Archive for the ‘society’ category

Knocking louder on Europe’s door

September 27, 2015

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, the University of Dundee

It is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 migrants’ lives off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Sadly, Lampedusa has proven not to be an isolated tragedy. Only a few weeks ago the photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach suddenly captured the world media’s attention dispelling, or so one hopes, any ‘compassion fatigue’ that the European public opinion might have experienced so far. Germany has taken the lead, presenting itself as the Weltmeister in willingness to help, while also asking for that pan-European solidarity (in the form of a redistribution of refugees across the Union) it so clearly rejected in the Greek crisis. The country is struggling to cope as the first destination of choice for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, to the point that plans of housing some of them in Buchenwald barracks are being considered. History, as philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, is “irony on the move.”

While the watershed moment in public opinion caused by the powerful photograph of a dead child is welcome, I don’t think that the EU can function if it is run according to the shifting moods of the national electorates. This is exactly what has happened so far with regard to the immigration debate, which not only has conflated crucial legal distinctions between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker, but also has predominantly reflected the populist views of the mob over those of the democratic crowd.

This is not the place to analyse in depth the root causes of what is only the latest migration/refugee crisis in humanity’s history – the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is often evoked; I believe instead that literature provides us with the most useful insights into the shape of things to come. The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints), a 1973 French apocalyptic novel by Jean Raspail depicting a not too distant future when mass migration to the West leads to the destruction of Western civilisation, eerily foreshadows current discussions about ‘European (Christian) values,’ or its local variant of ‘British values.’ In December 1994 The Atlantic Monthly dedicated its cover story “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” to the novel. The piece is still so relevant that it might have been written yesterday. Here is its sobering conclusion:

For the remainder of this century, we suspect, the debate will rage over what and how much should be done to improve the condition of humankind in the face of the mounting pressures described here and in other analyses. One thing seems to us fairly certain. However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.

For a more recent literary example in a similar dystopic vein I would suggest Michel Houellebecq’s  Soumission (2015), which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.

So here is the challenge facing us: how best can we advance the debate from the disturbing xenophobic undertones which have characterised it so far?

First of all a close look at our own myths might reveal that at the origin of Western civilization there is a refugee story: wasn’t Aeneas, the founder of Rome, a homeless refugee from the war between Greeks and Trojans? From the world of myths to the more pragmatic one of politics, the answer lies in “more Europe and more union”, as the EU commission president recently put it (not only more but a much better union and Europe, I would argue), and in the role that cultural institutions like universities, Europe’s traditional seats of knowledge, must play.

It is very welcome that, perhaps belatedly, Universities UK new President, Dame Julia Goodfellow – first female President since UUK was established in 1918 – launched the Universities for Europe campaign last July. Also, the UK universities’ commitment ‘to a future in the European Union’ was strongly reaffirmed in her recent address to the Annual Member’s Conference, together with the repeated urge to remove international students from the Government’s net migration target. In her conclusions Dame Julia Goodfellow reminded the conference that ‘every day, universities are improving lives, helping the country grow, and changing the world.’ This is the time for universities to be true to such an ideal mission. They can contribute to changing the world and changing lives in many ways, one of which is by supporting projects like Article 26, whose aim is to promote access to higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK. Universities can make a difference by introducing a whole series of measures to support refugee students, as the University of Glasgow has just done. In ‘The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?’ Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach identify several ways in which universities can provide a positive response to the crisis, not least because ‘in the current competition for talent, these refugees are not only seen as victims and a cost factor for the local economy, but in the long run also as welcome new talent for the knowledge economy.’

Personally, I would love to see universities, so acutely aware of the benefits of philanthropy at times of financial constraints, becoming themselves generous intellectual benefactors. Solidarity (fraternité) might have its costs, but the costs will be enormously higher in the long run for us all by the lack of it. In a globalised world our personal stories and those of our nations are interconnected, just like our destinies.

The fear of genetics

August 20, 2015

Ten years ago or so I had a meeting with members of the local community living in the vicinity of the university I was then leading, Dublin City University. They had asked for the meeting to express their concerns about the development of the university’s National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. More particularly, they were concerned, as one gentleman expressed it, that we were up to ‘Frankenstein kind of things’. I guess he was thinking of Dolly the sheep, and was wondering whether we might take that a few steps further in our newly funded institute. I explained to him that what my colleagues were working on was diabetes and cancer. My visitors were somewhat reassured, but a small group remarked to me, as they were leaving, that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were undoubtedly evil. Why, I asked. Because everyone knows they are, they replied.

A little later, in 2008, the then newly installed Irish coalition wrote into its programme for government that Ireland would be a ‘GMO-free zone’. I was appalled by this, as I felt it would convey a signal to others that Ireland would not be willing to engage in scientific innovation in some of the areas where that would be needed most and offered the most promise; and the Irish Times published a piece setting out my views. And now all this has been brought up again for me as the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, has announced that there will be a ban on growing genetically modified crops in Scotland. This decision has been criticised by a number of research organisations and universities and has been the subject of some media discussion. The Minister has assured his critics that there will be no ban on research carried out in controlled conditions, but the reality probably is that those seeking to do and to fund such research will not choose a location where the process is seen to be contrary to public policy. Innovation will go elsewhere.

