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Britain’s coming culture war

15 Jun

We can see the contours of the remainder of this Tory government and the run-in to the next general election (scheduled for May 2024). The Johnson administration will continue to govern with incompetence, but its large parliamentary majority of 80 seats means that it will be insulated from external criticism. Those with the stature to criticise from within have already been eliminated from the ruling party.

So what will the governing agenda look like? The first two items on the agenda are obvious: the continuing Brexit shambles and coronavirus. The latter provides excellent cover for the former. Brexit means that the UK economy will take a massive self-inflicted hit. But much of this can be masked by the coronavirus recession. The promised ‘ sunny uplands’ of post-Brexit Britain will not be delivered in a material sense. But there will be a political boon for the Johnson government in the shape of near continuous sniping against Brussels: ‘Intransigent EU’, ‘Eurocrats snub Boris’, ‘French fishermen steal British cod’, … the headlines write themselves. As for coronavirus, we are going to have to get used to it being a fixture. The government will continue its strategy of avoiding any responsibility for its initial failures. The economy will be prioritised over health and if people get sick, then that is their own fault. The government line will be that it did the right thing at the right time. Any inquiry will be less than independent and have the same impact as all those other inquiries that sit on shelves.

The third agenda item is an insidious one but it will dominate: culture war. It is prominent now (Churchill’s statue, re-runs of Fawlty Towers) but has been bubbling away for years. Tory strategists will have seen how well it works in the United States and will be working hard to further foment it. In the absence of any policies or strategy, it is a cheap way of mobilising the base and winning votes. So be prepared to see almost constant rows about statues, head-scarves, and ‘classic’ TV comedies. There will be faux outrage a-plenty as loyal newspapers and columnists make hay. All they need is a single rent-a-quote mouthpiece to say they are offended and – bingo – there is a headline: ‘Outrage as loony left-wing council question Remembrance Sunday’, ‘Politically correct Uni bosses ban free speech’, ‘Now they’re after our food’. The language games will be insidious (‘they’, ‘our’ etc.) and stoke a binary. Trades unions, protestors, BLM, non-right-wing politicians, and Guardian readers will all be lumped together. If they can be associated with a violent fringe then so much the better.

We have seen this all before. It worked well with demonising Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbot and many others. But this time it is part of an on-going electoral strategy in which permanent campaigning acts as a substitute for debate, policy and genuine engagement with any opposition. To be clear: the general election campaign is now on. A culture war is a difficult place for opposition politicians to be. Any equivocation is quickly branded as unpatriotic.

These are the elements that make a culture war a winning electoral strategy:

– It operates via proxies or actors who are loyal but one step removed from government. Thus if a story become too hot, the government can distance themselves from it. So, the main agitators in the culture war by proxy will be the press (now overwhelmingly right wing in terms of newspaper editorial stance) and the multiple right-wing columnists, websites and retweeters. These constituencies are already highly sophisticated and have been emboldened by their Brexit victory. Many taboos of offending people have been broken. How many times has there been a 48 hour outrage against racist comments by newspaper columnists … who are still in their jobs?
– It costs next to nothing to run a culture war. This does not require billion pound initiatives. Instead, it relies on word of mouth and retweets. Certainly there are multiple shady political operations out there – especially online, but a culture war relies primarily on stoking pre-existing prejudices.
– It taps into the cultural knowledge and vocabulary of white England. The culture war is not about some abstract or far-away notion (quantitative easing, even Brexit). Instead, it is relatable if it stick to British comedy TV programmes and the basics of history (Churchill statues and Dunkirk. Anything about WWII really. Anything history beyond that is unknown);
– A culture war is about fear – fear of losing something (privilege, identity) and of something being taken away. So it feels immediate and threatening and thus strikes a chord;
– Finally, there will be a lot of equivalence. This tactic is straight out of the Trump playbook but it works. Thus White Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter are painted as the same: each deserving of attention, each with a legitimate point of view. If things get too hot, government ministers can appear to be even-handed. They appear as neutral arbitrators who are above the fray.

If you want to see what a culture war looks like, read the Fox News website on a daily basis. It rarely reports news. Instead, it is permanent spin that politicises stories along racial and partisan lines as a default option. The future isn’t pretty.

