Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.
Who is the audience for academic knowledge? When does that audience include not just fellow academics, but also the public? These questions are harder to answer than they should be. Our courses require enrollment and tuition. Our writings require effort to find and afford and read. Our conferences tend to be closed to outsiders and sometimes even to other scholars. As a profession, we simply do not have spaces where we regularly talk with an interested public about our research.
This is a story about academics silencing a public audience. It is about Ivory Tower condescension and how I once defended Adam Yauch’s right to ask a question. Here is what happened:
In April 2002, I participated in a conference on Tibet and the Cold War at Harvard University featuring distinguished scholars of China, India, and Tibet. The conference was a perfect fit with my research on Tibet and the CIA and was fantastic in many ways, until it wasn’t.
Around 100 Tibetans attended the two-day conference. These were regular community members of all ages, college students and older people, whole families even, and they outnumbered the “academic” audience. For me, it was an unexpected but welcome opportunity to present my research to an audience composed of both academics and the general public. Yet there was discomfort from a handful of other participants about having a non-academic audience. Why was this? Did they think a section of the audience was going to start yelling “Free Tibet” and rush the stage?
Cold War Tibet is a political topic, and sparks flared up periodically between panelists. For their part, the audience—Tibetans and non-Tibetans, academics and the general public—respectfully engaged the presenters, asking questions and offering comments. Then on Day Two controversy arose when a member of the audience asked a question of the panelists. The audience member was Adam Yauch and his question was relatively simple. Why, he wanted to know, did the Chinese care so much about Tibet. “I know why Tibet is an emotional issue for Tibetans,” he said, “but why is Tibet such an emotional issue for the Chinese?”
Who is Adam Yauch? I’m not sure if many of the conference participants knew who he was. In the context of the conference, it didn’t really matter. But it mattered to me. While to my Tibetan friends, Adam Yauch was often simply “Adam,” to me he was MCA of the Beastie Boys.
I was in high school when the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill came out in 1986. In the twenty-five years since, the Beastie Boys have been a consistently incongruous and fun part of our musical and cultural landscape. In the 1990s, Adam Yauch became a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. He co-founded the Milarepa Foundation to support Tibetan artists, and also started the hugely successful Tibetan Freedom Concerts that ran globally from 1996-2003, raising money for and generating awareness about Tibet among young people and musicians. His sincere participation in the Tibetan community extended to his attendance at the Harvard conference. He was there anonymously, not in any sort of “Sabotage”-style disguise, but just incognito as himself at an academic conference. He was quiet until close to the end when he posed his question.
Before anyone on the panel could reply, one of the conference organizers—a Harvard professor—stood up and said forcefully that this was an “academic conference” and that “emotional” questions would not be entertained. He made it clear we were here to discuss real politics in an academic, dispassionate manner. That is: in discussing politics we were to be apolitical.
This was wrong on so many levels.
1. It was the bluntest academic putdown of the public I have ever personally witnessed, an appalling example of academic snobbery.
2. It was also flat-out incorrect; Adam Yauch’s question was entirely academic. It was a question about nationalism, the über-topic of the 1990s, including for cultural, historical, and political scholarship on both Tibet and China.
3. It was an abdication of the political, of the responsibility to speak to difficult issues. And, it was a renunciation of our responsibility as scholars to dialogue with an engaged public.
Immediately after the organizer’s dismissal of the question, I and several other panelists spoke up: the question from the audience was legitimate, this was something scholars absolutely do study, and about which we had things to say. Despite our comments, something had shifted. The audience had been disciplined and spoken down to; the message was ‘you can listen, but we might not let you speak if we don’t like what you have to say.’
At the next break, I went over to Adam Yauch and introduced myself, apologizing for what had just happened and saying that his question was indeed academic, an important and legitimate query, and a question that scholars also ask. He was incredibly gracious, saying he hadn’t meant to cause any friction. We chatted for a short while, talking about China, Tibet, and the value and politics of audience participation in academic conferences. It was a serious and thoughtful conversation with someone who in that moment was simply a member of the public audience, not a famous musician.
This incident has bothered me for a long time. Dismissing individuals who turn to us as experts for answers to their questions is not right. We have multiple spaces where academics can and do speak privately amongst ourselves, and these are important spaces. But we need also to speak publicly. We need to create and embrace occasions to speak directly with communities interested in our research. We need to do this even if it feels uncomfortable; we need to do it especially if it feels uncomfortable.
Ten years have passed since the Harvard conference. I had not planned on writing about what happened there; it was an ugly side of academia and involved a celebrity; the whole thing had felt surreal. Then word came on Friday that Adam Yauch died of cancer after three years fighting the disease. I thought of his music and his commitments, and about his question about people’s attachments to things, about China’s attachment to Tibet, and about our responsibilities as scholars, and I decided it was time to write. This post is a tribute to someone who was our perfect public audience member. Interested in the topic, he came to the conference. Curious to learn more, he asked a question. Committed to the issue, he pressed on after the conference, for as long as he could.
RIP Adam Yauch (August 5, 1964-May 4, 2012).
Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado and author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010). She wrote this post while listening to Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication.