ARE CULTURE-CENTERED PROJECTS VIABLE IN SINGAPORE? REFLECTIONS ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND THE YALE-NUS SAGA by Mohan J. Dutta
“No Singaporean Left Behind” (NSLB) campaign in Singapore
Between 2012 and 2018, the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) was housed at the National University of Singapore. Based on the theoretical framework of the culture-centered approach (CCA) (Dutta, 2008), that conceptualizes communicative inequalities, inequalities in distribution of communicative opportunities, as intrinsically tied to structural inequalities, inequalities in the distribution of material resources, the Center co-created an array of communication interventions in partnership with communities at the margins in Singapore, India, Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Culture-centered interventions build voice infrastructures for the margins based on the theoretical argument that the erasure of voice infrastructures forms the basis of marginalization.
The impact of these interventions are evident in the creation of material resources that serve the margins, from creating food distribution programs run by the poor, to building locally-anchored sustainable agricultural systems, to developing health interventions, to designing community-based health resources, to co-creating democratic frameworks for building infrastructures for clean drinking water, to co-creating cultural infrastructures for health and wellbeing.
Video Exhibit 1: The Piyalgeria Community project, building community cultural resources for wellbeing.
In Singapore, interventions resulted in foregrounding a wide range of issues based on community-anchored research, including the challenges experienced by foreign domestic workers with securing access to decent working conditions, food insecurity experienced by migrant construction workers, and the everyday stigmas experienced by low-income households in Singapore.
Video Exhibit 2: The campaign video of the “No Singaporeans Left Behind” intervention. This intervention played a key role in opening the conversation on poverty and inequality in Singapore, anchored in the voices of the poor.
The right to voice of the margins, when exercised through culture-centered interventions, transforms the discursive domain. For instance, the voices of the poor in Singapore foreground hunger as an everyday experience, disrupting discursive erasures of experiences of poverty.
The rigour of culture-centered research was/is deeply embedded in the ownership of the research process by those at the margins, thus shaping the research design, data gathering, and data analysis through the active participation of community members. Voices of communities at the margins come to own the spaces of knowledge production through the foregrounding of their everyday lived experiences as the anchors to the research journey. Based on the idea that marginalization is constituted in the erasure of voice, culture-centered interventions explore the sites that silence the voices of the margins and address the power inequalities that are built into the processes of silencing at these sites. The communicative right to voice transforms the production of knowledge through the ownership of knowledge production in the hands of those at the margins, contributing to the democratization of knowledge.
A culture-centered intervention that results typically from over three years of community-immersed scholarship calls for extensive labour, resulting in empirical insights that are richly embedded in the rhythms of community life. Typically, the research team collaboratively puts in more than 500 hours of fieldwork, “learning to learn from below” through solidarity-based partnerships (Spivak, 2013).
These communication interventions thus developed are anchored in theoretical questions about the nature of power and control in constituting erasure of the margins, and the role of communicative resources in creating infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins. Theoretical insights about the role of communication infrastructures emerge from the practical work of “building” culturally-situated spaces of community voice and empowerment. In other words, the everyday work of participating in practical community partnerships for voice infrastructures is central to the generation of theoretical insights on social change communication.
The various culture-centered projects carried out in Singapore invited different forms of responses from the range of organizations and structures we interfaced with. For instance, the work of the “Respect our Rights” campaign, created by foreign domestic workers, offered discursive registers for dialoguing and collaborating with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The dialogic process resulted in the presence of the Ministry in conversations which were anchored in the voices of domestic workers. This also contributed to an overall sense of self and collective efficacy among the domestic workers who participated in our advisory groups.
CARE’s project with low-income families generated a different set of responses from the system, with arms of the the structure asking questions such as, “Why is CARE running social change projects?” and “Why did the Center host a conference on social change communication?” In response to these questions, I referred to the intertwined nature of theory and practice in social change communication, articulating the ways in which “the doing of social change work” is a part of the methodology of generating theoretical insights about social change communication.
Moreover, in Singapore, CARE engaged with activists such as Jolovan Wham, Braema Mathi, Vanessa Ho, and Sherry Sherqueshaa to generate dialogic anchors to theory building (in multiple instances, I was interrogated regarding my relationship with the activists and regarding the nature of the work the activists were doing). The contribution to the scholarship of social change communication made by these activists is immense, with their practical knowledge forming the basis for shaping how we come to understand the different elements of social change communication. Consider that exactly a year before the voice of Monica Baey drew attention to sexual harassment at NUS, Ms. Braema Mathi worked as a research partner at CARE, producing a white paper on strategies for addressing sexual violence specifically on University campuses. The many practical recommendations made in the white paper later came to be adopted by higher learning institutions in the aftermath of the saga.
Engaging activists in conversations on social change communication generates tremendous impact in terms of creating anchors for positive social change. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identify reduced inequality, gender equality, zero hunger, and no poverty as some of the key areas of impact. Activists, as citizens working directly with the marginalized, bring a wealth of knowledge that directly contributes to the generation of social impact. Universities can play vital roles in generating such social impact, by not turning away from activists, but instead by seeking communicative spaces for dialogic conversations, by collaboratively developing strategies for addressing the SDGs. In the context of Singapore, each of the activists we collaborated with shaped our theoretical insights about communicative processes for listening to the voices of the margins.
Video Exhibit 3: The panel on academic-activist collaborations hosted by CARE under the “Communicating Social Change” conference.
