It’s my belief that the academy is the vanguard of social change and that professors must work continually to support that change. Today that means understanding social media— a central forum for new ideas, activism, and social movement.
I’ve been writing and teaching about rhetoric and racism for almost twenty years, and through these experiences I’ve come to realize that if universities are going to produce and circulate knowledge, then they must also know when to let others lead. And nowhere is this more important than in movements such as #blacklivesmatter.
Outside of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), white men and women (mostly men) dominate the highest academic ranks at universities in the U.S., and in the not-so-distant past, most colleges and universities denied racial minorities admission. When I was recruiting participants for focus groups at the University of Georgia for a project about genetics and racism, our team hosted the discussion at a hotel, knowing that we would attract fewer African American participants if we had the event on campus. The academy is still a place where too many people do not feel welcome. When it comes to social media activism like #blacklivesmatter, then, universities need to support activists, while being mindful that when you represent a majority group, often times the best strategy is to listen and to follow.
For me, the hard questions about how to support activism boil down to questions about style— the attitudes, understanding, and outward rhetorical choices we make when we engage a broad public.
In her book about the rhetorical styles of public intellectuals, communication scholar Anna M. Young argues that we need to shed the idea that engaging communities beyond the university is an “obligation.” Young takes us back to Aristotle’s term, Eudemonia, and reframes participation in common public life as a strategy or activity of “flourishing.” Young argues that “public intellectuals flourish and help enable society to flourish by moving away from ethics-as-obligation to ethics-as-invigoration.” We need to be “conversational partners” in the world. A public intellectual does not only write and think about the world, but is already placed in a shared world. The scholar’s job is to flourish and invigorate so that others may flourish and invigorate.
One of the things I like about Young’s discussion of Eudemonia is that the term shifts our thinking to words such as energy, effort, and passion in place of neoliberal terms that treat the university as a factory and students as its products. Eudemonia positions the scholar as a thriving peer in a reflective exchange with students and community partners.
I live and work in the former capital of the Confederacy. Monuments to Confederate “heroes” line a major street in my city. My students —a quarter of whom come from underrepresented groups—have watched a black president insulted and disrespected by his opponents in a way that is as unprecedented as his election and re-election. They have seen videos of young black men and women gun downed by police officers who paid little price, or no price at all. They have watched one major party, a party some of them love, throw its support behind a white man who has not bothered to hide his racism and xenophobia.
To say we are “obligated” to #blacklivesmatter risks defining scholars as something outside of social movement, when in fact, universities need to hear these message and make changes just as much as everyone else. “Obligation” risks making us think about ourselves more than our students and the wider world of which we are all a part.
The wider world is screaming for attention, and the academy is not free to step away from the challenge. We need to flourish so that others may flourish.
Young, Anna M. Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014: 16-17