Susan Bassnett: How can intellectuals be so unreasonable?

Share

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before