The activist-in-residence program run by CARE has had the delight of hosting activists from various parts of the globe, including the Singaporean activists Braema Mathi, James Gomez, and Sangeetha Thanapal. Each of these activists have participated in series of dialogues with me, as well as co-written a white paper. The white paper reflects one such avenue of dialogic knowledge generation through academic-activist partnerships.
The nature of practical knowledge thus generated is also theoretically rich, attentive to nuances and the sociocultural context of change. For instance, the white paper written with the veteran New Zealand activist and former Green Member of Parliament, Dr. Sue Bradford, explores the strategies for academic-activist partnerships in servings the needs of those at the margins. Similarly, the white paper generated by the collaboration with the refugee rights activist Dr. Murdoch Stephens generated vital conversations on the voice infrastructures for refugees in New Zealand. Sadly, I have witnessed instances of activists being used for data gathering purposes by academics, without being given due credit and without being acknowledged for their roles in the generation of knowledge. In one such instance, a Singapore activist had designed the questionnaire, conducted the translations, recorded the data, only to be then erased from the emerging publications. The activist-in-residence program at CARE is transformative precisely because it recognizes and centers the labour and contributions to knowledge made by activists.
The Lewinian maxim, “there is nothing as practical as a good theory” forms the basis of the theory-practice linkage in the study of social change communication, and more broadly, in a larger part of the communication discipline. As an Applied Communication scholar, I have come to recognize that the rigour of theorizing is intrinsically connected to practice. Sitting at a distance in the ivory tower largely limits what I am able to see and how I see a phenomenon. The many hours of my everyday work I spend in the field, collaborating with community members, having conversations, and producing change materials, shape my theoretical understandings of the social change communication process.
To theorize a social change communication phenomenon well, one has to know intimately what it means to participate in that phenomenon. The flagship National Communication Association Journal of Applied Communication Research explicitly calls for a section on application that engages directly with the question of impact. The bodies of scholarship on “Public Communication Campaigns” and “Policy Communication” are built on theorizing immersed in practical work. As one of the largest areas of Health Communication, Communication Campaigns draw on lessons learned from the design, implementation, and evaluation of Communication Campaigns. Singapore’s Ministry of Health for instance has funded many such campaigns that have drawn in academics in carrying out formative research, developing campaign design, and carrying out evaluation. Similarly, Singapore academics consistently collaborate with various state agencies in designing and evaluating programs. Such work should be recognized as it offers incredible value to generating social impact through scholarship, in turn impacting the very nature of scholarship through empirically-informed theorizing. I am sure the Yale President, Professor Peter Salovey, a close ally of Health Communication, is all too familiar with this strand of scholarship.
The recent saga of the cancellation of a course on “Dialogue and Dissent” at Yale-NUS College (YNC) unfortunately sets up a theory-practice divide that is spurious. It does so to limit the academic space, keeping out voices of difference from the academe. In the ensuing conversations about the cancelled course, the different accounts offered by the renowned playwright-poet Alfian Saat, who had been invited to teach the course, and the YNC leadership points to the game of communicative inversions. References to lack of rigour and unresponsiveness to feedback are deployed by the YNC leadership, and later by a Yale report crafted by the former YNC President, Pericles Lewis, are contested by Mr. Alfian Saat. Challenging the report and the claims made by YNC, Mr. Saat points out that he had indeed responded to the call for changes and the issue of rigour was never pointed out to him. The news of the event has triggered what appears to be a targeted campaign attacking the legitimacy and patriotism of the playwright-poet. Ironically, an elite North American institution that vociferously lays claims to liberal principles, is mired up in the vilification campaign, having carried out an investigation that itself appears biased (with the former YNC President charged to carry the investigation).
In the latest round of attacks on Mr. Saat (including selectively reading his poetry to project him as unpatriotic), the Minister of Education in Singapore puts in official state script the state’s reading of academic freedom. In his speech to the Parliament, the Minister of Education, Mr. Ong Ye Kung, states the following:
“Our educational institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics. Professor Rajeev S. Patke, director of YNC’s humanities division, put it very well. In an e-mail to the College leadership, he wrote: “To study is distinct from to practise: to study ‘contemporary resistance’ or ‘contemporary violence’ or ‘contemporary prejudice’ is not the same as to practise resistance or violence or prejudice. We have to ensure that in our educational institutions, academic study does not get confused or compromised by courses of action and intervention which belong to the realm of individual choice.” In Singapore’s democracy, there are many avenues for political parties and activists to champion their causes, and for people to make their choices and exercise their political rights. Educational institutions, and especially the formal curriculum, are not the platforms to do this.”
That engagement with activists, particularly activists that are seen as challenging Singapore’s authoritarian status quo, is partisan politics serves as the basis for the exclusion. The framing of the activists Jolovan Wham, Seelan Palay, Kirsten Han, and P J Thum (note here that Dr. Thum had nothing to do with the Yale-NUS offering) as participating in political resistance serves as the basis for their exclusion from educational institutions. Worth noting here is the Minister’s selective use of the term partisan, erasing the very partisan worldview that shapes his reading of resistance to authoritarianism as partisan. Moreover, the depiction of Wham and Palay as “convicted of public order-related offences” obfuscates the underlying principles of freedom of expression and assembly that guide their performances, which led to the convictions. Note here, and Minister Ong is clear, some activists, not all activists, are excluded. Which of these activists, the so-called “personalities” that are going to be excluded are going to be determined by Mr. Ong, the state, and by extension, the ruling party.
