A guest post from Linda Åhäll on a recent controversy. Linda is Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her forthcoming publications include the textbook chapters ‘Poststructuralism’ in Security Studies: an introduction (3rd edition, Williams and MacDonald eds.), ‘Gender’ in Visual Global Politics (Bleiker ed.), and the journal article ‘Affect as Methodology: Feminism and the Politics of Emotion’ in International Political Sociology.
Dear Hurt Male Egos, if I may
I am poststructuralist feminist security studies scholar inspired by and indebted to the work of American philosopher and political theorist Judith Butler. I am also Swedish and have spent the autumn term on research leave in the Political Science Department at Lund University in Sweden where, regrettably, Butler has been dragged into an internal conflict about teaching practice by a Hurt Male Ego. A conflict then turned into a national ‘debate’ by a journalist with, in my view, an anti-feminist agenda: on how, supposedly, ‘Gender Studies is taking over Swedish universities’. A national debate then not only picked up, but seriously misrepresented, in international news media. The conflict and subsequent media attention is framed as a tension between gender mainstreaming policies on the one hand and ‘academic freedom’ on the other. But, above all, what has sparked my feminist curiosity is how a tiny number of people, in a twisted series of events, have managed to use Butler – one of the world’s most prominent feminist and queer theorists – for anti-feminist purposes.
For me, it all started when the Hurt Male Ego at Lund wrote an Open Letter addressed to Butler (‘Dear Judith, if I may’), posted on his blog. In it The Hurt Male Ego talked about a ‘Campus War’ and about ‘campus feminists’ as those infringing on his academic freedom. Crucially, the Hurt Male Ego refers to this incident about teaching practice at the Political Science Department at Lund University as ‘The Judith Butler Affair’ on his website, accompanied by photos of Butler. Some days later, the Hurt Male Ego changed the photo of Butler on his website to one where her face was replacing the (authoritarian) leader in the film 1984. Launching this update of the website, the Hurt Male Ego tweeted ‘Big Sister is Watching’. (He has since changed the photo back to a less provocative one.)
Then, the Hurt Male Ego’s PhD Student at Lund University interviewed Judith Butler over email (maybe she knew who he was, maybe she didn’t). In that interview, Butler was asked to respond to the following question: ‘How do you regard having your work imposed on a university lecturer in the name of gender equality?’ She answered, understandably, that she was not in favour of having her work imposed by quotas. But, unfortunately, Judith Butler was misled in that interview. Because, in fact, as I explain below, the policy at the Political Science Department at Lund University was never about the enforcement of gender quotas. There is more to the story. (See also this where Butler clarifies that it would be a mistake to use her remarks about academic freedom as a critique of gender studies.)
Still, on 7 December, the Swedish television debate program ‘Opinion Live’ held a televised debate between the anti-feminist journalist who has turned the conflict at Lund into a national debate (I discuss his series of ‘investigative journalism’ in more detail below), and a Professor in Gender Studies, asked to defend an entire academic discipline against all sorts of ridiculous misconceptions about what feminism might mean. And, guess what, a photo of Judith Butler was used to visually frame this debate. Importantly, such a seriously problematic framing – because let’s be honest, whatever is going on at Swedish universities or national media institutions have very little to do with Judith Butler – was recirculated and repeated in international media coverage. In Germany’s biggest newspaper, for example, a headline reads ‘Judith Butler gegen die Universität Lund’ (‘Judith Butler against Lund University’).
I don’t want to give current anti-feminist moves more attention than they have already created for themselves. But, as a woman, as a feminist, as a poststructuralist scholar, I am writing this letter from a deep sense of frustration with how Judith Butler – directly and indirectly; textually and visually – has been dragged into this mess. Regardless of what is going on at Lund University, what initially sparked my feminist curiosity was how this minor incident about teaching practice at a single university in Sweden, expressed on a blog post, was picked up in mainstream national news media and quickly turned into a national (and then international) ‘debate’ about ‘universities and the gender issue’, and crucially how such a larger issue was framed, not least visually. Although I have yet to fully grasp the anti-feminist mechanisms and movements in place, my feminist gut-feeling, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, tells me that there is something very serious going on. I would like to draw attention to a series of moves. But first, because events at Lund university have been misrepresented, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a few things.
