What future for intellectuals?

Historian, sociologist, writer, the author teaches at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi in programs in history, sociology / anthropology, political science and international cooperation. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Collective Imaginaries.

What is an intellectual? In keeping with an old, firmly established Western tradition, the intellectual is a guide. Its role is to disseminate ideas, systems of thought, visions of the near or far world. But these are not just any ideas.

We are talking here about reflections that can form minds in depth, nourish convictions, ideals, offer life choices and inspire behavior. More specifically, the intellectual can influence decision-makers, social actors and, in the long term, influence the running of a society. We know of many examples.

As we can guess, we do not improvise intellectual. There are criteria, often unwritten requirements that establish the credibility of this profession. These are not necessarily formal titles, for example university degrees.

An accomplished intellectual is distinguished by a long experience of reflection and an ability to exchange, to debate rationally and, possibly, to modify his thinking. Interaction with a community in a spirit of openness is therefore an essential element.

But in addition to reason, the sap of intellectual life can also flow from sensitivity and creativity, as is often the case with literary artists and artists. Finally, beyond (or below) ideas, intellectual life is also reflection on values ​​and their promotion in the service of humanism.

All of this requires the freedom of thought and speech often associated with social criticism.

The new guides

But now this universe has just been shaken up by the emergence of another generation of guides. These are the stakeholders who most often operate within or in the vicinity of social networks, which includes the very heterogeneous category of bloggers (a number of whom are intellectuals or experts). Among all these, I particularly have in mind those who identify as “influencers”.

In all fairness, I would like to stress that in various ways these communicators are no different from mainstream intellectuals. They have their audience, operate on the agora legitimately, exercise their freedom of expression to defend and disseminate their ideas, (at least indirectly) promote fundamental values, such as freedom of expression and the right to difference, and practice a form of criticism in their own way.

If we could stay with these considerations, we would be bound to conclude simply that new guides, new scouts have emerged with the splitting of communication chains, that traditional guides have simply lost their monopoly position, that they have to compose. now with other actors who make a different but legitimate discourse heard, and who are better able to reach “clienteles” hitherto neglected.

Where the shoe pinches

Unfortunately, we cannot stop there because, in many other respects, nothing is going well. There is first the question of qualification and credibility (how does one become an influencer?), There is that of the reliability of statements, where the concern for reality, for verification, is far from finding its account. , just like the logic of right and wrong. There is that of the construction of discourse which often offends reason and there are those of tolerance, mutual respect, openness to dissension.

All this added together gives the figures that have become familiar: fundamentalism, negationism, radicalisation to excess, conspiracy, ostracization, rejection of science and contempt of experts. It is also the breeding ground for virtually self-destructive, harmful behavior that can lead to violence.

For professional intellectuals as well as for scientists (identified with the so-called “scholarly” culture), there is cause for concern. They now face a public (from 20% to 25% of citizens in Quebec) and competitors against whom it is very difficult for them to fight because the argumentation procedures put them at a disadvantage at the outset.

Those of intellectuals, more demanding, are based on documented analyzes, nuanced, sometimes complex, subject to ethics. Opposite, we bypass, we triturate reality by arguing about “common sense”, we stick to “real business”. As a result, the audience of traditional guides is very likely to be reduced, as is their influence in society. It is also to be feared that some of them will be tempted to lower the bar. So, as happens in economics, bad money would drive out good money.

The potential damage does not end there. We must also be concerned about the future of information and public debate. And we must be concerned about the transmission of the values ​​which are the basis of the life of a democratic society, in particular solidarity, mutual trust, civic ethics and the search for the common good.

In short, it is nothing less than the heritage of humanism that is at stake. And with it all that, according to the lesson of the Ancients, should lead to wisdom …

Finally, on a more personal level, as an intellectual, a vision disturbs me: are we doomed to be confined in our cenacles and to exchange only between us?

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