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Opinionista

Policing the boundaries of knowledge production and reportage is dangerous

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

When we turn away from ethnocentrism or the fixities of exceptionalism, we learn that more knowledge, drawn from an increasingly diverse range of concepts and methods, helps produce better outcomes, and differs necessarily from creating silos or ghettos of knowledge where one body of knowledge is the preserve of one group of people.

Several years ago, I had a student who was interested in Russia. Her interests were mainly about political economy, especially the transition from the Tsarist to the Soviet era. I introduced her to the work of Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev and other Russian writers and thinkers whose work had a deep and significant influence on me.

I also screened a couple of films by my favourite director, Andrei Tarkovsky. The student was bowled over. A black woman from sub-Saharan Africa, she would go on to get a job in a transnational organisation – as a Russian specialist.

A couple of years earlier I introduced a student to Edward Said’s Orientalism. This student was a white Welsh woman. She had read Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis and found it reductionist and offensive. Though I was never a post-colonial theorist, I introduced her to a range of ideas and works by noted postcolonial scholars and thinkers.

In both cases, and before I returned to writing again full time, my responsibility, my duty, was to open doors to knowledge and clear paths for students to explore, read, think and reach their own conclusions. I never did share the objective of the Distinguished Professor who did little more than indoctrinate students.

With both students, I never felt the need to tell them that a black person from Africa could not be a specialist in Russia, or that a white person from Rhondda Fawr in Wales had no business concentrating on, and specialising in the works of scholars and thinkers from Africa, Asia and Latin America – nor from people of the Pacific Islands.

Fast forward to a few years later. Identity politics, the weaponised version that insists on racial or ethnic purity and exceptionalism, has now been inserted as the basis for scholarship and thinking.

Bodies of knowledge have new gatekeepers, and their criteria for entry, so to speak, are quite narrow. See the recent tweet that caused concern about “a group of experts”, which drew attention to, not so subtly, that they were all white.

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I should be clear; there is no denying the destructive and soul-destroying role that Europeans have played in Africa over centuries. There is, also, no getting away from the fact that “experts” can be, well, tyrannical.

A former colleague at the World Bank, now professor of economics at New York University, Bill Easterly, quite accurately and rather scathingly wrote about “the tyranny of experts”.

With insights from years of studying the adventures of “development experts”, Easterly wrote that governments, myopic global institutions and self-appointed gurus praise the progress of dictatorships and autocracies, conveniently brushing aside human rights violations that set back social and economic advancement.

“The dictator,” Easterly wrote, “who the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.”

The delicate boundaries between bases of knowledge

I am not blind to the role of experts. We do, however, walk a fine line when it comes to policing knowledge.

It is terribly offensive and dangerous to assume that black people have to study only black issues, or that white people should only study white issues (whatever these may mean), and at the perverse extreme, that only women should study women’s issues, gender or feminism.

When it comes to public protest or critical scrutiny, it would be counterproductive or retrogressive to suggest that only Africans may study Africa. The problem is that we seek ideological solidarities with “others” when they side with us. Put differently, if you think like us (African/European/Asian) we can be comrades…

This policing, selection, exclusivity and notions of exceptionalism are not practised only in academia. In the mid-1990s, in the wake of waves of “democratisation” in Africa, it was thought that newspapers in the US should send African-American journalists to Africa, reportedly because of racial/ethnic/familial/tribal/regional solidarities. That really was the thinking at newspapers of record…

My immediate response at the time was that African-Americans were perfectly capable of writing about Europe, Latin America or Asia. By the same token, white or Asian journalists were perfectly capable of writing about Africa.

While class was the basis of my argument, I felt strongly, at the time, that the argument reduced black, white, Asian, Latin American, women or gay or lesbian people (this was the 1990s) to stereotypes and even caricatures without agency beyond their “lane”.

