Love is an action word: Reconciling academia and activism, by Chessie Baldwin

Tigray Youth Network, 25 April 2021

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986)

Over the past ten months, I have used my academic research to speak about the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, specifically the weaponization of gender-based and sexual violence. As deliberate communication blackouts continue across the region, the federal government has benefitted from the ambiguity allowed through the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the war, the crimes, and the perpetrators. In response, academics, journalists, humanitarian workers and community leaders have stepped up to their intellectual responsibility to combat harmful manipulation of history and politics as tools of the conflict. I suppose I am one of them.

There are those who don’t think academics should engage in activism at all, claiming it compromises the objectivity of academic research.[1] The two are indeed not always natural companions; scholars, after all, trade in complexity and depth while activism requires snaps and facts. Nonetheless, many historians and philosophers have engaged in activism quite openly and successfully, from Voltaire, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Benedict Anderson. The rise of public history and public historians since the 18th century has certainly made this more mainstream, with organisations like History Workshop and Subaltern Studies Group forming explicitly activist agendas in their research orientation.[2] Alongside these movements has been the quite phenomenal historical work by non-academic activists, whose efforts to uncover, explain and ‘do’ history should not be underestimated.

Challenging dominant scholarly perceptions of knowledge production, Aziz Choudry suggests, requires recentring understandings of activist scholarship that are not tied to higher-education models and practices.[3] LGBT+ history, anti-racist work, intersectional feminism, indigenous knowledge system preservation and anti-war theorising (amongst others) are negotiated and enacted in public spaces. The resulting interventions in human rights and social justice both inform and are informed by intellectual frameworks, resources, and contributions.[4] In other words, academia and activism exist in a mutually dependent relationship. They enhance each other and, most importantly, they exist together, whether they want to or not.

There are four ways in which academia works explicitly as a site for activism:[5]

  • As a means to produce knowledge to inform progressive social change. In this category, academic research can help disrupt systems of oppression or injustice and direct action, in policy, law, and public debates.
  • As a means for conducting research which itself involves social change. This might be called ‘action research’, where activism is academic work in that it holds intellectual value for its own sake.
  • As a site for progressive strategies of teaching and learning. Pedagogy can be a means for mobilisation, organisation, learning and un-leaning as a form of activism. As undergraduates spend a great deal of time revising the myths of history taught in schools and public discourse, the classroom is a space to critique which voices have been privileged in collective historical narratives, and why.
  • As an institution whose power relations themselves may be challenged and reconstructed. As structures which can perpetuate elitism through hierarchies of class, age, gender, and race, higher education institutes can themselves challenge dominant power relations in their decisions and practices.

The process of historical research and writing (or, perhaps more accurately, rewriting) takes this further still. Despite claims of objectivity and neutrality in pursuit of a reasonable representation of ‘truth’, the epistemic is political and it is personal. The past is always framed through the lens of the present, and of the individual context of the researcher. Choices about which voices to include, which voices to exclude, which scholars to engage (and not engage), what language to use, which methods, mediums of public engagement, and more, are all decisions imbued with reflections of the person. Even those most committed to their rationality cannot escape such choices. Howard Zinn contested that archivists (deciding what to preserve, where, and how) are not neutral actors as they tend ‘to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about [their] ordinary business’.[6]

Historians who sincerely consider, analyse and critique their interpretations are themselves engaging in a form of activism. They ask difficult questions and face difficult answers, like: ‘Who am I to speak about this?’, ‘Does my position uphold systems of injustice?’, and, when history becomes a question of national security, ‘What space should I take up in this discourse?’.

Engaging in activism as a historian, and engaging in history as an activist, compels the researcher to explicitly address their positionality, focus, relevance, and which voices they centre in their work. It complements and improves accountability, representation, and integrity in the research. More than this, however, the act of ‘doing’ history is inextricably about change. Change in re-evaluating narratives, re-interpreting sources, revising theories and reviving debates; change in the way we remember the world as it was and how we see the world as it is. Perhaps then, it is not that historians can be activists, nor that they should, but simply that they are.

Chessie Baldwin is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Reading, specialising in women’s narratives of conflict in Tigray. You can watch Chessie speak about the ongoing war on Tghat Forum, or visit Tigray Youth Network to learn more.

[1] Thomas Wells, ‘Academics Should Not Be Activists’, 3 Quarks Daily (2018).

[2] Yuliya Yurchuck, ‘Historians as Activists: History Writing in Times of War: The Case of Ukraine in 2014-2018’, Cambridge University Press, 29, 4 (2020).If this is an article then reference incomplete.

[3] Aziz Choudry, ‘Reflections on academia, activism, and the politics of knowledge and learning’, International Journal of Human Rights, 24, 1 (2020).

[4] Choudry (2020).

[5] Michael Flood, Brain Martin & Tanja Dreher, ‘Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools’, Australian Universities’ Review, 55, 1 (2013).

[6] Howard Zinn, ‘Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest’, The Midwestern Archivist, 2, 2 (1977).

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