Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The fantasy of "objective" distance and White privilege

This is an often repeated scenario: A White male professor asks a graduate student from China "Aren't you biased, given that you are doing this study on Chinese netizens?" "Tell me why should this be generalizable."

This stance is reflective of the power of Whiteness to erase its own location and specificity as a universal, while simultaneously turning the "other" as the subject of investigation. Objective distance is therefore something that needs to be performed when studying the exotic "other" located elsewhere.

The fact is that most of our journals are inundated with White American scholars making a large number of grandiose claims about human behavior on the basis of studies conducted on White subjects in the classroom. In the sense of these claim made by the White man then, almost all of communication scholarship is fundamentally flawed (or at least large parts are).

The scripted retort voiced by the Chinese student to the White powerful male professor in my world of fantasy is this "Prof., my study of Chinese netizens is nearly not as biased as your entire body of work on public deliberation based on American populations of college students from the mostly White Midwest. Moreover, you build your entire body of work from other similar White scholars running other similar studies on other White convenient samples. So no Prof, at least I am beginning with a more diverse framework by attempting to work with theories developed in the White context and applying in the context of China. I have exposure to other ways of knowing and thinking, which you in your hubris and arrogance, don't. So actually no, I am much less biased than you are."

Yet, the power of Whiteness lies in precisely erasing the locational specificity of these studies and the inherent biases that come with White scholars making claims about human behavior from studying White subjects. The power of Whiteness lies in turning articulations grounded in White American realities into articulations about human behavior.

The power of Whiteness lies in the sheer power of colonial knowledge production processes that leave the sites of power unquestioned. In most instances, scholars from India, China, or Singapore are all too eager to please these White scholars and play by their standards.

This is perhaps one of the most prevalent scams of communication research.

As our discipline becomes more global in scope, let's have the foresight and the courage for calling out on this scam. This is essential to equalizing spaces of knowledge production.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The fantasy of an apolitical social science as instrument of neoliberal hegemony



In a recent piece documenting the experiences of migrant labor amid market reforms in China, I was reminded by one of the reviewers that social scientific work should stay away from "politics."

In another conversation with a graduate student conducting an ethnographic study of cellphone penetration in an indigenous context, I was reminded of a note from a reviewer who urged her to stay away from advocacy because she referred to her data from the field that challenged the hegemony of transnational corporations in the mobile phone sector. As an aside, the reviewer who made this comment often did work for mobile phone companies as a consultant or as a collaborator.

In each of these instances, critique directed at the broader corporatized context of neoliberal governance and its local manifestations is seen by these traditional social scientists as being overtly political, polemical, and/or advocacy. Thus "politics" stands in as a referent to critique of the hegemonic structures that constitute academic aspirations and the accepted processes of knowledge production in the mainstream. The supposed apolitical position of the social sciences in the traditional framework is contrasted with the seemingly political nature of critical work, thus delineating the realms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the arena of claims making.

The role of the social sciences in this traditional worldview is to stay away from critique, working through data and theory to make specific articulations, albeit situated within the configurations of the dominant structures. So it would be just fine with me reporting from ethnographic work on meanings of health with migrant construction workers; but when this ethnography is tied to a critique of the broader structures of neoliberal organizing that constitute global migration patterns, it becomes non-academic.

What is particularly salient about this worldview is its taken-for-granted assumption about the natural state of things that appear as data and as objects of theorizing within the social science. Such a position remains oblivious to the politics of its own position, thus seemingly producing de-contextualized (read neutral/objective) knowledge that is universal, supposedly being free from the power of political and economic structures.  The power of this position of the social sciences in maintaining an objective distance is shaped by the broader power of the structures of knowledge production.

The study of cellphones in an indigenous community is almost always political, and to ignore this political frame is itself a political position, a polemic, a stance of advocacy. The power however in such stances of advocacy within the dominant structures of social science is in erasing the very nature of advocacy embodied in a study of say, cell phones. For a social scientist who is on the payroll of cellphone companies to study cellphone penetration is not only a political position, but a position that is rife with all forms of conflicts of interest. Yet, the social sciences have been so re-organized that it is the critique of such a position that is framed as polemic, thus leaving unchallenged the political economy of the social sciences as sites of knowledge production serving power structures.

