Dialogue with the Public: Adam Yauch and Academic Snobbery

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.

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

18 thoughts on “Dialogue with the Public: Adam Yauch and Academic Snobbery

  1. I guarantee that is the only Sabotage link in any academic article ever…well said.

  2. Thanks for this, Carole. Like a lot of us, I’ve been mourning a little and I’ve enjoyed sharing that with such a wide group of people. I appreciate the chance to connect that experience with professional academic issues. But what’s up with these people? We’re all so desperate for an engaged public audience, and then to turn it away because, what, it’s a threat to our academic authority? Gives our whole line of work a bad name.

  3. I saw another obit that mentioned the same incident, but without the context. I wonder if this might have played into the format of subsequent Tibet-China conferences at Harvard, which were small invite-only affairs? The organizers, Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangye among them, hoped they would help to foster bilateral ties and possibly lay the groundwork for a diplomatic breakthrough. It is sad to think of how the lives of Tibetans in China have deteriorated on so many levels in the past ten years.

  4. Thanks Carole. Very touching post. So, how about that answer to Adam’s question. Considering what is ongoing in Tibet and in China, it seems his question is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.

  5. The diva role is relational and dependent on the presence of individuals who care about what the individual in the diva role has to offer them. Even the most important academic doesn’t often encounter the requisite environment for playing the diva so when they do they sometimes go for broke. That’s my hypothesis on why so many people act like jerks at academic conferences, at least.

  6. Thank you for this very eloquent blog post. If we as academics cannot be passionate about the topics we research and if we cannot communicate them to a general public, we shortchange not only our objects of study but ourselves as the subject of public support.

  7. Thank you for this, Carole. This has me further reflecting on issues such as open access publication, tuition and other issues of access to higher education, and the interplay between scholarly work and popular/journalistic/social media publication, among other things. I only wish some of those reflections were coherent enough to write down.

    @ Matthew Durington, I take that as a challenge.

  8. Thank you so much for this post. Brought tears to my eyes. It is because of precisely this issue that I have been struggling for years with the temptation to drop out of graduate school. As a huge fan of the BBoys, and MCA in particular, your story hit me at a particularly deep level.

  9. Thanks for this eloquent and important post. Given Harvard’s subsequent behavior in closing off the public in events related to this topic, I can only wonder what Harvard might have stood to lose in permitting such central questions to be posed and answered.

    As Carole so clearly articulated, political praxis is an intersection of power, ideology, identity and the emotions that are connected with all of these things. Anthropological research has been compelled to address these intersections since the mid-1980’s at the least…and in the applied moments even earlier. (Think of Malinowski’s failed efforts with colonial powers, for example. Our earliest American ethnographers occupied this space in their work with Native Americans.)

    Is Harvard’s sensitivity characteristic or an outlier among our leading institutions concerned with Asia? How do we as scholars develop the skills for working with individuals who are not just theoretically in disagreement, but who have a profound personal stake in a political issue? There are those who, with bifocular lenses, are both academics and stakeholders in such issues, after all.

    In globalization processes, the barriers between the “Other” and the “Self” are challenged in new and difficult ways in this “post-Wallersteinian world.” Anthropologists, especially when in applied settings, have been navigating this space for a long time. What do we have to offer in such new sorts of social spaces…where academics and stakeholders might actually learn from each other?

    What do anthropologists working at the intersections of complex global spaces do when dealing with power, conflict, and identity?

    How might anthropologists advise those whose research “subjects” are found only on paper or digitial archives–perhaps only on algorithmically determined databases–to engage and learn from our “partners,” who are now no longer left behind us in a remote, barely accessible “wilderness?”

  10. Great article. The incident reminds me of Feynman’s non-explanation of magnetism, which several of my friends had referenced as an example of the power or science (or as the Youtube video describes it, “clarity of thought, powers of explanation and intellectual honesty – and his refusal to ‘cheat’ with misleading analogies.” I was repulsed when I saw the video because he was completely dismissive in answering a question a layperson would have by claiming that only a physicist would understand. That attitude will do nothing but turn young potential physicists the other way.

    The funniest part (in a sad way) is that Feynman gives a perfectly good layperson explanation of magnetism while trying to show how such an answer is impossible. His snobbery reminds me of The Matrix when Morpheus follows “No one can no one can be told what the Matrix is” with “The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world.” If Feynman had some empathy and realized that not everyone wants or needs answers at the doctoral level, think of how many more people he could reach with his brilliance.

