At a conference dinner, an art historian shares with me his dilemma on accepting a speaker invitation from China due to ethical considerations. China recently censored certain artists, attracting global attention. To engage or not to engage, that is the question.
At another academic symposium, an open letter of protest circulates against a data mining company’s sponsorship presence at this event. This is in response to a list of allegations of deception including complicity with the Trump government in identifying and deporting refugees. Academics were asked to sign the letter if they agreed with this stance. Some praised these efforts as academic courage. Others argued that singling out and blocking a particular company was not the best approach for us academics. Instead, we need to work with these tech companies and transform the larger data economy, as the argument goes. Regardless, the academic is required to take an ethical stand.
And currently, an academic media storm is raging, triggered by an “audacious hoax” by three academics who wrote 20 fake papers seeped in heavy jargon, some of which were accepted in high profile journals. Their goal was to expose the strong ideologies driving certain kinds of humanities and social science journals invested in “grievance studies.” For instance, one of the papers ask: “Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?” while another promotes “fat bodybuilding” and even another rewrote passages from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to push “neo-liberal feminism.” Some academics celebrated this expose of how far left ideologies have penetrated academia, whilst others condemned this hoax as biased, disrespectful of the review process and agenda-seeking on their own fronts.
Clearly, ethics in academia is melding into the current bigger geo-political battle. As politics around us become more polarised, divisive and toxic, there is a growing sense of urgency to exercise our political voice in our day-to-day lives. The resurgence of everyday politics is healthy and yet, my fear is that we as educators and scholars are losing sight of our role and our ability to play out all sides in an objective manner.
Isn’t our job to engage even with the most repulsive ideas, non-orthodox practices and morally dubious organisations, and push beyond our siloed worldviews? Should we not sideline personal ideologies for truth seeking and teaching our students how to reason with those we believe are unreasonable?
Last week, an encounter with another academic drove home this point to me, viscerally so. She, an African-American scholar remarked that for her people, “it had gotten worse and worse.” In what sense, I asked? She said in all ways. I pushed further and remarked that surely she believed some progress had been made and that it was equally important to identify achievements as it was to identify chronic failure. I argued that if we fail to do so, we are denigrating the efforts of a vast group of people who managed to create positive change in the past. At this point, voice quivering, she asked me if I “subscribed to critical race theory?” She told me that I had no right to speak on behalf of her people and could never do so as I could not understand their lived experiences. She demanded to not be delegitimised and walked away.
This shocked me to my core. We were on the same side. My research and beliefs are about recognising inequality and challenging universalisms in design and thinking. And yet, we failed in a simple act of dialogue.
Ideologies can become blinders.
If we cannot speak to each other, how can we teach the next generation to critically listen?
It is time to unmute genuine conversation.