Being Human 2020 – Ethical Futures for a New World?
Hi, everybody. Welcome to our event for the Being Human festival. It's entitled "Ethical Futures For A New World." I'm Felicity Plester. And I'm Vicky Peters. We are jointly editorial directors for humanities publishing at Palgrave MacMillan.
This film is our contribution to the national Being Human festival of the humanities, which is now in its seventh year, and convened by the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. We are very happy to contribute to it each year, and we usually have a live event in the lovely theater space in our London office, known as the Stables, but this year, things have to be a little different. So sadly, we're not able to offer you a glass of wine after the event, but neither do you have to trudge through the rain trying to find the entrance to our buildings, which has been the story for the last few years.
We've held some wonderful events at the Being Human festival over the years, showcasing some thought-provoking and really quite brilliant pieces from our humanities authors. We've looked at topics such as gay history, aging, designer babies, scandal and fake news, to name but a few. This year, we have tried to turn our thoughts to what the future might look like after the pandemic, particularly influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, and thinking about whether an ethical future really will be possible. We at Palgrave Macmillan are highly committed to publishing the humanities, but as well as publishing the very best in scholarly research, we are also committed to promoting public engagement within the humanities, and encouraging interesting debate and discussion.
And actually, as the company, we've been doing this now for 175 years. We are involved in today's events through our Campaign for the Humanities, which is an ongoing suite of publications, promotions, web events, and live events such as this. It is a campaign that is sponsored and supported passionately here by many individual employees, as well as the company as a whole. And today, we're delighted to introduce you to our four speakers.
And one of the good things about doing this event as a film is we've not been constrained by the locations of our speakers, so we have a really international lineup. In a little while, when we hear from Zoe Bulaitis, who is based at the University of Birmingham, and is publishing a wonderful open access title with Palgrave Macmillan called Value and the Humanities, which engages with 19th century writings and thought to develop a rationale for the importance of humanities today. Bruce Mutsvairo is Professor of Journalism at Auburn University, Alabama, USA. He has written five books for Palgrave, and is founding editor of our series, Palgrave Studies in Journalism and the Global South.
And next, we have Anthony Pinn, who is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion at Rice University, in Texas, and his research interests include Black religion, humanism, and hip hop culture, and he has written and edited numerous books for Palgrave Macmillan over the years, most recently, Humanism and the Challenge of Difference. But we will start with Francesca Sobande, who is a Lecturer in Digital Media Studies at Cardiff University, and has, just this year, published a book with Palgrave MacMillan on The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain. We really hope you enjoy their pieces, and that they give you plenty to think about. Hi, my name's Dr. Francesca Sobande, and I'm a Lecturer in Digital Media Studies at the School of Journalism, Media, and Culture at Cardiff University in Wales. When I think about new worlds, and I think about what will hopefully be more ethical futures, I think about whose experiences and perspectives will be at the forefront of how new worlds are created.
A lot of my own work focuses on digital culture, and in particular, the digital experiences of Black people in Britain, especially Black women. Right now, a lot of people's digital experiences involve some facing many forms of harm, harassment, and abuse. In the future, I wonder how digital technology will develop. Will it be created in a way that focuses on minimizing the different forms of oppression that people encounter when trying to enjoy themselves online, or connect with friends and family elsewhere? How will the future reckon with different questions to do with how inequality is perpetuated at both a local and national level? And in the future, how will transnational forms of solidarity take place? There are many examples of how digital technology is part of how people connect with others in another part of the world. We see different examples of people producing knowledge, sharing resources, standing in solidarity, and amplifying the work of grassroots organizers in a different geocultural context from themselves.
As part of the research that I do, I look at the different ways that individuals and institutions align themselves with certain social justice movements, especially Black activism and racial justice work. Although it's encouraging to have seen, in recent months in 2020, different people speaking out about anti-Blackness and the intersecting nature of oppression, and it's been encouraging to see certain organizations start to try to address how they are complicit in these forms of oppression, I'm still very skeptical of the extent to which commercial organizations are ever prioritizing people over profit. What does it mean to see organizations essentially try to capitalize on social justice movements, and opportunistically tap into the different discussions we're seeing at play to do with inequality, and who is worst impacted by it? Quite often, conversations to do with racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and different forms of oppression are treated as though these issues are separate. But the reality is, oppression is interconnected. The different way that somebody experiences life in comparison to another person is shaped by many facets of who they are.