Similarly, to suggest that discussions of neoliberal reforms in examining migrant work is political is itself a political position. To assume that the natural state of occurrence of migration and migratory exploitation as normalized features of structures is a political position. Such a political position retains its power by denying the oppressive nature of social structures. In such a political position, the facade of neutrality forecloses possibilities for interrogating the organizing of global structures that produce oppressive forms of migration.

Any social scientific argument, whether it is theoretically derived based on abstractions, or is empirically guided based on data, is fundamentally intertwined with the politics of knowledge production. To deny this politics is a discursive move that retains power in the hands of the status quo and frames the social sciences as instruments of control in the hands of the power elite.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Theory and practice: What academia offers the world of practice

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the overarching framework of Whiteness that shapes communication practice and the ways in which Whiteness lies at the heart of the prevalent norms of communication, civility, politeness, and interaction.

My post was misread as being racist by a senior industry practitioner who took my reference to Whiteness as a marker of racism, as an indicator that I was somehow racially marginalizing members of the White community. He cited his commitment to racial harmony to chastise me.

In such instances of disagreement, engaging in dialogue offers an opportunity for working through arguments, finding spaces of common grand and articulating spaces of departure.  In these instances of disagreements with practitioners who often have the economic power of the well-heeled purse-string or the enticement of the coveted industry partnerships, it is vital to revisit theorizing as the everyday practice of academia. Moreover, it is vital to look at such disagreements as creative points of conversation between theory and practice rather than simply caving in to the economic power of the practitioner.

The moments of departure between theory and practice hold much creative possibilities. However, to sustain such possibilities calls for active commitment of academics to understanding the nature of the academic mission, grasping the relationship between theory and practice, and committing to protecting the academic value of free speech.

I have usually found such instances to be incredibly powerful as they point toward the limits of conversation, suggesting the scope of dialogic possibilities and impossibilities. These disagreements are also the creative entry points for imagination.

I have also felt that such difference between theoretical frameworks and practices of communication are representative of broader gaps between the worlds of theory and practice. That an analysis of "Whiteness" might be seen as racism by a senior communication practitioner suggests the need for vital dialogue between theory and practice, especially because issues of race, gender, class and erasure lie at the heart of communication practice. These gaps also suggest that academic work remains incomplete in reaching out to the world of practice, in touching those spaces where such conversations are very much needed. Also, such gaps suggest the continued need of informing theory through practice, and guiding practice through theory.

The exchange presented above reminded me of the need for communication scholars to critically interrogate practice, but more importantly to work hard at finding avenues for sharing this work with practitioners with the goal of generating vital dialogue.

Our critical insights, without the connection to practice, do very little in impacting the nature of the world. The critical theorist, often hidden behind claims made in obscure journals, does little in impacting the world of practice. That the idea of "Whiteness" has little resonance with a practitioner means that the work of educating practice has to be taken seriously.

Unless as an academic I find entry points to have these conversations with practitioners, especially the tough conversations that work through disagreements, I am not really doing my job well. This means that one has to work hard to find those spaces for conversations and mutual education. Just as I expect to learn about the shifting nature of practice, as an academic, I need to learn to hold my ground so I can hold practitioners accountable to read academic work and to think through the value of this work. The commitment in other words has to be mutual.

Through a series of posts, I sought to engage the practitioner, working through descriptions of Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness, and the ways in which White privilege plays out structurally in terms of shaping global norms, ideals, and aspirations.

I argued that rather than being an attack on an individual on the basis of race, Whiteness studies seek to document the ways in which taken-for-granted assumptions regarding what is normal and what is left out shape the normative structures of communication. The conversation was difficult but one we needed to have. Our job then as academics is to find the language through which we can open up spaces for such conversations.

Practitioners too have a great deal of responsibility to foster such spaces of dialogue.

In instances when the work of the academe pointing to racial, class-based, gender-based injustices percolates into the world of practice, making our practitioner colleagues uncomfortable, there are multiple opportunities for making an impact by creating the platforms for communication.

Now, practitioners, who often because of their success with economic resources, have the power over university decision-making processes to respond to these difficult conversations by wanting to silence them. These conversations can be difficult and therefore can easily be confused as being uncivil in tone, accompanied by the gut response among practitioners of wanting to censor such inconvenient conversations. This act of silencing is particularly the case for disenfranchised voices which have to break from the existing framework of communication in order to be heard. You have stories of donors and trustees, who after having been angered by a public comment of a faculty member at a University, have threatened to withdraw support from the university unless the faculty member is fired.