Mr. Ong then draws on an email written by the YNC’s director of the humanities program, Mr. Rajeev Patke. A literary scholar, Mr. Patke is quoted as stating that academic study should not be confused with action. Mr. Patke conveniently erases the long tradition of the engaged humanities and social sciences, and omits the robust bodies of scholarship emerging from action research, community-based participatory research, participatory action research, and engaged scholarship, which are all deeply embedded in the worlds of practice. His opinion captured in this excerpt is misinformed at best, and strategically misleading at worst.
That the humanities at YNC are headed by someone who, writing in 2019, espouses a worldview that is entirely unaware of entire bodies of scholarship of practice-based scholarship raises concerns about the so-called liberal commitments of the YNC, particularly within the broader context of academic freedom in Singapore. Mr. Patke’s statement then is served as the basis for the minister to academic freedom, noting that Singapore’s educational institution’s should not be used as platforms for championing causes.
Also absent from the Minister’s conversation is the interrogation of the very partisan nature of what constitutes the mainstream curriculum in autonomous institutions in Singapore. Is it partisan for instance to teach to hegemonic articulations of assembly and expression that put forth cultural context as the basis for authoritarian practices? Is it partisan to teach specific versions of authoritarianism as normative, under the umbrella of “Singapore Studies,” with uncritical references to context? Is it then partisan for Ministers and bureaucrats from the Ministry to represent views about hegemonic practices in university settings? What is the balance to these hegemonic formations in Singapore, where authoritarian norms limit the forms of participation in everyday life? What are the erasures that are actively cultivated when the voices of Jolovan Wham and Seelan Palay are actively tarnished and erased, under the naturalized language of conviction? More fundamentally, what does it even mean to house a liberal arts program in Singapore if the hegemonic voices of an authoritarian regime deploy techniques of othering to silence the voices that call for greater freedoms of assembly and speech?
As I have noted elsewhere, academic freedom is a universal principle, not dependent on context. You can’t have it both ways, claiming commitment to academic freedom and then using context as a strategic tool to attack academic freedom.
In Minister Ong Ye Kung’s version of academic freedom, the limits to freedom are shaped by context. The Minister of Education draws on the ordinary citizen to discuss who and what is going to be allowed/not allowed on University campuses in Singapore.
“I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising his common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education. And MOE’s stand is that we cannot allow such activities in our schools or IHLs. Political conscientisation is not the taxpayer’s idea of what education means.”
Note the fallacies in Mr. Ong’s ordinary common sense test. Political conscientisation earlier described accurately as “aimed at making people conscious of the oppression in their lives, so that they will take action against these oppressive elements,” is then inaccurately ascribed motives and objectives other than learning and education. By Mr. Ong’s own correct reading, the very purpose of conscientisation is to educate, to make one critically aware of their circumstances and the forces of power they are situated amidst. So what then is it about conscientisation that makes it unacceptable in Ong Ye Kung’s Singapore? What does the Minister worry would happen if the oppressed become aware of their oppression and of the forces underlying the oppression? The imagined taxpayer’s idea of what education means then is used to exclude particular forms of education such as “conscientisation” from Singapore’s educational settings.
Having explicitly made this move to exclude, Mr. Ong then goes back to stating “MOE values academic freedom, so do our AUs.” This is a classic example of communicative inversion. Elsewhere, Mr. Ong’s speech is rife with communicative inversions, equating activists advocating for freedom with Jihadists and Nazis. Communicative inversions referring to jihadists and Nazis are drawn upon to stigmatize activists advocating for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and democracy, and to legitimize their exclusion as normative.
Coming back to my introductory question, are culture-centered projects viable in Singapore, I am inclined to answer in the negative. Under the current conditions, with explicit references to misinformed divides drawn up between theory and practice to serve partisan purposes, I don’t see how culture-centered projects can be implemented in Singapore, especially within the structures of Singapore institutions. One might surmise that some Ministers in the ruling establishment might see the culture-centered process as “conscientization.”
By the same logic, any applied scholarship where the act of doing is deeply tied to theorizing, would come under scrutiny. Unless of course, the theory-application binary is strategically drawn upon to reproduce state control over what is taught and what is practiced in the Universities in Singapore.
Dutta, M. J. (2008). Communicating health: A culture-centered approach. Polity.
Spivak, G. (2013). The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Routledge.
To reclaim India is to reclaim both the secular and socialist roots of the nation.
Building up to the 2019 elections, the question, “whether India will be India,” is being asked in various conversations across India, in the diaspora, and globally. The question is a powerful one and one that calls for critical reflection as India goes to vote.
What is the idea of India that needs to be defended with vigour?
And more importantly, how does this conversation on India taking place in mostly English language plaforms, often among the elite, connect with the conversations on the idea of India taking place in India’s fields, among the farmers, in the production units, among the workers, among the large numbers of unemployed youth, among the precarious workers in the informal sectors, among India’s Muslims who live amidst the everyday fear for their lives, among India’s adivasi peoples?
Going back three decades to my NCERT textbooks in the Kendriya Vidyalaya where I went to school and learned my first lessons on citizenship, I am reminded that the idea of India was never articulated as a concept in the classroom.
One took the idea of India as a given in the concepts of secularism, socialism, and democracy. The lessons in history and geography in the classroom were strengthened and crystallized in community life, in the neighbourhood, in celebrations, and in the everyday culture.