So what does this mean for new worlds and more ethical futures? In the future, I hope to see more policy and legislation that recognizes the fact that oppression is entangled. We can't just think about issues to do with race as though they exist outside of capitalism, as though they exist outside of sexism, misogyny. What I would also like to see in the future is much more of a focus on the different ways that activities at a local level can play a central part in how people address injustice. Sometimes the way that international media flows work, and the way that broadcast media works, we see that certain issues in one part of the world are much more at the focus of conversations and certain issues elsewhere.
The work that people are doing at a grassroots, local level is often overlooked, it's often erased. But in the future, I hope that we see many more conversations that adequately acknowledge the fact that the work that needs to be done, although it will be international in scope, requires some small and everyday changes at a very immediate and local level. What does this mean when we think about digital technology? This means that digital technology can play a great part in how people communicate the work that they are doing globally. But digital technology alone is not enough to address intersecting inequalities. In fact, as I've reflected on as part of my work, sometimes digital technology is part of the problem.
So in the future, as part of these new worlds, and these more ethical environments that we hope to see, one of my biggest hopes is that we see much less of a focus on consumer culture, capitalism, commodification, and corporations, and much more of an emphasis on people, social connections, collective support, and community engagement. Good afternoon. My name is Bruce Mutsvairo, I am a Professor of Journalism at Auburn University, in the US State of Alabama. I'm just going to be talking to you about my research, and the opportunities that I've actually had to publish and collaborate with many colleagues who are working in the Global South. And obviously, this, it would have not been possible without the assistance of Palgrave.
So, yeah, it's great to have an opportunity to talk about this research. Now I want to talk to you, first of all, about data journalism. Obviously, all these issues, they have to do with the discussions and debates that are currently emerging, insofar as ethical features are concerned, the way that people are using digital technologies, the impact that these technologies have.
Obviously, on one hand, we have all seen how they help us to do online shopping, how they help us to find information when we want to go on holiday, obviously, we can do with these technologies. But sometimes, it's good to look at these technologies from a critical perspective, because, of course, it's one thing to use technologies, and, of course, it's another to also think about the impacts, especially the negative impacts, that such uses could have on individuals, or collectively as a society. So most of the research that we have seen-- or at least, policy-oriented research that we have seen-- in the Global South, maybe over the last 15 to 20 years, has really looked at how these technologies are helping, say African or Asian societies. And certainly, it's clearly true that people in the West are benefiting from these technologies. Many people, many farmers, for example, in Kenya, they can use apps to just deposit their cash, they don't need to be in the capital city, Nairobi.
So obviously, there is more to benefit from these technologies. But what we've tried to do, myself and my colleagues, has been to also look at the other side of the coin-- that is to say, that for instance, digital technologies, inasmuch as they are quite ubiquitous in many of these societies. The other problem is, of course, the fact that some people do not have the capacities, or they are actually digitally illiterate. So it's always, of course, something that is not always easily noticeable, especially if you're trying to look at these issues from a Western perspective, where almost everybody has a mobile phone, or at least understands how to use these technologies. So, digital illiteracy-- the fact that also having access to these technologies is quite expensive.
It makes it really more an elite-oriented sort of project for many people, because if you're living in a poverty-stricken environment, then certainly one of the last things that you want to do is to try and digitally participate, because obviously you want to first put food on the table. And we have seen the impact-- conducting research in these societies, we've actually seen how people are struggling to make ends meet, when, perhaps, they actually have or are struggling to also try to have access to these digital technologies, because internet access, for example, is very expensive, and internet access is only limited, perhaps, to some urban environments, so it means that those who are living in rural settings do not really have access to these technologies. But also, we are now living in a data-driven society. So a book that I did most recently with Palgrave focused on Data Journalism in the Global South, and we are starting to see there are a lot of initiatives that are coming up, where journalists in the Global South are starting also to look into how they possibly could use data to try and improve their journalistic practices. But of course, there are some emerging perspectives and problems associated with this data, one of which is the fact that some governments do not really have any data to share with journalists at all.