Such pressures exerted by practitioners who are in valuable positions in universities as trustees, donors, advisory board members etc. reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of academic culture with an openness for multiple competing discourses and arguments. Much like my earlier note about Whiteness, the conflation between Whiteness as a concept and the notion of my supposed racism emerges out of a lack of understanding of the academic idea of Whiteness.

In such instances, to cower to the pressures exerted by practitioners often on the basis of incomplete information and theoretically-uninformed gut responses is to sacrifice the very fundamentals of academe as spaces of critique and analysis. When university leaders bow to such pressures, they demonstrate their failure at leadership. Such acts of bowing down to donor pressure and trustee opinions demonstrate the lack of leadership, the lack of courage, and the lack of academic integrity.

As is demonstrated by communication research in the critical tradition, academe can indeed provide a valuable position of entry for practice. To enable the leadership role of academe in this conversation means that university leaders need to put their commitments behind notions of academic freedom. To enable these conversations, spaces need to be fostered actively.

These are also the precise moments of intervention for us as scholars of communication.

Pointing out the instances of communication manipulation, communicative inversions, and communicative erasure can offer points of engaging practice, suggesting pathways for imagining new forms of practice that creatively foster opportunities for working toward other worlds.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The hypocrisy of the New York Times Editorial "Modi's Dangerous Silence:" The limits of White liberalism

The limits of White liberalism are embodied in the hypocrisies and double standards in White articulations of liberty and freedom.

The rhetoric of this version of liberalism is emboldened in its double standards.

As the father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, was eschewing the virtues of liberty, he was justifying the English occupation of India.

The recent New York Times Editorial on "Modi's Dangerous Silence" is another reflection of this double standard.

As I have noted elsewhere, the ascendance of the Hindu Right in India needs to be critiqued with vigor and full force to secure the space of multifaith syncretism that forms an integral part of an Indian articulation of nationhood.

However, for the New York Times  to criticize the Hindu Right's efforts of mass conversion as dangerous reflects the kind of double standard that is integral to White liberalism.

Mass conversions after all are the mantra of the White-Western way of life.

From the Christian crusades to the more contemporary crusades carried out under the facades of democracy promotion and development, mass conversions have played key roles in the assertion of hegemony of the Western way of life as a global universal. For the New York Times to refer to conversions as violent, there also needs to be a deeper engagement with the contemporary practices of conversion that are integral to Christian and Islamic missions. Critique needs to be directed toward the many missionary activities that are supported by the US state in its assertion of US hegemony. 

The New York Times article criticizes "the mass conversion to Hinduism of Christians and Muslims who have been coerced or promised money," observing that "Mr. Modi’s continued silence before such troubling intolerance increasingly gives the impression that he either cannot or does not wish to control the fringe elements of the Hindu nationalist right."

The problem with the position of the New York Times is embodied in its uncritical stance toward the violence of conversion, often through coercion and other times through the promise of money and services, that has been and continues to be carried out by Christian missionaries in indigenous communities in India and by Islamic efforts of conversion across marginalized spaces in rural and urban India. If the New York Times considers the act of conversion through coercion or through the promise of money to be fundamentally violent, it needs to take a critical stance toward many of the Catholic missions that lie at the heart of missionary services across underserved communities in India. If the New York Times considers conversion with some implicit promise of benefits as troubling, it needs to complicate its understanding of Mother Teresa and "Missionaries of Charity," whose fundamental mission of "uplifting the burden of the soul" is carried out through acts of conversion.

To target the under-served  and marginalized with the carrot of conversion is fundamentally an act of violence.

Many of the indigenous communities I have worked with in rural India are targets of such violence not just by the outfits of the Hindu Right, but also by the various missionary groups that masquerade the violence of conversion in the language of altruism. The act of violence is carried out through a facade of altruism offered by organized religion.

The Times article goes on to note: "In January, up to 100 Christians in West Bengal “reconverted” to Hinduism. Hard-line Hindu nationalist groups, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), make no secret of their support for a “homecoming” campaign designed to “return” non-Hindus to the fold."

