Professor Noam Chomsky is a pioneering linguist, philosopher, social critic and political activist. The author of multiple highly cited books and articles, the most recent one being Yugoslovia: Peace, War, and Dissolution, he currently holds a joint appointment as the Laureate Professor of Linguistics, Agnese Nelms Haury Chair at the University of Arizona and Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this conversation with Swagat Baruah, the managing editor of the Journal of Political Theory & Philosophy, he discusses his concept of the intellectual, social media with respect to his propaganda model, the #MeToo movement, India’s Aadhaar system, his idea of freedom of speech, China’s constitutional amendment potentially making Xi Jinping President for life, his thoughts on the prospects of anarchism and the Left today, and his times with the French philosopher, Michel Foucault.
You wrote an essay titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” back in 1967. Do you think that, in the age of social media and the internet, this “responsibility” or even the concept of the “intellectual” has changed, anyhow?
Well, the notion of intellectual is a very curious one to start with. The term was not really used in the contemporary sense until the time of the Dreyfus trial (the Dreyfus affair), when the Dreyfusards were called, and in fact bitterly condemned as, intellectuals because these writers and artists were there to attack the majesty of the State and its institutions. Now, the immortals of the Académie française bitterly denounced them for this arrogance and so on. And the term came to be used for a curious collection of people.
For one thing, they have a degree of privilege, so if let’s say, there’s an office with a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in his working on the latest efforts to find dark matter, but he doesn’t express his opinion on other issues. He’s not called an intellectual. Now, suppose a janitor who takes care of the physicist’s office happens to have a very astute understanding of ideas about international affairs and domestic policy and discusses them when you ask him. But he is still not called an intellectual.
Now, the group of those who fit the category have a degree of privilege and they make use of it too, to articulate opinions and attitudes on issues of general public concern. It’s roughly what is called intellectuals. There are various trends and notions, to begin with. Getting back to your question, on their responsibility, I don’t think it changes much with the use of social media. The question is whether the content that appears merits the dubious value of being treated as intellectual commentary.
So, you do make a distinction between scholarly-experts and intellectuals?
The terms are used differently. A scholarly-expert who is working on the history of Mesopotamia for example, or who is doing research on just who participated in the attack on the Bastille is not considered an intellectual. He’s a scholarly-expert. Maybe, the person who is a scholarly-expert also discusses issues of public interest and general concern and in that case he might be considered an intellectual. But it’s a strange category. I don’t give it any particular credit.
But don’t you think that, something like say technology, which is in abundance today but yet requires a specific set of advanced skills to be attained by people, and the people who have attained this specific set of skills are bound to be a bit more advanced than the rest of the general population, and hence in a better position to engage in intellectual commentary?
It makes them more advanced in the skill they have mastered. So for example, if I try to fix my automobile engine, I would ruin it but if I take it to a skilled mechanic he can fix it very easily. He has skills that I don’t have. If I have to have a heart surgery, I’d prefer to go to somebody who is skilled in the profession and who understands the techniques and so on. If I want to learn about, say, Quantum Electrodynamics, I’ll go the person who has mastered the field and ask him to see if he can explain it to me in terms that I can understand.
Sure, there are all kinds of special skills and abilities. Some of them are weird, personally gifted in ways that enables them to master them. I could never be a car mechanic I’m sure. Some are acquired through work and effort. But this is quite separate from the question of the responsibility of the intellectuals, which is the responsibility of people who have the privilege, the basis, and the resources to interact with the general public on issues that are of a major concern. So they have responsibilities.
Very recently the UN’s fact-finding mission in Myanmar, headed by Marzuki Darusman, declared that social media had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony, dissention and conflict” in Myanmar. Now, in your 2015 interview with Byline, you said, “I don’t look at Twitter because it doesn’t tell me anything.”
However, a recent research that came out in August 2017 by the Pew Research Centre found that around 67% of Americans use social media for news, and this number is most probably increasing all around the world, as we speak. This just goes on to prove that people are increasingly relying on social media for news. What is your take on that, with regard to your propaganda model?