That secularism is how one simply lived and how communities breathed their everyday life was evident in the neighbourhoods, local markets, tea stalls, mosques, churches, and temples. The sound of the azaan at dawn mingled in perfect harmony with the sound of the bells from the evening prayer at the temple.
That socialism forms the democratic aspiration of people was manifest in the land reforms, strong voices of unions, the strong presence of the Left parties, and the equally strong presence of social movements.
The twin concepts of secularism and socialism formed the bulwark of democratic life. The vibrant community groups, local governance, and public participation in the democracy were guided by the calls to equality.
These key ideas defined for me the spirit of India, with its vast openness to many faiths, worldviews, and ways of thought. The Red Book stores that would be on full display in the front of the Durga Puja pandals across West Bengal reflected for me the essence of this spirit.
In the Bengal of the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up, the idea of India was marked by its absence. One simply witnessed the values of socialism, secularism, and democracy in the fabric of daily life.
The first time that I grappled with the meaning of India was in December 1991, with the image of the chariot procession of the now revived-as-a-liberal icon, Lal Krishna Advani, and the mobs that had secured access to the mosque. The images of the destruction of the mosque by saffron-waving gangs quickly transformed into stories of violence and riots as they started erupting across India.
That was the first time as a College-going student I grappled with the idea of India.
Fast forward three decades, the saffron-wearing fringe elements are now running India. One of them, selling the story of struggling out of poverty to become a leader of a democracy, is now the Prime Minister. Many accounts suggest that the same saffron-clad icon was complicit in the massacre of innocent Muslims as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The saffron tide of 2014 that brought the extremist fringe into power was also a continuity of the extreme neoliberal policies that saw entrenched inequalities, disenfranchisement, and weakening of worker collectivization.
That the ideas of socialism and democracy, the other two anchors of the idea of India, were already disappearing under a neoliberal deluge is reflected in the full-fledged turn to liberalization. Even as the urban landscape started rapidly transforming, socialism became outdated and secularism turned into an abuse.
Programs such as Operation Green Hunt were organized campaigns that legitimized the systematic attack on India’s adivasi people to enable large scale land grab, privatization, and profiteering, all in in the name of development. For journalists fed on the neoliberal ideology, the market offered the all-emancipating solution.
The neoliberal promise, that the turn to the market would cleanse the corruption, formed the zeitgeist of this new India. Large movements promising to cleanse corruption performed public spectacles, all too appealing to the neoliberal imaginaries of the urban middle classes. The country could be free from corruption and economic growth could be achieved, placing private capital as the solution.
Paradoxically, the notion that the private sector and its profit-driven motives formed the basic infrastructure of corruption was strategically obfuscated, instead promoting reforms that were seductive for the middle classes.
This very premise of corruption-free economic development mainstreamed the saffron fringe. That economic development driven by further neoliberal reforms would present a new India was the promise offered by the saffron regime. For many of the middle classes and those in the diaspora, the saffron was unpalatable but the stigma of fringe could be set aside with the promise of “Make in India.” The promise of further neoliberal reforms, dressed up in cleansing India of corruption, and modelled after “vibrant Gujarat” worked to erase the stigma of the saffron for the Indian middle class that identified as liberal.
For a strand of the diaspora, negotiating the everyday onslaughts of marginalization, the saffron turn offered a new basis for identity. This identity, founded on the image of a strong India, was also now palatable for the middle classes in the Indian mainstream. The saffron turn, with its promise of “Make in India” would deliver economic growth, coupled with cultural revitalization. The Indian (read Hindu Indian) would now feel a sense of glory at home and abroad, attaching with brand saffron.
In the past four years, the mainstreaming of saffron has been actively achieved through political and media discourse. It is no longer fringe to want to kill a Muslim or to make a statement about killing Muslims. It is the mainstream narrative of a section of middle class India. Anyone questioning this narrative is labelled an anti-national and sent to Pakistan by the English language channels of Times Now and Republic TV, with a large middle class following.
Five years have come and gone. The empirical evidence attests to many undelivered promises. Much like the empty sloganeering of a “Vibrant Gujarat,” a “Make in India’ re-make of Indian economy remains a mirage.
It is not in this middle and aspiring class that I hold the hope for India.
The possibility of reclaiming India does not lie in my privileged voiced or the voices of experts who see the danger of a fascist politics that threatened to engulf India. We have, for most instances, detached ourselves from the people, from the struggles of the soil, from the hardships that are the everyday reality for the majority of India.
The hope for India lies in the rural, among the urban poor, among the workers, and among the farmers. The hope for India lies in its adivasi and dalit people as they turn their voices of disenfranchisement into votes at the ballot. The hope for India lies in the many farmers who have flooded the capital in protest. The hope for India lies in the many workers who have shown up in seas of red. The hope for India lies in Begusarai as we witness the possibilities of what can be. With one parliamentarian that represents these fundamental ideals enshrined in the constitution.
To reclaim India is to reclaim both the secular and socialist roots of the nation, written into the constitution.
I don’t have much hope in a neoliberal elite that somehow continues to bow to the pseudo-science of the market. I do have hope, however, for the other India that does the everyday work of making it and imagining it.
But some analysts have been more explicit in their analysis, and suggested ending the threat posed by the alt-right and Islamophobia will only be achieved by shifting existing mainstream narratives about Muslims, both locally and internationally.
“The terrorist attacks in Christchurch reflect the global rise in Islamophobia – hatred toward Muslims – cultivated by political parties, media organisations, and a wide range of hate industries,” Mohan Dutta dean’s chair in communication at the New Zealand-based Massey UniversityUniversity, wrote last week.
