Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

As you all know, the sciences and humanities are targeted on many levels. We’ve all seen budget cuts happening, for more or less comprehensible reasons. By now we’re used to that, and the more cynical sides of our souls will quickly admit that at least many of the humanities are not much of an asset to the average tax payer. So far, this made for nasty ways of playing off the sciences and humanities against one another. But now the sciences are explicitly targeted, too, for example by people doubting climate sciences or the standards of vaccination. Over the last two weeks, I got a ‘live’ glimpse of the way in which right-wing politicians mobilise people against universities. Of course, we have seen this happening everywhere: prominently in the US and in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, being exposed to the tactics in my academic home country, the Netherlands, made me realise just how powerful the narratives against us are. This phenomenon is not going to go away by itself. Thus, I think we – people working in the sciences and especially in the humanities – need a positive narrative about why academic work matters and a more concerted way of communicating this. By now, I’ve seen a number of petitions and open letters going … nowhere. Part of the problem is that we’re not only targeted from the outside, but also, mostly inadvertently, internally. In the light of the current threats and the way that universities are structured, the common ways of defending ourselves do not work. Therefore, I would like to launch this call for ideas.

Yes, it’s really bad. – We all know that academia is under threat in many ways. Up till recently, that is, perhaps up till ten years ago (perhaps shortly after the financial crisis), these threats have been generally justified with economic arguments: We need to shut down philosophy, languages and cultural studies because otherwise we can’t finance cancer research and the military – or some such line of reasoning that would convince at least some of us. But now the tune has changed. The narrative that I encountered in the Netherlands and elsewhere is running under the heading of cultural marxism (in the sense of a conspiracy theory): Whether you know it or not, if you are working in education or at a university you are willy-nilly part of a left-wing conspiracy that counters free speech and all sorts of other values. This accusation is of course nonsense. But the problem is that it is widely held and believed. Given that Mr Trump has already approved a policy targeting what are thought to be enemies of free speech, it won’t be long until we will see this in action as a more general means to “evaluate” studies and departments. These are the beginnings of a fairly new concerted set of actions against standards in (higher) education. But the new line of argument against academia is not that we’re just useless; it’s that we are inherently bad.

What might stop us. – In many alt-right narratives, universities are portrayed as bulwarks of leftist indoctrination. So far the the response has been defensive: “Science has no agenda” etc. But instead of defending ourselves against outrageous claims, we need a comprehensible narrative of how academia contributes to the protection of democratic values, and we need ways of implementing this narrative. As it stands, the academic communities are defenceless against such doubts for three reasons: firstly, we represent a form of institutionalised doubting, as it were, and will respond with more doubting rather than reassurance; secondly, we are very bad at collective action and solidarity because we are incentivised to compete against one another wherever possible. Therefore, the principles of our work and the structure of our career paths make it very hard to respond even to common threats. A third reason might be that the narratives against academia have already gained too much power: The current way of playing off academics as right-wing versus left-wing or free-speech versus de-platformers, for instance, has gained so much force that even some of your colleagues might go along with it and see you (or you them) as a mere instance of left or right-wing activism. Academics are of course not immune to the effects of ideologies.

What we need to do. – Given the incentive to compete, it’s difficult to start a conversation. But that’s what we need to do. When we see academia in Turkey or Hungary under threat, we follow the news and start petitions or some such measures. But when it hits home, it’s much harder to believe that it is happening in the first place. So the first thing we need is to break the silence. We need a clear-headed exchange about what is happening around us. If it turns out that I’m just alarmist and everything is fine, then all the better. In any case, it will help to have an open conversation across different status groups (from higher administrators to deans to professors to students). Secondly, we need clear ideas why we matter. Such ideas are hard to come by because we’re often used to make our case against other disciplines. These ideas should not be just defensive, like “no, we’re not against free speech!” Thirdly, we need ways of communicating these ideas at all levels. Many of us are good at talking to students or grant agencies, that’s by and large preaching to the choir. We need to reach those who currently believe that we are the enemies of society. So we need to talk to journalists and others who shape the discourses of the many intently.

How we should begin. – Of course, we don’t need to begin with the most difficult of interlocutors. Convincing your colleagues about the fact that we’re in trouble might be tricky enough already. What we need is an understanding of what is going on. So we should indeed begin by exchanging anecdotes and tentative ideas. Given that we’re all too busy already, the easiest would probably be to ask Greta Thunberg to do it on our behalf. – Joking, sorry! Of course you can begin by responding to this blog post or just by talking to a colleague. If you’re looking for ideas, you could ask a friend outside academia. They exist. Or why not devote some twenty minutes to some exchange at the end of the next department meeting or conference? Once we begin a conversation, ways of coordinating action will suggest themselves.

Whatever we do, we need to understand that we’re not defending ourselves (only) against claims about economic necessities; we’re up against people who claim that we undermine basic values. We shouldn’t let these people dictate the stories about who we are and what we do. Countering them doesn’t mean that we should be defensive; it’s enough if we begin to take control of our own stories and why they matter.

6 thoughts on “Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about the discourse of fake-news and right-wing populism that is haunting us now. Personally, I am particularly upset that this is happening at a time when we – and that includes the right-wing populists as well – need to act on Climate Change. Young people all over the globe are striking because their future is at stake and the populists simply deny that there is something like CC or that people can do something about it. We have 10 years left to keep Global Warming below the level of the Paris Agreement (+1,5 degrees) and we’re acting like we’re on board of the Titanic. I don’t know why the populists do this; CC is not a left-wing theme, right?

