Activism and the Arts Keynote: “On Anger and its uses for Activism”

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This post is an attempt to clarify a couple questions/thoughts that I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pose after Alexa’s keynote speech on March 20, 2014.

The Political Science Graduate Students’ Association at UAlberta recently had its annual Students Conference. We elected to have one of our own, Alexa DeGagné, as our Keynote speaker. Alexa is very involved in the LGBTQ community here in Edmonton and her talk touched on some of the issues she has faced inhabiting both the worlds of “academia” and queer “activism”. Her talk, and I will undoubtedly do a disservice by trying to summarize it all too briefly, essentially argued that anger has its role in the activist life, particularly as motivation to deal with the injustices we see in the world. As part of this project Alexa set up and then tore down the dualistic binary that is established between academia and activism, a component she acknowledged was something gender theorists like herself are fond of doing. Anyone even remotely familiar with feminist theory will recognize this trope: Academia is rational; Activism is emotional, Academia is objective; Activism is biased. This all then can be imposed on typical gender binaries leading one to see how Academia = male; Activism = female. This is all well and good.

What got me thinking was that it seemed like rather than actually tearing down the binary, Alexa just seemed to be trying to reverse it. Her argument for the role of anger seems to suggest that she is trying to find a means to honour and value the role that emotions, such as anger, which are routinely dismissed or devalued, actually play an important role. While I am not a gender theorist, like so many of my colleagues here at UAlberta, I am familiar enough with some feminist theory to know that concerns over reversing binaries, rather than actually deconstructing them, is one component of intrafeminist debates.

With this general argument in mind, I was reminded of a question that was asked at a recent IPAC event about PhDs entering the public service. The person raised the question of whether “activist” people like herself could find a home in the public service under a government they might vehemently disagree with – such as the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta. The dichotomy of Public Service/Activist easily parallels the Academia/Activist binary which is what got me thinking about this idea of “activists” in the public service. One person (an individual with a PhD currently working for the public service in Alberta) responded by saying that she herself was a “bleeding heart liberal” and that she first went into academia in order to study poverty so that she could effect change. What she discovered when working in government was the power that she had to identify a problem and be able to quickly remedy that problem in a very tangible way. In contrast she talked about the timelines of academia : 2 year study, 1-2 years writing up, 2 years to get published (if you are lucky). She argued that you didn’t need to check your ‘activism’ at the door, but that many people within the public service are highly motivated precisely because of that profound desire to effect change – they just choose to do so within the system.

In this way, the public service and academia have many parallels. People go into high levels of academia (graduate work) precisely because they are highly interested in a particular subject, and often because of some desire to understand the world better in order to change it. For myself, I am studying the intergenerational dynamics of energy policy precisely because I want to know how we can make policies that are better oriented to addressing intergenerational or long-term problems like climate change, especially when their are institutionalized incentives that may bias policy making for short term electoral gain. In this way, everyone, whether public servants, academics, or activists, are all highly motivated by problems and injustices we see in the world. In a sense, we are all activists.

This got me thinking about the role that ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality’ have to play in those various roles. Returning to the IPAC event, one of the public servants (I believe a deputy minister) was talking about a discussion with someone who was involved in the Education ministry. This individual was aware of some of the studies out there that if they were to be adopted would likely revolutionize secondary education in Alberta, but this individual said “that wouldn’t fly here in Alberta” and “if we tried for that battle we’d loose the war”. In other word, numerous contextual factors went in to considering how far these people were willing to push an issue they felt deeply impassioned about.

Objectivity, in this sense, is not so much about eliminating emotion from ones consideration, but about balancing and mediating between different perspectives and presenting information in particular way. Objectivity becomes a form of strategic performance so to speak – who is your audience, how must I present my information to them. In academia, we try to do this through evidence and argumentation – take the most compelling argument of your opponent and try to refute that. In other contexts, such as trying to raise the salience of an issue or sway public opinion you might not try to present your case in a way that seems fair and balanced, but one that evokes an emotional response. This parallels a really good blog post by my MA supervisor George Hoberg who talks about the “Three Logics of Climate Politics“. The climate policy wonk is all about detailed information assessed in context, the climate activist is trying to build a social movement of people to force politicians to do something about climate change. Repeating the phrase “game over” with reference to the Keystone XL pipeline is not necessarily intended to be an “objective” statement, but is intended to evoke an emotional response about the seriousness of the climate problem which one could easily argue is very serious from an ‘objective’ perspective, as the IPCC report has attempted to do.

The result is that rather than differentiating between academics and activists as rational/irrational, I have been arguing that objectivity is a strategic choice that has more to do with audience and context than anything else. Appealing to emotion may very well be the ‘rational’ thing to do, at other times appealing to emotion will have your audience tune you out. Activists and academics don’t always get that balance right, but there is a place for both in the various contexts we inhabit.

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One Response to Activism and the Arts Keynote: “On Anger and its uses for Activism”

  1. Janet Phillips says:

    I too really enjoyed Alexa’s keynote, and found it raised a lot of important points about the relationship between activism and academia. As such I think it’s a great idea to keep this dialogue open, Geoff.

    However, I disagree with your point that Alexa ‘reversed’ the activism/academia binary. Indeed, I think her talk did deconstruct, and challenged, this binary, by stressing the importance of collaboration between activism and academia. I also think it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of gender theory does do this.

    The most valuable point I myself took from her talk, one which isn’t raised in this blog post but which I think is incredibly important, is that as academics we occupy a very privileged position, and that it is important to recognize this privilege when undertaking collaborative projects with the activist community.

    I think one of the reasons this privilege exists is because of the association of political ‘science’ with rational, objective work, and the authority that is attached to the production of official knowledges because we occupy this place of privilege. As Foucault points out, the productive power of official knowledges invisibilizes subjugated knowledges. And, these knowledges are often produced by groups who have been, and continue to be, excluded from the university. One of these exclusions is on the very basis of reason v. emotion, as Alexa pointed out.

    I think this is why the second part of the conference theme, “beyond the ivory tower” is so important. If as academics we are to remain in touch with the actual social and political struggles outside of our office walls, we need to recognize the privilege that comes from being located within those walls. We also need to recognize that we don’t just observe things from a privileged position, but our understanding of them is equally privileged, as is the legitimacy accorded to our understandings on the basis of our social location.

    It is assumed that because we reside in universities that we can provide the most objective, reasoned analysis of social problems. But, why is it more valuable to see things objectively rather than emotionally? Don’t emotions have a role in analysis? I like to think that anger motivates my research – it angers me to see how the categorized mentally ill have been, and continue to be, marginalized in Canadian society. I don’t think we can ever detach our ideologies from our analyses, or our anger. In my perspective, there is no such thing as ‘objective thinking’, in fact I take it to be an oxymoron (but maybe this is my anti-positivist bias).

    As angry and disturbed as I am about the treatment of the perceived mentally ill in Canada, my research will mean nothing without the emotion-driven mad activism happening outside the ivory tower. Alexa’s talk, more than anything else, helped me to see that if I really want to work towards challenging the exclusion of the perceived mentally ill, I need to learn from and work with activist communities.

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