Dutta also called for discussions “anchored in the voices of Muslims experiencing hate” as the “starting point to halting the global spread of Islamophobia”.
Mire agreed and called on New Zealand to set the standard in battling back Islamophobia and the rise of “alt-right extremist ideologies”, which he said threaten minorities “everywhere” in the world.
“It’s sad to think that a situation like this is what drives us to have these difficult and hard discussions,” Mire said.
“But we have a small window of opportunity, right now, and we must take it in order to ensure that such events never happen again.”
The shootings carried out by right wing White extremists in Christchurch are part of a global network of racist terror that are often legitimized, sponsored, and reproduced by the structures of the state.
The manifesto crafted by one of the White terrorists who carried out the terror makes reference to the U.S. President Donald Trump and draws on the hate propaganda that is a key element of U.S. public relations.
Islamophobia, the fear of the Muslim, is strategically manufactured through various forms of messages of hatred, legitimized and reproduced by the media, and manipulated by parties toward political gains.
The globalization of the Islamophobia industry
The Islamophobia industry is big business. The New Zealand shootings depict the wide reach of the industry and its global appeal.
From the transnational corporations feeding the “war on terror” to the digital media industries that profit from selling the hatred of Muslims to think tanks that are set up to cultivate strategically the fear of the Muslim, Islamophobia generates ratings, advertising dollars, and new markets for products of hatred.
Although projected as the work of the fringe right, the power of Islamophobia lies in seeding the hatred for Islam as a mainstream phenomenon, as a part and parcel of everyday civil discourse.
Digital platforms such as Swarajya Mag in India, and Centers such as the Center for Security Policy in the U.S. are established with the sole purpose of making mainstream the hatred for Islam through the circulation of the image of the Muslim invader that is antithetical to the ideas of civilization.
Propaganda narratives from U.S. to India
The narrative of the “civilization in threat” is strategically disseminated across spaces to seed and amplify Islamophobia. The manifesto circulated by the White supremacist terrorist in New Zealand is essentially anchored in the rhetoric of “White genocide.”
In the U.S., groups such as ACT for America led by Brigette Gabriel organize communities at the grassroots around the hatred for Islam, manufacturing the threat of the Muslim “other.” Setting up false narratives such as the “threat of Sharia law,” with over 750,000 members across the U.S., the organization positions itself as a national security organization, drawing up accounts of unwed Muslim migrant and refugee men who threaten White civilizational purity. Brigette Gabriel draws out links between the influx of Muslim refugees and the threat of rape, manufacturing the basis for the threat of “White genocide.”
In the White terrorist manifesto in New Zealand, the propaganda of “White genocide” is set up by comparing the fertility rates of White Europeans with fertility rates of communities of colour.
The global seduction of the narrative of Islamic rape culture is well evident in India in the Hindutva propaganda machinery.
The “love jihaad” narrative similarly manufactures a false account of Islamic rape culture, positioning Muslims as threatening the purity of Hindu culture. The narrative of Hindu genocide becomes the basis for manufacturing and circulating the threat of the Islamic invader, then being mobilized by the Hindutva forces in India to carry out systematic acts of violence.
The Zionist propaganda machinery produces the image and narrative of the Muslim other to silence any critique of its settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid policies toward Palestinians. A large proportion of the funding of the Islamophobia industry comes from Zionist organizations.
Islamophobic responses in India
The Islamophobia that is rampant in India prompts a cross-section of Hindutva forces to celebrate the attacks on the mosques in Christchurch.
For these Hindutva forces, the attack on the mosques is the appropriate and necessary response to the manufactured thread of Islamic terror.
Heuristically driven and devoid of evidence, these jubilations of the attack on the Muslims entirely miss out that the manifesto called for removing all coloured people (including Indians of all faiths) from what the terrorist articulation framed as White lands (of course ignoring the claims to land in New Zealand held by indigenous Maori). People of colour bear the burden of racisms that generate from White supremacy; Muslims bear this burden as attacks on their ethnicity as well amplified by the demonization of their faith.
The celebration of violence by Hindutva terror, although somewhat different in its framing and targeting of the other from the White supremacist terror, is a replica of White supremacist terror in its strategic deployment of violence to target Muslim minorities. Since 2015, at least 44 Muslims have been killed in India by cow vigilantes, driven by the narrative of civilizational threat.
For a global civilizational response
That terror has no place in civilized societies is the message that ought to form the basis for global response. In her bold and powerful speech following the terrorist attack, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern issued this clarion call for zero tolerance of hatred by stating that the haters have no place in New Zealand society.
Across the globe, the fabrics of civilized secular societies are threatened by the politics of hate and fear mongering, legitimized through political parties and electoral processes. These political parties that operate on the circulation of hate need to be targeted strategically and their machineries of hate dismantled.
The global machine of Islamophobia ought to be dismantled by a civilizational narrative of love, understanding and dialogue, with the fundamental commitment to fostering spaces for diverse voices, peoples, worldviews and faith traditions.
In India, dismantling the hate apparatuses of the RSS and BJP are the urgent calls of the hour. In civilized societies such as in New Zealand and Singapore, diaspora groups that operate on the circulation of hate have no place. Identifying, categorizing and dismantling such groups is as important as it is to opening up calls for dialogue.
Hate, White supremacist hate and Hindu hate need to be stopped before they consume the discursive spheres of civilized societies.