Indeed such criticism of the VHP and RSS-orchestrated "homecoming" campaigns needs to be situated amid criticisms of Islamic conversions and Christian missionary activities that carry out violence through various forms of service delivery. The poverty of the disenfranchised becomes a golden opportunity for carrying out the violence of conversion.

I invite the New York Times to join its call to Narendra Modi for breaking his silence with a similar commitment to speaking vocally about the violence of conversion that is carried out by the US state through the missionary activities it supports across the globe.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Continuing evidence of incivility of the Illinois administration: Chancellor Wise and the CAFT Report

The President of the University of Illinois Campus Faculty Association President Professor Bruce Rosenstock shared today his email exchange with Chancellor Phyllis Wise, requesting the Chancellor to respect the recommendations offered by the CAFT report prepared by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois.

The email exchange, carried out between the dates of January 29, 2015 and February 5, 2015, once again is a reminder of the large gap between the rhetoric of civility performed by the Illinois administration as a justification for the decision of the University to de-hire Professor Salaita and the actual practices of incivility reflected in the behaviors of the University administration.

The exchange read in full also depicts the paradoxically closed nature of the University administration and its decision-making processes, scripted in cryptic messages from the Chancellor that stand in stark contrast to the performance of her avowed commitment to protecting openness and diversity on the Illinois campus.

The exchange instead reflects a sense of arrogance and lack of accountability to the broader University-wide faculty on behalf of the administration, revealing the workings of top-down authoritarian power that foreclose opportunities for conversation and dialogue.

To make my argument that the behavior of Chancellor Wise continues to characterize incivility, I will draw upon the definition of incivility in the Merriam Webster dictionary as "a rude or impolite act."

To be rude or impolite is to render conversation impossible through a variety of strategies such as avoidance, silence, non-response, deflection, etc., to shut down possibilities of dialogue, and to limit the possibilities of further discourse. This is especially the case within the context of disagreements on difficult-to-discuss subjects.

More broadly within the context of a University, to close off opportunities for conversation with representatives of an elected campus faculty association by University administration is rude and impolite because it fundamentally undermines the spirit of faculty governance that lies at the heart of Universities. Moreover, beyond the norms of rudeness, to foreclose opportunities for conversation with an elected representative of the academic senate is a threat to the fundamental being of a University as it undermines the very notions of academic freedom and faculty governance that lie at the heart of Universities.

The CAFT report is a carefully considered deliberation on the University decision-making processes in the de-hiring of Professor Salaita, concluding with the recommendation to the University to re-instate Professor Salaita, to withdraw the earlier statements made by the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees on civility as a standard of conduct, and to take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita. The Board of Trustees responded earlier to the CAFT report by reiterating its decision not to hire Professor Salaita.

Professor Rosenstock's email to Chancellor Wise invites her to a meeting in his role as president of the Campus Faculty Association with the objective of sharing with her a petition signed by campus faculty members urging the Chancellor to reconsider her decision of not allowing the formation of a faculty expert committee to evaluate the professional fitness of Professor Salaita. The email also points to the manipulative framing of the CAFT report in an earlier University press release on the lawsuit filed by Professor Salaita against the University on charges of undue donor influence and urges Chancellor Wise to the retract the part of the news release falsifying the CAFT report.

Chancellor Wise responds to Professor Rosenstock's email by stating the following: "I don’t think it is worthwhile for us to meet. The Board of Trustees has spoken clearly that they will not re-consider their decision. They have the final authority in this matter. Therefore, I do not believe that it is worth your time or mine to revisit the possibility to remand the consideration of hiring Dr. Salaita to a committee in LAS."

The invitation to conversation is closed by a response that reiterates the Board of Trustees decision. The possibility of constituting an expert committee is foreclosed by privileging the authority of the board of trustees. The same top-down form of decision-making is reflected in the Chancellor's response that she had earlier observed as a mistake she had committed in earlier processes of decision-making. Also worth noting is the strategy of avoidance in response to the charge of falsification of the CAFT report that is brought by one of the key authors of the report.