Boris Johnson is not ill

9 Apr

Of course, Boris Johnson is ill. He is ill enough to warrant a bed in ICU. But the relentless positivity of the messaging from the Downing Street communications team is resonant of Soviet regimes in the 1980s: leaders were in fine fettle until it no longer became possible to hide the fact that they were dead or dying.

From the start, the messaging surrounding Johnson’s health has been of a different trajectory to this actual health. So even when he moved from ‘mere’ hospitalisation to ICU, the messaging has remained positive. It is all part of a toxic masculinity that is common in contemporary politics. Leaders cannot be seen to be ill or to be taking time off because this could be seen as a sign of weakness. They must be portrayed as super-humans. This is plainly nonsense. No one (or at least very few people) look to political leaders as moral exemplars so why should we expect them to defy the physical and biological laws that mean that most of us get sick every now and again?

The official and political narrative of Johnson’s illness suggests that all of Johnson’s spokespeople and senior ministerial colleagues have been speaking from the same nonsensical brief. Thus Johnson merely had ‘mild symptoms” when he began social distancing. During that early phase he was ‘leading from the front’ and chairing cabinet and COBRA meetings via a video link. When he was hospitalised, this was merely ‘a precautionary step’ – as though hospital beds in hotspot London were a-plenty. When he was moved to ICU, his character was invoked. Johnson was ‘a fighter’ and thus COVID-19 didn’t stand a chance against a man of his mettle. After a day in ICU he was ‘improving’ and ‘responding positively’ to treatment.

At one stage during the last US Presidential election campaign, it was pretty obvious that Hillary Clinton had a flu or some other illness of the sort that we all get from time to time. She looked pretty awful, yet she had to be seen soldiering on. Rather than admitting that she was human and fallible, and taking a few days out of the campaign to recover, her team maintained the fiction that she was fine. It backfired in that speculation around her illness dominated the headlines and the story was inflated. Politicians have gotten themselves into unsustainable territory. They are becoming the embodiment of Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place – hence the “Boris Johnson is not ill” title of this blog post. Johnson is ill. Everyone knows that. His place in ICU demonstrates that. But expect a relentlessly positive briefing at 5pm.

The unfortunate Lord Maginnis

10 Jan

The job of the social scientist is to spot patterns in social phenomenon, and there is a pattern to be spotted in Lord Ken Maginnis’ orbit. Ken – now Lord Maginnis – served himself for many years as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He now sits in the House of Lords as an independent after a parting of ways between him and his – the Ulster Unionist Party. He believed that homosexuals were ‘deviant’. They did not. Anyway, it would seem that whenever Ken is around unfortunate events happen. All of this, I am sure, is coincidence. Doubtless, time and again, Ken is the innocent bystander and things just happen in his presence.

Earlier this week, there was a hullaballoo at the entrance of the UK’s House of Parliament. Things were shouted at the security staff along the lines of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Ken was in the vicinity at the time but it would be wholly out of character for him to shout at anyone. Not like him at all.

And then in his former constituency and home town, there was a road rage incident. A driver was grabbed by the arm and someone was called a ‘yellow bellied bastard’. Ken was nearby, but as a dedicated public servant it would be inconceivable that he would involved in such unseemly behaviour.

Lightening seemed to strike in the same place again for poor old Ken when there was an alleged assault at his London flat. Poor Lord Maginnis’ neighbour apparently ended up with a cut eye but it is very probable that Ken was out at the time. He was probably doing charitable work for the poor.

In a clear case of persecution of the weakest members of our society, a train company came after Ken for an unpaid fare. They alleged – I am sure they were completely wrong and he was completely innocent – that he travelled by train without paying. Ken, as a man of principle, made sure it went to court. The court – in an act of folly – ordered that goods worth £1,500 be seized from Ken. I suspect that a Mother Theresa figure like Ken would have goods worth that much.

And then, some years before, poor Ken was trying to enjoying a Chinese meal when he was struck on the head with a beer can. This time it definitely was Ken. He wasn’t just near-by, it was his head. Imagine: there you are trying to enjoy your chicken chou mein and you are clocked on the noggin by a can of Stella. Never, in the history of humanity, can someone have had such poor luck as Ken.

The man is a magnet for bad luck.