  11. Clearly, it’s problematic to invite a broad audience and then expect the audience members not to talk or to limit them to certain kinds of topics or discourses. So the organizers were at fault for creating this situation.

    There’s no excuse for academic snobbery, if that’s what this is — I’d be the first to denounce it — but I’m not certain that that diagnosis is the whole story. Any discussion involving Tibet can get very contentious and heated very quickly. That can be the case even if it’s limited to supposedly sober-minded academics, especially if both academics sympathetic to China and those sympathetic to the government in exile are involved. So I wonder if fear of an ugly meltdown of the proceedings, more than mere snobbery, might be what lay behind this abrupt and seemingly rude shutting down of Yauch, and audience participation more generally. Yauch’s question was an entirely fair one, sure, but also one that could be read not merely as inquiring about, but also challenging Chinese perspectives in a fundamental way. Sometimes, one *should* have an open debate in which those and other perspectives are forcefully challenged. But I imagine there must have been fear of buttons getting pushed and tensions escalating out of control so as to detract from what the conveners considered to be the primary goals of the meeting.

    That’s not to excuse the way Yauch was treated — the organizers should not have created a situation where they felt they had to intervene like that. And I wasn’t there, so I’m not really in a position to judge how much snobbery was involved. But having attended similar events, it seems likely that other factors were involved.

    The conference did produce a very enlightening set of papers in the Journal of Cold War Studies (Summer 2006), including one by McGranahan. At least, I’m assuming they were from this conference — I could be wrong.

    Ben Read

  12. This event sounds very bizarre. Yes, many academic events are closed to the public, and there are lots of very good reasons for doing this. But if the public is invited to an event, then the event loses its academic-only status and questions from the audience should be entertained in a serious fashion. The organizers may have been trying to combine several different goals (not uncommon given differences between university funding goals and faculty research goals), and the participants got stuck at the intersection of those divergent angles.

    Closed events and limited access have their places, and they are crucial for the advance of knowledge. But so are open events. As John Gerring observes at the end of his excellent book Social Science Methodology: A Unified Approach (2012, 2nd ed, Cambridge Univ Press): “A tree felled in the social science forest makes no sound.” (p.404). He is making the point that if our results are not communicated outside of our technical professional orbit, they aren’t useful or valuable in a broad sense.

  13. “I can only wonder what Harvard might have stood to lose in permitting such central questions to be posed and answered.”

    I do not know the answer to this question. I may, however, have a reasonable speculation to offer. The political issues at stake involve Tibet and China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet, and while Tibet is of great romantic and moral interest to many of us China is an emerging 900 lb gorilla on the international scene, Harvard attracts growing numbers of Chinese students, and, I am sure, looks looks forward to major increments of economic as well as social and cultural capital from its Chinese graduates. China is a central focus of East Asian studies at Harvard, while Tibet is a peripheral interest. There are many interests in play here, none particularly favorable to an open debate about Tibet that would likely arouse China’s ire.

    Crudely speaking, a public event to discuss the status of, say, the Seminole or Sioux could be utterly open to embarrassing questions and fierce debate, It is not likely to be reported on cable news or arouse the anger of anyone who is in a position to do substantial damage to the university’s endowment or block access to sites and materials vital to prominent scholars’ research. Anything involving China is a very different ball game.

  14. OT, but “The incident reminds me of Feynman’s non-explanation of magnetism,” is so wrong on many levels.

    The main problem in the video is that Feynman is (tired and very) provoked by the interviewer trying to anthropomorphize physics. (“Feeling between magnets” needed parsing, complicated and implicitly agency filled “why” question instead of “how”.)

    A minor problem is that magnetism is many leveled as Feynman notes. The description of repulsion and attraction is deep and need quantum field theory. The description of solid state magnets is not very good, those magnets are not well understood beyond a naive level.

    He did acknowledge that it is a an excellent (many leveled) question.

  15. Thanks for the wonderful post. MCA was a great human and I’ve enjoyed finding the subtle and thoughtful ways in which we have being paying homage to his memory.

    To answer his question, while I am certainly no sinologist, I am a fan of the Jet Li film Hero, which at its core is about the unification of China under a single emperor. I wonder to what extent the idea of a “unified China” continues to be an important ideal in Chinese culture.

  16. Thanks Carole for this thoughtful post. Adam Yauch is to be remembered not only for his music.

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