Recent events—discrimination, harassment, stories collected through LERN’s Discrimination in Higher Ed project and the (re)actions of ‘allies’–have conspired to push me to reflect more deeply on some of Martin Luther King Jr’s hardest-hitting insights concerning silence and complicity. For example (from MLK’s 1963 collection Strength to Love):
The ultimate measure of a man (sic) is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.
Over the latter half of the 20th century (in line with the so-called “linguistic turn”) many continental theorists took pains to qualify over-simplified divisions between discourse/writing/speech and (other forms of) embodied acts and actions; discourse too, the argument typically goes, is a fundamental conduit for power relations–cementing, affecting, influencing and, in a very real sense, “making” life and politics.
Unfortunately, at least in some interpretations (or uses) this general message seems to have contributed to often less-than-critical treatments of certain core contextual divergences between, let us say, broader public speech acts (e.g. publishing a paper that condemns discrimination) and actions (discursive or physical) taken in the context of closer and more immediate relationships, courses, and departmental or institutional ‘events’. To put this in a more straightforward way: there arguably remains a huge and often unexplored gap between the positions academics (and others) publicly espouse and the actions they take in the course of everyday behind-the-scenes encounters with actual instances of injustice, inequality, and discrimination.
Proverbs attesting to normative difficulties “walking the talk” are abundant; what I want to highlight here is the often pronounced difference in the relative risks (and benefits) of holding forth on issues of social justice in academic publications (and at conferences and other public venues) and in the more ‘private’ realms of the lab, department, or institution. As I’ve written before, we (academics), particularly in the humanities or critical social sciences, typically reap huge rewards for work perceived as cutting edge (‘edgy’), risqué, philosophically saucy, and/or that explicitly ‘troubles’ the boundaries of conventionally normative conceptions of behavior and identity. The role of cathection in abstract discourse (and academic advancement) is nevertheless almost certainly undertheorized; habituation quickly kills the intellectual libido. (Cf recent incursions into the domains of weight (fat studies), madness, and alternative sexual practices (BDSM) and earlier g-spots revolving around sexual identity, mixed race issues and intersectionality.)
But what of risks and benefits in the private, immediate academic world—typically undocumented, often unknown to broader groups of colleagues or activists? Is it even controversial to suggest that many (most?) of the benefits of scholarly mojo quickly disappear when power and influence ‘re-group’ in traditional hierarchies, such as those found between colleagues in virtually all postsecondary settings–faculty and graduate students, the tenure-track and the adjunct, and so forth? That it’s no longer ‘convenient’ to think critically about mental difference and diversity and the ‘actual’ impact this might have on relationships, communication, behavior and ‘fair’ expectations? Whence all those analyses of the effects of long-term “background” discrimination and stigma on members of marginalized, disenfranchised groups? Where the commitment to participatory or collaborative forms of research and scholarship when such collaborators challenge, rather than affirm, the beliefs of the more powerful or senior institutionally sanctioned academic?
I write this because the fact remains that students (undergraduate and graduate), as well as junior or adjunct faculty, suffer, around the US, at institutions large and small, from mental health based discrimination and harassment nearly everyday (as LERN’s Discrimination in Higher Ed project is beginning to document); all this in spite of the prevalence of “critical social theory”, public disciplinary preoccupations with “social justice,” and frequent calls to “end stigma,” diversify the academic workforce and challenge discrimination. In my experience it is rare that students report or describe examples in which (more powerful) faculty have intervened to help them, or to challenge concrete and immediate manifestations of an often oppressive status quo, particularly when any personal (institutional or academic) risks are involved. Suddenly, it seems, issues that are theoretically precisely “the business” of the critical academic, are no longer “their business.” (Likewise, the exploitation of graduate students with and without disabilities is notoriously rampant and yet rarely addressed: uncredited authorship of grants (and sometimes papers), unpaid and uncompensated (or inadequately compensated) academic labor, lack of access to both mental and physical healthcare, and a system that forces students to please faculty (who they depend on for all-important letters of recommendation) even when their rights have been clearly (legally or morally) violated or they strongly disagree with the ethics of a given project. (We might also frame the latter as a particularly insidious form of academic emotional or affective labor.)
How can we change these sorts of dynamics or meaningfully “break [this] silence”? To return to MLK: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he (sic) must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” It is—perhaps—intellectually and politically naïve** of me to still ‘believe’ in a more or less universal moral compass (in the most basic way)–sense, somewhere within the heart of every scholar and academic–of what is “right”, but I do. As the master would say, follow the compass.
[**As an aside, I've never admired Judith Butler more than the afternoon when, in the Q&A following a highly charged lecture on the Guantanamo Bay photo scandal, she responded to a grad student's question re why "things like this should surprise us at all" by strongly--I believe she was visibly shaking-- condemning the "haute" nonchalance of US intellectuals towards human rights violations that, as she put it (to paraphrase) "should viscerally overwhelm us and engender almost immediate affective and moral outrage"; "do you really think", she concluded, addressing the student, "that you're too cool for that?" The room was silent. And I think this ended the Q&A because, really, what else could (then) be said?]