Election Diary 2019

13 Dec

4 November 2019
The Conservative Party stood by their candidate for the Gower constituency, Francesca O’Brien, after it was revealed that she said that people on a television programme about benefits claimants needed ‘putting down’. Lord Davis, a former Tory MP for the constituency blamed “a dredging exercise on the part of the Labour Party”. O’Brien came second in the constituency with 18,371 votes.

9 November 2019

The Conservative candidate for Wakefield, Andrew Calvert, stepped aside after a series of quotes emerged referring to London as “Londonistan’, that Col. Gaddafi would flee to Bradford, and the appearance females on television. The new Conservative candidate took the seat from Labour with 47.3 percent of the vote.

11 November 2019
A former adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson remained as Conservative candidate for South Cambridgeshire after an article he wrote in The Spectator was re-discovered. In the article, Anthony Browne blamed immigrants for bringing germs and HIV into the UK. Browne held his seat for the Conservatives with 46.3 percent of the vote.

12 November 2019

A former Tory MP, Chris Davies, who was forced to resign as a result of a conviction for a false expenses claim, withdrew as a General Election candidate. He was standing in the Ynys Mons seat (having previously lost his Brecon and Radnorshire seat as a result of a recall). He gave the reason for withdrawing as ‘critical comments in the media’ and made no mention his criminal conviction. The Conservatives gained the seat from Labour with a 7.7 percent swing.

13 November 2019
Tory MP, Andrew Griffiths, who had bombarded two women with thousands of explicit text messages, stepped aside as a candidate to allow his wife Kate to stand in the constituency of Burton. The Conservatives held the seat – getting 60.7 percent of all votes.


15 November 2019


In a rambling and bizarre video message, the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay appeared to suggest that voting for Brexit would would ensure that there would be more English players in the English Premier League. Barclay stood for re-election in South East Cambridgeshire. He held the seat with 72.5 percent of the vote.

17 November 2019
In another example of dog-whistle racism, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, tweeted: ‘It’s the National Health Service not the International Health Service”. Hancock held the seat with 33,842 votes.

19 November 2019

Former UKIP MEP and now Conservative candidate for Leeds North East, Amjad Bashir, apologised for calling British Jews who travelled to Israel ‘brainwashed extremists’. He remained the Conservative Party candidate. Labour held the seat although Bashir attracted 11,935 votes.

19 November 2019

Conservative candidate for Aberdeen North, Ryan Houghton, was suspended from the election over Islamophobic, homophobic and anti-semitic comments. Yet he remained the election candidate. The SNP held the seat. Houghton got 20.1 percent of the vote.

19 November 2019

The Conservative Party were widely criticised for changing their Twitter handle to @factcheckUK during a Corbyn-Johnson televised debated. Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said he was ‘absolutely comfortable’ with it. Cleverly held the seat for the Conservatives, adding 4.7 percent to their share of the vote.

21 November 2019
Home Secretary Priti Patel was asked about child poverty on a campaign visit to Barrow-in-Furness. She replied ‘It’s not the government though, is it? … as if it is some sort of bland blob that, you know, you can just go and blame.’ The Conservatives have been in government for a decade. Patel held the seat for thew Conservatives with 66.6 percent. of the vote.

24 November 2019

At the launch of the Conservative manifesto. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged 50,000 more nurses. His figures did not add up since 19,000 of them were already employed by the NHS. In a car crash interview the next day, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan was unable to explain the figures. Morgan was not standing for re-election. Johnson became Prime Minister.

25 November 2019


Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis told Radio 5 Live that the UK already had the basis of a trade deal with the EU: “We already trade with the EU, we’ve got the basis of the deal we’ve already agreed, so it’s a much simpler deal for us to do.” This was untrue. The EU President, Commission and Parliament have yet to sanction any UK-EU trade talks and this cannot happen until the UK leaves the EU. Lewis held his Great Yarmouth seat with 28,593 votes and a 11.6 percent swing.

25 November 2019

Conservative candidate for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Lee Anderson, has no comment to make on a video he made last week advocating that people who who suspected of anti-social behaviour should be made live in tents and picks vegetables. 
Anderson won the seat from Labour.

26 November 2019


The family of Harry Duun, who is thought to have been killed in a road accident by the spouse of a US diplomat, were prevented from entering a town hall hustings in the Foreign Secretary’s constituency of Esher and Walton. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, refused to speak with the family. Raab held onto his seat although there was a 9.3 percent swing against him.

