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Thought Leader (TL) representation: Some digressions on bloggers, power and ideas in society

Thought Leader is doing collective introspection on its race and gender representation, and in some cases in denial about the problem. I hope that this blog adds a little to the debate. It’s a little bit theoretical at first, but it gets practical — with a couple of digressions on the way.

Edward Said in Representations of the Intellectual starts out with a fascinating comparison of the views of Julian Benda and compares that with Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of an intellectual. (For all those yawning at theory, I have a summary at the end. Scroll down if you want, but I would appreciate it if you read the entire article.)

For the purposes of this debate, I will very crudely summarise. Benda argues that the intellectual has not only a higher moral standing, but that this moral standing is the preserve of the few. In fact, Benda argues that to be an intellectual is never to be diverted from his activities by the mundane activity of seeking one’s daily bread. In other words, the intellectual should never be diverted from the bigger questions by questions of money and survival.

But let us digress.

I raise this question of intellectual activity and money, because Ryland Fisher makes the point that many black people choose full-time jobs and better-paying opportunities rather than write in newspapers and, we could add, stay in academia. It is a reflection on their class aspirations — and often completely legitimate. For instance, if you have a brother or sister in university, no inheritance because your family is poor and you might have other commitments, you have a responsibility to meet these commitments.

The structure of our society means that black voices in particular are not given space for expression, often by virtue of personal circumstances — obviously shaped by our history. Somehow, these personal circumstances are translated into “we cannot keep blacks because they are only interested in being socially mobile”, or something like that. Rather, the personal reflects a reality that limits black voices. This is captured in a comment on Sandile Memela‘s contribution, in comments by Lehlohonolo, who writes:

The issue, i think, at least is complicated by issues around livelihoods — what you’d call serving the master who pays your salary. I think we generally undermine the effect of this problem (security issues).

You must remember that most blacks, as you yourself indicate, are poor. For starters those like me with access to blogging … and some education get trapped in trying not to fall back to the poverty we know, the poverty we fear and the poverty that often lurks ominously in an environment where … those who ensure that you have bread on the table (a livelihood) are in the main, the minority.

To make matters worse, you know many of your friends who have completed university degrees, and I’m not talking about some degree in Zulu, Tswana or Sotho or theology (not that they’re not important; in fact, if I had the money I’d really study drama and creative writing). I’m talking here chemistry, biology, statistics, biometry, BCom and other graduates who are stay illegally at students’ residences or frustrated back in their rural areas … and do you know the pressure one faces there?! You get to be told how you are a failure … even your friends do not want to mix with you because you think you’re better … sometimes they find a reason to just kick your ass because you’re from the university — I swear I’m not making this up. In fact, I have an experience of the sort …

There is a bigger problem about how we sustain intellectual activity in our society — just ask the universities. But, TL could provide a platform for those who want to engage in whatever area they want, as a place to learn but also a place to be recognised. After all, with the knowledge economy, thinking and writing are becoming avenues in which to earn a living. It obviously requires a small amount of courage to write on a public platform, but TL provides a good enabling environment that has potential. But, who said that being a public intellectual is easy? It is not an easy thing to do — and you have to start at the bottom, unless you are superbly talented. Blogging here could be a start to suss out the possibilities. (In case you are wondering, we do not get paid as bloggers on this forum for writing.)

Memela, however, makes an astonishing claim — that all black thought could be seen as speaking seemingly critically, but in fact entrenching historical power arrangements in our society. We have unwittingly become the masters’ voice, he argues. That is tough, and thought-provoking stuff. At a very personal level it hits a raw nerve, precisely because I know from Edward Said and Antonio Gramsci that power pervades, and it is easier to reflect it than to challenge it. I often wonder where I stand … but my personal introspective issues on public policy are for a later stage in another article.

Sandile, however, further limits black voices. Who wants to be told that after making up your mind and taking a stand that you are simply a dumb tool for power? Or that your views do not reflect the “black” experience? More established writers and thinkers like Sandile must instead play the role of teachers and supporters, and provide constructive criticism. I do not, however, agree with Sandile on another point: there are marginal voices in our society that offer very challenging perspectives. In fact, the strongest criticisms come from new forms of organisations — social movements are an example — that are critical of the government.

But, let’s argue something more on this. With democracy, the opportunity structure has changed and new spaces are ready to be claimed, especially in the media. If it is a question of agency at this stage, can platforms be created for voices that would challenge the obvious and pervading power structures in our society — spaces that require building new platforms, often outside what exists? If the doors will not open, do not only try to kick them down; build new homes with more open doors. That is precisely why I have profiled Red Plug-In City and Amandla in previous blogs.

