Whose side are you on? You may have little choice

Academics find complicity with neoliberal values hard to avoid, forum hears

April 2, 2015

A conference has heard about the difficulties academics now face in avoiding complicity with a model of human life “fundamentally at odds with moral decency”.

The event, explained organiser Bob Brecher, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Brighton, arose out of a symposium held by the university’s Understanding Conflict: Forms and Legacies of Violence research cluster, when a student and youth worker spoke about the difficulties of not being complicit with government messages on terrorism when working with young Muslim men.

This observation led to more general debate about “different forms of complicity”, notably the dilemmas faced by academics who “believe the research excellence framework is inimical to research excellence” and those “opposed to £9,000 fees who find themselves working within increasingly privatised universities”.

Today, said Professor Brecher, there are genuine questions about whether universities are “more or less ideologically driven than under Brezhnev in the Soviet Union”, and yet the complex issue of complicity is rarely “very directly addressed”.

Opening the Complicity Conference, held at Brighton on 31 March and 1 April, he told delegates that the neoliberal “model of human being and of human life is fundamentally at odds with moral decency”. It was thus not possible or desirable for such a conference to be “politically neutral”, as “neutrality is the first step to complicity”.

In his keynote address, Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, alluded obliquely to his own long suspension last year by his institution over charges that were later dismissed.

“The realisation of academic freedom”, he argued, “typically depends on the voicing of a dissenting position”, which in turn can prove “constitutive of the making of a free assembly of speakers”. Yet in today’s university, “the dissenting voice must be disciplined: you can speak, but you’ll lose your job. Critique is thus discarded.”

Indeed, it was increasingly difficult “to get an audience for any view that contests the idea that everything is a business, that everything is commerce, and that even the very self is an entrepreneurial project”.

Professor Docherty also pointed to the dangers of the “incremental small changes” in institutions such as universities. “We are faced with a series of small and niggling changes. None of these is in itself very significant; and certainly none of them is in itself worth going to the wall over…Yet what happens if we comply with all these small changes?…We sigh, we get used to it, but over time we wonder, ‘How did we get here from there?’,” he said.

Some 40 other speakers considered examples of complicity in action, ranging from graphic novels about the Rwandan genocide to media coverage of controversial pop star Miley Cyrus, as well as the complex moral challenges faced by anthropologists working in China and Mozambique.

Daniel Conway, lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University, argued that “white liberals in South Africa have been as much a brake on real change in the country as conservative whites” – something academics have often played a role in obscuring. And Eliane Glaser, senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Canterbury Christ Church University, drew on her experiences of working both within academia and at the BBC to illustrate how even bland and seemingly neutral bureaucracy can control and discipline employees.


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