29 November 2019
Former Tory minister and election candidate Philip Dunne for Ludlow told a Sikh rival that he was ‘talking through his turban’. 
Dunne held his seat with 32,185 votes.

29 November 2019

The Conservative candidate for Glasgow Central, Flora Scarabello, was suspended by the party following anti-Muslim remarks. It was too late to remove her from the ballot paper. Scarabello came third in the constituency.

29 November 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to attend a Channel 4 television debate on climate change. At the last moment, one of his deputies, former Environment Minister Michael Gove and candidate for Surrey Heath, did attempt to appear on the programme but was turned away. It was reported in the media that the Conservatives might revoke Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence. Gove held his seat although there was a 5.6 percent against him.

2 December 2019
Chris Philp, justice minister and Conservative candidate for Croydon South, defended the Conservative strategy of political point scoring over the London Bridge attack in which two people were murdered three days earlier. “It’s pointing out that when the sentence was handed down to Usman Khan in 2012, that happened under a policy enacted by the previous Labour government in 2008,” he says.
 Philp held his seat.

5 December 2019

It was revealed that Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns, who is standing for re-election in Morley and Outwood is on the payroll of the University of Bolton to the tune of £25,000 a year to head up a university think-tank that has yet to be established. The £25,000 per year is for eight hours per week.
 Jenkyns held her seat – adding 6 percent to the vote share.

5 December 2019

Chancellor, and Conservative candidate for Bromsgrove, Sajid Javid told Sky News that homelessness peaked under Labour and had halved since then. Javid had served as housing minister in the past. His claim was misleading. Homelessness rose under labour and then fell. It has risen under Conservative governments. There are currently 126,000 children in temporary accommodation.
 Javid held the seat with 63.4 percent of votes.

6 December 2019

Conservative Party candidate for Hastings and Rye, Sally-Ann Hart, tells a hustings meeting that disabled people should be paid less as ‘they don’t understand money’. Hart held her seat and added 2.7 percent to vote share.

9 December 2019

It is revealed that the Conservative candidate for Bradford for Bradford East, Linden Kemkaran, shared social media posts declaring that Muslims has a ‘nasty culture’ and often played ‘the race card’. Labour held the seat.

10 December 2019
Conservative candidate and MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp, told the BBC that cancer patients don’t ‘really care’ about cancer treatment waiting times as overall survival rates were going up. Philps held his seat.

11 December 2019

Conservative MP Richard Drax (full name Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax) and candidate for Dorset South parks his Land Rover across two disabled spaces when campaigning. Drax held his seat, polling 30,024 votes.

Looking for a dead horse

10 Sep

Gravestone

I had a couple of hours to kill a few weeks ago and took the opportunity to check out a legend that my mother had told me (or that I thought she had told me). What I remember being told is that the horse that King Billy (King William of Orange) rode at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was buried in a cemetery in Co. Armagh (Northern Ireland) just to the east of the River Blackwater. King Billy is a divisive figure in Northern Ireland. The victor of the Battle of the Boyne, he is regarded as a key figure in Protestant supremacy – and is often depicted on a white horse. You could just see the tops of a few gravestones as you passed along the M1 motorway and I was always tempted to take time-out to check out the legend. Although the cemetery was visible from the motorway, it proved to be very inaccessible. I had tried to find a route to it a few years ago but gave up after a few wrong-turns.

So, a few weeks ago, I began with an internet search. The area is known as Church Hill – a good start in looking for a cemetery I thought – but I could find no record of a church or cemetery on the map. And the landed family from the area – and their minor stately home – are no more. In my tiny hire-car, I turned off the motorway at what I thought was the nearest junction but quickly reached a dead-end. I then followed my nose and drove a good five or six miles along very narrow country lanes. The trees, tall hedges, tight corners and narrow roads meant that I felt enclosed – watched upon but not able to see very much. At each turn I prayed that I wouldn’t meet another vehicle as the only way out of the two-car traffic jam would be a long reverse. Many of the houses along the roads displayed the Union Jack or Orange Order flags – signifiers that I was in Protestant/unionist/loyalist territory. Although I come from within ten miles of the area, I was unfamiliar with this particular locality. There was a real sense of besiegement in the area. The flags struck me as defensive rather than celebratory – a tenuous holding onto identity rather than a sign of confidence. The place was only a few miles from the site of the founding of the Orange Order in the late eighteenth century and I began to feel a weird sense of history – that I had somehow stepped back in time or – at least – was in a place where history was not very far away.

