Reasons for Intellectual Conformity

In theory, many people hail the idea of independent thinking and praise the courage of speaking truth to power. In practice, however, the pressure of “group think” and the penalties inflicted on dissidents usually force people into line even when they know better, as Lawrence Davidson notes.

By Lawrence Davidson

World Wars I and II created watershed moments in the lives of Western intellectuals, defined here as those who are guided by their intellect and critical thinking and who understand various aspects of the world mainly through ideas and theories which they express through writing, teaching and other forms of public address.

Just how were they to respond to the call of patriotic duty that seduced the vast majority of citizens to support acts of mass slaughter? What constituted a proper response is often debated. How most of them did respond is a matter of historical record.

President Woodrow Wilson.

President Woodrow Wilson.

During the world wars most intellectuals on all sides of the conflicts uncritically lent their talents to their government’s war efforts. Some did so as propagandists and others as scientists. Some actually led their nations into the fray, as was the case with President Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson held a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, had taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and became president of Princeton University. Eventually he was elected President of the United States and, having taken the nation to war, sanctioned the creation of a massive propaganda machine under the auspices of the “Committee on Public Information.” He also supported the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress all anti-war sentiments.

Wilson never experienced combat, but another intellectual, the British poet Siegried Sassoon, did so in the trenches of the Western front. After this experience he wrote, “war is hell and those who initiate it are criminals.” No doubt that was his opinion of the intellectual President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1928, the French philosopher and literary critic Julien Benda published an important book, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. In this work Benda asserted that it is the job of the intellectual to remain independent of his or her community’s ideologies and biases, be they political, religious or ethnic. Only by so doing could he or she defend the universal practices of tolerance and critical thinking that underpin civilization.

Not only were intellectuals to maintain their independence, but they were also obligated to analyze their community’s actions and, where necessary, call them into question.

However, as the memory of the intellectuals’ complicity in World War I faded, so did the memory of Benda’s standard of behavior. By World War II it held little power against the renewed demands of national governments for citizens to rally around the flag.

Thus, in that war, with even greater atrocities being committed, most intellectuals either supported the slaughter or remained silent. Some became fascists, others communists, and all too many once more lent their talents to propaganda machines and war industries in all the fighting states.

As a result, the debate over the proper role of the intellectual in relation to power and ideology continues to this day. It is not a question that needs a world war to be relevant. There are any number of ongoing situations where nationalism, ethnicity or religious views spark intolerance and violence. And with each of them the intellectuals, particularly those whose home states are involved, have to make the same age-old choice: Do they follow Woodrow Wilson’s path or that of Julian Benda?

Fate of the Jewish Intellectual

This problem has recently been raised in reference to the seemingly endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On April 14, Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University, published an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, “Is It Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?”

In this piece, she sets forth two opposing positions: one is the Zionist/Israeli demand for the primacy of “ahavat Israel,” or the “love of the Jewish nation and people” – the claim that all Jews have a “duty of the heart” to be loyal to the “Jewish nation.” The other position is that of the lone intellectual (here her model is the philosopher Hannah Arendt), whose obligation is to maintain the “disinterested intelligence” necessary to, if you will, speak truth to power.

Illouz explains that Zionists have a “suspicion of critique” and use “the memorialization of the Shoah” (the Holocaust) and “ahavat Israel” to mute it, adding: “The imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish bodies.”

It is within this context that she can ask if it is still possible to be a Jewish intellectual, at least as portrayed by Julien Benda. Illouz’s conclusion is that it has become exceedingly difficult to be so, particularly in the diaspora communities, where the demands for Jewish solidarity are particularly “brutal.”

Illouz is unhappy with this situation. While she feels the allure of “ahavat Israel,” she ultimately supports the position of the independent-mindedness of Benda’s thinker. She insists that the “contemporary Jewish intellectual has an urgent task to unveil the conditions under which Jewish solidarity should or should not be accepted, debunked or embraced. In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity.”

Primacy of Group Solidarity 

While the portrayal of the intellectual as a thinker insisting on and practicing the right of critical thinking about society and its behavior is an ancient one (consider Socrates here), such behavior is not common in practice. This, in turn, calls Benda’s notion of a proper intellectual into question.

Thus, the description of an intellectual offered at the beginning of this essay (which is in line with common dictionary definitions) does not reference any particular direction of thought. For instance, in practice there is nothing that requires an intellectual to think about societal or government behaviors, much less take a critical public position on such matters.

And, no doubt, there are many very talented minds who, deeply involved in aesthetic matters or certain branches of scientific, linguistic, literary or other pursuits, do not involve themselves with issues of the use or abuse of power.