But, let us no longer digress.

Gramsci argues differently and much more democratically. The term “organic intellectual” means something like: everyone is capable of thinking, but some play intellectual roles and others do not. Intellectuals are attached to political projects. (I said I would summarise rather crudely). Of course, while everyone is capable of thought, not everyone does that. But the central point is that intellectuals are politically engaged, and that organic intellectuals are from both classes. Of course, Gramsci recognises, however, that there is significant differentiation among intellectuals that organise and disorganise hegemony in society.

Let us digress again.

Khosi cuts to the heart of the matter by arguing in a response to Vincent’s column that:

Even the products of bantu education can 1) think, 2) write, 3) type on a computer. I have seen some completely appalling constructions of thought by some of these so-called elite invitees on your site.

(Read Vincent’s interesting responses as well.)

This is a short exposition of a fundamental truth. Experts are more likely to reflect the dominant discourse, and having an expert blog might be construed as rewarding only those with formal qualifications, which are highly skewed racially for historical reasons.

Dion (ds) in his comments on Ebrahim Harvey‘s blog offers a way to think about these issues: that ideas must be located in the “intellectual milieu”. The point he makes is an important one: ideas are shaped by power relations, which amplify and silence certain voices. (Perhaps that is what Sandile wanted to say, but ended up elsewhere?)

Let me use a very basic and unfashionable schema of knowledge to link these ideas to TL. Someone once divided ideas into three broad categories:

1. Residual — This means the ideas that were once dominant and are no longer dominant today. They linger; their advocates sulk, strategise and attempt to regain lost ground. The New Right did just that in the 1950s and 1960s, making a comeback in the 1970s.
2. Dominant — The prevailing orthodoxy, the ideas that are shared between intellectuals and those in power. In Gramsci’s serviceable term, the hegemonic bloc.
3. Emerging — Those ideas that are new, challenging and offer a different perspective.

If you define TL as someone with expertise, then you run the risk of replicating the dominant idea, but also the risk of — like Benda — arguing that one must have a track record (and in Benda’s case, moral virtue) and ignoring both nascent and residual ideas in society.

OK, before I get clobbered, I appreciate that there is some polarity of views on the site. The question is whether through a process of invitation using a list, these lists of people do not simply reflect the dominant voices in society. For me, we must then think of “thought-leadership” as a concept. It can be found across ideas, but the most interesting are emerging ideas — simply because these ideas have the best chance of widening our world view and imagining projects that widen the scope for emancipatory politics. I make a big assumption — it is at the left of the political spectrum that this is possible.

I would be very comfortable with a more experimental approach on TL, especially with new writers, precisely because many would want to write and might have something valuable to say. (Or, at least I think so). Kanthan Pillay offers an important motivation in his comment on Vincent’s blog:

For my part, I don’t give a stuff what colour the writer happens to be. I make a point of regularly reading Ndumiso and Ivo because they write well and never trot out worn platitudes. I tune out many of my other fellow contributors because I can pretty much tell you in advance what they are going to say on a particular issue and who among the readers will respond in agreement. And where is the thought-leadership in that?

I do give a stuff that that representation is improved, but Kanthan makes an excellent point. Readers of TL will discriminate between “good” and “bad” writers. For instance, the number of reads can be seen on that high-school musical called the “Popular bloggers” page on TL. That is more democratic and interesting rather than deciding upfront who a thought leader is. It is constructed on the site. Of course, not all bloggers want to be top of the blogging rankings; some want to have a small but engaged audience, and others simply want a space to express themselves. It is about widening opportunities for new writers, and for the audience of TL to determine what they like and do not.

But, let us no longer digress.

Edward Said, after some of the best analysis on the intellectuals today, makes a couple of interesting arguments in relation to both Gramsci and Benda. First, he speaks about the public intellectual.

The intellectual is an amateur — meaning that public intellectuals must speak out on issues, from a moral standpoint, often on issues in which they have no certified competence. Said provides an example — trained in literary theory and criticism, he applies his remarkable mind to a range of issues and makes some the most challenging analyses of our times.

The intellectual is outside power — to speak truth to power, the intellectual cannot seek power but must be outside that. Said is, of course, speaking to himself, as a public intellectual. You cannot both be inside power and play the role of a public intellectual, he argues. This is a demanding vision of a public intellectual, especially if writers are motivated to see practical change.

Said, however, speaks about new and widespread intellectual activity — what we might call the knowledge economy.

There are a gazillion new job types (but not a gazillion new jobs), and new areas of knowledge management, marketing, political polling and so forth mean that knowledge is a much more prized commodity. These intellectuals are, however, not necessarily public intellectuals, but rather specialists.

