Faking it with gusto

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Senior Lecturer, University of Dundee

‘Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it’
(Viktor Taransky, character in A. Niccol’s film S1mOne 2002)

2017 is not over yet but it is safe to assume that it has been a bad year for planet earth. Notwithstanding amazing breakthrough technologies and the myriad of individual stories that, as the old saying goes, ‘restore your faith in humanity’ (meaning that there has always been a need for such faith to be restored!) the current geo-political scenario is often compared to a new Cold War. Also, one cannot forget the lives lost in terrorist attacks, both in Europe and in the Middle East, and the continuing refugee crisis, discussed in previous blog posts, in 2013 and 2015.

Closer to home the Brexit referendum of 2016 has disrupted the lives of millions of individuals across Europe, including the one of this guest blogger, who have been in a limbo since – even the most recent EU/UK ‘deal’ has not ameliorated that. I am not going to rehearse the Brexit referendum arguments; rather I wish to dwell briefly on the outcomes of a process, which though technically has not started yet, is having a significant impact on universities, especially on the public’s perceptions of their value. For lack of a better metaphor I shall resort to the one of Kulturkampf  or ‘culture war’, a phrase that stems from the nineteenth century, but really came to life in the US in the 1990s after the publication of the sociological study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter. The kind of polarization between conservatives on one side and progressives on the other that Hunter described is very much akin to the one we are witnessing today, with two additional variants. Compared to 1990s there is a marked increase in the radicalization of tone and in the degradation of political discourse. The impact of social media on the above is undeniable, although as recent research has persuasively argued, social media is not to blame for Brexit and Trump.

In today’s culture war universities are, for the pro-Brexit press, ‘enemies of the people’ and hotbeds of ‘traitors’ and ‘saboteurs’, as were those senior judges who dared to argue that Brexit could not be triggered without a Westminster vote. Things came to a head recently when Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a staunch Brexit supporter, wrote to vice-chancellors demanding a list of professors lecturing on Brexit. Recent damaging headlines for universities have featured a variety of issues, including: the value for money of a degree, the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, trigger warnings/safe spaces and controversies surrounding the notion of freedom of speech. To top it all up, on December 8th the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report which claimed that students are victims of ‘mis-selling’ by higher education institutions. Critics of the report have pointed out the poor methodology, limited evidence and bland recommendations, while the Times Highee Education  has rightly noted that the criticisms the report levels ‘are aimed…at universities, when universities are just operating in a system created by the government’. Universities have their shortcomings of course: gender inequalities, staff casualisation, pay-gap, the looming pension crisis, to name a few. However, one cannot but wonder why they seem to attract the ire of a wide spectrum of critics, from the populists of the Daily Mail to the accountants of the NAO. Could it be, as neuroscientist/comedy writer Dean Burnett humorously put it that:

‘Just because they rely on things like knowledge and education and analysis and expertise and study and facts and an awareness of how reality works, they think they can defy the will of some of the people at a particular point in time from over a year ago? Such arrogance! Such elitism!’

Burnett has a point which I would like to complement by noting that universities find themselves at the forefront of today’s culture war because they are inherently hostile to what has become the predominant narrative, one which seeks short term political gains (often the interests of a political party/specific individuals come before those of the whole country) by means of spreading intentional misinformation. Universities cannot ‘miss-sell’ anything because they are not financial institutions; what they ‘trade’ is something that transcends the important but partial economic perspective, they trade in the values of human rights, cosmopolitanism, cultural sensitivity, too casually denigrated as expressions of political correctness. On the contrary, it is exactly such values that constitute a powerful antidote against the risk of normalizing puerile hatred and pettiness as accepted modes of civic discourse.