In addition, one might well be judged an intellectual and be a supporter or even a perpetrator of criminal policies and actions. Woodrow Wilson might fall within this category, as might Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and many others.

Indeed, from a historical perspective most people of high intellect have sought to serve power and not critique or question it. This is quite in line with the fact that most non-intellectuals accept the word of those in power as authoritative and true.

According to Eva Illouz, this reflects the primacy of group solidarity over truth. She is correct in this judgment. That, no doubt, is why the independent-minded, outspoken intellectuals demanding moral integrity and responsibility from those in power are so rare, be they Jewish or gentile.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “Reasons for Intellectual Conformity

  1. June 3, 2014 at 14:20

    According to the late writer and psychologist Alice Miller, a person’s ability to resist conformity and “group think” is not a matter of intelligence but a matter of access to one’s true self (which includes awareness of our own true feelings, desires, and thoughts). Such access to one’s true self is harmed by childhood mistreatment, which is almost universal, and in particular mistreatment that is not acknowledged as being such but is accepted without question as being “for one’s own good”. In fact one of Alice Miller’s first books, written in the early 1980’s, is titled For Your Own Good, with subtitle “Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence”.

    Here is a quote from her book, which is in the middle of a long section dealing with horrendous child-rearing practices advocated in books which were popular in previous centuries, including in one book written by a man named Schreber and popular at the time when future participants in the Third Reich were being raised as children.

    Just as in the symbiosis of the “diaper stage,” there is no separation here of subject and object. If the child learns to view corporal punishment as “a necessary measure” against “wrongdoers,” then as an adult he will attempt to protect himself from punishment by being obedient and will not hesitate to cooperate with the penal system. In a totalitarian state, which is a mirror of his upbringing, this citizen can also carry out any form of torture or persecution without having a guilty conscience. His “will” is completely identical with that of the government.

    Now that we have seen how easy it is for intellectuals in a dictatorship to be corrupted, it would be a vestige of aristocratic snobbery to think that only “the uneducated masses” are susceptible to propaganda. Both Hitler and Stalin had a surprisingly large number of enthusiastic followers among intellectuals. Our capacity to resist has nothing to do with our intelligence but with the degree of access to our true self. Indeed, intelligence is capable of innumerable rationalizations when it comes to the matter of adaptation. Educators have always known this and have exploited it for their own purposes, as the following proverb suggests: “The clever person gives in, the stupid one balks.” For example, we read in a work on child raising by Grünwald (1899): “I have never yet found willfulness in an intellectually advanced or exceptionally gifted child” (quoted in Rutschky). Such a child can, in later life, exhibit extraordinary acuity in criticizing the ideologies of his opponents–and in puberty even the views by his own parents– because in these cases his intellectual powers can function without impairment. Only within a group–such as one consisting of adherents of an ideology or a theoretical school–that represents the early family situation will this person on occasion still display a naïve submissiveness and uncritical attitude that completely belie his brilliance in other situations. Here, tragically, his early dependence upon tyrannical parents is preserved, a dependence that–in keeping with the program of “poisonous pedagogy”–goes undetected. This explains why Martin Heidegger, for example, who had no trouble in breaking with traditional philosophy and leaving behind the teachers of his adolescence, was not able to see the contradictions in Hitler’s ideology that should have been obvious to someone of his intelligence. He responded to this ideology with an infantile fascination and devotion that brooked no criticism.

    In the tradition we are dealing with, it was considered obstinacy and was therefore frowned upon to have a will and mind of one’s own. It is easy to understand that an intelligent child would want to escape the punishments devised for those possessing these traits and that he or she could do so without any difficulty. What the child didn’t realize was that escape came at a high price.

    The father receives his powers from God (and from his own father). The teacher finds the soil already prepared for obedience, and the political leader has only to harvest what has been sown.

    (Scroll down to near bottom of page.)

    Incidentally I want to make my statement here that I think that the commandment in the Bible which says to “honor your father and mother” is wrong. (And yes I also consider the Bible to be written by fallible human beings and exhibiting human fallibility and human prejudice like anything else that has ever been written.) I think it is very unfortunate that this commandment is one of the “Ten Commandments” that are a central part of Judeo-Christian and Western traditional morality.

    The commandment is unconditional, and makes no exceptions if one’s parents are or have been abusive or if one has been mistreated by one’s parents. I think it is very wrong to say to somebody who has been abused or mistreated by one’s parents that a person has a duty to honor such parents.

    If anything there should be a commandment for parents to treat their children with dignity and respect, that they (the children) might come to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect. And a commandment for parents to earn and be worthy of the love and honor and respect from their children.

