Praxis in a polarized world: the dilemma of activist scholars on the left

If progressive academics want to work with ‘the people,’ then we’ll have to meet ‘the people’ where they are.

Musa al-Gharbi
3 February 2019
Musa alGharbi.png

Credit: Pixabay/GDJ. CC0 Public Domain.

Most of us who go into the humanities and social sciences don’t just want to understand social problems; we want to help resolve them as well. There is strong agreement on the biggest problems of societies (like inequality), and broadly, how to go about solving them by harnessing expertise and leveraging the state or other major social institutions for technocratic interventions. In part this is because most of us in the humanities and social sciences are decisively on the left of politics.

Students in our fields are rarely exposed to non-left or non-secular viewpoints in the classroom, let alone encouraged to engage with them as morally or epistemologically legitimate options (i.e. as perspectives that reasonable and educated people could hold in good faith). Scholars rarely make use of these perspectives in working to understand or address social problems, except to define them as a problem in that so many people are religious, conservative or insufficiently deferent to technocratic expertise. If anything, academics in the age of Trump seem even less interested in, or capable of, extending any kind of moral or intellectual charity to towards those we view as ‘the enemy.’

This siege mentality is understandable: in many respects, academics and their concerns are under siege. However, we hunker down at the expense of our capacity to influence society in meaningful ways. If we truly want to be agents of change, students and scholars alike need to understand and engage with a much wider range of perspectives.

Despite the aspirations of many social researchers it is really hard to produce impactful work. A huge portion of academic research is never cited or even read by anyone other than the authors and editors who produced it. Fewer still make any significant difference outside the ivory tower. It’s easy to see why: academic writing tends to be needlessly technical, abstract, verbose and dry. Social researchers obsess over identifying and analyzing problems, but provide few practical solutions to perceived societal ills.

In response to these shortcomings, organizations like the Scholars Strategy Network and the Frameworks Institute have sprung up to help translate research into more accessible and actionable formats, and to connect scholars to journalists and policymakers. However, even in these instances, the impact of social research is limited because scholars typically interact with only one swath of the political spectrum: the left-of-center.

Yet in the United States, Republicans control the White House and the Senate; they dominate the judiciary; and they control a majority of state and local governments nationwide. Despite the unpopularity of Trump and ongoing demographic changes, Republicans are likely to maintain veto power over major social policy issues for the foreseeable future – well beyond the current administration. Indeed, even were the pendulum to swing all the way back to the Democrats’ near-historic consolidations around 2008, as President Obama was himself somewhat astonished to discover, many Republicans would still have to be brought on board (or at least, not actively resist) for significant reforms to succeed in areas like health care and taxation.

There is no way around it: progressive academics will be unable to achieve their social objectives to the extent that they engage only with other progressives or their fellow academics.

Consider that only about one-third of Americans have a four-year degree, and while progressives outnumber conservatives more than 10:1 in fields like the humanities and social sciences, in the broader society Americans are (and basically always have been) more likely to identify as conservative than liberal. When one adds in the moderates, the picture is clear: the American public is decisively to the right of most university faculty and students.

To the extent that experts and the institutions which produce them like universities seem to have a political agenda that is out of step with the will and interests of the general public, populists like Trump will be able to seize and maintain power by exploiting a growing mistrust of elites. Meanwhile, social research will increasingly be devalued and defunded.

For scholars who live outside the U.S. or Western Europe, or those who want to work abroad with NGOs, advise foreign governments, or support global social movements, these problems of disconnection are even more severe. Across much of China, Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East (which is my area of expertise), people hold views on race, gender, sexuality and social justice that aren’t even within the bounds of acceptable Western political discourse – let alone falling to the left of the U.S. spectrum. This matters a lot for those who want to design and implement social policies.

Research shows that appealing to the moral values, group identities and cultural-historical narratives of others tends to be far more effective in convincing people to accept changes or sacrifices than appeals to material incentives, statistics or scientific facts. In many contexts, religion subsumes these transcendent commitments. Indeed, across most of the rest of the world, people are far more religious, and perhaps even religious in fundamentally different ways, than progressives tend to be in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Yet social researchers tend to be substantively ignorant about religion and are often disdainful of believers; they are ill-equipped to understand or engage in religious discourse. The distance between those who are designing policies and those whom the same policies are intended to serve can cause well-meaning programs to fail in achieving their stated objectives, or even bring harm on those they intend to help.

Put another way, if scholars want to work with ‘the people,’ then we’ll have to be able to meet ‘the people’ where they are. By listening to and coming to understand those on the ‘other side’ of issues they care about, researchers can gain far deeper insights into social problems, how they are created and why they persist - and they might therefore be able to develop more viable strategies to mitigate them. In the process, they are more likely to discover holes in their arguments, problematic assumptions and ineffective framing which may not be noticed by allies who share their prior assumptions, but could prove lethal to projects in the ‘real world.’

We may even find opportunities to build broader coalitions to realize our objectives. As I explained in an article for Inside Higher Ed, there are conservatives who support causes ranging from guaranteed basic income and single-payer healthcare to criminal justice reform, environmental protection,  the recognition of gay marriages and restraining corporate power. However, without exposure to the complexity and diversity of conservative thought, activist scholars may alienate potential allies needlessly and undermine the very causes they seek to advance.

Up to now, criticisms of campus activism have focused intensely on issues like misplaced priorities. For example, ostensibly progressive students seem to be more easily outraged and mobilized by inappropriate Halloween costumes at a frat party than pervasive food insecurity on campus. Professors focus on “deconstructing” abstractions like “the patriarchy” while remaining disengaged from practical politics. There is more than a little legitimacy to these lines of critique.

However, even if these academics were to dedicate themselves to more meaningful and concrete  efforts at reform and transformation, and even if student activists transcended campus solipsism in favor of the broader societies in which universities are embedded, it is not clear that they would be able to realize their aspirations effectively. Our abilities to listen to, and engage with, non-progressives and non-academics are rapidly eroding – and with them, our abilities to effect social change, or to make our work matter.

Effective advocacy and activism require a much more expansive approach to politics – one that makes room for people who are usually excluded from university spaces like working class people (not to be synonymized with ‘whites’),  rural populations, and yes, conservative and religious people too.

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