Academic freedom in times of Covid-19

The magnitude and scope of the events put in motion by the spread of the virus call for timely and rigorous interventions by scholars in the social sciences and humanities.  We are in dire need of sober, balanced but also brave analyses to better understand the global implications of the pandemic - what is happening, what kind of challenge this is, how we got here and where it is that we might be going.

Yet, it is also hard to imagine, in such difficult circumstances, that people have the time and fortitude to prioritise what could be seen as intellectual abstraction, as they have done in recent times when major events took the spotlight, be it Brexit, Trump's 2016 victory or mass protests such as #Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter or #RhodesMustFall. It is hard to envisage that the style and content of the analyses will just be a continuation of what has become in recent years “business as usual”.

One thing is clear: academic debate and pluralism can help us grapple with the many uncertainties provoked by the virus. The epidemiological data is emerging, but still limited. Even more obscure are the socio-cultural, political and economic implications of the pandemic.

How does Covid-19 spread in social settings? What kinds of social settings are more conducive or more hostile to contagion? What does contagion mean for people and their everyday lives? How are communities around the world responding to the possibility of infection? Who or what do people hold responsible, if anybody or anything, for the onset of the pandemic? How are people mourning their dead when in many cases they can’t perform their rituals of mourning? What new spaces of refuge are people seeking when the usual spaces of solace are no longer feasible? How are people responding to public health calls of social isolation and hygiene in contexts where crowded living conditions and the absence of basic services make this difficult? What happens to those known to have passed on the infection to other members of their families or communities?

Thinking further: what happens to ideas - such as government, state, citizenship, rights, and life itself - that have been used to theorise collective action and political community? What is the purpose of a political community during a time of crisis? Who is considered expendable, disposable, and why? When countries prioritise their own epidemic, what becomes of the idea of international community and solidarity? If health is a human right, why is it regarded as legitimate to refuse migrants, guest workers, foreigners and other non-citizens medical care, even when doing so exacerbates the crisis? How should the economy and finance be re-imagined, given that the virus has exposed the life and death consequences of the routine precarity that continues to shape the lives of the majority?

These are just some of the many questions that remain unanswered at this stage.

As academics, we are being pushed out of our comfort zone – the ivory tower – also because, like everybody else, we are personally affected, it is a phenomenological experience. This is not something that is just happening in our professional research sites, it is happening to us, now, everywhere. It is happening to the people – citizens whose tax contributions to the public good finance our work.

No one can afford to be indifferent. We need to take the best of our skills of detachment and abstraction and bringing it back in the dire reality that we are facing. We need to continue thinking conceptually, develop hypotheses and working theories, be true to our methodologies and disciplinary principles. But we need to do so without reducing people to numbers, and deaths to mere statistical trends. It’s very hard for all of us, because we have been trained to objectify and analyse dispassionately.

We often take on an ethical and empathetic attitude to people and communities in our research sites, but just as often, especially in closed seminar rooms and university corridors, we privilege ideas over humans, data over real life experiences.

These shortcomings have characterized the academic enterprise from its inception, and yet, we cannot do away with the kind of in-depth, comparative, and relatively slow kind of reflection that academic settings produce, and can’t easily be replicated in other settings such as NGOs, international institutions or companies. It’s not an issue of expertise or data, there are plenty of high quality research and researchers outside academia. But the academic mode of production, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, is laborious and time-consuming; it can't be done in a rush and doesn't follow company deadlines.

The dangers of abstraction and detachment are still very real. When ideas take over real life, you could end up like acclaimed Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has recently dismissed the pandemic as a manufactured panic aimed at putting into practice a project of total control by governments and corporations. Agamben favours abstract ideas of individual freedoms over the hard reality of contagion, thus unwittingly supporting a freedom to infect, by criticising the necessary measures of social distancing and lockdown that Italy and other governments are trying hard to impose on their citizens. Ideas of freedom become more important than people's physical wellbeing and biological lives. A transcendental freedom devoid of any flesh, and it seems, potentially devoid of any humans at all who could embody the ideal, if these kinds of biological threats were let to run their course.

This is just one example of what could go wrong with academic debates, if we lose sight of the ultimate purpose of our work, and fail to adequately reflect about how we are to deploy our academic expertise in these unprecedented times of health and economic global crisis.

We need to try our best to avoid reducing the much needed power of academic critique to a performance of the critical scholar that goes against the current regardless of the circumstances, more as a knee-jerk reaction, than as a well thought out response.

We need critique where appropriate, but a critical attitude also means the ability to discern when criticism is needed, and when a more constructive and sober dialogue, and support of necessary government measures might be called for. Do we just criticize all governments indiscriminately for being heavy-handed during the pandemic? Or do we think more carefully about how to balance freedoms and the right to life and to care for those whose health is more vulnerable than ours? Should we – for the sake of ideas – use provocative language just so that our performance of the critical scholar remains intact, continuing business as usual in a neoliberal world where performative criticism is a dominant feature, often serving those very interests it purportedly takes on?

On the other end of the spectrum, we also need to rethink the concept of scientific authority in contexts where science is perceived as a singular omniscient monolith that prescribes the "right" course of action as a depoliticised technocratic machinery.

We cannot say that experts know with high degrees of certainty, when we know very well that in this situation what we don’t know – as a scientific community as a whole, with all its different disciplines and practices – is much more than what we know. We need to sensibly communicate this humility to the public, avoiding the arrogance of a singular approach to science.

As we continue the journey through unknowns, anxiety, fear, but also already widespread suffering and death, we need to find our academic voice, our certainty shattered by the rapid spread of the virus. Covid-19 is putting into question scholars' relationships with governments, business and societies, but also particularly with themselves.

As social scientists and scholars in the humanities, we have a lot to offer, but if we are to make ourselves useful in this global crisis of massive proportions, we will need to rethink and adapt concepts and practices of academic freedom to the current moment.

Political scientist Nadia Urbinati offered an important contribution in a recent webinar on fear and democracy in times of Covid-19. She highlighted the importance of rethinking freedom also as the freedom to restrain oneself, the freedom to exercise agency in the act of necessary humility and physical distancing. This might be something that takes us out of a sterile, and increasingly deadly, binary between unrestrained freedom and total control.

Academics have self-regulated for a long time and academic freedom and its social benefits are in great part the result of such independence. Let’s all nurture and foster this by being creative and adaptive at a time when the world as we know it is rapidly changing under our very own eyes. Let’s move beyond performative criticism and the arrogance of singular certainty, to fight the pandemic and join people and governments across the world in this difficult journey into the unknown. We have always argued that academic freedom comes with responsibilities. We need to use it purposefully, especially now, for the common good.

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