Guest blog: Dissidence

By Helena Sheehan

Until her retirement last year, Helena Sheehan was an Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Dublin City University. Her personal website can be found at

When Ferdinand asked me to do a guest blog here, it was to provide a dissenting point of view. This has provoked me to reflect on the subject of dissidence.

The image of the dissident is either that of the heroic critic of dictatorial regimes who may be martyred or imprisoned for their outspoken views or else that of a cynic or crank who is weary of the world and would never be satisfied with anything. However, much dissidence is neither. I want to focus not so much on the grand gestures, but on the everyday reality of dissidence, dissidence that is serious, rational, engaged with the world, not dissenting for the sake of dissent.

Let me take three broad areas in which thinking and engaging with the world has forced me into a life of dissidence.

1)    Religion. I am an atheist. Although I was once a fervent catholic, my philosophical development led me to consider the arguments for the existence of God, to reject theism and to come to an alternative view of how the world came to be. For decades now I have lived in a world in which theism was routinely assumed. In Ireland this has been particularly acute. It is not as bad as it once was, but it is still a problem. The existence of God is enshrined in our constitution. The angelus on RTE, although now more artsy and multicultural, still puts it in your face every day, as do phrases routinely pronounced on auto-pilot such as ‘God bless’ and ‘God willing’ in daily conversation. During the holiday season just past, there were once again the references to ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and the constant presence of songs asserting a particular origin myth as if an agreed story of the history of the world. When and how to dissent is a question posed to me and to many others every day. If someone I hardly know in a shop, says ‘God bless you’, I let it go, but when a colleague in a university constantly says it, I sometimes do say that I think not. Some years ago, a university president habitually said ‘God willing’ at academic meetings and in individual conversations. I once pointed out to him that it was inappropriate to assume such a shared belief in an academic environment. Trinity still confers its degrees ‘in the name of the Most Holy Trinity’ in a way that is insincere and  objectionable, as it does not reflect the actual beliefs of many involved. My PhD was conferred in such a way as was the BA of my son and we are both atheists, as have been many others so conferred. Does it matter? I think that it does. Otherwise, words lose their meaning and gestures lose their point. Much of religious speech and practice in Ireland is hollow these days. Many come to church only for baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals without ever giving a thought to the belief systems underlying these rituals. I have to let much of it pass, as I don’t have the time or the power to contest every inappropriate practice or assertion. I can’t accost every parent on the street asking them what they think they are doing dressing their daughters as brides and telling then that they are eating the body of a dead god.  Nevertheless I do feel called upon to take every appropriate opportunity to speak up and to act. I have joined Atheist Ireland, which is campaigning for a secular constitution and against the new blasphemy law. I make my argument on the media and in classrooms and in publications as opportunities arise. For example: on Christmas day in 2008 I was on radio engaged in a panel discussion with clerics on the truth status of biblical stories. I have written the story of my disbelief in Portrait of a marxist as a young nun.

2)    Politics. I am a socialist. Day after day I listen to a discussion of the current crisis that fails to engage in any kind of systemic analysis, that incorporates all of the assumptions of capitalism without articulating them or scrutinising them. The crisis has resulted in an intensified redistribution from below to above, as private debts are converted into public obligations. There is fury at the greed of bankers and property developers and the complicity of the politicians and regulators. Many see how the government is using the state as the instrument of an oligarchy against their own interests. What is not so widely perceived is that it is in the nature of the system. The greed and the complicity are not simply matters of individual immorality (although they certainly are that too), but they are bred and sustained by the system itself. What to do about it? As do many, I often feel quite powerless in the face of these forces. However, I take every opportunity to speak, to write, to demonstrate (and in the cold and dark and rain of December, it was not easy). Has this made any difference? Not that I can see. Still what is the alternative? If I didn’t do the modest bit that I can do, there would be one less voice saying what I believe needs to be said: that capitalism can be transcended and that there is still a case to be made for socialism. Perhaps occasionally I plant some seed somewhere, so I have to keep trying.

3)    Academe. I am a marxist. I am opposed to many of the current orthodoxies dominating our universities. Philosophically I engage in critiques of both positivism and postmodernism. Both inhibit systemic thinking. These days they do so in a way that is so taken-for-granted. There was a once – in my lifetime – strong and impassioned debate between conflicting paradigms. There were well articulated rival theories regarding questions at the theoretical foundations of most academic disciplines. Today this has nearly disappeared. It is not as if all of these problems have been solved or that the current orthodoxies have won in intellectual terms. It is a matter of power and not of knowledge. Universities have become ever more closely harnessed to the dynamics of a system that does not call attention to its nature as a system. The ethos of commercialisation that has overtaken our universities does not serve the advance of knowledge or the good of society. On this too I have been a dissident. It has been hard here too not to feel powerless, but the fact is that academics do have power, not to immediately defeat this trend, but to query it, to undermine its hegemony, to articulate and live by alternative values. Academics have power to oppose the commodification of knowledge in how they teach their courses, in what they write in their publications and how they address the direction of universities in many fora. I took every opportunity to do this in my years at DCU, primarily in teaching and publishing, but also in debating the president on the commercialisation question. For Ferdinand’s position, many entries in this blog give expression to his point of view, the dominant position. For my arguments, see Are the humanities threatened by the increasing commercialisation of universities?

In the autumn I was at several events at Harvard or Boston University where students asked such eminent radicals as Howard Zinn ‘What should we do?’ as if some guru from dissident movements of the past could give them the answer, could give them the key to unlock their frustration and powerlessness in the face of a world order alien to their emerging sense of things. Another person on a panel, Chris Marin, a producer on the history channel, told them not to expect some master answer from a sage, but to focus on what they care about, who else cares about it, what they can do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  Wise words, I thought.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

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5 Comments on “Guest blog: Dissidence”

  1. Patrick Kinsella Says:

    Thanks Helena. I especially like:

    1) every day like exercise

    2) just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

    Patrick Kinsella

  2. Ros Says:

    Bravo Helena! All too often we who work in the field of humanities and social sciences are told that our work has no commercial value and therefore, no value in today’s world. Like voices crying in the wilderness, it can sometimes feel so futile. I for one do not intend to give up the struggle to defend something that means so much to me and countless others. Thank you for a very enjoyable piece of writing.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Bravo indeed Helena ‘though I probably don’t agree with you on many substantive issues. I have a lot of sympathy on the religion issue but my own view is that one has to choose one’s battles carefully: specifically not picking one’s that are not winnable or not worth winning.
    To give a small example: I am all for the Angelus at 6pm, I watch the BBC headlines to see what is happening in the world & then switch to RTE. In any event, most people are Catholic & it if it works for them, its really not that oppressive for me. When I am in the Middle East I have to live with Muslim sensibilities: its a small price to pay.

  4. […] University Blog « Guest blog: Dissidence […]

  5. […] was all prompted by a wonderful post written by Helena as part of A University Blog: Diary of A University […]

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