Where are our public intellectuals?



Aristotle considers Sophocles one of the greatest dramatists in the world and described one of his classics, King Oedipus, as the best tragedy ever to be written. In King Oedipus, from which the psychological affliction Oedipus complex is derived, Sophocles created a dramatic moment when Oedipus, the king of Thebes summons a blind seer, Teiresias, to his palace to divine why Thebes was in such turmoil. The previous king Laius, son of Labdacus, had been killed by highway robbers according to accounts and since Oedipus took over as king and married Laius’ widow, Jocasta, the kingdom had known no peace. Oedipus sends emissaries to Phoebus to enquire what should be done and the oracle divines that the killer of Laius be found and killed or banished before peace can be restored in Thebes. Oedipus, therefore, called Teiresias over to use “Lore sacred and profane, all heavenly and earthly knowledge in his grasp” to save the city from further suffering.

Teiresias declares Oedipus the cause of the affliction, publicly declaring him “the cursed polluter of the land”. Understandably, Oedipus is incensed, calls Teiresias a conspirator whose aim is to unseat him, and declares his form of divination fake and third rate: referring to him as “a pedlar of fraudulent magical tricks, with eyes wide open for profit, but blind in prophecy”. Teiresias shoots back and states that if the truth is anyone’s defence, then he has escaped any consequence by uttering it, challenging Oedipus who taunts him for his blindness to call him blind “when you can prove me wrong”.

I invoke this dramatic moment only as an analogy to illustrate my topic for today: who is a public intellectual? what is his/her social role? and more importantly, where are our public intellectuals in Ghana?

By invoking Sophocles, I seek to underline a couple of things about the Teiresias-Oedipus confrontation and some of characteristics that typically define the nature and conduct of a public intellectual. The designation of a blind seer is not only an oxymoron, but it also signifies the deep seated-ness of knowledge, sometimes hidden beyond the obvious or what the eye can see. Teiresias was summoned into the king’s presence because of his competence and deep knowledge: knowledge of “lore sacred and profane, all heavenly and earthly knowledge are in your grasp” says Oedipus. In his declaration, he displays independent thought in spite of the unequal social positions of the two adversaries: one a king, the other a subject.

Oedipus threatens Teiresias of physical harm and asks him if he “expects to escape the consequence”? Teiresias responds “I have escaped. The truth is my defense”. The dangers of physical harm notwithstanding, he sticks to what he sees, and unswervingly speaks truth to power, insisting on his right to rebuttal when he says, “king though you are, one right – To answer- makes us equal; and I claim it”. As the remainder of the play proves, Teiresias was right.

So, who is a public intellectual?

Karen and Hawkins (2015) set the right tone when they observe that “as a proper noun, ‘intellectual’ has typically imbued its nominee not only with knowledge, insight, and expertise but also with social, political, and ethical responsibilities to intervene in issues of the day on behalf of the public good” (1). From the above, the public intellectual is not merely an intellectual who sees her/himself as autonomous, and independent from the ruling social group, believing to stand for truth and reason. He or she is also in Gramsci’s (1992) words, an organic intellectual in the sense that they emerge from and tied to social classes, speaking on its behalf with a clear advocacy accent. It is this “emancipatory” project of the public or organic intellectual that differentiates him/her as an activist, someone seeking social transformation often in contradiction with the dominant worldview of the ruling elite, from a simple armchair, traditional intellectual.

By emancipatory benefit of the society, I am seeking to underline particularly the feature of the public intellectual as a voice of the voiceless, and the burden s/he carries by speaking/acting in their interest, especially against special, elite, or corporate interests.

It is not always that such public intellectuals place their expertise to the benefit of the public and the citizenry. There are abundant empirical examples that suggest that they can also serve in various roles within the political system, including economic interests, as advisers, experts, or administrators. In short, truth can be usurped by the (intellectually) powerful, not always in the public interest. It will be presumptuous, even foolhardy, therefore, to automatically link the knowledge base of such intellectuals to the benefit of the general good.

By pointing out that the public intellectual must not only have a politically “external and nominally independent role” but also “comment publicly on the social condition with the objective of influencing or guiding its future” (Karen and Hawkins, 2015: 2), Karen and Hawkins (2015) sought to differentiate the public intellectual who acts as a guard dog of the system, from another who seeks to question it. One seeks to reinforce the status quo and its worldview, the other seeks to undermine the status quo through constant interrogation of its knowledge and worldview, and especially on behalf of the marginalized.

