Verina Wild is a post-doctoral researcher at the Philosophy Department at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, and Senior Teaching and Research Associate at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine at University of Zurich. Her research concerns questions of public health ethics, social and global justice in health and health of migrants. Hers is the second post in a series on:
Ethics in Academic Events
As theorists of justice and professional ethicists we are used to scrutinizing the practices of others. Is it not about time that we turned our analytical skills and discerning moral sensitivities on ourselves? Inspired by discussions at the closing of the workshop ‘Global Justice and Global Health Ethics Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young’, this series of posts seeks to examine our own actions and practices and explore the moral dilemmas of the academy.
‘Us’ versus ‘Them’
Since the US election the internet has been awash with accusations. Apparently, ‘we liberal intellectuals’ should be ashamed of how blind we have become to real-life experiences or to any other school of thought. ‘We’ have been in “elegantly scented bubbles of privilege and prejudice”  in the metropolitan capitals of the world. ‘We’ looked down on ‘them’ (Trump supporters but also conservative academics) without respect, uttering endless calls for openness and diversity, but in reality not being open at all. ‘If ‘they’ are against progressive ideals ‘we’ immediately call them misogynists and racists, instead of listening to ‘their’ thoughts in an open way. ‘We’ are the true haters of democracy, because what ‘we’ really want is the imposed (not democratically elected) rule of progressive, liberal thought. ‘We’ adopt the self-image as the only group who thinks rationally and reasonably. However, in doing so, ‘we’ have been intolerant and dogmatic: ‘we’ are the totalitarians.
‘We’ liberal intellectuals have produced this divide that has now blown up in our faces. The Trumps, Farages and Le Pens of the world have exploited the gulf but ‘we’ are to blame for creating the divide in the first place.
Efforts to Diversify and Liberal Totalitarianism
How are these reiterations connected to “Justice in academia” – the current theme of this blog? Academics have begun to recognize and tackle the lack of diversity and equality in their own disciplines. Some philosophers are keen to take action to overcome the fact (and the perception) that philosophy is a discipline just for white upper class men. Conscientious egalitarian, socialist, feminist, liberal and other academics are in the process of trying to expand the project: to create a more just environment at conferences and elsewhere. We are discussing whether and how quotas for more equal representation of both genders could be implemented, trying to develop new institutional arrangements, endeavouring to improve our own practice, and challenging those with power within the discipline who oppose these measures. We want to identify how to better include young researchers, and how to create environments at conferences that are inclusive.
However in doing so the progressive ‘we’ might be doing exactly what ‘they’ are criticizing ‘us’ for. ‘We’ continue with our top down leftist agenda that the majority does not want or whose opinion is not being asked for. ‘We’ continue with our “totalitarianism” if we for example impose quotas and guidelines for ethical conference organization. Should we thus worry that we – with a project like ethical and fairer academia – ultimately contribute to the opposite of what we intend? Are we trying to impose rules in a world that doesn’t want these rules (democratically) and therefore in reality working against democratic ideals, those that we are promoting so fiercely? Are we – who are interested in liberty, understood as freedom of oppression and domination – the real totalitarian imposers?
Where to Go From Here?
First of all, I believe there are more bubbles than just the two ‘we’ and ‘they’ I have referred to so far. I also have the feeling that these bubbles are constructed to a large extent in order to establish power relations and enemies. I would assume that many don’t even identify with which bubble they are assigned to in such a crude way.
I also believe that much of the polemical critique of ‘liberal elites’ discussed at the beginning of this article is unfair and dangerous. The polemical critique of liberal elites is unfair in that it characterises these elites as responsible for the schism and as being keen to maintain it. Worse still, if liberal elites apologise for the exclusion of the ‘white working class’ they risk legitimising and sustaining the idea that there are these two camps. Feeling sorry is dangerous as it manifests and perpetuates the normative idea of the two bubbles. It perpetuates the idea that they were meant to exist in the first place.
Nevertheless, academia will have to admit that the description of two or more bubbles or a divided world may be part of our current reality. I myself am grateful for commentaries that discuss the divisions, as I am more aware of my position now and would like to begin to be more careful. Maybe the progressive academe has committed mistakes which have not been realized. Fair enough. But reflecting upon the past should not – by all means – be accompanied by doubting the ideals of justice that are at the center of progressive thought, or worse by starting to feel sorry or ashamed of being “totalitarian imposers” of left-wing ideology.
More dialogue is necessary and complex relations should be knitted with more or less agreements between each individual, wherever she or he may be positioned (while I am not referring to alt-right nationalists here, whom I have not addressed in this post at all). There are reasons to believe that many individuals in the different bubbles ultimately have much in common: Working towards liberty, equality and justice against financial super-power of only some super-rich corporations or individuals.
Hence, in terms of conference ethics we should not consider backing off for proposing ideas for more just conference organization or for any other more progressive project that aims at overcoming domination, exclusion and oppression or climate-destruction. But maybe it is worthwhile to try to discover and use a new rhetoric, one that carefully searches for more common ground and one that helps to knit a complex relationship between those “bubbles” and thereby to help deconstructing their idea and reality.
 Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht Welt N24 9.11.2016: „Wir haben Trumps Anhänger zu lange verachtet“
For details of the conference for the workshop “Global Justice and Global Health Ethics: Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young”, go to: http://www.irisyoung2016.de