By Aglaja Kempinski |
Many of the conversations I am having with colleagues and friends recently are about the political developments in the US, the UK and Europe. “Alternative facts”, racism, protectionism, islamophobia and anti-science sentiments are among the worries on my collective social circle’s mind. Almost always accompanying these subjects is a feeling of powerless restlessness. Can it be ethical to watch certain political developments and do nothing? “Probably maybe not, I guess” is many people’s keen instinctive response. However, what on earth CAN we do? Today’s post will ponder this question and hopes to provide, in lieu of a fully satisfying answer, some perspective.
On Saturday the 21st of January 4.8 Million people in the US and all over the world took part in the women’s march in protest of newly inaugurated President Donald Trump in general, and his anti-abortion legislation in particular. Presumably you know this – unless you have been doing nothing but watch Fox News for the last 9 days (in which case this post might not meet all your alternative fact standards). What you probably don’t know is that this bloggers grandmother suffered a stroke that very same day from which, after a few days of unconsciousness she passed away peacefully surrounded by her loved ones at the respectable age of 91. She never knew the women’s march was happening. It strikes me as particularly tragic that she missed out on hearing how women everywhere shook the world in an act of defiance and pride. As a natural born feminist, my grandmother was deeply political her entire life. However, living in Germany as the daughter of a Nazi collaborator during WWII she arguably had a tough start.
Thinking about how she had to navigate her life defying her family, general prejudice and often the government, I realised that when we feel powerless in the face of brutal injustice and political developments we never thought possible, it might be our grandmothers, great-grandmothers and other female relatives who can inspire us more than anyone else. Whether our current political struggles are comparable to the eve of WWI, or WWII, or, in fact, like any previous point in history at all is irrelevant. What is relevant is that in all our families there are people who had to face times of political upheaval, uncertainty and disenfranchisement. Some of them had a path laid out for them, but most – and particularly women – were left to wonder how to act, what to do, when to leave, when to speak up. What advice would your grandparents give you about facing the likes of Trump?
Doing some digging around in some of my friends and family’s ancestral tales, one strategy emerged again and again: emotional perseverance. More publicly, we can find this in the British WWII mantra “keep calm and carry on”, in the stories of resistance fighters in Communist occupied Germany, in the haunting stories of Holocaust survivors.
But this is a blog about the PhD experience. So what does all this matter for the politically troubled academic? After all, we more than likely are already well versed in the art of perseverance in the face of frustrating data and disheartening supervision meetings. How can we begin to translate the notion of emotional perseverance in the face of fascism into our academic lives?
Look on the bright side. Rejoice in the fact that standards in British and US universities are soon to drop significantly due to international staff being cast out and caps on international students. This should take some of that nasty pressure to perform well away.
- Resist narratives of “post-truth” and “post-fact”. It is tempting to start feeling ostracised as an academic by the common claim that we live in a post-truth world. However, Judith Butler said she is not sure whether this claim is actually true (I know, meta). Judith Butler is one smart cookie when it comes to the nebulous subject of society. So, this should at least give us time to reflect. Personally, I believe that post-truth is an alluring but dangerous scapegoat.
This is not the first time that politics have developed an anti-intellectual sentiment. It is not the first time that people are convinced by emotive arguments. It is certainly not the first time that people could not agree on the truth and it is not the first time falsehoods are spread systematically for political gain. While I don’t want to trivialise what’s going on, I do not believe that this is about the end of academia, reason or truth. So do not throw your dataset out of the window in a fit of frustration just yet. Rather, stand up for the scientific method simply by being an academic.
- Be heard. Go to marches. Participate where you can. Harass your representatives with emails and phone calls to make your voice heard. Be outraged on twitter and Facebook and make a noise. After the roaring success of the women’s march several other marches are now in the making. One of them is specifically a march for science. Go to it. Be involved.
In the words of Marie Curie, the ultimate science warrior:
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
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