So, before I contextualize my topic, let me tie the knots so far together: 1. a public intellectual expresses knowledge (episteme), not opinion (doxo), 2. s/he speaks for the public good as against special interests tied to the political system 3. he/she expresses independent thought by remaining external to the political system, and 4. be an advocate seeking, through public speech, to guide or influence social conduct.

Lest I be charged with Afghanistanism: the journalistic sin of focusing on distant matters unrelated to one’s audience, let me now place this topic within our local context and provide some rationale for its choice. One of the things that struck me about the invitation to speak at this event was the event organizers hope that through my topic, “I can influence public policy and conduct […] for our individual and collective progress”. I hope this encounter achieves that objective. Be it as it may, I begin this reflection from the position that the hope of influencing public policy and conduct is not only one of the fundamental pillars upon which a deliberative democracy thrives, and a public intellectual gains expression, it is also one of the cornerstones of our media especially if they intend to perform their watchdog role rather than a guard dog one. A watchdog looks out for threats to the larger society, a guard dog protects those who belong to the kernel, and barks to ward off threats to their survival.

Rather than seek consensus, the public policy[1] process could be instrumental in its rationality, contentious in its performance, and divisive in its outcome. My question about where our public intellectuals are, therefore, is situated within our current heavily (technologically) mediated condition and how media (both mainstream and alternative) perform this social watchdog function either as meaning makers (interpreters of social and

daily happenings), chroniclers of our civic life (placing events on record and bearing witness), or just a site where rational, critical debate occur (as a public sphere).

If public policy is for the good and interest of the general public, and as citizens we are duty bound to partake in its formulation and/or implementation either directly (through free expression and debate) or indirectly (through our representatives), then aside boardrooms and privileged-access locations where public policy is conducted, our media are one of the sites, or conduits through which the process of active engagement between policy makers and the public occur. If we accept this premise, then the nature of our media, including who owns it, its editorial independence, how it is funded, and whose interests it serves (either for power, profit or public interest) all coalesce to create a situation where “consent is either manufactured” (Herman and Chomsky, 1994) or arrived at through rigorous deliberation.

I am arguing that there are two main sites and processes for policy making: one is privileged with restricted access to carefully selected players, and more open others such as various media sites where social and governance issues get raised and discussed: the closest the citizen can come to inputting into public policy debate. However, while policy making within privileged sites bring together specialists, politicians, various stakeholders and selected actors, and occurs beyond the full glare of the public, at the “ka be ma me nka be” mundane, open access level, active citizenship is subject to what issues the media highlight as worthy of discussion. This includes what issues they selected, how they frame and moderate them, i.e., the quality of discourse; and more importantly, whether the discussions within the public sphere get considered within the privileged-access, policy sphere (Bennet and Entman, 2001).

My interest here is why is our public discourse, especially about governance getting so ununiformed, banal, hyper-partisan, and uncritical? Why have party communicators become the yardstick through which policy positions of political parties get articulated, often incoherently without empirical data? Why has it become attractive to simply pitch two adversaries with irreconcilable party positions as panellists to “discuss” issues while a presenter only allocates time rather than moderate? Many factors account for this (including media ownership and the craze for ratings and profit) but my substantive argument here is that such a setting: the gratification of conflict and irreconcilable differences is typically polluted by opinions, incendiary language, and “uncritical followership” (Tettey, 2019). Such situations of “simultaneous monologue” remains antithetical to true conversation (Hardt, 2008).

Even when public intellectuals are invited to contribute into such programs, the program formats are so unsuitable that little impact is made. Caught between the existential threat of abusive language by party serial callers and their benefactors, and the thankless job of being derided and ridiculed, many knowledgeable subjects who could perform the function of public intellectuals have chosen to keep mute and look on. At best, they choose to make their positions known on platforms that are not mass but specialised including inaugural lectures, policy papers, journal articles, opinion pieces, and sometimes, on specialized social media platforms.

