Long before I become an academic, I described myself as ‘an activist’. Though it is a vague term, most people associate it with left wing protest movements. While I would say that I have an affiliation with these movements, I also never comfortably squeezed into any ideological framework. Once, for example, a dear friend described me as ‘left-leaning neoliberal’ – not quite how I see it, but why not?
When I became a full-time academic, many people commented that my activism would be left behind. While the shape of my activism has changed, I do not see what I do as anything but activism. As I have written before, the role of an engaged academic and an engaged university, is to promote social justice, fairness and attempt to speak truth to power. Academic method, academic and mainstream writing and public debates and interactions are now my preferred tools.
Recently I have been working with an emerging academic, Kearrin Sims, to raise awareness about the disappearance of Laos activist, Sombath Somphone (pictured). This story, which Kearrin and I wrote for New Matilda and is available here, should concern us all: it relates to a respected human rights advocate who went missing after subtly criticising his government. There is a mass movement that has emerged around Sombath’s disappearance which continues to remind the authorities that he has not been forgotten and push for action to find him.
The Australian government has a role to play here: something that Kearrin and I discuss in the article.
But so do we: all of us including members of academia. This is the essence of being an activist-academic: it is about promoting justice, working with partners on an equal setting and ensuring that the vulnerable are supported in acts of solidarity. Like any profession, academics have pressures, deadlines and stresses. We should never forget the privileged positions we are in, however, and ensure our actions are driven by this solidarity.
Without this vision, I think we are failing to live up to the ideals of universities: ideals that are sometimes easy to forget in this neoliberal world, but never lose their importance.