As a measure to mitigate the Gender Citation Gap – that female scholars’ research outputs are systematically cited less than those of men (for academic research on the gender citation gap in IR, see this), some years ago the Political Science Department at Lund University introduced a policy that meant that all syllabuses and reading lists have to be approved by a departmental board. The policy includes a guideline target of 40/60 gender representation, which means that 40 per cent of the total word count for required readings ideally should be by female authors and 60 per cent of texts by male authors. What is important to note here, because the policy has been misrepresented, is that the 40/60 ratio is not absolute. Instead, the idea with the policy is to function as an exercise in self-reflection about teaching practice. The Head of the Political Science Department explains more here.
In his statement, the Head of Department admits that most modules don’t actually fulfil this target. But the important point about the policy is that if the target is not reached, it is the Module Leader’s task to provide a justification for the reading list for the departmental board to consider. It is up to the Module Leader to reflect on why the ideal target could not be reached. This statement by the teacher representatives on the departmental board explains the guideline policy and clarifies a number of misrepresentations circulated in international media.
It should be clear that this guideline policy has nothing to do with enforcing feminist approaches or in any other way attempts at influencing what kinds of theoretical perspectives are used in teaching. The course content is entirely up to the Module Leader involved to decide. As such, there is no infringement on ‘academic freedom’. Instead, this guideline is designed to encourage all teachers to routinely reflect on their teaching practice, on the gender citation gap, but also on diversity issues more broadly. The 40/60 percentage is simply a starting point for reflection.
Having listened to many colleagues in the Political Science Department at Lund (let’s call it a participant observation), I have learnt that this particular policy, for the most part, is seen as uncontroversial, commonsensical. I have learnt that some colleagues are questioning why it is 40/60 and not 50/50 as the ideal target. However, I have also learnt that the Hurt Male Ego initiating this conflict over teaching practice has in previous years mocked the policy by simply changing authors’ first male names to female names on the reading list. Again, there is much more to the story about the conflict over teaching practice at Lund, but that is, after all, another story. Here, I am only stressing that the guideline policy at Lund is not about enforcement of gender quotas and therefore not a threat to academic freedom in the way it has been represented in national and international news media. Instead, due to it being an exercise in self-reflection, it is more in tune with recent attempts at changing unconscious biases in our research and teaching practices, such as feminist IR scholar Saara Särmä’s ‘Congratulations! You have an All-Male Panel’ tumblr or the Irish Academic Manel Watch Twitter account (@ManelWatchIre).
In any case, what happened at the Political Science Department at Lund University was that a Teacher wanted to change the reading list for a module called ‘Moderna samhället och dess kritiker’ (‘Modern Society and its Critics’). At a departmental board meeting on 15 September 2017 the Teacher’s request was rejected. According to the Head of Department, “the proposed reading list was presented to the board at a very late stage. The required reading was significantly different from the literature used previously for the same course. The syllabus was adopted long before. […] Based on the current syllabus, the board found it problematic to adopt the new reading list, from which most of the previously included and relevant female authors had been excluded and the very weak presence of female authors remained.” (read the full statement here).
Due to the late nature of the requests for changes to the reading list that did not correspond to the syllabus for the module in question, “the board decided to instead reintroduce some of the authors used on the course during the previous semester, based on the same course description.” This included an 18 pages long text by Judith Butler.
Before I continue, I would like to draw attention to two things: 1) as you can imagine, an 18 pages long text constitutes a very small part of the total number of pages of readings for students on any module; 2) in his statement, the Head of Department also clarified that “Nowhere in the course description does it say, as stated in the media, that the course is mainly about fascism based on original sources, nor did the lecturers suggest that the syllabus be changed in this direction for the autumn semester.”
And yet, on 28 October, 2017 the Teacher in question wrote a blog post titled ‘Fascists and gender at Lund University’. (A really ‘interesting’ title that probably deserves some discursive analytical attention on its own). In it, the Hurt Male Ego explains that he had decided to end said module after students at the start of term complained that the module did not fulfil the department’s policy on gender representation when it came to the reading list. He criticised the department’s policy of a 40/60 gender balance target for reading lists: ”No Teaching Committee in the world can force me to teach Judith Butler if I don’t want to”, he declared in the blogpost. He felt ‘bullied by students’ [read: feminist students] and claimed that academic freedom is under threat when student representatives [read: feminist student representatives] have the power to decide the reading lists. In the news reporting of events, it is implied that the text by Butler was thrown in at random by ‘radical’ feminist student representatives, when in fact, it was already part of the reading list the previous year. And so, we have a situation where the departmental board rejects the revised reading list due to it not corresponding with the description of the module, the syllabus, and because the proposed changes to the reading list was presented too close to the start of term. The decision to reinstate the 18-page text by Butler was a compromise in order to be able to run the module at all, a compromise that boosted the gender ratio to (only) 16 per cent of works by female authors.