In a subsequent email, Professor Rosenstock asks Chancellor Wise to elaborate the basis of her decision-making, asking her to explain the decision-making process and whether faculty members were consulted in deciding the University response to the CAFT report. Professor Rosenstock eloquently notes the very same flawed decision-making being repeated by Chancellor Wise that she had earlier been accused of following and had later owned up to. He notes:

"You have said that your decision-making process in the case of Salaita was flawed because you failed to consult with faculty before taking the step you did on August 1. The reason you offered for making the decision you did on August 1 related solely to the future action of the Board of Trustees in his case. In the ensuing months you came under considerable criticism for the decision you took on August 1 and you have claimed that you would act differently  (even if the decision might be the same) in the future. Looking at your decision to reject the CAFT recommendation concerning the remand of Salaita’s candidacy to an LAS committee, someone might say that you repeated the same decision-making process that led to your August 1 decision."

Chancellor Wise once again responds to this email with a cryptic message that she looks forward to reading the petition and to working together as a campus community to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. The Chancellor's response is typical crisis PR-speak. Keep the message short and offer some rhetorical promise of working together looking toward the future. Her actions however, including her inability to address the questions raised by the CAFT, point to the absence of commitment to working together. Rather, a top-down decision has made with deference to the power of the Trustees, and the power of the Trustees as decision-makers is invoked to not engage with the recommendations made by a faculty committee.

Professor Rosenstock once again invites the Chancellor to a dialogue, stating the following:

"In the email chain below you will also find four questions that I once again respectfully would ask you to respond to on behalf of these faculty and also many others who are members of the Campus Faculty Association. You said nothing in response to these questions earlier, so I would like to give you one more opportunity before I make public the petition, the signatures, and the questions. Thank you for taking the time to consider the petition and our request for clarification regarding your decision in regard to the CAFT report."

Chancellor Wise responds with empty PR-speak of looking forward to working together:

"Thank you for sending this email and the attached signatures. As I have said in a previous email to you I look forward to working with you to address the challenges and opportunities that we face."

The email exchange presented above depicts the absence of a space for deliberation and debate. As Professor makes multiple requests for clarifications, reasons, and transparency for decisions taken by the administration, the Chancellor draws upon her own power and the power of the trustees to foreclose discussion, followed up by an empty promise of working together. As a response strategy, the speech act performed by Chancellor Wise is not only rude in avoiding conversation on the key issues but is also deceptive in couching this avoidance within the language of wanting to work together. As I have argued elsewhere, these communicative inversions, the inversions of symbolic representations to refer to the opposite of what is being practiced, are fundamental forms of incivility as they shut down possibilities of authentic conversation.

Chancellor Wise depicts the incivility that has come to form the cornerstone of the Illinois administration.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The race to measurement: The "meat and potatoes" of critical thinking

As universities globally are being pushed to offer valid and reliable accounts of their work and performance, there is a global frenzy across university campuses for measurement and evaluation. University administrators, all set to capture university productivity in some raw number, are driven by the quest for simplified metrics, algorithms, and statistics.

The controversial Purdue president Mitch Daniels, who during his time as Indiana governor had come under fire for introducing school-wide performance-driven reforms that many academics argue fundamentally broke the backbone of K-12 education in Indiana, is now all set to introduce metrics for measuring critical thinking.

Faced with a faculty that is uncertain about the meaningfulness and effectiveness of a research design that would capture critical thinking, Daniels notes " "How about we get going on the meat and potatoes of critical learning and not put that off another 12 months? … There could be a little learn-by-doing involved, too."

For Daniels, a little learn-by-doing is the solution to the fundamental uncertainty about the meaningfulness of measuring critical thinking. The problem with the Mitch Daniels line of thought lies in the understanding of critical thinking as "meat and potatoes" that can somehow be weighed by a simplistic weighing device and then matched up to a dollar amount. In this worldview, we can have an ROI (return-on-investment) for critical thinking.

This race to measurement is of course not unique to Purdue but is an increasingly global phenomenon.

Long lines of administrators, with the increasing ranks of Associate Deans, Vice Deans, Assistant Deans, and sub-Assistant Deans need to justify their existence, their own lack of productivity, and their mediocre-caliber performance by inventing new sets of metrics that would create new domains of busywork for them. Presidents and Provosts, with their exorbitant salaries need to demonstrate that they are doing something to be accountable.

You see, the problem in all of this lies in the very intent and objectives behind these exercises. At the rate at which these metrics come and go, it becomes evident that for every administrator, there has to be some new campus-wide exercise to define her or his mark on the university. The concern for the administrator then is in showing that some busywork is taking place, some new paradigm of managing universities is being invented.

