⛓️ ‘The case for neutrality as academic freedom’: a response

Political neutrality in the face of injustice serves to maintain the status quo. Responding to Hana Kubátová’s blog piece, Adam Standring underlines the moral necessity of organisations like ECPR taking a strong political stance in the face of violence in Palestine and a crackdown on critical voices in the West

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

attributed to Desmond Tutu

Crisis is political

I appreciate the time taken by Hana Kubátová to continue the discussion on the role of scholarly associations to promote academic freedom.

On 4 April 2024, Catherine Moury (NOVA University) and I drafted an open letter to the ECPR Council, in response to the violence occurring in Palestine. We did so in full awareness of the political sensitivities surrounding these events. We were equally attuned to ECPR's stated aims and principles, and it was these that framed the demands of the letter.

Catherine and I knew how previous open letters had been dismissed and marginalised within the communities they were aimed at. As such, we took care to avoid terms such as genocide, which may be misrepresented or provide ammunition to opponents for a blanket dismissal of the broader demands.

The explicit goal of our letter was to prompt ECPR to live up to its principles in defending academic freedom, particularly considering the material damage done to Palestinian knowledge infrastructures during this period of violence.

We wrote an open letter to ECPR's Council, urging it to live up to its principles in defending academic freedom

In the period since the letter's publication, following international legal proceedings and continued violence and destruction, we feel this conviction even more strongly.

The context in which Kubátová sets this issue is one of polycrisis. We agree that, as crises become ever more common, interrelated and intense, professional associations are likely to face increased demands to issue political statements. It is important to recognise, however, that crises are not self-evident, neutral events. On the contrary, recognising and framing a series of events as a crisis is itself a political act that demands urgent intervention.

A history of political statements

Kubátová does acknowledge that ECPR has previously issued statements. Her response, however, glosses over the significance of this. Why is it that the Executive Committee felt it appropriate to condemn the actions of Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Hungary (among others) but not those of Israel? Why is it that military violence in Gaza has provoked institutional soul searching, while earlier crises prompted institutional condemnation?

The importance of a collective voice

Kubátová highlights three key questions, the answers to which, she argues, make a compelling case for ECPR’s institutional neutrality.

On the first question – ‘who should speak?’ – she makes the claim that collective bodies are not as well equipped to make political stances as individual members.

The principal weakness of this argument is that it conflates different types of institutions that serve different roles, have different aims, organise different groups. Look, for example, at the differences between a university – which make up the majority of examples in the piece – and a scholarly association like ECPR. Universities typically have employment relations with academics, implying different legal and ethical responsibilities. A scholarly association implies a freer, voluntary relationship.

Universities typically have employment relations with the academics within them. A scholarly association implies a freer, voluntary relationship

One wouldn’t assume that we would agree with all the positions adopted by every institution with which we associate, be it workplaces, social clubs, political parties or trade unions. Why, then, would we assume that of a scholarly association? If an institution made all positions and statements only through unanimous consent, the workings of that institution would grind to a halt. We could hope that an institution might create an atmosphere in which people felt safe to voice dissent and encouraged to engage in discussion. That, however, is not the claim being made here. What Kubátová is arguing is that the very act of an institution taking a strong political position necessarily stifles dissent. This is a problematic argument, difficult to generalise without strong evidence.

We also wonder, if it is the case that institutions cannot (or should not) speak with a collective voice, what claims can they make to have or express shared values and goals? Are these goals themselves not political? Is the fight for academic freedom not itself political?

Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University, New York, 21 April 2024. Wikimedia Commons

Protecting core values

The second question is, ‘when does one speak?’. ECPR has made statements on different issues in the past. We therefore echo the question, ‘if then, why not now?’. My honest answer to the former question would be: an institution should speak out when events threaten its core values and principles. In ECPR's case, academic freedom is under attack, primarily through the destruction of academic infrastructures (including the lives of academics) in Palestine. But the stifling of dissent in places such as Germany, where universities and the state have cracked down on criticism of Israel, is also threatening academic freedom.

A moral position

The third question asks, ‘what does one say?’. Kubátová argues that political statements go against principles of scrutiny and inquiry, and could provoke political battles. Yet, what do we do when the object we wish to scrutinise and subject to inquiry is injustice? Should we stay neutral about the injustices we observe, as individual academics or as a collective?

As the quotation opening this response illustrates, neutrality in the face of injustice serves the status quo. Not everyone within an institution may see the same events as an injustice, but we feel that it is up to those academics to make their case and voice their dissent.

An institution like ECPR should not tell its members ‘what to think’. That does not, however, absolve it of the responsibility to take a moral position when its core principles and values are under attack. In this case, the very neutrality ECPR professes speaks volumes about its moral position.

⛓️ No.10 in a Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Adam Standring
Adam Standring
Invited Auxiliary Researcher, ISEG, Lisbon School of Economics and Management / Affiliated Researcher, Centre for Environment and Sustainability Social Science, Örebro University

Adam's research is situated in the field of environmental sociology and public policy, and focuses on the intersection between facts and values in public policy.

He has published a variety of interdisciplinary articles on topics such as climate change, expertise, moral politics and knowledge production, in journals including the European Journal of Political Research, Policy & Politics, WIRES: Climate Change and Environmental Policy & Governance.


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