After the initial blog post, the Hurt Male Ego at Lund University was invited to write a newspaper article in Svenska Dagbladet, the third biggest national newspaper in Sweden, on how ‘The Swedish government is a threat to academic freedom’. A journalist at said newspaper also published a three-part series on the topic of ‘State Feminism’. The titles were (my translation): 1) ‘How Gender Studies became ‘State Church’ in Lund’; 2) ‘Gender Studies is Taking Over Swedish Universities’; and 3) ‘Gender Research is Sweden’s Own ‘Creationism’’. All these articles (in Swedish) are collected under the topic of ‘State Feminism’ on the newspaper’s website. In my view, it is clear that the journalist is writing with an anti-feminist agenda.
On 8 November, ‘Studio Ett’, Swedish Radio’s biggest daily news and discussion program with half a million listeners per day, had a debate on the topic of ‘Universities and the Gender Issue’. The Hurt Male Ego at Lund University was interviewed on what had happened and then there was a debate between the journalist who wrote the three news articles on how ‘Gender Studies is taking over Swedish universities’ and a representative for the National Centre for Gender Research. There are two important things to note here. First, it was only when the Programme was aired for the second time later that evening that a response from a teacher representative on the departmental board at Lund, Professor Jan Teorell, was included. He clarified a number of mistakes in the Hurt Male Ego’s version of events, but of course many only heard the first version of the program where the Hurt Male Ego’s version of events was unchallenged. Second, in the ‘debate’ on how, supposedly, gender studies are taking over Swedish universities – because gender studies and gender mainstreaming policies are portrayed as a threat to academic freedom – the journalist with the anti-feminist agenda made the point that the Student Representative who had challenged the teacher at Lund was also working for Sweden’s feminist political party, the Feminist Initiative (FI). He repeatedly described this political party as ‘radical’. The portrayal of the feminist political party as a threat was also obvious in the second article of the series included in the anti-feminist journalist’s ‘investigative journalism’ on how gender studies is taking over universities: it was accompanied by a satirical cartoon depicting a woman representing the Feminist Initiative in a standing position preaching to a man who is sitting, submissively, on a church bench. The visual message here is that feminism/gender studies/the Feminist Initiative is an existential threat to men. Moreover, on the topic of who is heard and who is not in this debate, it is also worth noting that Svenska Dagbladet refused to publish a response by the Dean of Social Sciences and the Director of Studies in the Political Science Department at Lund University to the journalist’s claim that gender studies had become ‘state church’ at Lund University. This was instead published on the university’s website. In Swedish, but see this.
At about the same time as this is all happening in Sweden, Judith Butler was in Brazil for a conference that she helped organise on the topic of ‘the end of democracy’. In Inside Higher Education, she explains what happened: “a petition called for the cancellation of my lecture, and assumed that I would be speaking on gender since the allegation is that I am the founder of ‘the ideology of gender.’ That ideology, which is called ‘diabolical’ by these opponents, is considered to be a threat to the family”. During the conference, far-right Christian groups organised a protest (there were also counter-protests). People held signs with photos of Butler drawn as the devil and a witch and phrases like “Go to hell” were written on placards. A pink bra, visually symbolic, was attached to a figure that was burnt.
My simple point here is that the Hurt Male Ego’s attempt at making an internal conflict about teaching practice (in reality likely caused by his own lack of academic responsibility and collegiality) at a Swedish university about Judith Butler, by calling it ‘The Judith Butler Affair’, matters. It also matters that Swedish mainstream media has bought into his version of events by visually framing a televised debate about whether gender studies is taking over Swedish universities or not with a photo of Butler. In addition, the timing of these events, the attacks on Butler in Brazil and the national ‘debate’ on ‘universities and the gender issue’ in Sweden, also deserves some feminist attention.
