Social Affairs

The apathy of the intelligentsia: who is to blame?

“The measure of life, after all, is not its duration but its donation” Corrie Ten Born

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Since time immemorial those relatively fair-minded and more prudent states have actively sought ideas, opinions and advices from those widely regarded by the society as men of wisdom, knowledge and insights to pass judicious decisions on weighty matters. 

In the contemporary democratic societies, this long-standing governance tradition has been systematized and institutionalized in the form of actively functioning independent civic organizations such as the free-media, tertiary-level educational institutions, and panel of independent scholars advising governments on certain policy issues.

These civic institutions are generally categorized under a generic term, the ‘Third-sector’, while the government and the market forces represent the ‘First’ and “Second’ sectors respectively. The notion of the ‘Third-sector’ largely draws on the basic tenet of democracy – government of the people, by the people and for the people – in which the civic force, by way of generating viable alternative ideas and values that influence public policies and the praxis of governments, constitutes the mechanism of checks-and-balances in the operation of the government.

It goes without saying that given the opportunity and capability it posses, the intelligentsia, (the relatively well-educated segment of the society) is rightly regarded as the most prominent group in the constituency of the civic force. Not least, the intelligentsia ought to provide the intellectual raw materials – ideas, questions or critical reflections to mention few – to better understand, inform and alleviate the varied social problems facing a given society.

Historical evidences are quite strong demonstrating the prime role played by the intelligentsia, particularly in the developing part of the world, in the bitter struggle against colonial powers and repressive regimes. In direct contrast to this remarkable historical accomplishment, many observers now lament on the intelligentsia’s heartbreaking stance of passiveness, helplessness, indifference, apathy, complacency to issues ranging from protecting own professional interests to advocating for truth, justice, freedom and the well-being of humanity and the planet earth at large. It should be borne in mind that though the problem is persistent in many parts of the world, it is far more pronounced in countries where autocratic regimes reign.

Many social scientists have attempted to offer some explanation for the problem of apparent apathy exhibited by the intelligentsia. The most common one being the structural explanation which attributes the problem to the unbearable impact of dominant macro political, economic and cultural forces of oppressive regimes on the consciousness and actions of the intelligentsia.

Very few deny the fact that permissiveness for plurality of ideas and tolerance to critics and dissenting views is the sine qua non for progressive and civilized governance. A functional constitution, the supremacy of the rule of law, and the varied legislative tools for ensuring freedom, justice and equality are some of the mechanisms that lay the ground for a truly democratic governance. According to the structuralists, however, these apparently good governance practices in the context of autocratic regimes largely remain at the rhetoric level.

In the account of the structural perspective, in today’s world where the notion of democracy is presumed to be a globally governing idea, autocratic regimes have apparently been compelled to resort to an indirect method of repression. This is done mainly by increasingly narrowing the democratic space with the intent of neutralizing the institutional underpinnings necessary for democracy.

In this connection, the government apparatus consistently strives to paralyze and co-opt such fundamental democratic institutions as free-press and autonomous civic organizations via draconian laws, manipulative administrative measures, bureaucratic red-tape, abusive professional interferences and by incubating bogus ‘civic organizations’ which reportedly rival the genuine ones. The structuralists believe that these repressive government tactics solely led to the de-politicization and disfranchisement of the intelligentsia.

Furthermore, the structuralist perspective invokes the coercive political culture, exclusionary ideologies and top-down governance, false and intimidating propaganda, traumatic historical experience, weak economic conditions as the structural realities which have seriously undermined the initiative and activism of the intelligentsia.

The upshot of the above argument is that the current resigned and passive attitude evident among a significant section of the intelligentsia in Ethiopia is something solely attributable to the workings of the repressive macro-forces.

Notwithstanding the substantial impact of the larger social forces, however, I contend that the macro viewpoint has uncharacteristically reduced the intelligentsia to a level of mere ‘unthinking’ and solely receptive persons who only give in unconditionally to the will of the presumed external influences.  By doing so, it inadvertently provides some sham ground for an excuse to cover up individual weaknesses and thereby absolve the duty of self-responsibility.

Of course, macro forces undoubtedly have their own share of influence by way of providing possibilities and opportunities that would either facilitate or constrain individual actions. However, no matter how powerful macro forces tend to be, there will always be some room for individuals to have a stake in the course of life they choose to pursue –a certain degree of possibility to exercise their “free-will”. Here it suffices to note the general maxim, “if there is a will, there is a way.”

Hence, I believe the current passive and apathetic state of existence which typifies the intelligentsia in this part of the world is to some extent the destructive effect due to the operation of a host of individually-based defective characteristic tendencies quite evident in the day-to-day life with a number of intellectuals.

To mention but a few: living in consistent fear; low-self esteem and poor confidence to publicly air out one’s views, opinions and stances; enslavement to the mentality of factionalism and clientalism; victim to the distorted philosophy of hedonism (pleasure-seeking behavior) and the subsequent excessive greed and selfishness which possibly yields such behaviors as engagement in despicable opportunistic and corrupt actions,  commodity one’s noble profession with little regard to intellectual curiosity, passion, aspiration and ethics, strive only for rank promotion and higher position, place personal comfort over moral duties and societal responsibilities.

Thus, for the sake of fairness and completeness as well as to come up with the commensurate appropriate remedial measures, we must recognize the complimentary roles played by both the macro-forces–the structural influences–and the micro-forces–the self-imposed misdirected individual choices and actions–that might have resulted in the current rather worrisome irresponsible, passive and apathetic behaviors that characterize a sizable number of the intelligentsia.


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