The anti-intellectualism of the social justice community is killing us

When faced by complicated ideas we should reach for them together, as though we believe ourselves to be worthy of intellectual leadership.

Scot Nakagawa
8 December 2016

Credit: Pixabay/Alexis-fotos. CC0 Public Domain.

I've spent the last four decades as a community servant and advocate. I've run a food bank, managed clinics for low-income people, served as a tutor in literacy programs and as an executive in philanthropy. I've organized electoral and community-based campaigns, wrote grants, asked literally thousands of people for donations, and even, more than once, climbed through the open window of a home to interrupt an act of child abuse in communities so remote that police could never be expected to react in time.

My story probably sounds like your story if you're a late-middle aged social justice advocate. The eighties were rough.

Over those same years, I've also cultivated a role for myself as a movement intellectual. However small my sphere of influence, however meager my share of knowledge, I share what I know and am coming to know. I read, and write, listen and discuss, and make half-baked proposals in hopes of receiving critiques, choosing, as I do, to view criticism as an ally in my lifelong battle against my own vast ignorance.

Throughout those years of learning and teaching, I've frequently been ridiculed and verbally attacked for, well, basically, for knowing things, using words that are unfamiliar to others, and challenging the confirmation bias that is built into all accepted knowledge. Apparently, if you use big words (because, in my case, I am often just learning concepts and trying to test drive them), you evidently have no respect for people with less formal education.

I've been accused of treating people like they're stupid because of trying to talk with them about social and political theory, and have often been called "privileged," as in educationally and financially privileged, and using that privilege to show off or make other people feel small.

Not that it matters, but I'm from a working class family, flunked out of high school for attending too few days, and never got a college degree.

What does matter is this: the anti-intellectualism of the social justice community is literally killing us. We need to invest in intellectuals. Rather than valorize the legitimate frustration people feel when faced with complicated ideas, we could reach for those ideas together, as though we deserve them, as though we believe ourselves to be worthy of intellectual leadership in the world.

I became a community organizer because I believed and still believe that people who have been shoved into the social margins are worthy of intellectual leadership. In fact, I believe that our liberation depends on it.

We who know what it is like to be disregarded and disrespected, excluded, defamed, and oppressed already know much of what is needed to liberate the formally educated masses from their particular ignorance. But we should also be challenged and given opportunities to reach for philosophy and history and political theory and every other tool that can be turned to our service.

I've heard a lot of criticism of the Tea Parties that amounts to them being ignorant. In fact, they often are ignorant, in terms of what they need to know to lead. Many of them don't understand the Constitution even while trying to claim to be its only legitimate defenders. They propose nonsensical policies that they obviously don't understand. The people they've put into elective office don't know how to govern and manage budgets.

But being nakedly honest here, in my many years of experience in working with grassroots leaders, I've found the same is often true of us. Many of us don't understand power. We fail to recognize the important relationship of the individual and communities to key societal institutions we are criticizing and challenging. We don't know the Constitution. If we were elected we wouldn't know how to govern and might not be able to deal with complex budgets either. That's real, too. No wonder many of us appear to be afraid of seizing power.

But, importantly, this is not because people are lazy or stupid. In fact, they are anything but lazy and stupid. Their ignorance persists in spite of them being extremely hard working and intelligent, and knowledgeable about many things that are hard to master, proving their capacity to learn. And why? At least in part because the gatekeepers, the leadership, choose to defend a completely understandable ignorance in order to signify that they are not among the privileged (even if, in some cases, they are), and do so in order to claim legitimacy.

That's irresponsible leadership. Unjust power perpetuates unjust power, in part, by keeping us ignorant of how the powerful accomplish and perpetuate our oppression. We deserve so much more than legitimacy. We deserve justice, and in order to win it we need to understand the complexities and nuances of power, of structural inequality, cultural production and hegemony, and every other concept and theory and abstraction that we need to claim our place as prophets of a new world.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData