Speaking Justice to Power

Special guests and moderators at “Speaking Justice to Power.” From right: Heath Cabot; Laura Nader; Orisanmi Burton; Sara Shneiderman; Ayşe Parla; and Jennifer Curtis. APLA President Erik Harms is seated on the stairs to the left.

APLA hosted its 2017 salon, “Speaking Justice to Power: Anthropology Responds to the New World Disorder,” on November 30, 2017, during the AAA annual meeting in Washington, DC. The packed event was held at the community-based café and event space, Busboys & Poets, in the heart of the city. Anthropologists gathered for drinks, appetizers, discussion, and a roundtable with special guests Orisanmi BurtonLaura NaderAyşe Parla, and Sara Shneiderman. The event explored how anthropology can add its voice to progressive politics, emerging from the successful PoLAR/APLA initiative to publish topical responses to current events, such as Trump’s Executive Order 13769 (aka, the immigration ban).

APLA President Catherine Besteman and incoming APLA President Erik Harms introduced the roundtable, which was moderated PoLAR co-editor Heath Cabot and PoLAR associate editor Jennifer Curtis.

In 2017, APLA’s leadership and members came together in response to the rising global politics of authoritarianism. In the present moment, political movements are grappling with how to respond to an apparent upsurge in populist longing for authoritarian, “strong man” leaders. In our fieldsites, many of us have observed rhetorical and electoral assertions of ethnicized sovereignty against outsiders, particularly against “others” within nation-states and migrants. As scholars and citizens, APLA took the annual meeting as an opportunity to reflect on anthropology as both citizenship and scholarship.

Laura Nader opened the roundtable by asserting, “Anthropologists like to think that we’re activists, but we’re not. We’re speaking to the choir. We need to talk to the public.” Nevertheless, Professor Nader asserted that anthropologists have a role in politics, most notably as educators. As a professor at University of California Berkeley, Nader pointed out that her teaching, “300 people a year for 25 years adds up to a lot of citizens.” On the issue of public anthropology, Sara Shneiderman warned against false dichotomies between empiricism and engagement. Referencing her piece in the “Speaking Justice to Power” series, Dr. Shneiderman emphasized how our research is produced through engagement with research participants.

As discussion turned to the future, Ayşe Parla and Orisanmi Burton took up the subject of hope as a force for political mobilization. Dr. Parla’s piece for the series, “The Complicity of Hope,” focused on how hope can function to create complicity with an illegitimate politics. She reflected that the rhetoric of hope during the 2017 Turkish referendum concealed the referendum’s dangerous illegitimacy. Paradoxically, hopeful political participation drew citizens into a performance of democracy rather than highlighting the hollow nature of the referendum itself. Dr. Parla suggested this dynamic means that as scholars and citizens we should think more carefully about the role of hope, and how to orient hope in alternative ways.

Rather than emphasizing the emotional dimensions of politics, Dr. Burton suggested concrete planning is a more effective engine for political action. He noted that, “The people I study, talk to, look up to, read—they don’t talk about hope. That word doesn’t come up.  I’d like to suggest substituting the word strategy. The goal is to strategize about how to win.”

After opening the discussion to the audience, the roundtable considered practical ramifications of scholarship and activism. Professor Nader and audience member Oguz Alyanak, a contributor to the series, noted that even academics can face negative consequences for political activism. Dr. Parla cautioned that negative consequences for activism are often less severe for academics, whose class position and profession provide greater mobility and institutional support. Dr. Burton suggested we can overestimate the political possibilities of scholarship: “There’s a compulsion to believe that as academics we’re doing politically useful work. We should approach our positions with more humility. Think of yourself as a politically active human being.”

APLA and PoLAR are grateful to our guests, members, and audience for making the event a success. We look forward facilitating future series and discussions as political anthropologists strive to produce engaged scholarship.



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