Policing information in an age of anxiety

In the area that I have studied over much of the past three decades – global political economy – there is talk of a “multidimensional crisis”, of a “polycrisis”, an “age of anger”, with a stream of work on the “the retreat of Western liberalism” that is tied to “the fate of the West” and, my personal interest, competing capitalisms (liberal capitalism and state-led capitalism).

All of these (and more) contribute to great anxiety; fear of impending collapse and doom. In this age of anxiety, it is (precisely) not the time to restrict knowledge production and flows of information.

In his 1937 Letter to Lord Byron, the poet WH Auden drops a line that seems most apposite for our time: “Our age is highly educated. There is no lie our children cannot read” (relevant, surely, to the age of social media), and comes to the “rather tame conclusion. That no man by himself has life’s solution”.

Everywhere you turn (this is all terribly tedious, if twee, I realise), when you turn away from ethno-centrism or the fixities of exceptionalism, we learn that more knowledge, drawn from an increasingly diverse range of concepts and methods, helps produce better outcomes.

This differs necessarily from creating silos or ghettos of knowledge where one body of knowledge is the preserve of one group of people. It drives the narrow-mindedness and inward-looking that comes with political economic dead-ends like “decoupling” from the global political economy, autarky and economic nationalism.

The world is way too exciting to reduce each student, scholar and writer to a lane based on race, ethnicity, gender or social class. At the level of families, how marvellous it is when children learn languages beyond their mother tongue.

My students, the ones mentioned earlier, became much richer, intellectually (and I would imagine professionally), when I let them trespass. A black African woman can become an expert on Russia, and a white Welsh woman can delve into Orientalism.

The picture that was circulating on Twitter, and accompanying social media posts, demonstrate the fact that pictures do not always tell their own stories – captions help. Sure, there is a point to be made that the people in the picture are white, which, in some imaginaries, disqualifies them from studying African politics and society. This is too crude to hold any truth.

If we take the caption to a maddening end, we have to prevent white students from studying Africa or African students from studying Europe.

That’s just chauvinistic and self-righteous – least of all because the person who tweeted the picture, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, is a doctoral candidate at one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive universities (Harvard), a National Science Foundation Fellow, and a Ford Foundation Fellow. Nobody can deny her access to these opportunities.

In at least one sense, she belongs to the inheritor class reproduced by educational institutions, and runs in the most privileged of circles in the United States. She shares laurels with US Vice President Kamala Harris, and former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – the country that has “used girls as justification for bombing Afghanistan”.

The Vice President and House Speaker of that country are hardly good company to keep if you present yourself as someone who intervenes in settings of discrimination, as does Opoku-Agyeman.

All of this takes nothing away from her intellectual and professional endeavours. It is simply to make the point that elites (socially produced), have no business telling people what they can/cannot, what they may/may not, or what they should/should not study and gain expertise in, bearing in mind the tyranny of experts.

I try but fail to imagine what a so-and-so I would have been if I told my African student she could not become an expert on Russia – because she was black. DM

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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    We see a similar situation in the film industry, from both sides of the political spectrum. From the right we see people getting hugely upset that their favorite mermaid is being portrayed by a non Caucasian, on the left we see activists cry cultural appropriation if actors that play minorities are not actually part of that minority or culture, especially if they are white.

    Identity politics ultimately separates cultures and races more and more, increasing the rift over time rather than healing it.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Not tedious or twee at all. Thanks.

  • Andrew 'Mugsy' Spiegel says:

    This would be an outstandingly good annual Academic Freedom lecture right now at all of South Africa’s universities that hold such an event. But would it get through their respective screening committees?

  • Helen Swingler says:

    A breath of fresh air in a world where narrow lanes have become the width of shoelaces.

  • david clegg clegg says:

    Crisp and excellent!

  • JC Coetzee says:

    Verwoerdian ideology, part two. Does not seem to go away. Why not?

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Like!

  • Peter Lor says:

    Excellent@ Beeds
    Excellent! Needs to be widely disseminated, required reading in our universities.

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