Thursday, June 09, 2011

Intellectual image

Academics are trained to be objective but we are also legitimately expected to engage in civil society. What happens when we become the intellectual voice of a counter-public? What happens to the Turkish academics who dare to speak publicly in opposition to increasingly Islamist policies of the government? What happens when a Turkish sociologist has contact with Kurdish separatists as part of her research?

They are jailed, as described in the journal Nature, and detention in Turkey can mean long periods before trial, effectively ending or severely hampering careers, families, and casting a pall of fear over all educational institutions. The charges are usually that the academic has something to do with a terrorist separatist organization, in this case Ergenekon. More than a dozen scholars are in prison for this now in Turkey. Others are imprisoned for merely criticizing the government. İsmail Beşikçi, a sociologist, has already served 17 years of his 100-year sentence for writing in favor of Kurdish sovereignty.

While objectivity about the merits of claims of justice and injustice helps an academic pursue questions without the problem of bias toward one party or another, for example, objectivity about the major choice on methods of conflict management--violence v nonviolence--is maladaptive for several reasons. A clear bias toward nonviolence is adapative. This is not for moralizing, righteous reasons, nor should it obstruct understanding the violence of any other party, but for academics it is simply good sense to create and maintain an image of favoring nonviolence.

This is easy for intellectuals whose field is Conflict Resolution--our starting point is transformation from destructive to constructive conflict--and harder for those in Anthropology, where no one is to judge, but is still advisable. Anything else will place people and work at higher risk. For academics favoring violence in places with repressive governments, there is no need to proclaim that. The government begins with that assumption. This is why intellectuals who work or speak or write publicly in places like this ought to denounce violence if in fact they are not in favor of it. While this proves nothing, it changes the level of trust, even if it is slightly, and even if there is no objective metric by which that can be measured. Those noted for open and serious commitment to nonviolence are safer, in general, than those who choose their violent side and advocate.

Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that the public, including intellectuals, advocate for the rights of academics everywhere. We have a role in dissenting poor policies and we should fight for that role for all.

(2011, February 24). Rights for all. Nature. p. 436. doi:10.1038/470436a.

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