Who is an “Intellectual”?

Dur­ing my younger days, I used to dis­tin­guish peo­ple by whether they were intel­lec­tu­al or not.

In those years, I was naïve enough to express it direct­ly: “Sor­ry, but you’re not an intel­lec­tu­al.” It was much lat­er that I real­ized what an insult it was to my friends.

Almost all my friends and every­one who knew me then start­ed to use the term derog­a­tive­ly. From “Oh, I can’t under­stand this because I’m not an intel­lec­tu­al” to “Oh, this is main­stream com­mon knowl­edge, but you wouldn’t know it, because you’re an intel­lec­tu­al”. These expres­sions were expressed with a sneer, as if being an intel­lec­tu­al, I was some­how to blame, and should be ashamed of myself.

As a result, I stopped using this con­cept in all my com­mu­ni­ca­tion with peo­ple because I real­ized it was being per­ceived as judg­men­tal.

Then I observed how this adjec­tive was being reg­u­lar­ly used in main­stream lit­er­a­ture and media, from TV shows to news­pa­per op-eds. “Intel­lec­tu­als” were folks who were left­ist and activists for the Marx­ist cause. “Intel­lec­tu­als” were those who go on hunger strikes against any and all cap­i­tal­is­tic endeavor.”Intellectuals” were sym­pa­thiz­ers with the Maoist insur­gency in India. “Intel­lec­tu­als” were those who lead the work­ers of a labor union to fight against the injus­tice being met­ed out to them by their evil cor­po­rate big­wigs.

I have not seen any con­cept that has been so dis­tort­ed, twist­ed to uti­lize for or against pro­pa­gan­da, mis­un­der­stood, and most often mis­in­ter­pret­ed. A virtue that has been adju­di­cat­ed as a vice,  a qual­i­ty that is con­sid­ered deroga­to­ry and spo­ken of in pejo­ra­tive terms, derid­ed being an “intel­lec­tu­al”.

The fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing is the per­cep­tion that not being an intel­lec­tu­al equates to not being intel­li­gent. Because the words are so pho­net­i­cal­ly close, not being an intel­lec­tu­al is most often per­ceived as not being intel­li­gent. Which is obvi­ous­ly an insult if you ever express it to any­one.

Every intel­li­gent per­son is not an intel­lec­tu­al, and nei­ther is every intel­lec­tu­al per­son intel­li­gent.

All of us have a lot of beliefs by which we live our lives. These beliefs are our axioms. When some­one ques­tions one of those beliefs, we react defen­sive­ly. We are rarely will­ing to lis­ten and chal­lenge that belief. There is a bar­ri­er.


If we jump across that bar­ri­er, there is a whole new world to dis­cov­er.

Beliefs per­me­ate through soci­ety via osmo­sis. An intel­lec­tu­al is one who is imper­me­ate to that osmo­sis. An intel­lec­tu­al is one who is not only will­ing to chal­lenge his beliefs, but one who will be grate­ful to you if you do so. An intel­lec­tu­al is one who does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly imbibe his society’s val­ue sys­tem but ques­tions it. An intel­lec­tu­al asks “Why?” before he adopts a belief.

An intel­lec­tu­al is an icon­o­clast. But that is not some­thing to be ashamed of, or feel guilty about, it is in fact, some­thing to be cher­ished.

Talk to an intel­lec­tu­al about any top­ic under the sun, and he will either tell you some­thing about the top­ic you didn’t know your­self, or be grate­ful to you for teach­ing him some­thing new. An intel­lec­tu­al is that adult who has not lost his child­hood curios­i­ty.

An intel­lec­tu­al is one who not only thinks but is will­ing to think.

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