Well, first of all, as for the comment that I don’t use Twitter continues to be true and for the same reasons. I don’t find anything of interest there. It’s a way to shoot off your mouth and see words on some topic.
Social media has no real impact on the propaganda model. The propaganda model was a study of the major institutions that provide the fundamental sources of news and information on which the general public relies.
The news that appears on social media, let’s say on Facebook, is drawn from the major media. They don’t have the investigative reporters on the field looking into what’s happening in Myanmar for example. The fact remains that the basic source of news, information, opinion and analysis is still the major media. The propaganda model simply studies their structure. It says what is the nature of these institutions, what is the audience to which they sell their product, the viewers and readers, what is their relations with other power systems like the government and from this network of interposed institutional social arrangements, we tried to deduce some conclusions about what we expect the content of the media to be.
That’s the model. Then comes the investigation and the critical study seeking to determine whether in fact the expectations that arrive from the analysis of institutional structures accounts for what we actually find in the media. In fact, our book, Manufacturing Consent, is mostly case studies.
But don’t you see a deeper centralisation of the power of information towards Facebook or social media?
I think that the centralisation of access to information through the few major corporations that by now virtually monopolise information transmission, like Facebook, Google, Amazon, is extremely dangerous.
One of the most positive social and impactful movements of 2017 was the #MeToo movement. It has begun a sudden revival in the 21st Century Feminist movement and it has had profound effects on societies worldwide. What do you think of it?
I think it grows out of a real and serious and deep problem of social pathology. It has exposed it and brought it to attention, brought to public attention many explicit and particular cases and so on. But I think there is a danger. The danger is confusing allegation with demonstrated action. We have to be careful to ensure that allegations have to be verified before they are used to undermine individuals and their actions and their status. So as in any such effort at uncovering improper, inappropriate and sometimes criminal activities, there always has to be a background of recognition that there’s a difference between allegation and demonstration.
Do you see this movement as rattling power relations in institutions across the world, at least between the two genders?
I think it has led to a significant and a much belated rethinking of power relations. And that’s very healthy towards recalibrating and re-establishing them on different terms. So that can be a very healthy development.
Recently, in a widely hailed judgement of the Supreme Court of India, the Court unanimously declared that the right to privacy is a fundamental right. On the other hand, Indians are mandatorily subject to a 12-digit unique identity number based on their biometric and demographic data, called the Aadhaar number, which also makes up the world’s largest biometric ID system. The Aadhaar was brought out by an executive order and without any legislative backing, back in 2009 and it was in order to bring the citizens of India under one big database system and to link to it the essential services that one requires in everyday life.
There have been many theories and in fact a real concern about how the Indian government can, through this big data collection, become a sort of an Orwellian surveillance system. What are your thoughts on such systems, such as Aadhaar, which have been effected under the garb of constitutionality and democratic requirements?
One could certainly see how such a system could be abused in totally unacceptable ways.
There should be safeguards against that. You can see some kinds of utilities in such a system that would actually help citizens in their ordinary lives and you could also see dangers in the hands of an authoritarian system that would misuse it. So if any such system is instituted and it should be done – it must be done – with democratic public support and it would have to be accompanied by safeguards and structures that prevent the kind of abuse easily imaginable.
But this has already led to several abuses, and a highly porous system. People have even lost lives because they couldn’t merely present their Aadhaar card when they needed critical treatment. And what is really interesting to note is how this was brought out by an executive order and not by legislation, which was in the case of other successful but not completely similar systems such as the United States’ Social Security Number. Aadhaar verifies an individual’s identity. Connecting one’s basic utility requirements to the card makes one’s existence dependent upon it.
Well, abstractly, one cannot comment on social security or any other identification system. One has to ask, did it arise through democratic participation or public discussion, the kinds of reflections and discourse that would lead to a legitimate democratic decision or did it come about simply by an executive order. That’s one question.
Second, if the latter, we already have a significant element of illegitimacy. If the former, it might be legitimate. So, Social Security in the United States has its public uses and benefits and the Social Security Number is beneficial in many ways.