After a few dead-ends, embarrassed reverses out of people’s driveways, and consultations with a 1986 map, I spied a laneway that looked as though it was headed in the direction of the cemetery. So I drove up the lane until the car exhaust started to scrape on the broken concrete.

eerie lane

Oddly, up this unprepossessing laneway was a modern house with very large gates and a security system. The house looked unoccupied, so I parked at their gate and looked further up the lane. I could see some disused farm building and could hear the motorway and so decided to continue on foot. The farmland, in keeping with the tumble-down farm buildings, was not cultivated. I began to get a really spooky feeling. The farm-buildings turned out to be much more extensive than I originally thought. There were multiple low buildings, mostly roofless now, like an old barracks – although I can find no record of a military base in the area.

Disused (military)? building

Some of the buildings had sectarian graffiti and I began to feel very uneasy. What would I say if someone challenged me: ‘Er, I’m looking for King Billy’s horse’.

Sectarian graffiti

Then I spotted a clump of trees – some of them Lebanese Cedar – a tree that is often associated with cemeteries. So I waded through chest high weeds and grass to the trees. They were surrounded by barbed wire and nettles so I could only peer in – hoping to see a few gravestones or some evidence of a cemetery. I couldn’t see anything apart from woodland. I turned towards the car, thankful that I would be out of this place in a few minutes and then saw another few Lebanese Cedars in the distance. I walked towards them and there it was behind a stone wall – the cemetery!

The small cemetery contained about 20 visible headstones – virtually none of them legible. Occasionally I could make out dates, names and ages but for the most part, the stones were worn. There were a few rocks in the ground too – I took them to be grave markers for those who could not afford a carved headstone. I spent a good 15 minutes going from stone to stone and found the cemetery to be a peaceful place despite the spooky surroundings. So content that I had found the cemetery I walked back through the disused buildings, past the offensive graffiti and back to the car. I was mystified. Why is none of this on the map? What happened to the church that – presumably – Church Hill is named after? Why had this place freaked me out like few other places had?

Cemetery

Afterwards I googled just about everything I could think of to find out more information about where I had been. Then I found a news story from 1953 that mentioned a headstone to a horse that had been at the Battle of Waterloo. So I had misremembered what my mother had told me: Battle of Waterloo not Battle of the Boyne. The stone had been taken away over fifty years for safekeeping, but my afternoon jaunt had gotten me thinking about the frailty of my own memory, and also how others remember and forget. The area was layered with multiple histories – from the Tudor suppression of Irish warlords by building a fort at nearby Blackwatertown in 1575, to the Battle of the Diamond and the foundation of the Orange Order – 200 years later, and the insecurities that persist yet another two hundred years after that.

A walk along a disused railway line – Yes, I really am that dull

23 Aug

Signboard along the disused railway line

I had a fabulous walk on a disused railway line in Donegal (north-west Ireland) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about globalisation, modernity and connection. The railway line was the ‘Burtonport extension’ – a relatively late addition to Ireland’s railway network. It winds through very scenic countryside and served isolated coastal communities. The line only operated between 1903 and 1947.

Walking along the line got me thinking though about the impact of the railways on geography, culture and economics. The area in question was – at the time when the railway extension was built – desperately poor. The ‘Land Wars’ were not long over and had seen multiple evictions in the area. Landlord John George Adair had evicted 47 families (about 220 people) in nearby Derryveagh in 1861 to improve the view on his hunting lodge. The early passages of Michael MacGowan’s, The Hard Road to the Klondike, serve as a useful reminder of the poverty in the area and of the drivers of emigration.