In both nutrition and life sciences, scientific innovation has tended over the last decade or two to focus on genetics. This isn’t altogether new. Insulin, with which diabetes is treated and which has been around since 1922, is a GMO. A good deal of medical research has moved, over recent years, from chemical synthesis to biopharmaceutical remedies, and this trend is accelerating. The capacity to feed the world as the population continues to grow may come to depend on GMO research.

For those who are not expert in this field the available literature – or often, the propaganda – on both sides of the GMO argument is unhelpful, because both sides use ‘evidence’ that is not easily verifiable by the rest of us. But there are few signs of ‘Frankenstein kind of things’ damaging us or our environment. In any case, we need to continue to do research, and we should not place it into a setting of general suspicion that is not visibly evidence-based. The idea that innovation should exclude genetics is a dangerous one.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the combating of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly. By all means let us make sure that new experiments with GMOs are properly controlled and subject to appropriate safety checks. But let us not start with the assumption, without the need for any proper evidence, that this is a form of innovation to be opposed.

I strongly hope the Scottish government will re-consider its decision on this issue.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

Talking points: Keeping watch

August 8, 2015

Is the Apple Watch a major success or has the company made a mistake? Those assessing this particular product don’t seem too be able to make up their minds, or agree. Recent reports suggest that Apple may have got it right again. If so, it is ironic that Apple may be about to revive the fortunes of a particular accessory – the watch – that its other products had been busily killing. A group of students told me recently that they would not wear watches because their iPhones told them the time; watches were superfluous and awkward.

But of course the Apple Watch is more than a chronograph. It puts a number of elements of my smartphone on to my wrist, and it monitors my lifestyle and my health. The information it gathers can of course do more than amuse me; I suspect insurers would love to have it.

I have an Apple Watch, having been given it as a present. I like it. And I wonder what it tells us about times yet to come.

Is this for real?

July 27, 2015

One of the most interesting dialogues of Plato – the Allegory of the Cave (a part of The Republic) – analyses how we can appear to perceive reality that is not, in truth, real. The allegory describes prisoners chained to the wall of a cave for their entire lives; their heads are restrained so they can only see the wall and nothing else. Their sole glimpse of others is through shadows on the wall as people walk past in front of a fire burning behind the prisoners. The reality here, as Plato has Socrates explain, does not consist of the shadows, and yet the prisoners may think otherwise because this is all they have ever seen.

Fans of a certain genre of literature or movie drama (the Matrix, in particular, or maybe Existenz – but there are many others) will of course immediately recognise an early insight into simulation. And of course Plato was articulating something that many of us will feel from time to time: how real is our reality, really? Is this world, indeed are we ourselves, just something that someone else has designed and in which we only imagine ourselves to be? If you are thinking this is a topic best left to a certain type of rather embarrassing nerd, you’d be wrong. Professor Niklas Boström, a Swedish philosopher now working at the University of Oxford, presented the ‘simulation argument’ in 2003, which broadly suggests it is more likely than not that we are in fact living in a computer-generated simulation.

Whether we believe this or not – and the success of simulation depends on its subjects not recognising it – it does tell us something about the fragility of reality. And that is not a bad thing for universities to ponder.

Analogue tales

July 5, 2015

I was standing behind two teenagers waiting for a bus the other day, and one was telling the other about a get-together planned for that evening with some old school friends. ‘Wow’, said the other, ‘that’s so analogue Facebook’. I chuckled at the expression. But right now we can still laugh because even the two teenagers still had some point of reference to distinguish between a real life meeting and social media interaction. They also understood that many things digital have or had an analogue antecedent.



But is the analogue world slipping away from us? Or is it more resilient than we sometimes thing? After all, vinyl records are apparently making a comeback. And I have set my Apple Watch (and yes, of course I have one) to show an analogue clock on its home screen. I still have (and use) a telephone on which I can really dial numbers.


And in between reading stuff on my iPad, I still buy hard copy books.


It’s not all gone.


PS. However, all the above photos were taken with the iPhone 6 camera and edited with Photoshop. Hm.

Doing it in style?

June 30, 2015

Most academics get to where they are without receiving professional advice. By that I mean, they may have mentors, departments heads, supervisors and all such helpful folk; but they won’t tend to turn to a professional consultant in planning or developing their careers. But there are such people, and one of them is Karen Kelsky, who runs the website The Professor Is In. There she advises people on interview techniques, on writing skills, on preparing for retirement, and other such matters.

She also offers advice on what to wear. In an article just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelsky makes suggestions on how to present yourself to greatest advantage at an academic interview. The article comes with photographs from what looks like a model shoot.

Am I sneering (as some academics might, I suspect)? Absolutely not. Kelsey remarks in her piece, with some understatement, that ‘academia doesn’t prioritise fashion’. It certainly doesn’t. And I’m not at all sure that this suggests integrity and seriousness of purpose, as some probably feel it does.

Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what has been called ‘erotic capital’ (a term originally coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’, and popularised by the British academic Catherine Hakim)?

The reality is that style is a form of communication. We are saying something when we dress, or when we decorate our homes, buy our cars, choose our coffee shops or bars. We may not be saying whatever it is we want to disseminate in our academic mission, but we are creating a background that will sometimes make people more or less open to our message. The academy has, I suspect, never quite worked out whether it accepts the legitimacy of packaging of any sort. But then again, the person in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches is also coming in a package; whether it is one that will help disseminate the message may be another matter.


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