It does not matter how good the work is, how good the design is, and whether the design is informed by good science.

The race to measurement then also means that this a race to new initiatives, new processes, and new campus-wide exercises, often detracting from the fundamental commitments to research, teaching and meaningful engagement that ought to define the life of a professor. Let's not forget the amount of resources and money that go into these new measurement and accountability exercises. Where's the data to demonstrate that these new processes of measurement and new initiatives actually worked?

We as faculty are often made to grudgingly fill out another round of papers, evaluative tools, and performance metrics in order to satisfy the fanciful obsession of a new administrator with the "meat and potatoes" of some new entity.

We find our days being filled out with filing paperwork, completing some new e-process, writing up some new sets of objectives, and then randomly coming up with new sets of metrics to evaluate against these objectives. I say randomly because more often than not there simply isn't a robust set of systematic indicators to shape these kinds of processes.

Increasingly, the long hours on the computer filling out forms also mean less and less hours with our students, less and less time in understanding them, in guiding them, and in nurturing them. The busyness of the paperwork and e-forms take up so much of our time and energy that we start forgetting the fundamental mission of why we are here: to serve our students.

All these efforts would perhaps make sense if we knew that the measures and measurement processes were accountable, if we only knew in transparent ways the science behind the metrics, evaluative exercises, and new processes, and that these decisions were grounded in robust research. But all of this would mean that universities be redone in how decisions are made. The opaque decisions made by trustees and the short-sighted decisions made by administrators must be rendered visible to the faculty, for the faculty to debate on and decide on as a collective based on deliberation. For new initiatives to take place, they must be ratified by elected faculty senate or some such decision-making body grounded in faculty participation and faculty evaluation of data.

Critical thinking, President Daniels, can not be reduced to "meat and potatoes;" We can not run "fly by the seat of our pants" operation to measure critical thought. There exist fundamental philosophical differences on measurement and the meaning of measurement. I suggest you begin by reading this literature that would point you toward the key philosophical, theoretical, and empirical debates in this literature. Once you do so, you will perhaps have a greater sense of the uncertainty that faculty feel about such measurement operations, questions of research design, face validity, construct validity, reliability etc.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo attacks: Liberty, Western hypocrisy, and cultural context


Liberty, Western hypocrisy, and cultural context

Mohan Jyoti Dutta

The recent terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have put on the global center-stage the ideas of free speech and liberty.

Mainstream media and politicians, a large number of them from the West, have framed the attacks in the language of liberty, suggesting that the attacks are acts of violence on the ways of the free world, aka the West.

In solidarity with the magazine, the twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie has garnered global popularity. The hashtag expresses the global support for media to draw and voice diverse, even provocative ideas, freely.

The #jesuischarlie twitter feed also serves as a space for sharing many of the Charlie Hebdo images, equating the act of sharing the images with assertions of freedom and liberty. The images of a free global order juxtaposed against the images of extremist Islamic fundamentalists, are presented in a binary. The many different depictions of Islam and the prophet as the targets of satire stand in for the freedom and liberty of the Western civilization.

These growing global conversations on the question of free speech are indeed important conversations, fostering opportunities for discussions of the ideals of liberty and freedom, and the underlying values that guide these conversations.  

As a scholar of communication, I believe that it is vital for diverse worldviews to be heard and to be enabled. Conversations on free speech and the freedom to express our vital conversations to have globally, especially as we converse across sub-cultural and cultural norms, ideals of respect and dignity, and deeply embedded cultural codes on appropriate conversation.

Moreover, these conversations are particularly salient today as nation states such as Israel and the US operate globally to silence free speech and implement global networks of surveillance on our speech, ideas, and expressions. Notions of free speech and liberty are valued conversations in the backdrop of the growing consolidation of power in the hands of the global elite, the oligarchic ownership of media, the increasing global power of neo-imperial nation states, and the lack of transparency in communication and information about the various acts of war being carried out globally by powerful nation states.