  2. blankface
    May 31, 2014 at 11:38

    As others have pointed out, Woodrow Wilson gave us the Fed, and everything that followed. Additionally, there is quite a body of evidence- for those who care to look- that Wilson provoked the Japanese into attacking, in the form of embargo, freezing all domestic Japanese assets, etc, and knowingly let them raid Pearl Harbor, with the end result of plunging the U.S. into a war that was really none of their business. Just look at the waterfall of false-flags the U.S. has deceived its people with: Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Northwoods, 9/11… Yeah, I would agree that this author took it too easy on Wilson.

  3. May 28, 2014 at 15:49

    Woodrow Wilson gave us ;
    The Federal Reseve = private world bankers = IMF = All wars are World bankers wars

    The United Nations = NATO = World banker army = All wars are World bankers wars

  4. oldskeptic
    May 23, 2014 at 16:16

    Thanks Graham for the, not so subtle, putdown.

    Sadly most of the literature (for those that study such things, mostly cognitive psychologists) backs that short summary up. As for the use of the word ‘meme’, yes it has been a bit overblown but is still a useful term to describe any idea, or collection of ideas, that people take on (and hold) that has been spread through social contacts (rather than, say, academic study).

    Study after study shows that people will give higher acceptance to ‘memes’ that come from what they believe is a trusted (or even just acceptable) social type of source, no matter how factually incorrect it may be. The ‘weighting’ they give it will be much higher than from a non-social source (eg reading a research paper).

    Nothing new in that, the advertising industry and much of the mainstream media has known about that for decades.

    I summarise it into my third law of human behaviour:
    If a human is faced with 2 pieces of information:
    (1) Good scientific data based on rigorous research.
    (2) A complete fantasy based on a scurrilous rumour.
    They will invariably believe the rumour.

    Sadly, what we call ‘intellectuals’ these days fall into the exact same trap far too often, though they usually rationalise it far better than ‘Joe Soap’ does (ie tell a better story). Doesn’t mean their position is not just as factually incorrect as the ‘Joe Soap’ one.

    I always use the example of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who I actually admire) as a warning that even the smartest (and most ethical) of people can get things really wrong sometimes…Such is the price of being human.

  5. Graham Clark
    May 23, 2014 at 02:23

    Instead of quoting Siegfied Sassoon, an unimportant poet who owes what fame he has to the fact that he happens to conform (the word is used advisedly) to pacific convictions, why not quote a far greater mind?

    “You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

    Gandhi at least had the courage of his convictions, unlike those commentators who censure intellectuals for supporting the Allies’ military effort in the world wars but dance around the issue of what exactly they were supposed to do instead.

    • Graham Clark
      May 23, 2014 at 02:26

      “pacific” should, of course, have been “pacifist”

  6. Bill Jones
    May 23, 2014 at 01:24

    Anybody care to set a date when the Zionists realized that
    There’s no business like shoa business.

    Don’t recall it being a big thing until the ’70’s

  7. Bill Jones
    May 23, 2014 at 00:55

    You misspelled Sasson’s christian name.

  8. May 22, 2014 at 13:06

    This article is too easy on Woodrow Wilson, the guy was the one to pass the Federal Reserve act which handed the keys of America over to Wall Street. We will never be free until we break the grip of the banker extortion.

  9. oldskeptic
    May 21, 2014 at 19:13

    There are other factors. Humans are first and foremost social creatures. They are actually not very creative but are incredible good copiers.

    Combine the two and copying socially accepted ideas is normal behaviour.

    The role of propaganda is to make it seem as though an idea (or meme if you want) is largely socially accepted, if you can pull that off then people automatically follow it and the propaganda then becomes the belief.

    Now humans are bad at creativity (hence the same tired old solutions to new problems are always pulled out) and are also very bad at resisting (or critiquing) social memes, but our education systems make this even worse. So you have a very large population of people that lack the tools to be more creative and/or more resistant to the socially accepted memes, even when they want to be.

    To quote a staff member of mine when we were doing a world first project: “all my life I have been taught to copy, at school and at university. You are the only person that has ever wanted me to come up with my own ideas.”

    • Graham Clark
      May 23, 2014 at 02:06

      “Humans are first and foremost social creatures. They are actually not very creative but are incredible good copiers… meme…”

      Charles Darwin protect us from pop biologists.

  10. Tobysgirl
    May 21, 2014 at 14:52

    I wish I could remember the third C in Richard Hofstadter’s definition of an intellectual; the first two C’s are creative and critical. The dictionary definition of intellectual may include Woodrow Wilson, but the dictionary definition of prophet probably includes Joseph Smith. Those with more incisive outlooks are likely to set a higher standard; I do not see toting water for the status quo as intellectualism, but I live in a society in which Thomas Friedman is referred to as intelligent.

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