Mohan J Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication at Massey University, University of New Zealand. He is the Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), developing culturally-centered, community-based projects of social change, advocacy, and activism that articulate health as a human right.
The attack on Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Kashmir’s Pulwama on February 14 has turned up the volume on the jingoistic media channels.
Jingoism sells. The images of violence sell in a concerted call for more violence.
The shouting matches on the split Television screens are perfectly orchestrated to call for war, with suited anchors frothing up at the sounds of war. As if to match up the tenor of the emotions at the site of the attack, the decked-up newsrooms buzz with the calls for attack. From the plush studio settings, mediatized images of the broken vehicles and streets littered with debris are organized into a propaganda campaign.
For the middle class digital sphere, the immediate calls to war from the comforts of the living room offer succour to middle class sensibilities of national security.
This is the mechanics of propaganda.
From Operation Iraqi Freedom to the surgical strike, images and sounds feed the war machinery.
In turn, the war machinery manufactures the images and sounds, pumping up adrenaline, drawing even more viewers in to the 24X7 cycles, driving the ratings up in an ever-accelerating pace.
Wars are powerful tools of propaganda. They feed on insecurity, the threat of the “other” materialized through images, talk, and sound, and the gory materiality of violence.
Manufacturing a war organizes entire collectives of citizens as nationalists, projecting on the national imaginary the threat to the nation, brought together with media images of terrorists that need to be targeted through attacks. This threat to the nation is circulated across media screens, capturing the emotions of citizens as war mongers, rallying behind the political elites and only to be satisfied with more gore.
Crises form the bedrock of authoritarian techniques of producing sites of control and managing them to keep power intact. When under threat of losing power, authoritarian regimes create a wide range of strategies to keep power intact. The spectacle of a terror event is the perfect crisis that calls for strong response, propping up the authoritarian strongman as the legitimate and necessary ruler.
Such a response is often produced amid suspended reason. Revenge must be sought, that’s all, and the authoritarian regime is well suited to extract revenge. That the middle classes that quickly demand such revenge never step into the violence of the war zones is part of the mechanics of war. That it is often the poor, enlisted into the police and military to escape poverty, who must place their bodies amid violence, is part of the mechanics of war.
Moreover, the production of war and the circulation of geostrategic threats work well as communicative strategies for generating public support for authoritarian power. Wars often supply the perfect recipe for authoritarian regimes that hold on to power through appeals to emotion. Catalysing the citizen around the nation and national interests works well to distract from questions of economy, inequality, unemployment, and difficulties of everyday life.
The recent attack in Kashmir seemed to have offered the perfect backdrop for the mobilizing of patriotism. Noted Modi, issuing a warning to Pakistan that India will not be divided: “If they (Pakistan) think that the kinds of things they are doing, the conspiracies that they are concocting — that they will be successful in creating instability in India, then they should abandon that dream. They will never be able to do it.”
As television stations capitalize on the ratings-generating stories of the attack, the nation is once again organized around the enemy, with the call to protect national security. Heuristics of the enemy unify national sentiments, captured in smart techniques of producing the other.
Amid crisis, critical questions are suspended. The audience is configured into a homogeneous mass of collective hysteria.
Wars are also the backdrop for attacking the opposition in an election cycle. Building up to the elections, digitally circulating images quickly pick up stories that equate the opposition with the “other” of the nation. The ruling political party becomes the nation, and the nation the party.
Any critique of the jingoism is dangerously painted as anti-national, with large consequences. Any opposition to the regime is painted as the enemy of the nation. Facebook posts, YouTube videos, Tweets, and WhatsApp messages quickly circulate these
Consider for instance the photo of Rahul Gandhi, photoshopped with the Pulwama suicide bomber. The post,“भारतीय फौज पर हमला करने बाला नीकला राहुल गांधी का खास। क्या इस हमले के पीछे कांग्रेस का हाथ तो नहीं (The man who attacked the Indian army was close to Rahul Gandhi. Is the Congress behind the attack? -translated)”, made on the Facebook group Once Again MODIRAJ 2019, includes photoshopped images of Rahul Gandhi to suggest that the involvement of the Congress in the attack.
Consider similarly cropped videos of Priyanka Gandhi allegedly laughing after the terror attacks.
These images and stories work strategically to paint an increasingly strong opposition as the enemy. The war is a powerful political machinery, one that will quickly organize national politics around its agenda.
Amid these heightened calls to war, consider the critical questions that call for further reflection and deliberation. What are the places of dialogue amid this violence? What role does violence play in mitigating violence? Situate the police-military deaths in war alongside the deaths of civilians and protesting people in Kashmir. Most importantly, consider the question of sovereignty of the Kashmiri people that forms the backdrop of this violence.
It was summer. A summer when the violence escalated.
In those months, when the repression accelerated from polite threats to sit down meetings to direct threats to the accusations, I was writing this encyclopedia entry on Power and Control for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication.
Witnessing power work through the cells of my body, feeling my body respond to the repression from bouts of throwing up to losing consciousness, disrupted my understanding of power as communicative, anchoring the discursive sites of power in material articulations.
I felt the brute effect of power even as I was writing about it.
My readings and re-readings of Marx, Adorno, Gramsci were intimately intertwined with my experiences with power, resisting it, and negotiations of it in an ever-contingent space of (im)possibilities.