Over the past year I often found myself reminiscing about the time when, as an undergraduate, I first came across the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin on the ‘Carnivalesque’. For Bakhtin carnivals were occasions in which the political, legal and ideological authority of both the church and state were inverted — albeit temporarily, fools became kings and kings were treated as fools. One of the kings of carnival is Falstaff, a fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry IV  and Verdi’s opera by the same name. I trust I am not alone in thinking that there is more than a tinge of the ‘world upside down’ in the contemporary political scene where a narcissistic Golfer in Chief is the leader of the free world and key political appointments are bestowed not on the basis of expertise (synonym of elitism in today’s rhetoric) but because of ideological affiliations. And it is certainly not accidental that science fiction TV horror series like Stranger Things are so popular, in that they present viewers with an upside world which looks exactly like our own but distorted. Behind the reassuring retro overtones and the familiar tunes from the 1980s, we are made aware that opening the gate of hell and facing the monster behind is as easy as digging a hole in the ground. As scholars of the Gothic know very well monsters are mirrors of our fears; they have always reflected the anxieties of a particular time, what makes them dangerous, I would suggest, is when they lose their exceptionality and become banal, normalised.

So, how can universities fight the perils of such normalisation and slay the monsters which threaten the core values of civilization? So far universities have spoken the language they know best. Their leaders have advocated ‘reinjecting the principles of rationality into public policy’, rightly warning of the risk that phenomena like Brexit ‘could set our economy and society back for generations to come.’ Facts are universities’ weapons of choice and, consequently, Brexiteers and Trump supporters alike have been dismissed by most academics as the proponents of romantic fantasies, nostalgic for an edulcorated vision of national identity. Unfortunately, new discoveries about the human mind have shown the limitation of reason. In fact the psychological studies discussed in this New Yorker piece even state that:

‘…providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.’

This is bad news for universities, and corroborates what I wrote in a previous post, where I argued that universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone: they should be tapping instead into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity while rejecting exasperated competition. It might seem counterintuitive, but at times of alternative facts and fake news universities cannot expect to rely on facts and rationality alone to oppose them. They must master the emotive language that speaks to everyone’s heart; theirs must not sound like the algid pronouncements of a privileged elite, universities’ voice should be heard across all media outlets and vibrate with the passion that derives from the principle of serving no one else but the public good.

Fuelled by political turmoil in the UK and US, it has been argued that we are now living in a golden age of satire, an observation that, once again, made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin. Writing under Stalin, Bakhtin claimed that ‘every act of world history was accompanied by a laughing chorus’. Courageous comedy is an affirmation of his belief in the power of laughter to triumph over fear. The monster lurking behind the gate to the upside world won’t be slayed by facts alone, but by the corrosive effect of a laugh!

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4 Comments on “Faking it with gusto”

  1. ‘…providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.’

    As you argue in your very next paragraph, this is much too pessimistic. Proponents of reality from Lucretius on have successfully appealed to our emotions. The last paragraph of On the Origin of Species is deeply moving. In our own day, we have seen the emergence of a glorious collection of popularisers, from Sagan onwards, and (since this blog is mainly about universities) now including the new wave of professors of public understanding, who are very well aware that reason is the slave of the passions, and that the first step towards having people accept reality is to get them to want to accept reality

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Personally I don’t see the relationship emotion/reason as one of ‘slave/master’, that is exactly where the problem lies, in the dichotomy. To my mind we need to aim for a more balanced perspective, academics have nothing to fear from engaging, intelligently, with emotive discourse, only a lot to lose!

  2. Vince Says:

    In the US during FDR’s New Deal part of the tools used was debt financing for building roads. Not just big national routes but small county roads too. This continued into the 50s and 60s. During this time small business people and locals with money believed themselves soaked paying for bonds but also saw those they believed lesser than themselves getting ahead.
    Something similar is going on right now. Except today the only people gaining are at the top and those below only have the impression of wealth when in truth they are barely covering their costs of living. So not really creating ‘wealth’, simply existing.
    If those on incomes above £100,000 are in that position then those below aren’t really there at all.

  3. paul martin Says:

    “collective vision”
    Universities fiercely compete with each other and indeed via such as the SFC other tertiary organisations. The partial demise of FE, in Scotland, has been overseen by the collective that is our Russell Group’s equivalent.

    Worse, morale is poor. I think this is because there is a public perception, that above Primary School level, there is a great deal wrong with the scotEdu system. And this has produced a bunker mentality in certain quarters. Even our political masters seem nervous – FMQs & the recent budget seem to be more panto-esque as the years go by.

    Where is today’s Carl Sagan. Dawkins seems to have lost his way as have several of the recent alternative offerings from academia. On TV the fact that Tony Robinson seems to get so much repeat business makes you wonder.

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