Telegraph equipment – made in Scotland

The immediate impact would have come from the building of the railway and the influx of skilled workers. While unskilled labour would have been available locally, skilled technical labour probably had to come from outside of the area. Surveyors would have built on the work on military cartographers, with Brian Friel’s play Translations capturing the political exercise involved in map-making and rendering locality intelligible to outsiders. Land would have had to been purchased, although much of this could have been done ‘in bulk’ given that a few landowners owned large tracts of land (Adair’s Donegal landholdings ran to 28,000 acres). In a new innovation for parts of Donegal, land would have had to be fenced off to keep livestock away from the train tracks. Obviously legal ‘enclosure’ had taken place much earlier with various parties claiming land and excluding others, but physically fencing off large tracts of land would have been an innovation – and a cultural shock.

This cultural impact must have been quite profound: a reason to tell the time (other than mass attendance that would have been signalled by a bell), a new uniformed profession (other than the RIC), and greater numbers of touristic and commercial visitors to the area. News would have traveled faster, emigrants could have gotten to Derry more quickly, it became commercial to transport fresh fish …

Very study gatepost.

There are still a few physical reminders of the railway in situ. The remaining gateposts – where country lanes abut onto the railway line – are of a breadth that they do not look local or indeed Irish and it is possible to speculate that they came from overseas – perhaps Canada? It reminds us that the building and running of the railway was part of a much larger political economy of empire and globalisation. Indeed, the railway was not a standalone technology – it was part of a broader assemblage of technologies. Running alongside the railway line is evidence of a telegraph system (hardware from Kilmarnock in Ayreshire) – so the railway came as a package of communication.

A raised section of the line.

 

The line was quickly superseded by other forms of transport (principally roads) and communication. The lonely walk along the line (I saw seven people on a 15km stretch of line at the height of summer) was a useful reminder that technologies come and go.

Call for Papers – Special Issue of Peacebuilding Journal

10 Jul

Peace in an age of power

The editors of Peacebuilding are commissioning a Special Issue on peace and power. Much recent critical academic work in Peace and Conflict Studies has concentrated on the agential aspects of peace but has somewhat neglected structural issues and the different types of power that are an obstacle to peace. The proposed Special Issue will concentrate on how peace scholarship and agendas can be furthered in an era of realism, hard power, the primacy of geo-politics, nationalism, authoritarianism and unfettered capitalism. Furthermore, structural power and the defence of privilege may also be being extended by the advent of new technologies of governmentality.

Peace and Conflict Studies has been very well-served by the local turn and ethnographically-inspired fieldwork. We are seeing very rich field and project data in terms of publications, which has made a contribution to the UN’s recent Sustaining Peace agenda. This fore-grounding of the local often means that the wider context – especially that involving the international, the politics behind international institutions, and the hard power of militaries – is somewhat neglected. Yet, for peace to take root and to be truly transformative and emancipatory, it seems that issues of hard power, geo-politics and the structures of states, societies and economies need to be re-addressed in a new set of contexts. Indeed, the local turn has highlighted far more than merely descriptive frameworks of localised peace or the limitations of liberal peacebuilding, but also the ways subaltern and intersectional political claims are forming and traveling from local to global and back again, as well as how such claims may be blocked.

We are particularly interested in theoretical and conceptual treatments of these dynamics and encourage authors to be bold and experimental (this includes being experimental with the format of journal articles). We envisage some of the articles in the Special Issue being longer than normal (up to 14,000 words) – although this will be through negotiation with the editors. Submissions that are comparative, seek to cover the ‘bigger picture’, and those that engage in horizon-scanning are particularly welcome. Possible themes include (but are not limited to):

– Power and the post-liberal peace
– Peacemaking and the persistence of national sovereignty
– Peace in a post-human rights era
– Methodologies to capture power

We seek extended abstracts (500 words) by 15 September and plan to get back to authors by 1 October. The Special Issue would be published in mid to late 2020. Email: oliver.richmond@manchester.ac.uk and roger.macginty@durham.ac.uk

Imposter syndrome and how I sort of got over it

6 Jun

I remember being at the British International Studies Association conference many years ago and some bigwig in International Relations introduced another bigwig with the words ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is, then you probably are at the wrong conference.’ I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was – other than an older male who looked very pleased with himself. It is just one of the countless number of points of exclusion in academia where I felt that I did not quite belong and that I should not really be in the room. Some of the exclusion is simply rudeness – the stunning lack of social awareness and professional courtesy that some academics have towards others. Some of it is hardwired into the structure and practices of our sector.