So in such instances there isn't any data journalism to talk about. But also, sometimes, there are issues that have to do with the ethics of data, the fact that people do not really give their consent to the information that might actually be shared with journalists. It's something that, perhaps, nobody is talking about right now, at least in some of the societies that I'm working in, but these are very critical issues, which many people here in the West are really talking about and trying to find answers to. But not only that. I think what we also see is some societies, or some non-democratic states, which, obviously, have refused to introduce the Freedom of Information Act, which allows, of course, citizens to request any information from public institutions.
That makes it really hard for journalists living in these countries to try and have access or to investigate whatever is happening, as we actually saw with the Panama Papers. And what we saw with the Panama Papers is, of course, there was that collaborative spirit among journalists. But in some of these societies, we see that the collaborative culture is not part of their society, so it becomes really hard for journalists to collaborate and work together.
And other issues, of course, that are coming up, especially with regards to these ethical features, have to do with digital coloniality, the fact that when Google comes into Kenya, and comes up with an initiative that is meant to "assist the locals," who looks after that data? Do people really have the consent? Do people really know what is going to happen to their data? So digital colonialism is something that is also up and coming in these environments, that I and, of course, others are working into. Yeah, I think on that note, I'd like to bring this to an end, and thank you very much for listening. Hi there. My name is Zoe Bulaitis, and I work at the University of Birmingham. "There is no wealth but life."
If I had to identify one part of my experience of the global coronavirus pandemic that has made me reflect differently on my research, and in connection to this idea of ethical futures, it's best represented in this phrase from John Ruskin's essay Unto This Last, first published in 1860, now well over a 150 years ago, in which he argues that "there is no wealth but life." It seems to me that in the various collective and individual ways in which human beings have been disrupted, distanced, damaged, and devastated this year, the value of life itself has been brought into the foreground of conscious thought and public debate. As a writer and educator interested in articulating the value of studying the humanities, specifically through the tools afforded by studying literature and critical theory, I think that this global refocusing on the value of human life and what we choose to do with it is really important.
In many ways, Ruskin's statement that "there is no wealth but life" is being experienced every day, at both individual and wider, societal levels, sometimes as a barrier, and sometimes as this reminder of our collective humanity. In England, the National lockdown in March placed increased scrutiny on our daily lives, and what constitutes meaningful living. This pause, for many, created a chance to reflect on the previous pressures constituent of that life we now point back to as being normal, and in contrast to this, the comprehension of the limits and opportunities of our present time-- our "new normal," as politicians have been calling it-- alongside what it is that we want life to look like and mean moving forwards. Speaking as an individual in this global context, I spent a lot of time looking backwards and assessing what I did before as much, if not more than, I've spent thinking about moving towards the future, ethical or not.
But to turn to wider-- and really, in this, I mean political levels-- we find that the preservation of human life is in competition with other values. These are largely our support for the economy, and the ambitions of national futures in terms of productivity, employment, and profit. It's not my intention to diminish or dismiss the effects of these problems at all. The long term effects of the global financial crisis in 2008, 2009 have had widespread effects, especially in those parts of the world that have pursued austerity measures and cuts to public spending.
These effects are to human lives as well as the economy. But I am nonetheless troubled by the part of public debate, and how much of the public debate has centered the coronavirus around the economy. I argue that in the language of schemes like "eat out," "help out," we see how individuals, who are trying to navigate these global uncertainties and personal risks, are being called upon in national communications to, first and foremost, respond by spending money. This is nothing about the wider spectrum of ways in which we might otherwise "help out." My academic writing and research interrogates this rise of a focus on economic language as the primary motivation of policy making and public value in England, and so perhaps it's unsurprising that I'm so attentive to this kind of economic call to arms.
