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Being less silent: exceeding the safe confines of U.S. academic rightness

2 years ago

1043 words

I try to listen to various podcasts, read blogs, and watch YouTube channels and vlogs in order to supplement, and sometimes to correct or exceed, the reading I do in my doctoral studies as much as possible. The best work, I think, includes collaborations led by immigrant and immigration-focused creators and activists, like Chat It Up!, a YouTube channel developed for and by undocumented youth in New York, dialogues by Indigenous educator-scholar-activists on the All My Relations and Learning Otherwise podcasts, and the ongoing public work of disability rights lawyer and activist Lydia X. Z. Brown. Engaging with this public scholarship reminds me that the powerful authority of the Western academy, and the presumed right(eous)ness of Global North settler colonial perspectives, usually obscure histories of erasing knowledge and ways of knowing in the world. I see this project — which I recognize is possible due to my economic and linguistic privilege as a White U.S.-born person — as part of a praxis of uncertainty and unknowing, a way I can destabilize my socialization as an owner and a knower in this world and act differently.

It’s going to be a long project.

The Hidden Brain podcast is smart and scientific as well as a bit complicated, IMO. It tends to value the individual scholar as a pioneer of “x” and to uphold understandings about the world driven by what I see as academically orthodox positions that accept describing people’s behavior from a sociological or psychological perspective that often lacks political context, social histories, or engagements with agentive behavior beyond the idea of the “outlier.” A recent episode, however, entitled “A Conspiracy of Silence” grabbed my attention as soon as it showed up in my podcasts list. This may be because the concept of silence is so interesting to me, but it also turned out to inspire some fresh ideas.

By FreshUKRadio – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The episode featured scholarship by a Turkish economic and political scientist, Timur Kuran, on what he termed preference falsification, a social phenomenon in which people hide their true feelings about their current circumstances in the interest of self-preservation during political or cultural hegemony. This is, according to Kuran, a complex thing; it can describe, for example, the response of a given country’s population to autocratic and oppressive context in which dissidents are turned into pariahs and symbolic sacrifices are made of government cabinet members, as in the case of North Korea and the Soviet Union under Stalin. It can also depict the ways people conform to currently accepted social norms, such as politicians taking a simplified, forceful public position on certain topics because a more moderate tone may be interpreted as passive or accommodationist, rather than lose some benefit (in this case, votes and support).

This got me thinking. Is it possible that people’s behavior of preference falsification can continue even after political scare tactics of a given moment no longer exist? In the United States, the term McCarthyism describes how the fear of the spread of Communism justified cruel and unjust treatment of many American politicians, academics, and activists in the 1950s. Yet our citizenship test still includes a litmus-test question about affiliation with the Communist party (if you are, you can’t be a citizen); Barack Obama and other politicians from liberal and progressive perspectives alike are  accused of being communist and anti-business when they suggest changing tax policies, expanding (or even maintaining) the social safety net, or otherwise addressing inequality in this country. I began to wonder about how far this might go in terms of being able to imagine what else is possible in this changing world. How might people in the U.S. talk — not think, but talk — about examples of how other societies are organized in ways that are non-capitalistic and even communitarian and/or socialistic? Might people from the U.S. publicly refuse to consider or even acknowledge these forms of society, based on our version of the Cold War and echoes of McCarthyism perhaps still ringing quietly in our ears?

I bring one example forward to consider. (And if you’re not from the U.S., maybe this also evokes some reactions that might be altered once converted into conversation?) The autonomous town of Rojava, described by Dilar Dirik here in 2015, provides a clear example of a place where a political project has been developed by Kurdish separatists seeking an alternative to the oppressive, violent conditions under which they live in Turkey. This region is described on Wikipedia as

an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchistic, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equality, environmental sustainability and pluralistic tolerance for religious, cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalized Syria as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This sounds brilliant, important, hard, and radically hopeful to me. I know people who come from parts of the world with similar questions being asked and similar projects underway in social movements, scholarship, and community planning. However, would I say this as a person from the U.S.? Who would I say it to? How would I frame it? Would I stop at the “feminist” comment and not mention the anarchistic, anti-statist position this kind of project takes (and must take, as I understand it, in response to an oppressive state)? And what privilege do I express in being able to select the public position, including the silence, I take in talking about it?

By Janet Biehl –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Obvious parallels to White supremacy in this country make me think that these questions should also be a part of exceeding the safe confines of rightness as an academic and as a White person. By refusing to falsify my preferences (or even my questions), am I becoming more true to a kind of hope that allows for fresh and uncomfortable possibilities, even if that make me vulnerable to critique?

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