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Academic freedom, ‘useful fools’ and the media logic of populism

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Johan Karlsson Schaffer | 4 December 2019

Source: Author

Threats against academic freedom come in many guises these days, but they are possibly most distressing when they come from within academia itself. A recent petition against a seminar at the University of Gothenburg provides an ironic illustration of how populists can benefit from the logic of scandalisation.

The final seminar of the series, however, proved to be the exception – and predictably so, as the party whose communications strategies will be discussed in the seminar on Thursday December 5 is the Sweden Democrats. An anonymous petition was circulated on social media, calling for the University to provide “no stage for Sweden Democrats at the University of Gothenburg”.

The response was, of course, to be expected, since the Sweden Democrats have been the hub around which virtually all political debate in Sweden has revolved for the last decade. What is particularly disturbing and worrying about this petition, however, is the fact that it has been signed not only by students, but also by several prominent academics, including some of our colleagues at the University of Gothenburg. Why is this so unsettling?

First, the professional instinct of any academic should be to support the freedom of our academic peers to teach and do research about anything and everything. Academic freedom is increasingly under pressure from multiple directions. Academics should stand in professional solidarity to defend our collective scholarly autonomy and resist the politicisation of university campuses.

If solidarity is not enough, self-preservation is another reason: By signing the petition, one also legitimates past and future campaigns to rid universities of other topics political activists similarly rally against nowadays – such as gender studies or postmodernism – and legitimates similar attempts to constrain our freedom to decide the topics of our own research and teaching.

Moreover, in these days of online disinformation, I’m also worried to see my fellow academics sign a petition from an unknown source. Not only is the initiator anonymous, the petition is also so poorly worded – with contrived references to ‘deconstruction’ – and the strategy so senseless that one might even suspect it is a false flag operation. In any event, the source criticism skills we teach our students would advise against lending one’s name and title – one’s professional credibility – to an anonymous activist whose motives are unknown.

Whether the initiator is flying a false flag or not, the signatories have effectively made themselves ‘useful fools’ – i.e., their well-intentioned idealism has made them unwitting allies of the political cause they oppose – since their signing of the petition seems only to contribute to promoting that which they claim to be protesting.

As the petition began circulating on 22 November, I wrote the following in response to a Facebook post on the petition. (I then removed my comment, since I didn't want to contribute to making an affair out of the seminar, but since the toothpaste has now been squeezed out of the tube by others, I decided to write this blog post instead.)

Here's my bet about what might happen next:

  1. The right-wing commentariat and it's long tails will pick this up and use it as yet another example of the left-wing politicisation of universities.

  2. The 'useful fools’ behind the petition will see (1) as a confirmation that they were correct and mobilise even more.

  3. The escalating spiral between (1) and (2) might even somehow ruin the seminar at JMG, perhaps because the university can no longer guarantee the security at the event because of threats, or because protesters ensure communication cannot take place.

  4. Any media coverage will be about (3) – the attempts to derail the seminar – rather than about anything that might have been said in the seminar.

  5. The Sweden Democrats will reap all the benefits of (4) and the sympathies on this issue of many people that aren't SD voters: SD will seem to be the reasonable ones, as all they did was accept an invitation to speak at a seminar.

  6. Everyone will have lost an opportunity to learn about SD's explicit communication strategies – but we'll have learnt yet another lesson about how a certain media logic (1-5) has helped them become one of the biggest parties in Sweden.

This now seems to be more or less what is happening (although I over-estimated [1] – this escalated quickly anyway). The hubbub around the petition has garnered this event much more attention in mass media and social media than all of the other seminars in the series put together (and perhaps more than any other event at GU this year) – before it has even taken place.

Without lifting a finger, the Sweden Democrats gained publicity on a scale they wouldn’t have gotten out of this seminar without the help of the petitioners (not that they need this little incident, though – they are constantly in the news anyway). And although the academic signatories speak only for themselves, the petition has also helped confirm the populist narrative about universities as infested with left-wing bias and political activism.

So the activists missed an opportunity to attend the seminar to learn a thing or two about political strategy and communication, and how populist parties can benefit from the logic of media scandalisation. Instead, they only succeeded in turning a seminar into a media opportunity for the Sweden Democrats and jeopardising academic freedom.


Johan Karlsson Schaffer is an associate professor at the School of Global Studies. His research interests include the politics and philosophy of human rights, legal mobilization and judicial politics, democratic theory, and global governance.

Follow him on Twitter: @johank76


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