The value of free speech offers vital lessons about the possibilities of expression in a diverse world. These ideas of free speech anchor our conversations on how we conceive the role of communication in society and the important role of nurturing a space for a variety of ideas, irrespective of the level of discomfort some of these ideas may create in some of us. They also point toward much-needed conversations on right to information, transparency, and accountability.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks raise important questions: What is the realm of acceptable speech? What is unacceptable speech? Who decides the limits to acceptability? Moreover, they also offer opportunity for asking questions that are currently not being discussed: How are conversations on free speech shaped by power structures? How are conversations on free speech deployed toward achieving specific political agendas and objectives? If free speech is also indicative of freedom of access to information, how free is access to information in the global order today?

As is depicted in the broader global discourses on mainstream media, in political speeches, and on social media such as the #jesuischarlie hashtag, the Charlie Hebdo attacks have been framed as attacks on the cherished ways of liberty and freedom in the Western world. Having been set up in the backdrop of depictions of Islamic culture and extremism, Charlie Hebdo has emerged on the global discursive space as a signifier of the supposed Western commitments to liberty and freedom.

The Western media as well as much of the social media discourse originating from the West in response to the attacks depict the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as the violent attack of Islamic terrorists on the Western ideals of liberty. The images show an act of violence threatening an otherwise peace-loving Western civilization.

As reflected in the march for liberty and mainstream media conversations, there is an increasing convergence on the depictions of the attacks as France’s 9/11. Close scrutiny of the 9/11 discourses point toward the ways in which these discourses were then deployed to create a climate of support for US and allied invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Depictions of liberty served as the instruments for violating the sovereignty and liberty of the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting the need to interrogate the attacks and their depictions closely and critically. The narrative unfoldings in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later in Libya and Syria, suggest that these discourses and propagandistic celebrations of free speech and liberty in the West however are far from the reality of practices of free speech in the West.

The jingoism and propaganda in the Western elite, media, and popular discourses suggest the need for caution in our interpretations of events. They suggest that any conversation about the ideal of free speech needs to be juxtaposed amid critical consideration of the actual practices of free speech in the Western world. Critical consideration also needs to attend to the depiction of a peace-loving Western civilization. These critical considerations hopefully offer anchors for global conversations on free speech, with careful attention paid to other anchors and values that need to be placed in the mix.

Let me begin by interrogating the materiality of practices of free speech in the West. Does the Western claim to liberty and freedom of speech hold up when interrogated by the evidence on hand?

For instance, what do Operation Iraqi Freedom and the US attacks on Afghanistan and Libya tell us about the Western ideals of liberty? Is the Western civilization an exemplar of peace and liberty?

The images of liberty circulated conveniently in the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, much like the images of 9/11 circulated after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, ignore the violence and attack on liberties of people elsewhere carried out by the West, such as the violation of the fundamental liberties of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan carried out by US-led and allied imperial invasions. These depictions of a peace-loving Western civilization strategically erase the war machineries and instruments of violence that form the fabric of Western civilizations. The binary in the depiction of Western liberty remains oblivious to the large numbers of deaths across the Middle East caused by Western imperial invasions. The metaphors of liberty and peace remain oblivious to the large numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan and in the Middle East that caused by US-sponsored drone attacks.

Moreover, critical interrogations also point toward the Western attacks on spaces of articulation across the globe that have challenged or threatened the Western narrative of freedom and liberty. The Iraqi television station and a hospital in Falujah were some of the earliest targets of Operation Iraqi Freedom, justifying these aggressions as strategic attacks on Iraqi instruments of propaganda. Similarly, critical attention needs to be paid to the attacks on journalists. Consider for instance, US attacks on journalists across the Middle East. Early on in its attacks on Afghanistan, the United States bombed Al Jazeera, and then bombed the Sheraton Hotel in Basra, Iraq, housing Al Jazeera journalists.  Israel, another bastion of democracy and liberty, has been accused of involvement in carrying out war crimes against journalists, including killing 17 journalists. Or consider the cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh who has been jailed by Israel for speaking out.

The rhetoric of liberty originating from the West ironically remains silent about the attack on free speech reflected in the US response to the whistleblowers who have reported on the US army abuses of power and torture of civilians. The rhetoric of liberty remains conveniently silent about the violence on Bradley Manning for exercising his right to speech. Similarly, the US rhetoric of liberty and freedom of speech remains characteristically silent about the US treatment of Edward Snowden for revealing the large scale surveillance operations carried out by the US or the corresponding attacks on our fundamental communicative liberties by these large scale surveillance operations carried out by the US.