    I think the most important reason is just electoral gain. It is often said about populism and populists (whether righ- or left-wing) that they can very easily adjust to what the voter wants. And I think that is particularly true with right-wing populism. I think Plato was in a way right to state in the Republic that bad democracy (direct democracy, populist democracy and demagogy) is often followed by tyranny. We see it happening all over the globe; Brazil, Israël, Russia, Hungary, Poland, etc. And they will probably use the anti-climate and anti-climate science discourse as a way to stay in power.

    So, if that is already happening to a relatively hard science like climate science, what about the humanities and philosophy? I’m very pessimistic about what we can do. Nevertheless, as I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to counter fake-news and framing. I would suggest two solutions:

    1. Use the framing-word as a way to express your pride. in the 16th century, when the Dutch were fighting the Spanish army, a group of noble men came before the representative of the Emperor and expressed their concern about the prosecution of dissenters and believers. Someone said about this group: ‘they are nothing but beggars!’ (‘Ce ne sont que des gueux!’) , and it went ‘viral’. That is, the revolting people called themselves ‘beggars’ (‘Geuzen’, after ‘gueux’). So, just like the ‘Geuzen’ people may counter framing by actually using the framing-word. For instance, this week I saw a student with a shirt on with the text ‘Ik ben een klimaatdrammer’ (I am a climate apologist’), to counter the claims of the Telegraaf that climate-activists were ‘klimaatdrammers’.

    2. Organize reading groups and academic courses on the dangers and seductions of discourse and framing. I suggest reading the LTI (‘Lingua Tertii Imperii) by Victor Klemperer as an excellent way to see how the discourse in the Third Reich gradually and subtlely changed. You may, to counter the accusation of doing politics, use as an addendum books on Eastern Europe or China during communism. For instance, classic works are the book of Vaclav Havel (‘Living in truth’) or Yung Chang (‘Wild Swans. Three daughters of China’).

    Courses may be on the power of rhetoric, for instance. Using classical examples (Perikles, Cicero, Lenin, Hitler, Goebbels, Martin Luther King) people may come to realize how charisma and excellence of speech may be used for good and bad purposes.

    But ultimately I am very pessimistic about what we can do to counter such fake news. I think ultimately, though, due to weather disasters and extinction of species and the threat to humanity by CC humanity will be forced to act, and the populist movement will lose its momentum. But in the next few years I only see the movement gaining in power.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your great reply! Your suggestions point in a promising direction and might make for an easy start. If reclaiming is the way to go, I’m an advocate of free speech. (Incidentally, it was an essay by Václav Havel that got me interested in philosophy of language in high school.)

      Regarding CC, it might not just be populism but people with dedicated economic insterests who drive the populism. After all, acting on CC will require a loss of status quo in many respects, just think of the car industry. They don’t deny CC; they deny that it’s man made, incentivising the rest of us to act fatalistically.

      I know there is much reason for pessimism, but I think we need to try, and the most straightforward way is to simply have a conversation and consider constructive ideas. Thanks for joining.


  2. I feel the above suggestions do not really face reality. With all due respect, organizing reading groups to read Victor Klemperer in a world that consumes its information through Instagram just emphasizes how irrelevant we have became. The idea that the academia protects freedom of speech is not relevant nowadays for people speak their mind endlessly and from all the noise no one really cares what one says, particularly academics who are locked in their towers. Humanities seriously has to think what they truly have to offer, for as I see it, so far as the money flows, we basically repeat old habits and cover our eyes.


      1. This is not pessimism. The academia needs to reinvent its mission.

        As the commentator above went back to WWII, I will remark that the Nazis subsidized radio receivers to their citizens (if I remember correctly), but they made sure that the devices they received could only receive local broadcasts, i.e. to make sure they cannot listen to BBC etc., but rather only with the Nazi propaganda. Contemporary social networks are not that far away.


  3. I am not entirely sure what the point is A. is trying to make. Is (s)he trying to prove that technology like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have not only changed the quantity but also the quality (content) of propaganda? Or is the claim, on the other hand (like the radio/social network comparison seems to suggest) that there are important similarities between past propaganda techniques and contemporary propaganda techniques?

    I think in both cases it makes a lot of sense to read people like Klemperer and Havel. My claim would be that words are still the most powerful memes available, since we are very much accustomed to using language. There is, for instance, a very strong attraction for using alliteration, or rhyme or repetition in depicting people as adversaries because it sounds good and is easy to remember. The old Greeks already knew that, when they said of foreigners that they were ‘Hoi Barbaroi’; the ‘barbar’ sounds nice because of the repetition. Or think of Cato the Elder when he said that Carthago was to be destroyed: ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem…etc.” And aren’t we Dutch usually called ‘kaaskoppen’?

    The point I was trying to make is that we can learn from history, even ancient history, because certain (psychological, sociological and linguistic) laws or rather regularities apply over and over again. So in my view the task of academia is to uncover the hidden regularities that we may find in the use of certain types of words, for instance, by certain types of groups or people. Euphemisms by politicians, charismatic and simplistic rhetoric by populists, etc. So these type of reading groups would no be used for advocating free speech or limiting it, but as an exercise in uncovering certain writing- and speaking habits of contemporary politicians on the right and on the left (and yourself).

    Liked by 1 person

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