Climates of fear, public and private

Courage, or lack of it, can spur people to achieve, but everyone must decide for themselves how far out to stick their neck

October 16, 2014

It’s hard work being a human. Some are born with gallons of self-confidence, or have it drummed into them in an expensive school and Oxbridge drinking club, but plenty do not.

It’s harder still if you’re setting yourself up as an expert, and a susceptibility in academia to “impostor syndrome” and paralysing perfectionism has been discussed in these pages before.

But what about “cowardice”? The gut reaction may be: “Who are you calling a coward?” But in our features pages this week, Chris Walsh, acting director of the College of Arts and Sciences’ writing programme at Boston University, suggests that cowardice can be a great motivation.

Running through the many questions that plagued him as he struggled to finish his latest book (Cowardice: A Brief History), Walsh describes the tortured soul of the academic and writer (his own, anyway), and the importance, and elation, of overcoming his anxieties. The idea of the coward, he says, offers anyone frozen with fear of the scrutiny of the world “the perfect anti-role model”.

Many young academics in Hong Kong must make ‘safer’ interpretations of the limits of academic freedom in challenging the powers that be

But what of bravery? Those looking for role models made of flesh and blood could do worse than look to the students who in recent weeks brought the mighty financial district of Hong Kong to a standstill with their protests about Beijing’s steps to control political appointments.

In our opinion pages, Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong, describes the unusual experience of teaching the tenets of academic freedom as the protests raged (if that’s the right word for a largely peaceful demonstration).

His insights as an insider are fascinating. To those of us whose knowledge of the situation comes solely from news reports, Hong Kong may look much the same as it always did. But in fact it is an increasingly divided society, Macfarlane says, with the language and very fabric of the culture changing as it is subsumed ever more noticeably by the People’s Republic of China.

A sense of his pride in his students comes across in the article, particularly as their willingness to stand up for Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity is in stark contrast to what Macfarlane sees as the universities’ complicity, or at least their “clear-headed understanding of which side their bread is buttered on”. He describes state-funded institutions that have limited their involvement to reminding students to “stay safe”, or urging them to cancel their demonstrations for “safety” reasons. Meanwhile young academics without the protection that Macfarlane enjoys as a financially secure British national must make much “safer” interpretations of the limits of academic freedom in challenging the powers that be.

If the position taken by institutions is open to accusations of cowardice, the actions of individual academics is not, given the circumstances.

It says something very worrying that academics are having to make these “fine-grained” calculations about what they can and can’t say – about how far to risk their neck.

And it poses a question: can we honestly say that similar calculations, in very different circumstances, aren’t being made in our own universities every day?

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