Moreover, when it comes specifically to the idea of free speech, close examination disrupts the Western propaganda of free speech. Western society is not equally open to all forms of speech. Which of the diverse worldviews are deemed acceptable by societal norms and which of these views are treated as not acceptable depend a great deal on the broader socio-political context and the structures of power within which these conversations about free speech are situated.

For instance when in 2006, the magazine Charlie Hebdo had published a series of images depicting the Prophet Mohammed in pornographic frames, the magazine was asked whether it would depict Moses in the same way, particularly within the broader context of Israeli attacks on Palestine. The magazine remained silent. In 2009, when the French cartoonist Sine, then working at Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon that was considered by some groups as anti-Semitic in tone, he was asked by the then-editor to apologize and had to go on trial on charges of anti-Semitism.

In another instance, France, the supposed voice of Western liberty, banned the protests against Israel in 2014.

The exercise of tools of appropriate speech codes to subvert diverse academic expressions is also evident in the US academic structures and universities. In the US, the academic Professor Steven Salaita was de-hired from his job at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign for criticizing the recent spate of Israeli attacks on Palestine in strong language. A code of “incivility” was called upon to justify the de-hiring of this academic as a personnel decision by the administration. 

In each of these instances, civility, as a speech code, is positioned in opposition to free speech. This articulation of civility then suggests another axis to the conversation of free speech, noting that indeed in the West, articulations of free speech don’t exist in vacuum. Instead, decisions are consistently made by appealing to other sets of standards and values, and using these bases to justify speech that violates the dominant codes of conversation. The outcomes of these decisions on realms of speech thus deviate significantly from the avowed rhetorical position of commitment to free speech deployed in the propaganda campaign carried out by the West.

These incidences point to the hypocrisy in Western discourses of freedom of speech. That there is not such a monolithic idea of free speech, that freedom of speech is almost always situated in relationship to broader aspects of context are ideas that need nuanced consideration, especially as our circles of conversation become increasing global in scope. These critical and nuanced considerations are particularly salient within the broader context of the strategic uses of the language of freedom to carry out neo-colonial invasions on the global stage.

Free speech as an ideal therefore is almost always balanced with other ideals in a given society. As an ideal, the concept of free speech can certainly offer valuable guidelines for policies and for conversations on policies. Notions of free speech, I hope, can also address ideas of transparency, access to information, and the freedom to pursue information particularly in instances where such information is shrouded under opaque policies.

Conversations on free speech, in other words, are much needed in the world today.

Moreover, these conversations on free speech also need to be situated in relationship to the questions of the quality of speech. The question about the freedom of Charlie Hebdo to publish its Islamophobic cartoons needs to be complemented by conversations on the quality of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, the racist undertones of the images, and the feelings of disenfranchisement that might be produced by images that attack the worldviews of a minority community. Especially worth considering in the debates on free speech are the effects of speech, especially within the context of the differential powers of different communities and the effects of particular forms of speech in certain communities. Worth considering for instance is the right to communicative dignity of communities that are disenfranchised or are at the margins. Speech that contributes to the disenfranchisement of marginalized and/or minority communities need to be considered in relationship to the potential effects of such forms of marginalization.

Depictions and negotiations of freedom of speech thus are shaped by the broader political, economic, social, and cultural environment, and the various commitments of any given society. As dominant power structures deploy communication to serve their agendas of consolidating power, free speech serves as a key tool for rendering visible the strategies of power consolidation. As a tool thus, free speech can provide important avenues for questioning the policies that are made within particular structures and the effects, benefits, and costs of such policies.

Free speech in a nutshell is an important value. As a guiding principle, it can offer valuable insights for how we come to understand the relationship among communication, culture, and society when it takes into account complexities, nuances, cultural values, and structural formations.

In a social media environment where the varieties of discourses about religion are grounded in diverse value systems, it is vital to engage dialogically with these differences and at the same time foster collaborative spaces for encouraging conversations on commonalities. Points of criticism and thoughtful debate might indeed offer bridges for exploring opportunities for dialogue amid difference, thus working through articulations of free speech not as a way to denigrate a culture or circulate chauvinistic ideas of two cultures, but to promote spaces for conversation through difference.

The concept of dialogic quality thus adds a much-needed layer of complexity and nuance to the current conversations on freedom of speech. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo offer an opportunity for these critical conversations.