attacked as the chattering classes in the tabloids.

Different cultures have perceived the role of intellectuals in different ways. At times writers, thinkers and academics have been seen as subversive figures – persecuted, even executed by a repressive state; while at other times they have been seen as fundamentally important to the intellectual health of the nation. Intellectuals have led revolutions and brought down governments, or have become martyrs to the cause of free speech. Here in the United Kingdom, however, intellectuals are pretty marginal. Indeed you could say that British intellectuals are dismissed equally by left and right, and attacked as the chattering classes in the tabloids.

But look a little more closely, and you find British intellectuals making an important, unseen contribution: proclaiming the value of tolerance and the rights of the individual. Academics and writers support human-rights projects, Amnesty International, PEN, and are involved in technology development projects for the world's poorest countries. Though there may not be much of a British intellectual revolutionary tradition, there is a good, solid tradition of international involvement and a widespread belief in the need to make all societies fairer and more tolerant.

Which is why when you meet an example of intolerance within British academic circles, it comes as a shock. I felt such a shock the other day when I received the first of what became a flood of messages about the expulsion of Miriam Schlesinger from the editorial board of a small, but respectable periodical. Her crime? She carries an Israeli passport, and the editor in her wisdom decided that in the light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, the Israeli scholar should go. No matter that Ms Schlesinger, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, is as horrified by recent events as any right-thinking person, no matter that she did not vote for the current Israeli government, no matter that she has supported the journal for several years now.

Twenty years ago, the Falklands War and the Irish hunger strikers led many around the world to regard the British with distaste. But no one suggested throwing me off an editorial board because I was carrying an unpopular passport. Nor did people attack me because my government was pursuing policies that I had not voted for.

Our task as intellectuals should be to include, not exclude, with a view to changing consciousness. During the period of the worst Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, I invited a Serbian academic to give a seminar to my graduate students. Several students had misgivings, but afterwards they queued up to thank her. The Serb talked about her pride in her country, said how much she abhorred the policies of Milosevic and went on to explain the phenomenon of the dissident Serbian writer. The students learnt that there were hundreds of thousands who opposed the government, including dozens of writers risking imprisonment to make those views known. Being a Serb did not mean blind support for government policy any more than being Israeli today means blindly supporting Ariel Sharon. Dr Schlesinger is not the representative of a government, and it is the duty of academics to teach their students this fundamental point about human rights.

What makes the present case so ironic is that the journal is dedicated to translation, which is about mediation, and promoting international understanding; above all it is about understanding difference. Journals dedicated to translation need as broad a range of cultures and viewpoints on their editorial boards as possible. The expulsion of someone because they are carrying a passport that is not to the editor's liking is the intellectual equivalent of the suicide bomb, a destructive act that can cause only pain and incomprehension in the broader community.

Extreme gestures lead nowhere. Peace processes take time, because they are not simple. Were the causes of violence easy to resolve, we would see fewer dead bodies on our television screens. And there are often tortuous compromises or unexpected results emerging from conflicts: the funding of Nelson Mandela's new state that saw the end of apartheid relied heavily on arms sales, for example, while Thatcher's Falklands campaign led to the downfall of one of the cruellest military dictatorships in Latin America. Tolerance, respect for the individual and belief in human equality are the business of intellectuals everywhere. But we haven't a hope of changing attitudes if we behave unreasonably ourselves.

The writer is pro vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick

education@independent.co.uk

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