“Mansplaining to the Max” or “Know Your Place!”: On How Disciplines Discipline and Police

The second post in a short series on naming and representation in IR spaces. Here Saara Särmä and Cai Wilkinson respond to Knud Erik Jørgensen. Saara is a feminist, scholar and artist. She is the co-founder of the Feminist think tank Hattu and the creator of “Congrats, you have an all male panel!“, “Congrats, you have an all white panel!“, and “Congrats, you did not cite any feminists!“. Cai is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University, and has written widely on securitization, international politics in Central Asia and the use of interpretive ethnographic methods in Critical Security Studies. Both Saara and Cai have contributed to The Disorder before.

Knud Erik Jørgensen’s post responding to criticism of the naming of rooms at the EISA conference in September and explaining his rationale does not exactly invite engagement. Indeed, it seems designed to dismiss and silence, the implicit message being that we should know our place in IR and defer to our elders and (by mainstream standards, at least) betters. Feminists, it turns out, might occasionally be seen, but should still not be heard. Nevertheless, we felt that a response is in order.

Our criticism of the all male room decision is, indeed, about issues that are of much more significance than 18 of 32 meeting rooms in Sicily. We share a concern with Jørgensen about the future of IR; we all want to make IR a better place. Why on Earth would we have stayed in IR in the first place, if we didn’t? That’s why we expect more and urge all of us to do better. No-one is perfect and fuck-ups are inevitable. However, this should not prevent us from speaking out when things go wrong. It is axiomatic that we should seek to learn from our mistakes, but this can only happen if we are able to take in criticism and admit responsibility in ways that are productive and open for further engagement, rather than reacting defensively. This is rarely easy.

As the former president of EISA who decided to name the 18 rooms, Jørgensen writes from a position of power. Yet rather than acknowledging his role, he misrepresents what happened by leaving out crucial details about the issue. He purports to be responding to only Särmä and Wilkinson, omitting the fact that there was a letter from BISA Gendering International Relations Working Group, signed by 77 people sent to the EISA board, and that an official reply from the new Executive Committee of EISA acknowledged that the decision to name the rooms was a mistake and lay responsibility in Jørgensen’s hands.

This is a familiar derailing tactic employed by many privileged IR scholars: rather than engaging with the critique of structural problems in the discipline, it is portrayed as being someone’s personal issue and thus trivialized. This move makes Jørgensen’s post feel like a personal attack on two junior IR scholars that is designed to silence and discredit. Read this way, it is difficult to see Jørgensen’s response as anything other than an attempt to discipline dissenting voices by demanding unquestioning respect. Such highhanded and marginalizing tactics are unfortunately all too familiar to us, and to many, many others who are perceived as a threat to the disciplinary status quo and told that they need to be appropriately respectful of traditions and conventions in order to be accepted at the IR table. We take issue with these tactics and the hectoring tone, as well as his attempt to school us on issues that we are both experts on.

A second horribly familiar silencing tactic in Jørgensen’s post is to make it all about our subjective feelings while he rationally and objectively explains to us “how things really are” in contrast to our apparently naïve understanding of diversity and its various axes. Let us return the favor:

It is understandable to have a knee-jerk reaction when being called out, especially when you have enjoyed a position of power in the discipline and are not used to being questioned about your actions. It must not feel nice when accountability is demanded, when you just thought you had had a neat idea and decided to run with it, without pausing to consider the deeper implications or how it might be received by others. In contrast to, it might not be common practice for you to reflect upon your choices and expect to have to justify and explain why you chose a specific course of action or an approach – a luxury rarely afforded to scholars belonging to “marked categories” be it by dint of their gender, sexuality, disability, race, ethnicity, theoretical or methodological approach, and/or educational “pedigree” that necessitates spending countless hours and innumerable words justifying and legitimizing their place in the academy.

Jørgensen’s adoption of the position of disciplinary policeman is further signaled via his tactic of describing Saara as a tumblr artist/activist and admirer of David Hoff (formerly known as Hasselhoff), and presenting her work as endless promotion of the Hoff. The use of “non-scholarly” media, pop culture references and engagement in activism, it is implied, means that her work – and by extension, her status as a scholar – are to be viewed as suspect and less credible. Seeking to delegitimize criticism by calling into question the dissenter’s credentials is a common response in a discipline that too often purports to study politics, but never practice them.

Yet there is a vibrant feminist community in IR that has over several decades collectively tried to address the under-representation of women in the discipline (amongst other issues) and continues to do so, despite frequently encountering resistance. At present, thanks to Saara’s founding of the “Congrats, you have an all male panel!”, we have a particularly visible platform via which to draw attention to this continued under-representation, making it harder than ever to ignore. The allmalepanels.tumblr.com has published over 1,100 posts featuring all male things, has had over 100,000 visitors and attracted significant media attention from outlets including The Guardian, BBC and Time.com, reflecting wider debates about current shortfalls in gender equity that are ongoing in many countries and societies.

Searching single-handedly for this kind of number of things to publish would be more than a full time job, and browsing through conference programs of conferences one is not even attending would be ridiculous waste of time from more pressing matters such as academic work and funding applications. In addition, there are very real risks to one’s career and reputation for calling out injustices and inequalities. Fortunately, thanks to a lot of media attention, people now know where to turn when they spot an ‘all male’ issue, with the All Male Panels tumblr serving as an easy to use platform through which to call out those who continue to ignore women’s under-representation anonymously.

Jørgensen also claims to have enacted a successful employment of junk feminism. While it is nice to have such an established scholar to promote a more junior scholar’s work and terminology, unfortunately in this instance it is a gross misreading of what junk feminist praxis is. It is not simply about naming, and even the naming part is not what he takes it to be. Junk feminism explicitly resists the kind of disciplining Jørgensen is doing, it questions various disciplinary boundaries, and emphasizes playfulness and humor (see Särmä 2014, 37-44). There’s nothing playful about this ordeal. Reclaiming a “forgotten history” of European IR may in the context of ‘an American discipline’ feel radical, but how radical can it really be when one section gets to name rooms while others don’t, and when the challenge made to “American IR” is to replace it with an all male European history? Certainly expanding IR along temporal and geographical axes of diversity could be theoretically important in this context, but so too is the here and now diversity of lived experience in IR that we are calling for (as explained in Cai’s previous post) and that Jørgensen so strenuously denies.

Continued discussion of diversity is essential to the future of IR as a discipline if it is to remain relevant and current for its scholars, students, and for society more broadly. As with commitment to social justice and equality, there is no defined end point for diversity; rather, recognition of diversity is a continual and dynamic process that is powered by ongoing, persistent and sometimes uncomfortable discussion of relevant issues. But we need to be mindful of the tactics we employ. Silencing tactics do nothing to foster dialogue. Rather, they merely serve to indicate that their user believes that they have the right to dictate the terms and scope of debate, which discourages actual engagement. And if the conversation stops – or is stopped – then existing hierarchies of power, privilege and marginalization are quick to reassert themselves, rapidly closing down space for debate and discussion. 

Criticism can be hard to take, especially when you (think you) had good intentions. But it is not about the intentions; it is about the end result. It is about what kind of message you want to send and what sort of disciplinary culture you want. Do you want to send a message of inclusion or exclusion? Do you want a discipline that promotes diversity or prioritizes tradition? It may well be that you prefer the latter, but then at least be honest about it rather than resorting to personal attacks, misrepresentations, and attempts to discipline via tactics of silencing and policing. 

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