Can activists and academics talk to one another?

rainbowsacrossborders

This week, I experimented with talking about a more neglected aspect of my PhD project, the problem of how to transition beyond ‘issue formation’ (becoming aware of a political issue and perhaps even joining debates on controversial topics). While my PhD focused on public participation in risk governance, my current work looks at public responses to austerity or other forms of withdrawal of state support. Specifically, I look at how people form experimental, alternative or ‘parallel’ institutions that emulate state institutions to provide for healthcare, housing benefits, food, education or public transport. In order to get a variety of feedback and to test some ideas, I decided to present this work in two rather opposed spaces, an academic International Relations conference on ‘World Society in the Making’ in Duisburg, and a Kilburn Manifesto themed meeting at an activist space called Kinning Park Complex in Glasgow.

Unsurprisingly, the reactions to my talk were quite different. For both events, I had cut out pretty much all of the theory, because of word length and audience. (The theory part of the longer manuscript represents another aspect of the project: to talk to different discourses that engage with experimental institutions, such as art, STS and Marxism). At the IR conference, my talk was appreciated, but perceived as over-saturated with ‘activist slang’, which was feared to prevent a serious engagement with the subject matter. At the activist meeting, despite sparking some animated conversations, my part of the presentation (I co-presented with my colleague Lazaros Karaliotas), was considered as inappropriately academic and sitting uncomfortably with the rest of the presentations. In fact, an older participant loudly proclaimed in the tea break that she hated academics: “I hate academics! They only study and don’t do anything.”

In the course of the day, academics were being described as elitist, bourgeois, career-crazy, unable to speak to ‘the people’ and unwilling to ‘put their bodies on the line – in fact, ‘they don’t even realise they have bodies’’. Interestingly, at last week’s workshop, some academics vocally complained about activists: they are narrow-minded, prefer antagonism over dialogue and “fight with one another over who is the most radical person instead of fighting against the world’s problems”. From experience, these accusations are not isolated cases. In fact, the list of faults on both sides could be infinitely continued. However, both positions more or less boil down to the same thing: that each group sees the other as closed-off and unwilling to engage in conversation.

Despite such mutual resentments, there have been many attempts to communicate across boundaries. For instance, efforts have been made to show how academics are also activists and how activists also operate on the basis of theoretical concepts. At the Glasgow meeting, geographer Doreen Massey did not explicitly go into this issue, but, for me, her talk on strategies against neoliberalism offered a meeting ground between academics and activists, perhaps because she successfully occupies both positions. What she emphasised in her talk (audio to follow) is the necessity to challenge neoliberalism at different levels and scales and to cultivate the ability to pitch to different contexts. Because the ideology of neoliberalism penetrates everywhere, any attempts to offer alternative visions also have to enter all of these spaces. This also involves “talking to the person on the bus”.

For Massey, this reaching-out also involves an experimentation with words and concepts. How do we redescribe “neoliberalism” (or other problems) so that we can reach more people and inform them what is so problematic about it? Are “left” and “right” still the right categories or do they hinder necessary conversations? Does the concept of “class” need to be expanded? Incidentally, these are words that appear across academia and in activism – we share a lot of the same vocabulary despite our different communication styles. Recent campaigns to change certain types of vocabulary – from migrant to refugee, from ISIS to Daesh etc – have shown how important language can be to change the way we think about, and respond to, an issue. Such campaigns have often involved an alliance of a variety of actors, including grassroots organisations, larger NGOs, churches, journalists and academics. For me, such debates around language issues are crucial not only for changing the debate around an issue, but for creating a space where input from all sides is desperately wanted and needed. While I am sure that this space is not free of conflict, it represents an example of a collaboration that facilitated a series of successful shifts (if anyone has any commentary on this, whether affirmative or contradictory, please send it to me!).

What came out of the last two weeks for me, was a search for useful questions that could replace the desire to determine ‘who is best placed for bringing about change?’ I think it was Doreen Massey who reminded the audience this Saturday to focus on asking ‘why are we doing what we’re doing?’ Indeed, this is a question that has helped me out of many a crisis, but it could also be more than just part of a self-help checklist. It is a question that needs to be asked every time a potential alliance starts to fracture because of a belief in the superiority of a particular approach – whether within or between groups. As Massey emphasised, we need as many people as possible to fight inequality. From “why are we doing what we’re doing?”, differences can be reconsidered and other questions can follow. For geographers, this has frequently been, to cite Gwendolyn Warren from the Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute, “how to make geography more relevant and affect change?” If we carried on asking such questions – to ourselves and in public – we could perhaps learn to speak to one another in moments where communication is in danger of breaking down.

Gwendolyn Warren and Cindi Katz in Conversation.

Of course, it is not enough in some cases to merely agree on a common goal. This was sharply illustrated by Warren who, as a black youth activist in 1960s Detroit was approached by William Bunge and a group of white geographers who had a similar aim – to fight racial inequality in Detroit. Warren noted how the geographers went in with the attitude that they would ‘discover’ the black community and tell them how to affect change (‘clueless but nice people’ – ‘always bringing food’). The geographers thought that it was a matter of black communities not understanding their problems. Here, the black youths enlightened the geographers that they very well understood the problems, but also knew that the system was so rigged that the obstacles to make a difference were almost insurmountable. They were also aware that their input in the project would constitute a potential career benefit to the geographers in question – in the form of publications or promotions – whereas they would remain in the same situation. The resulting negotiation for more equal benefits – education for the black youths in return for educating the white geographers – illustrated that a recognition of common aims needs to be followed by a willingness to take risks.

In the Detroit case, the risk was both on the academics and the activists: on the academics because they ended up with an even more visible political intervention, and on the activists, because they were abandoning other pathways (training, work, schooling etc) to participate in an experiment that might leave them stranded half-way through. While these risks were real – the programme was effectively shut down and at least one geographer seems to have lost his job – the years that the programme ran contributed to significant change, both for individuals and for the communities that they would come to lead or be part of. Still today, geographers like me look at those Detroit maps, co-produced by activists and academics from very different backgrounds, as an affirmation of the ‘why’ and as a prompt to risk better understanding and communication.

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