This is, of course, all happening in the middle of the global #MeToo uproar, where women all over the world are speaking out on various forms of sexual harassment and abuse, refusing to be silenced. In Sweden, #MeToo has become huge. It has been described as “the biggest Swedish women’s movement since women secured the right to vote almost a hundred years ago”. On 22 October 2017, there were #MeToo demonstrations in 14 cities and towns all over Sweden, the one in Stockholm was broadcast live on TV. Since then there has almost on a daily basis been a new profession-themed hashtag in the news. On 5 December, ‘Kulturnyheterna’ (the Culture News) on Swedish Television reported that more than 10,000 people had signed over 50 different #MeToo-related petitions, including separate ones for lawyers, actresses, singers, journalists, police personnel, military personnel, firemen, construction workers, medical doctors and nurses, academics, comedians, even circus workers.
In other words, the mainstream media attention to how, supposedly, Gender Studies, through the State, is controlling Swedish universities is happening in the middle of a very powerful movement calling for more self-reflection on how power is gendered and how gendered norms create and reinforce inequality; a movement that, actually, has begun a conversation that both shifts the focus from women as victims to men as perpetrators, and from a focus on individuals to a focus on cultural and societal structures. Both the current Swedish Prime Minister, who calls himself a feminist, and the Leader of the Conservative opposition party (also male) have talked about #MeToo as a crisis of masculinity. That the current government has a declared feminist agenda, including a Feminist Foreign Policy, probably matters too.
But, let us return to what is under threat here: the issue of ‘academic freedom’.
As Butler already knew, and what I have recently learnt first-hand, is that the term ‘ideology’ is absolutely key to the strategy of anti-feminist movement. I participated in the #MeToo demonstration in Malmö and was, by accident, interviewed in a national newspaper, Expressen. Within an hour or so after the article was published online, a man, another Hurt Male Ego, had taken the time to google me and email me at my professional email address. Presumably provoked by the fact that I was a feminist scholar, he felt obliged to express his view that feminism is not science, but ideology, and tells me that ideology must not be practiced at university. At the individual level, the fact that a man, who I assume is not an academic, feels entitled to express his views on ‘Research and Education’, as he chose the topic of his email, to an actual expert on ‘Research and Education’, is, of course, a textbook example of ‘Mansplaining’. But, if we think of the structural level, if we connect the dots on what is going on beyond this individual example, this is a practice of silencing.
Responding to the so-called debate on how gender studies is taking over Swedish universities, on 18 November, five prominent Professors and researchers who are currently on, or have been serving on, the Swedish Gender Research Council wrote a newspaper article titled ‘Vi genusforskare hotas till tystnad: Antidemokratiska rörelser attackerar oss systematiskt’, in English: ‘We gender researchers are threatened to silence: Anti-democratic movements are attacking us systematically’. They explain how gender research and Gender Studies is being attacked by right-wing forces and what they call anti-gender movements on a global scale and how scholars around the world are silenced, quitting for their own personal safety. They conclude with the following (my translation):
We share the concern that academic freedom is under threat, but it is not Gender Studies that is to blame for this threat. We should pay attention to anti-democratic movements and the harassment of researchers that such movements breed.
Depressingly, as usual, the comments on social media to this article only prove the authors’ point: with threats, attempts at ridiculing gender research, and again, a lot of noise about ideology.
Silencing women, and feminist scholars, is of course nothing new. In British Historian Mary Beard’s words: “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice”. And so, it is in this context – where attempts at silencing, and delegitimizing, feminist scholars takes the form of accusing them of practicing ideology instead of ‘proper science’ when the attacks on Gender Studies/feminism themselves are, in fact, ideological; where Gender Studies/feminism is accused of being ideologically driven when feminist theory has done so much to expose patriarchy as ideology; and where it is those portrayed as the threat who are actually the ones being threatened on a global scale – it is in this context that the Hurt Male Ego’s claim that his academic freedom is under threat, threatened by the fact that ‘feminism has gone too far’, is just a bit too much to stomach. The only threat in this case is a threat to the Hurt Male Ego’s privilege.
I don’t have all the answers to how the mechanisms of anti-feminism are working. All I know is that when academic research exposing the workings of power in society (it is worth noticing that the terms poststructuralism and intersectionality are often mentioned in discussions of feminism as particularly threatening) is perceived as a threat – in the name of freedom – we have to, as Butler and others have taught me, pay attention to the violent logics at play. If we shift our attention to how and where threats are made, to where sexist (and racist, homo/transphobic) practices of harassment, silencing and threats of violence take place, we would be able to tell a different story about academic freedom under threat. Adding a feminist/gender perspective is clearly not enough. To me, it is obvious we must also shift our analytical focus to the violent workings of anti-feminism. This is personal, and this is political.
With best wishes,