In this Review, I explore the interplays of the discursive and the material in the production of power and control. Power is both a force that perpetuates oppression as well as a vital source of emancipatory resistance. The review works through the question of power from interpersonal and organizational levels to political, economic, and societal realms. It attends to the contemporary context of power in the digital, circulated through structures and networks of data, in the surveillance and manipulation of behaviors, and the continuous search for extractive sites for digital capital.
Much of the terms of internationalization of Communication as a discipline driven by the International and National Communication Associations are juxtaposed in the backdrop of the proliferation of the Communication discipline outside of the U.S. Across Asia, from China and India to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, communication programs have proliferated at an exponential rate.
The growing communication sectors across Asia call for pedagogical opportunities that train the next generation of communication practitioners across Asia. Communication training in many parts of Asia is driven by practical industry needs for communication skills. Programs therefore focus on teaching the basic skills of journalism, marketing communication, advertising, and public relations. Although the nature of communication training varies across sub-regions and nation states within Asia, the overarching emphasis on skills training for the professional communication industries is a thread that flows throughout the region.
Whereas many of these communication programs are driven by the exponential growth in the number of communication opportunities across Asia, other programs have specifically developed as significant spaces for doing communication research/scholarship. In these programs, the teaching of communication is coupled with a serious commitment to develop strengths in communication research.
It is worth noting that a number of communication programs across Asia rank among the top Communication programs across the globe, certainly placing at the top in rankings charts and in the global metric games. This is indeed an excellent sign of the internationalization of the discipline, to the extent that rankings are accepted as measures of legitimacy and/or respectability.
The proliferation of communication programs as acknowledged sites of knowledge production across Asia is an important anchor to the ongoing de-westernization of the field, at least to the extent these rankings point toward a certain sense of legitimacy and respectability. The parochial US-centrism of the discipline is at the very least disrupted by the publication of the rankings, which introduce into the cognitive schema of Communication the existence of spaces of communication knowledge production outside of the U.S. mainstream.
However, even as we increasingly have these diverse sites of knowledge production across Asia, what really do the rankings imply? Although these rankings provide important anchors to de-centering the discipline, it is worth noting that the rankings themselves are US-centric. Organizations such as Times Higher Education, US News, QS are U.S.-Eurocentric organizations, with their economic infrastructures, revenue models, and histories rooted in U.S. and Europe. Although these organizations have spent significant efforts in internationalizing their sampling frame, the very metrics they draw upon are US/Euro-centric.
Consider for instance, the rankings of research reputation and research productivity. Measures of research impact and productivity draw from knowledge database corporations such as Elsevier (which owns Scopus) and Clarivate Analytics (which owns Journal Citation Reports). These databases cull through data on productivity and impact (measured as citation), aggregate them, and offer impact impact metrics for counting the research outputs of faculty members.
These research outputs are then aggregated to offer metrics of impact for the comparison of programs, including programs in Communication.
The knowledge database corporations are U.S./Eurocentric corporations, located/centered in the US/Europe. The databases are U.S./Eurocentric, drawing their publication and citation data from largely U.S.-based/Europe-based journals. Asian institutions seeking to maximize their global reputation through rankings therefore strategically invest in hiring scholars that demonstrate their ability to publish in US/European journals, implementing strict, parochial, and ever-accelerating publication metrics in evaluation and retention processes. The rankings therefore work as instruments for pushing Communication programs across Asia toward a hegemonic US/Euro-centric standard, legitimized through US/Euro-centric journals. The patterns of hiring, retention, and promotion within Asian institutions therefore replicate the U.S. hegemony, albeit with Asian flavour. Asian academics, mostly trained in the U.S., are hired into Asian institutions, and are then disciplined with strategies of measurement that foreground and reproduce the hegemony of U.S. and European journals as sites of knowledge production and circulation. In Asian institutions chasing rankings, the h-indices and total citation counts work toward producing techniques of disciplining with greater vigor than institutions in the U.S. and Europe. This explains the recent proliferation of Asian scholarship in Communication, albeit reproducing the U.S. hegemonic assumptions, with signposts to Asian difference.
The journals of the discipline, centered in the U.S. and Europe, hegemonically push the production of Communication knowledge through the hegemonic roles played by databases, data aggregators, and rankings.
Now, one might suggest that internationalizing the discipline of Communication enables the work of de-centering the discipline. Unfortunately, with the editorial boards, editorships, and reviewing bodies of most journals primarily composed of U.S.-based academics, the scope for internationalization is limited. More importantly the very criteria for evaluating scholarship, for the evaluation of quality, and the rules of publishing in Communication are grounded in US-based logics. Even as the field is internationalized, say with editorial board members from Japan, Singapore, China, and India, the overarching codes of the discipline remain embedded within the narrow logics of U.S. communication academe. One might argue that while the recruitment of a Chinese or an Indian scholar to the board of a top Communication journal is an important entry point, it is worth noting that the Chinese or Indian scholar invited to serve on an editorial board of a top journal has usually been disciplined into the techniques of the discipline, often a product of the U.S.-based methods of disciplining.
Theorizing from Asia as a result is often an incremental addition to U.S.-centric theorizing. The hegemonic formation of U.S.-based theorizing is left intact, with some notion of Asian culture as essence (consider for instance the scores on individualism/collectivism, itself an Eurocentric construct) offered as a mediator or moderator variable. Asia as a contruct emerges as a cultural appendage, offered as an outpost of U.S.-centric Communication theory. Consider for instance the theorizing of social capital and political participation from China that predicts the relationship between social capital and political participation. The data-driven piece does so without taking into account Maoist philosophy, the organizing of community life in China under a socialist framework, and the nature of political participation. Consider similarly a piece on public opinion toward LGBTQ rights in Singapore that does so without taking into account the authoritarian state structure, multicultural values, and political pressure on civil society in Singapore. In such instances, although the published manuscripts do indeed internationalize the discipline, in reproducing U.S.-centric methods and conceptual categories, they fail to seriously engage with social phenomena in Asian contexts.