A digression …

The point made that there are too many Web 2.0 entrepreneurs on TL perhaps reflects this point of view. But, recent posts by those in the Web 2.0 industry are making me change my mind. These posts cover privacy, profits and structural reasons why wider internet access will not be achieved in South Africa. If there is an unashamed promotion of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs it is in the “blogger of the week”, at the expense of the blogger as a public intellectual. Do not get me wrong. I respect anyone starting and running a business; it is just that I would expect a “blogger” to be primarily a writer and communicator of ideas rather than a developer of applications or a large media group.

There are some lessons here.

The first lesson is that at an operational level there is a difficult task — finding new voices. That requires a bit more faith that once new writers are given a platform they will excel.

TL seeks diversity of opinions, but asks for a quality-control process. That is fine, but it could generate exclusiveness and cliquishness — a point more than a few commentators have made. Vincent and the team seem to recognise this and are working towards improving the situation. I hope the representation will improve. But, finding a diversity of political voices in the “intellectual milieu”, as ds calls it, is not an easy task. Finding these voices requires a more Gramscian perspective — organic intellectuals. That is not to say that this means only those engaged in class warfare, but rather that ideas are not the preserve of the few.

The second lesson is that process matters. As I mentioned on Vincent’s blog, I asked for space on TL. That was after second-guessing myself for a couple of days. It is never easy to ask for a space when you might be rejected. Developing a process around applying would encourage new writers to ask for space. It is something like a description of what the website wants to do, how to apply and what assessment procedures will be followed. Otherwise, it looks very subjective.

The third lesson is that there are voices waiting to be heard. As an example, Dominic Tweedie manages the Young Communist League email distribution group, and there are some exciting writers there. But, Dominic is clear about his project: he wants spaces for communist writers, and if he cannot kick down the doors he will find new spaces. The general response to Dominic has been that he is a hack. I simply want to indicate that his intervention reflects what TL should be: important enough to become a contested space.

There is a fourth lesson is that “lightness” matters. TL cannot just be a bunch of policy wonks tearing into each other. There is value in lightness, and even that which some might feel is trivial. And it is not because we must draw bigger lessons out of it, but because learning occurs in different ways. Life is much more than just politics and policy. In fact, blogs might require analysts to unlearn how they write. (This overly theoretical article that you are reading might be a case in point.)

Fifth, we must respect our readers. Dominic mentions on a distribution list to which I belong that one of his contributions to the debate started by Pierre de Vos — a press release by the SACP — was not included in the set of comments on TL. The moderator saw it correct not to include the press release as a comment. That is simply not fair, not because I support the SACP, but because people reading our blogs must be free to comment. Editing out comments of this nature will simply be seen as an attempt to reinforce the status quo. Personally, as a blogger on TL, it worries me greatly that comments are excluded in this way.

Getting the balances and diversity “just right” is very difficult — but we must constantly aspire to it in our actions.

TL should become a place for many voices, and it will reflect the contradictions and constant jostling for ideas in our society. In doing this at an operational level it must recognise that without interventions, it will replicate dominant ideas. All said and done, TL should amplify voices struggling to be heard.

Before I get asked “What are you trying to say?”, I am simply indicating that dominant ideas have a tendency to dominate, which is a real danger in an editorial blog based on inviting people. Dominant ideas and forms of intellectual passports could silence new voices wanting to be heard. We must thus have strategies to ensure that new voices are heard. The initial steps by the TL team are encouraging.

And because someone will undoubtedly ask “So what?”, well, it matters if you want TL to shake the established status quo. Otherwise, it plays another societal role: reflecting society, rather than asking us to reimagine our world. TL must lead in offering new writers opportunities — from whatever perspective.

New writers who are not scared to shake up the establishment, and who could provide significant inputs into how our country proceeds, are emerging. And they want platforms. The question is: Can TL find them and provide a space for them? Can we as a community (and I use the word community very loosely) of bloggers assist with finding these voices? Can these voices be sustained given the high levels of inequality?

All this assumes that if changes to the “structure” are made we will get these voices. There is, however, still the question of “agency”. Once the changes have been made, will new voices find a home here? Well, that rests with people themselves. It would mean that if all this effort is going into changing the opportunity structure, then we should the consequence is that new writers — especially black and female — would emerge.

Take the opportunity. If TL does not digress from its strategy of opening up spaces, then no one should digress from taking the opportunity.

* Wonder how I attempted to link theory and practice, and end up with a closing line that sounds so self-evident? Perhaps the theory is the veneer of so-called thought-leadership? Maybe I cannot just admit that the summary could be reached without the theory?