Serbia's Cultural Intellectuals

Not all Serbian intellectuals fall into one of the two groups described above: the proponents and opponents of a Greater and "ethnically homogeneous" Serbia and the war waged to bring it into existence. There are also many intellectuals who have neither drafted the master plan, incited the masses, and produced "justifications" of the crimes, nor come out against it in public. They are cultural, rather than political intellectuals: intellectuals who fell no particular vocation or concern, and who have chosen to remain above the fray. What are we to think of them?

Those who reject the very notion of cultural intellectuals will, of course, see this stance as reason enough to question the very credentials of those intellectuals. For they hold that a true intellectual, as Sartre put it, is not content to mind his or her own business (Jean-Paul Sartre in Szacki 1990:231).

I do not reject the idea of cultural intellectuals. My criticism of those Serbian intellectuals who have taken no public stance on Serbia's onslaught on Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova, is different and, I believe, more damaging. It is based on a claim which I think modest, indeed, uncontroversial. If the responsability of intellectuals for what happens in society is not greater than that of others, it is certainly not lesser either. If they have no particular responsibility as intellectuals, their status as cultural intellectuals does not give them an exemption from the kind of moral and political reponsibility all citizens have. For they are citizens too, however apolitical and uninvolved they choose to be as intellectuals.

Given the nature of Serbia's war on its neighbors and the character and dimensions of the crimes it has been committing, I think it can be maintained that every citizen of Serbia has moral duty to oppose what is being done in his or her name too, or at least dissociate himself or herself publicly from it. This can be said with particular force of Serbian intellectuals for two reasons. First, so many Serbian intellectuals, and almost all Serbian intellectuals elites, have been actively implicated in this war and its crimes. Second, intellectuals who del in words, representations, and ideas are particularly well placed to make their views, values, and principles known to their fellow citizens: to take a public stand, and to support or protest the policies of their government. Unlike some of their fellow citizens, at least, they can never plausibly claim the lack of venue or opportunity as an excuse for failing to do so.

It may be objected that nothing they might have said, written, or done, would have prevented the war, or stopped it after it had broken out, or affected its course in any palpable way. Their protests would only expose them to unpleasant consequences - to no good purpose. The truth of this objection must be granted - but not its relevance; it assumes that dissociation and protest have a point and can be a duty only when there is a good chance of exerting a beneficial influence on actions or practices people protest or dissociate themselves from. Such a prospect is certainly an obvious reason to protest or dissociate oneself from objectionable actions or practices, but it is not the only one. Sometimes there is also room, and indeed a moral requirement, for protesting or dissociating oneself from something one holds to be seriously morally wrong, although doing so will not help put an end to it. For such dissociation or protest, which might be called symbolic, can have a different, but highly important point.

Here I want to draw on Thomas E. Hill's discussion of symbolic protest, which clearly applies to the case of Serbian cultural intellectuals. Hill argues that symbolic protest may be the appropriate thing to do under the following circumstances: "(a) The protest is of a serious injustice done to others; (b) the protest cannot reasonably be expected to end the injustice, to prevent its recurrence, or to rectify it in any way; (c) the protest may cause some harm, but not disaster, to the protestor; (d) the effects of the protest on others' welfare can reasonably be expected to be minimal or to include a balance of benefit and harm" (Hill 1991:53).

The point of such dissociation and protest is twofold. When the evil or injustice that is being committed is committed by someone who is associated with me in a significant way, and in particular when it is committed in the name of the group to which I too belong, I may protest the evil or injustice, and dissociate myself from it and from those perpetrating it, in order to show that it is not perpetrated in my name too. By doing so, I also say something of critical importance about who and what I am. For "who one is' for moral purposes - i.e., a Nazi, a racist, a Christian, a humanist - is determined not simply by substantive contributions to various good and evil causes but to some extent by what and whom one associates oneself with, and in some contexts this dpepends importantly on the symbolic gestures one is prepared to make" (Hill 1991:57). These symbolic gestures testify to my commitment to certain beliefs, principles, values, and thereby also help determine who and what I am. I would add one thing to Hill's account. It seems to me that the greater the evil or injustice one should protest or distance oneself from, the more stringent the duty to do so.

Those Serbian intellectuals who have neither actively supported the Greater Serbian war on Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, nor protested against it, could, and should, have done the latter. Indeed, they have a particularly weightly moral duty to do so since the evil and injustice involved is of the most serious kind: what is being perpetrated in their name too are war crimes and crimes against humanity. Moreover, as intellectuals, dissociating themselves from the war and the crimes they might bring some harm upon themselves, but certainly not a disaster.

Their failure to do so offers a particularly undefying spectacle. They have compromised their moral integrity and become passive accomplices in the greatest moral outrage in Europe since World War II. And they have sold out for what, under the circumstances, is a very low price.

Back to Igor Primoratz: Serbian Intellectuals and the War in the Balkans