Palgrave recently published my first book, Value and the Humanities: The Neoliberal University and Our Victorian Inheritance, which provides an account of the entanglements between this increasingly economically-oriented policy making, and the value of the humanities from the 19th to the 21st century in England. And I'm interested in the failure of markets to account for the lived experience and alternative ethical considerations we value as human beings. Throughout my book, I challenge the idea that this primary focus on economic value, in the context of universities specifically, is unavoidable, natural, or necessary. In Value and the Humanities, I demonstrate, through a wide range of real life examples drawn from education, museum studies, policy, and public debate, how the value of a university education should not, historically has not, and ethically cannot be measured in exclusively economic terms. My interest in writing this book arose from the belief that the economy cannot account for human lives, and in focusing exclusively on the effects of human activity within the context of numerical or fiscal terms, a far larger set of ethical questions are overlooked.
On the specific topic of higher education, these include, but are not limited to, what is the purpose of education? Who is it for? Who does it exclude? What is the connection between universities and the places in which they're located? Who and what are we responsible for as educators? And as the cost of tuition fees tripled, I watched student identities being forcibly reframed as consumers of education, rather than them being participants in an open and international community motivated to change society for the better. And this mismatch between economic values and what actually matters reveals an important idea, which requires further attention if we are to take seriously this task of creating ethical futures, the idea of challenging where the language of economic policy making is ill-suited to human need. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this failure to light in many new ways, I think, even if those are currently only being perceived at the level of individuals. I don't think it takes writing a book on the limitations of neoliberal governance to know and even be able to articulate the many and various conflicting and contradictory pulls of the present pandemic time. Major social and grassroots movements, however, have found firmer footing within this absence of business as usual, from the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, to smaller scale community action around food banks, our new relationship to working and urban environments, as well as a kind of renewed attention to living sustainably. I remain hopeful that these individual and collective experiences that we're going through at the moment will expose how the old normal is not the ideal, and the definition of new normal need not only address economic ends, but speak to a future of diverse human flourishing.
But I acknowledge it's not easy to think or talk about the future, especially when in the midst of a crisis. To invoke the theme of this festival, Being Human, and to focus in on this panel on ethical futures, I want to close by offering the following provocations-- that thinking beyond the limits of economically-focused policy requires skills which studying and thinking in the humanities provides. Ethical futures are things that we all have a stake in, and small acts can accumulate into larger ones. I also think that we need to emphasize how we need the humanities as much as we need economic metrics in moving forwards towards an ethical future. And the first task at hand in this is to close read and critically analyze the current political debate, televised addresses, newspaper columns, and to begin to historicize our present inevitables into something that is a matter of contingency, to challenge the rapidly solidifying new normal as a matter of both individual and governmental choices.
Why? Well, I think that, because at the end all bluster, all graphs, all debate that "there is no wealth but life." Thank you. Hello, I'm delighted to be with you.
My name is Anthony Pinn, I'm the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, United States. Much of my work, and virtually all of what I've published with Palgrave Macmillan, revolves around two questions that have been important to me in my teaching, and my research for the better part of 25 years. Here they are. In a US society marked by anti-Black racism and violence, but promising democratic possibilities, how do African-Americans think and act in a way that suggests they are free and full participants in the best the nation offers? How do African-Americans think themselves, practice themselves free? Now, my formal training, it's important to say, is in theology, and so I was trained to wrestle with questions about the nature of God, the nature of the human, the meaning of salvation, those sorts of questions. But I quickly learned that I could not understand the nature and meaning of Black life in the United States using just one academic tool, in the same way that you cannot build a house with just a hammer.
And so, rather than just doing theology, I started giving some attention to philosophy, history, other disciplines that helped me to point out and understand the complexities of Black life, the messy nature of life within the context of the United States. Much of this revolves around how we think about a future that is moral, ethical, and that is geared towards our best selves. Now, one of the figures who has been so very vital in my thinking, so very important to me is Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, first African-American
to graduate from Harvard, one of the founding figures in the field of sociology. In his, perhaps, most important text, The Souls of Black Folk, he raises two questions. The first, "what is to be done with the Negro?" Secondly, "how does it feel to be a problem?" Now, keep in mind that Du Bois is asking these questions at the beginning of the 20th century, in light of Reconstruction and its failure.