The other day, the PhD students at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham organised an interesting session on ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘belonging’ in academia – hence the spur to write this blogpost. The notion of imposter syndrome seems to be gathering more attention in the academy. Part of that increasing attention is related to a welcome growing awareness of mental health and well-being issues in the academy. But very probably issues of imposter syndrome and belonging are as old as the academy itself. People have always felt that somehow they do not have the knowledge, skills, background, or qualifications to ‘fit in’.

What follow are the personal reflections of a white, male of a certain age in (what I hope is) reasonably secure employment. In short, they are reflections from a position of relative privilege. We should be very aware that the exclusion that makes up imposter syndrome is gendered and shaped by class, race and a range of other social and cultural characteristics. If I – as a white male – can experience imposter syndrome, what must it be like for a female of colour who does not have academic English as her first language and is in a room with more senior colleagues who are sharing a series of in-jokes?

Fundamentally, academia is exclusive. There are barriers to entry, not least in terms of qualifications. Hierarchy is everywhere in terms of the titles people have and their security of employment. Perhaps the largest driver of a sense of not belonging is the isolated way in which many of us work in the humanities. Unlike many of the natural sciences where people often work in teams, research in the social sciences can be a lonely furrow. There is often a triangular relationship between the researcher, the computer screen, and doubt. It is this doubt, I would suggest, that is the key driver behind imposter syndrome – the feeling of not being quite good enough or of not fitting in. Given the amount of alone time we have, that doubt can grow and become paralysing.

So what can be done? Before continuing, I remind the reader of my own privilege. Would I write the following when I was still mired in my PhD? It also helps that I am a comparativist rather than an area studies professional who has to perfect a language and become deeply immersed in one context.

In an odd way, I have come to see imposter syndrome as somewhat empowering. I realised early on in my career that there would always be someone cleverer, better read and more articulate in the room. That person had just published the definitive book on the subject, had just landed a whopping grant, or just come back from the most amazing fieldwork. While I could string together a few stumbling sentences on the topic, they would manage to extemporaneously speak for twenty minutes with fined-tuned oratory. I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that this would always be the case: there would always be someone cleverer in the room. So I got past being paralysed by imposter syndrome and just got on with my own thing. Some academics engage with what I do. Many others would dismiss it as variously unscientific or not theoretical enough. I can live with that.

I also think that a degree of imposter syndrome can be useful in the research process in terms of epistemology and positionality. The best place to begin research is from a position of not knowing. If we already know the answers, why do the research? But if we begin from a position of (feminist) curiosity, of wanting to find out the answers, and wanting to engage with others who have far more knowledge than us, then research becomes fun, rewarding and intellectually fulfilling. If it is about proving that you are the cleverest person in the room, well good for you. But I am not playing that game.

I was also struck by the very good advice from my colleagues Carly Beckerman and Ilan Baron on the importance of having a life outside of academia. That allows us to put the inevitable knock-backs (the rejected manuscript submissions, the failed grant applications, the punishing feedback) into perspective. It also allows us to fill the space that might otherwise be filled with doubt or a sense of inadequacy. Also crucial is the social infrastructure that departments can provide in terms of coffee breaks, after seminar drinks, and other opportunities to share with others. Many of the ‘rules’ of academia are not written down and so these semi-social interactions become vital information-sharing spaces in which the unwritten conventions of academia are passed on.

It is also important that we think about the environment we create in our own practice. I was very taken by something I saw many years ago. I was just starting out in a lectureship and David Denver from Lancaster organised a conference on elections and surveys. Many of the attendees and presenters were early career researchers and PhD students. David sat immediately in front of the podium. As people spoke, he engaged in active and positive listening. He nodded vigorously, would chip in audibly with ‘good point’, and would ask questions in very constructive ways. It was a generous thing to do and it cost little. I was also struck by Christine Cheng’s chairing of a panel at the International Studies Association this year when she opened the questions by saying ‘Questions from female and early career scholars are particularly welcome’. None of this is about dumbing down or abandoning rigour. Instead, it is about reminding ourselves of the importance of civility and inclusion.

New Article by me on the state of the art of Peace and Conflict Studies. If you cannot access it then email me (roger.macginty@durham.ac.uk) for a pdf

2 Apr

New article by me:
Roger Mac Ginty (2019) Complementarity and Interdisciplinarity in Peace and Conflict Studies, Journal of Global Security Studies.