I am arguing that the media has the sacred duty of creating an enabling environment (through choice of subject, appropriate framing, program format and nature of moderation), for all, including those who hold uncomfortable social views. It should look out particularly for knowledgeable subjects with “something to say” to step up to the table to contribute their knowledge. The media should partner such public intellectuals in a way that supports them to disseminate their knowledge in an easy to understand and digest language for a mass audience. This is a critical part of the puzzle: the ability to massify specialized knowledge. The key to achieving this is through a collaboration between the public intellectual and the media through a careful selection of subject matter, program format and moderation, and how such content gets repurposed in other media, especially social media for mass dissemination. Rather than increase the decibels of the current tower of babel which characterises our media, media programs should aim at providing public intellectuals with the space, instruments and enabling environment to articulate and share their knowledge with the public in ways that inform and frame critical social issues of our time. Media should even encourage uncomfortable and unpopular views and subject them to rigorous analysis and tests because that is how societies expand their horizons and undergo transformation.

The media should be cognizant of the fact that institutions could also perform the functions of public intellectuals: through their depth of specialized knowledge and their vision to uplift society through enlightenment. The Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Universities, Think Tanks, and special knowledge CSOs must all be encouraged to actively participate in public discourse with the intention to impact public policy.

As Bennet and Entman (2001) rightly point out, a policy sphere that fails to consider outcomes of a deliberative public sphere fails a critical test. In view of this, I am proposing that there should be clear pathways, through formal (public) and informal (private) routes for such knowledge to be harnessed and considered at the privileged-access, policy table. If politicians and policy makers are honest about their policy/social interactions, and such encounters are not instrumental in nature, (i.e., they are not guided to achieve specific outcomes) they would be acting like Oedipus did to Teiresias: inviting public intellectuals to the policy table at both privileged and open access sites because they have something substantive to say not because they are friendly, uncritical voices.

I am looking forward to the day when intellectually diverse and vibrant social media platforms such as the Writers Café Ghana; a social media platform for the Ghana Association of Writers, or the Communication Educators Association of Ghana[1] will take it upon themselves to select, debate and articulate a policy position on say the broadcasting bill, public funding for state-owned media, or how digital migration and convergence could alter our media experience, and beyond table it as a policy position to government, also vigorously advocate for its public debate and implementation.

Many renowned Ghanaian statesmen with remarkable achievements have expressed consternation about how theirs, and other critical public pronouncements have been received: with partisan hostility. Prof. Kwesi Botchwey in particular has asked for decorum in our public discourse and called for more inclusiveness in public discourse and policy formulation. Sir Sam Jonah, Mr. Kwame Pianim and a few others are abiding examples of this regrettable phenomenon of how intolerance and name-calling almost invariably visit critical voices that dare go against the grain of dominant political discourse. We must not only encourage critical, public interest debate at the policy formulation level, we should even at the “ka be ma me nka be” level of quotidian, daily social interactions, strive to create a critical culture of close interrogation of facts and pronouncements of speakers within such communicative spaces. That is what differentiates a deliberative democracy from a moralizing one, rule of law from institutional arbitrariness.

Let me conclude the same way as I started, by invoking a literary example. Aristotle argues that the twin feelings of pity and fear that a spectator experiences after watching a tragedy comes about because the punishment of a tragic hero, who is often of very high social standing evokes fear in the ordinary spectator. But it also evokes pity in the sense that the punishment the tragic hero suffers is often disproportionate to the offense committed, like

Oedipus the king of Thebes plucking out his eyes and being led into the wilderness after learning that he had killed his father and married his mother as Teiresias had prophesied.

I conclude by asking you that if the high and noble statesmen within our society with intellectual, political, economic, and social capitals are taken to the cleaners for voicing critical, alternative views, what do you think could happen to the low-level public intellectual whose only recompense and protection is the truth s/he projects through his/her knowledge? I am at this point not merely asking where are our public intellectuals? I am inviting them to step up to the policy table knowing that they might never be called to it otherwise, and like Teiresias, expand our social frontiers through shared knowledge and enlightenment.

I devote this reflection to Prof PAV Ansah, whose deep insights into our daily lives serves as a prime example of how a public intellectual can through his writings, debate, denounce, deconstruct, be humorous, or “go to town” if sufficiently provoked. Needless to say, we need more of his kind.

I thank you for your attention.

This is a speech the writer delivered on the Joy Change Speakers Series II on the Newsfile programme on 21st May 2022.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related articles