Then comes the question of how it’s used. Whether in an abusive way to control people or is it used to facilitate people’s everyday lives, to improve things they can do, to make things easier for them and more convenient and so on. So those are the two questions that have to be raised. In the case of the Indian system, which I haven’t investigated, but by what you describe, seems abusive in both respects, both in how it was instituted and how it is used.
You said in the same 2015 interview with Byline, clarifying on your idea of freedom of speech and your stance against prior restraint, that even if someone were to glorify the sending of the Jews to the gas chambers in an advertisement in the Times Square, you’d be against it, but you’d also not want the State to police it. Is this idea of yours restricted to the United States or is this your general stance on the idea of freedom of speech, because, in a religiously and culturally volatile country such as India, such statements could lead to riots and bloodshed.
There is no right that I know of that is absolute. There are always conditions and constraints, elements of circumstance that enter into any human action. So there are basic rights which are guidelines for behaviour, action, attitudes and so on. But they always have to be adjusted invariably in human affairs to existing circumstances.
So for example, I believe there are constraints on freedom of speech. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States in 1969 reached a pretty reasonable standard on freedom of speech in the Brandenburg v. Ohio case, saying that speech should be free up to a participation in an imminent criminal act. So if you and I walk into a grocery store and I’m holding a gun and you say “shoot”, well, that’s not protected speech. Now that doesn’t give a specific and explicit criterion for every case in any means. Nor does it mean that you should be permitted to put up a huge ad over Times Square saying that “kill the Jews”. I don’t think that would be permitted.
Does it permit you to stand in Times Square and hand out leaflets to people saying “kill the Jews”, yes, I think it does. I think that should be permissible. We have to make judgements and the judgements do have to take into account the nature of the society, clearly.
China’s recent constitutional amendment potentially making Xi Jinping the President for life sends out a very strong message for itself. With allegations of neo-colonialism in Africa and in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, it comes to one’s notice that China has come to achieve, or would have achieved the superpower status in a very unique manner, i.e. without violence, in distinction to all former superpowers, more currently including the United States. What are your thoughts on this, and also on the recent constitutional amendment?
The constitutional amendment is another dangerous and unfortunate step towards autocracy and repression in China. It has actually been accompanied by many acts of harsh, brutal repression. All of this should be censured. As for China’s overseas activities, in so far as they involve exploitation, destruction of resources, suppression of people’s rights, violence, then of course, they should be condemned. But the fact that the United States and England used extreme violence in gaining their superpower status, of course, does not justify anyone else doing it. By and large, China’s international interactions to a large extent have been commercial rather than forceful. But that’s not hundred percent true and if those bounds are crossed, then again it should be condemned and prevented. But China is way behind the West in this respect – in the respect of using violence and force to gain power over large parts of the world, at the moment.
It is widely rumoured that Michel Foucault was paid in hashish for doing the debate with you on human nature, justice and power back in 1971 and that he and his Parisian friends would jokingly refer to it as the “Chomsky hash”. James Miller noted so in his book The Passion of Michel Foucault. Are you aware of that
Never heard of that particular gossip and there’s absolutely nothing true to it, I’m sure. We spent a very pleasant day together, walking through the Dutch countryside in Holland partly because we just wanted to have a chance to talk to each other and partly as an experiment to see how we would make up with me speaking English and him speaking French. He didn’t know much English and I don’t know much French. Turned out it worked pretty well so we decided to have the discussion in two languages, English and French. But we just spent the time talking. I’m sure there’s nothing beyond that.
What about the Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) interview? You were visibly awkward throughout the interview.
The request for the interview told me that there was a very serious interviewer who wants to spend time with me and made it seem very significant and important. The minute he walked in, I knew something was wrong. And as the interview continued I tried to be polite and it got more and more absurd, in my opinion. Finally I just ended it. You say it was awkward, I thought it was ridiculous. I don’t have time to waste on things like that, I have a busy life.
This interview first appeared in the Journal of Political Theory & Philosophy, the first Indian-student-run journal to have interviewed Noam Chomsky.