Keep in mind, after the Civil War in the the United States, Reconstruction was meant to put in place social, economic, and political opportunities for freed African-Americans that would allow them to not only think about a future as possible, but to begin to construct one. Reconstruction fails, and we're left with those two questions-- "what is to be done with the Negro," and "how does it feel to be a problem?" Now I've always argued there are at least two really important orientations for answering those questions. Within Black communities, the first is Black religion, and you can think in terms of the Black church, and that most religious African-Americans are Christian. Within the context of the Black church, these questions have been wrestled with, typically, in this way-- they have understood themselves as being created in the image of God, with all of the capacities, capabilities, and rights that God grants, and that any country-- the United States-- that understands itself to be about the development of our best inclinations ought to be able to appreciate this. And the Black church not only preached that understanding, but activism within the Black church was meant to bring it about. Think in terms of the religious leanings moving forward of the civil rights movement.
The ways in which religious sensibilities, religious ideas, were used to encourage the United States to be its better self. Even the more recent Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has some of this religious underpinning. But here is the problem-- that thinking, that outcome-driven thinking, has not produced the sorts of changes we have envisioned. And here's where the second possibility comes into place, the possibility that I spend a lot of time trying to unpack in my Palgrave publications-- that possibility is Black humanism. I argue, while a significant percentage of Black Americans have been Christian, we've forgotten to appreciate those who have claimed no religion, who understand themselves as being fully and solely accountable and responsible for how they move through the world.
No God, just themselves. W.E.B. Du Bois is one of these figures, who did not rely on God, but understood that humans have the capacity to do things differently, to project futures that are worthwhile and nurturing. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass also maintained this orientation. And I'm paraphrasing here, but Frederick Douglass said something along these lines, that he did not see the benefit of prayer until he learned to pray with his legs. That is to say, what became important to him was not appeal to religion, appeal to God, but appeal to his ability to make a difference in the world.
I've spent a lot of time trying to develop a historical map that outlines the development of this humanism from the early presence of enslaved and free Africans in North America, to the 21st century. One of the benefits I see in trying to respond to those two initial questions I posed through humanism, again, is the strong attention to human accountability and responsibility, that we have to do something. I also find value in the ways in which Black humanism is more responsive to the nature, the content, of US history; that despite our best efforts, we have remained a country deeply soiled by anti-Black racism. Black humanism argues that rather than an outcome-driven strategy, we ought to see something about our projection of the future tied not to outcomes, but the process. That is to say that we may never liberate this country from all of its wrongdoings, all of its poor thinking, but that there is something of value, something a meaning, something important in the very effort to say "no" to injustice. Now, one of the great humanist thinkers is that North African Albert Camus, and he provides an example in The Myth of Sisyphus, perhaps you're familiar with it.
According to this myth, Sisyphus is being punished by the gods for wrongdoing, and this punishment involves his need to roll this rock up a hill, only to have it come back down, and then to have to roll it up again, and this is forever. From the perspective of the gods, this was meant to break his will, but Camus argues it didn't, that it fostered a moment of awareness, of lucidity. That is to say, Sisyphus became better aware, more deeply appreciative of his circumstances, and rather than projecting an outcome as the final mark of his effort having value, it's simply his ability to continue against the odds to try. And so, in my work on humanism, I've argued that this is an underappreciated strategy. If our concern is how we think about ethical futures, humanism provides an alternate approach, a different posture towards this work, that, again, recognizes not outcome-driven strategies, but the value, the importance, the significance in our very effort to make a difference. It recognizes that we may not win the day, but there is something powerful, something humanizing in our persistent "no" to injustice.
And it may simply be the case that all we can really hope for, all we can achieve is a persistent and loud "no" to injustice, a "no" to injustice that points it out, and encourages us to be our better selves. Thanks so much. And that concludes our presentations for today. I'd like so really big thank you to our speakers, Francesca, Zoe, Bruce, and Anthony, and I very much hope you enjoyed it.