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A plea to my students

Why you should remove your headphones, and talk to your striking lecturers.

Banner at Edinburgh's occupied lecture theatre. Image, Adam Ramsay, CC2.0

Spending time on the picket line in the last few weeks has given me a – not always pleasant but still welcome – insight into something I have dedicated a lot of time and effort studying as a theorist – complicity with injustice. The strikers in Edinburgh have received important and heart-warming support from the student union and from several groups of student volunteers who, day after day, did the tours of the picket lines, bringing hot beverages and food. Moreover, Edinburgh is now the site of a wonderful student occupation (@EdiSolidarity), endorsed by our equally supportive rector, Ann Henderson. These expressions of solidarity nurtured us immensely, striking academic and support staff.

However, too often on cold, wet mornings, my calls to passing students, offering information and asking for their solidarity, hit a wall. I am aware that there are extraordinarily difficult personal circumstances that put a lot of strain on some of our students and that it would be unreasonable to expect solidarity from everyone. This is not who I am pleading with here. I am addressing those who are not impeded by such circumstances and who deliberately entered what I would call a sensorial shut-down: eyes averted, ears covered with voluminous, noise-cancelling headphones, accelerated walking or last-minute changes of direction – these were frequently-used strategies that many adopted to become immune to my pleas. The sensorial shut-down was simultaneously an emotional shut-down, which prevented any form of conversation – let alone solidarity – from developing. This had the (very depressing) effect of rendering me invisible and inaudible, excluding me from their reality and the realm of what matters to them.

This deliberate choice not to see and not to hear those who ask for support reminded me of Judith Shklar’s work and particularly her discussion of passive injustice. With Shklar, I want to invite my students who opted for the double sensorial and emotional shut-down to reflect on their refusal to hear us, see us, talk to us and ultimately become indignant for and with us. This attitude becomes incomprehensible and demoralising given that the rapidly accumulating information about the injustice of the pension cuts has been widely available through a variety of media. At Edinburgh, striking academic staff have clearly explained to students their reasons for taking strike action, have made various suggestions about how they could get involved and have consistently shown a great deal of sensitivity to the ways in which academic progress will be affected. Moreover, everyone who sets foot on the central campus can witness inspiring practices of solidarity by various student groups, who have refused to be passive spectators and have chosen to become politically active, transforming the university into a laboratory for democratic engagement. For all these reasons, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of the decision not to engage in a conversation with striking teachers and support staff – the very people who are essential to the functioning of the university.

In her Faces of Injustice (Yale University Press, 1990) Shklar argues that active violations of explicit and implicit principles of justice do not constitute the only form of injustice plaguing democracies. A more insidious form of injustice involves failing to prevent or report inequities and injuries when we witness them:

“... by passive injustice I do not mean our habitual indifference to the misery of others, but a far more limited and specifically civic failure to stop public and private acts of injustice … As citizens we are passively unjust when we do not report crimes, when we look the other way when we do see cheating and minor thefts, when we tolerate political corruption, and when we silently accept laws that we regard as unjust, unwise or cruel. (p. 5)”

For Shklar, political action motivated by proper indignation is the marker of good citizenship. The duty to stop and call injustices around us is not a requirement of charity or human goodness, of heroism or supererogation. It is a civic duty, a duty of all members of the community necessary for the reproduction of the values, institutions and practices that make democracy possible. Indignation is the emotion associated with an active moral sense that reacts to injustices experienced by others around us. The passively unjust choose not to see, hear or speak up because they deem showing solidarity with others too costly – even if what is at stake is a minor inconvenience. To avoid their own pangs of conscience, the passively unjust rationalise their behaviour. In so doing, they preclude any possibility to debate politically about what is happening to certain members of their community, thus becoming “morally deaf and disassociated” (p. 40) onlookers to the injustice that affects others – in this case their teachers and support staff, who are silenced, made to feel irrelevant and isolated.

Many students offered a degree of compassion: “I support your strike, but I demand to see my tutor/you must extend my deadline/you must postpone my exam”. The capacity to identify injustice and recognise the effect it has on others (“I support your strike”) needs, however, to be supplemented by a desire to act and speak up. The biggest problem in affluent democratic societies is the indolence of the sense of justice: while opportunities to condemn abuses are abundant, many do nothing. Not acting on one’s sense of justice goes against the minimal set of values and principles all democracies seek to cultivate in their citizens. And this troubling since, in contrast with the citizens of oppressive regimes, citizens of democracies enjoy a robust array of freedoms.

Of course, our outraged sense of justice can be misguided – oversensitive, lacking proof or solid arguments. What is more, the indignant might turn out to be dangerous fanatics. The only way to know whether public anger is legitimate is to allow everyone to voice their concerns and present evidence, listening to what they have to say before making a judgement. Hesitating to reach for the headphones is a pre-requisite for the possibility of effective communication, compassion and solidarity. Our joint expressions of public outrage and condemnation could contribute to the health of both our university and our democratic society. Injustices left unchallenged accumulate and are more difficult to dislocate. Your lecturers’ outrage should remind you of the perpetually imperfect nature of our institutions and of what we could do if we worked together on making them better.

Joining us in practices of protest and denunciation is one possible way of fulfilling the civic duty to fight the injustice affecting those close to you. Public expressions of solidarity can help promote awareness and societal reflection over abuses and hopefully kick-start processes of accountability. However, to be effective, protests must reverberate in the community: they depend on networks of solidarity. And this is why I am asking you to see us, your striking teachers and support staff, hear our voices and begin to imagine a fairer university. As the occupying students so poignantly argued, our working conditions are your learning conditions. Moreover, political participation is education. This strike might just be that crucial opportunity for us to think more critically and more compassionately about our relationship – a relationship so often captured in ‘client-service provider’ terms – to reflect on your power as student-citizens and to resuscitate that old conversation about the value and purposes of a university. 

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These thoughts were first presented at a Teach Out session on The Ethics of Striking outside Edinburgh University on Monday 12 March, along with presentations by other members of the Political Theory Research Group. 

About the author

Mihaela Mihai is a political theorist at the University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on political emotions, the politics of memory, art and politics and theories of oppression.

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