Link to article here

Abstract
This essay unpacks some of the nuances and complexities of peace and conflict studies. While it accepts that there are divisions between those who study conflict and those who study peace, it argues that there are also multiple sites of overlap and complementarity. Many of those who study topics labeled as “peace” are actually studying conflict, meaning that we have a complex “masala” of peaceandconflictstudies. Moreover, trends within social science research more broadly reflect the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of recent work.

Can we stop using the term ‘ontological security’. It is ridiculous.

1 Apr

Can we all stop using the term ‘ontological security’? It is a ridiculous term. The concept simply means comfort or a feeling of security. There has been great academic work done the concept and it has helped us understand security in more sociological terms. This has been a very useful service as it helps us move beyond rather staid notions of security that prioritised states and formal institutions and tended to minimise the importance of people. Yet there is a conceit about the term that grates.

Many of us have conducted multiple interviews and focus groups with people in insecure or conflict-affected environments. In the history of the hundreds of thousands (possibly millions?) of research interviews and focus groups among conflict-affected areas has anyone ever used the term ‘ontological security’? Has anyone ever said, ‘Conditions in this area have improved after the peace, but I don’t feel more secure – ontologically.’? So if none of our research subjects use the term, why do academics use it?

Each academic discipline has its own vernacular and it is, of course, healthy for disciplines to develop their own debates and unpack the meanings of concepts and words. This blog is not making an argument for censorship or the ‘dumbing down’ of academic study. Yet, the term ‘ontological security’ seems particularly egregious. It relates to a very simple concept that can be conveyed using straightforward language. It is often used in relation to real people who are experiencing very real threats and situations of insecurity.

The use of such language, I would argue, represents a further stripping of the agency of people who may be under threat. We are aware from multiple sources (blogs, interviews, life histories, vox pops etc.) of the articulacy of people in conflict zones. They are as articulate (if not more so) than you or me. But using a term like ontological security seems to write over their voices. It risks reinforcing their apparently subaltern position. It seems to suggest: your narration of your own circumstances is not good enough and it needs to be (re)translated so that it can be better understood. The academic imperative of sense-making risks shoe-horning lived and embodied experiences of life into categories and concepts that may not be entirely faithful to the actual lived and embodied experience.

This is not an argument against specialist language. Many professions need to be precise in their communication. Medical professionals and others who rely on a technical jargon come to mind. But in the humanities (let’s remember the root word) we do not have such an imperative. Instead, we have made specialist language an imperative.

I should conclude by an act of disclosure that perhaps explains why I find the term ontological security just so grating. Recently I was fortunate enough to have had a piece published in Cooperation and Conflict (and I am very grateful for the opportunity). In that article I used the term ontological security. Yet I felt uncomfortable doing so. Academic strictures mean that often we have to anchor our writing in existing literature and – as this article was for a special issue on the notion of the everyday and International Relations, then it seemed relevant to anchor this piece in the concept of ontological security. And the reviewers (who were very helpful throughout the process) seemed to like the term ontological security and recommended more and more references to literature that used the concept. That is fair enough, and I gained a lot from reading that literature.

But as I was writing (and trying to convince the editors and reviewers to publish my article) I kept thinking of the people we had interviewed and ‘focus grouped’ as part of the Everyday Peace Indicators project. They were the inspiration for the paper. None of them used the term ‘ontological security’. They had narrated their experiences in very articulate and colourful ways. They had used rich idioms, vernacular insights and lots of language that grounded their views on peace and (in)security in terms of their families and communities. By using the term ‘ontological security’ I was being unfaithful to their voices. I was – I am convinced – engaging in a colonial practice. Just as colonial cartographers replaced local place-names with terms like ‘New York’ or ‘New Zealand’, here was I replacing their lived and embodied experiences with a ridiculous term.

So what to do? Jargon seems inescapable in academia. It is a passport allowing entry into specialised debates. To be taken seriously by editors, reviewers and peers we do seem to have to use an argot, especially if one is involved in conceptual and theoretical debates. I don’t have an easy answer. I am aware that we are all prone to the political economies of peer review. But I will try, as far as is possible, not to use ‘ontological security’ again.