Friday, February 5, 2010

Intellectual courage ?

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I am told that Intellectual Courage means this: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe. (quoted from

We in India live in a time of extraordinarily high stakes. There is a big gap between the India that is (as we know it and as we have been knowing it since our childhood) and the India that we intellectuals could, and badly need to, bring into being. Sometimes this awful gap strikes us with an intensity that is little short of agonizing. And there are times, in the dead of a long night, when the odds of achieving what so urgently needs to be done can seem very long indeed.

In wrestling with this recently, and going by some other thoughtful blogs, where people have ranted about doing something (but have done nothing so far), I was forced to think about intellectual courage. It occurred to me that there are at least three kinds of this all too rare quality (though courageous people are found in large numbers on blogs, they are rarely found during the calls for revolutions or calls for change as that will require them to get up early and get out of the comfort of their homes on weekdays and weekends ..huh!)

There is this courage to insist on and fight for what we know to be true in the face of conventional wisdom and overwhelming social pressure. You might be surprised at how difficult this can be and how uncommon it is (especially amongst intellectuals)—but people are social animals, conditioned to seek social approval, living in a class society where the critical spirit is determinedly domesticated and kept within the narrowest of constraints. Yet without this courage, nothing of value can be, or ever has been, accomplished.

There is a second kind of intellectual courage: the courage to maintain your convictions in the face of severe repression and threats. And most of the news-items which cover heinous crimes against women or other such social crimes could not have been appearing if Indian intellectuals had this second type of courage. Revolutions require that many, many people come to take up this kind of bravery.

Then there is another kind of intellectual courage: the courage to steadfastly look full in the face at a daunting problem or difficult situations—precisely those kinds of situations where the way forward is far from clear and the odds seem forbidding—and to not only refuse to flinch or retreat, but to set yourself to plumbing its full depth and examining its every tortuous complication. Alas! There are just a few people an NGOs in India who are trying to show this courage. Think for example of those few NGOs from which a few people had come into the show Lead India initiative organized by Times of India a few years back (probably in 2007). This courage is, in one sense, to refuse the easy answer.

This courage stands in sharp contrast with the mentality that finally turns away from the depth of the challenge because of the huge and possibly discomforting implications of its possible solutions, choosing instead to either ignore or to effectively re-define and paper over the problem. It stands in opposition to the mentality that, once facing the abyss, reaches instead for a comforting but narcotic and ultimately killing fiction. This mentality, today, is pervasive; unchallenged, it will not only keep humanity in chains but strangle any hope for the future. Given that, one could say that this third type of intellectual courage is the most uncommon and precious of all.

There has to be a fearlessness there, and a hunger for the truth. But it is not something mysterious; it is something to think about and draw on, something to learn from and apply, no matter how dark the night or bright the day.


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