The fundamental assumptions of Communication, embedded in the Cold War/imperial liberal notions of capitalism and democracy are left intact, without engaging with the many opportunities for de-centering the liberal hegemony that emerge from/in Asia. Theorizing from Asia shaped in the contours of the disciplinary mechanisms, disconnected from Asia, is reduced to reproducing U.S. hegemony.
The colonial roots of the modernist framework of free speech is embedded in hegemonic constructions of civility.
Inherent historically in the idea of free speech is the marking of communicative space, shaped in the ambits of colonial power.
Free speech and colonialism are co-constitutive.
The freedom to speak historically belonged to the White colonial master, even as the colonized were systematically and often violently erased from the spaces and sites of articulation. Marked as the “other” of civility, the colonized belonged outside the public sphere, outside the domains of civil society.
White colonial societies reproduced the image of the primitive savage to erase colonized voices even as they celebrated emancipatory ideas of free speech.
The freedom of speech thus was a privilege of White colonialists while colonized savages, the other of modernity, were systematically erased from spaces of participation. As colonized voices started emerging in resistance, the colonialists reproduced laws of sedition that marked the colonized as terrorist, as threat to the security of the colonial occupation. This communicative inversion is fundamental to the modernist production of free speech.
The White colonial history of free speech continues to play out in contemporary contexts of settler colonialism and indigenous resistance to settler colonialism.
While indigenous resistance that fundamentally resists ongoing forms of colonial occupation continue to be marked as criminal, White colonialists deploy the trope of free speech to denigrate indigenous culture, language, and ways of life. Inherent in the deployment of free speech is the play of power.
This interplay of free speech and White settler colonialism is in display in the recent unfolding of the free speech debate at Massey University.
When the Massey University Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas cancelled a speaking event by the opposition politician Don Brash citing concerns over security, the University came under attack for the apparent violation of the principle of free speech.
In her response, Professor Thomas reiterated the security concerns for the University, and also noted:
“Mr Brash’s leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff…In my opinion, the views expressed by members of Hobson’s Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech. They are certainly not conducive with the university’s strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organisation.”
Subsequently, internal emails secured through the Official Information Act by blogger David Farrar seem to suggest that Thomas didn’t want “a Te Tiriti led university be seen to be endorsing racist behaviours.”
Social media responses in the White mainstream reiterate the free speech rhetoric to demand the resignation of the Vice Chancellor.
Many academics, once again mostly White, and ensconced in White colonial privilege, are upset about this violation of free speech.
Essential to this culture of White colonial performance of free speech is the erasure of questions of power and colonialism.
That the freedom of White colonialists to reproduce settler colonial depictions of indigenous people as backward is fundamentally a form of violence that violates the basic right to dignity of colonized peoples offers a very different anchor to the free speech conversation.
The privilege to speak freely is precisely the trope through which White settler colonialists continue to assert their racist power of erasure.
As inequalities have grown globally, global elites (the 1%) and their academic mouthpieces respond to the growing public anger about inequalities by issuing calls for societal transformation.
They inform us, inequalities are rising and that’s a problem (just as they profit from these inequalities).
The urgent need for transformation in the individual mindset is the call of the hour.
They appeal to our consience, suggesting a much needed transformation in our beliefs and attitudes is needed to address global inequality.
Appeals for addressing inequality are rife with narratives of kindness, heartfulness, caring, and compassion.
Elite media are rife with stories of inequality, often hidden behind a paywall. They document different aspects of inequalities and then present expert voices pontificating on the trends in inequalities.
Elites urge “greater attention needs to be paid to inequality.”
Now that elites have declared inequality is a trend for concern, academic mouthpieces jump onto the bandwagon. New talks, discussion forums, exhibitions, and closed door meetings are organized on solving the problem of inequality. Academics looking for funding are given a new problem to work on.
The sort of transformation urged by these elites however is very much a perpetuation of the neoliberal status quo, urging for greater empathy toward the underserved segments of society. It is the responsibility of the individual to feel empathy, to develop a heart, and to rise up to the challenges of giving to the needy.
The solution to inequality therefore is the cultivation of heart among the bourgeoisie and the power elite.
Elite audiences are urged to respond with feelings.
The often-used missionary rhetoric of “lifting the burden of the soul” is scripted into the empathy narrative.
Images, stories, voices are catalyzed by the elite to generate empathy.
An entire array of market-based tools then are promoted by the inequality industry in solving the problem of inequality, all directed toward cultivating individual empathy.
As a “communicative inversion” (Dutta, 2016), the seduction of empathy keeps intact the neoliberal status quo while at the same time offering a narrative of transformation.
While individual behaviors are targeted, the overarching structures are kept intact. This is the fundamental paradox of the inequality industry.
The feel good talk perpetuated by the industry calling for urgent societal response leaves intact the fundamental inequalities in distribution of power, opportunities for impacting policy, voice, and material distribution of resources.
That the vast concentration of resources in the hands of the power elite is the fundamental problem underlying global inequalities is inverted, instead presenting the 1% as the panacea to the problem of inequality.