[OPINION] Where should academics stand in times of injustice?

Veronica Alporha
[OPINION] Where should academics stand in times of injustice?
'My deepest resentment and indignation is reserved for scholars and self-proclaimed experts who spin and twist academic knowledge to legitimize and validate oppression'

I first entered the academe as a 20-year-old fresh graduate. I’d just served my term as the chairperson of our University Student Council, and was still very much involved in the student movement. When I was about to join the faculty, I remember contemplating about the way in which I should reconcile my politics with my being an instructor and a university employee. I then resolved that activism should never be deprived of rigorous academic labor, and that the academe is vain and hollow if it is dry of convictions for the oppressed and the disadvantaged.

My deepest resentment and indignation, however, is reserved for scholars and self-proclaimed experts who spin and twist academic knowledge to legitimize and validate oppression. In the Philippines, the first mass protests against President Rodrigo Duterte were held in remonstration of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery. Even the erstwhile ally of the Duterte administration, the Philippine communists, were quick to condemn the government’s assault on the memory of our authoritarian past. Debates and conversations surfaced regarding historical revisionism.

My denunciation of such an act was two-pronged. First, I was angry for those who suffered and died during Marcos’ Martial Law, and for the country that was looted by the dead dictator’s family. Second, I was angry as a historian for the overt historical negationism done using state apparatus.

Some would say that the greatest failure of our geniuses was their failure to think politically. Indeed, the largest and the most massive atrocities suffered by humanity were not done spontaneously. These were products of thoughtful and careful deliberations in laboratories and conference rooms, and these would later be justified with painstaking research and theorizing. 

Before the use of gas chambers in German concentration camps during the Second World War, Nazis executed the Jews and other prisoners through firing squads. After some time, they would realize that such a mechanism was inefficient and was causing too much stress and trauma to the Nazi soldiers, who usually turned to alcoholism or suicide after undertaking this ruthless task. Hence, they experimented on using poison. Gassing was impersonal, bloodless, and clean. It was mechanical. Did the chemists behind the use of Zyklon B for the extermination of Jews think about the moral and political implication of this idea? 

In Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Allied forces led by the US and the UK spearheaded a well-funded project for the creation of the most advanced munitions for the war. They called this the Manhattan Project. Did the physicists of the Manhattan Project who worked diligently on the creation of nuclear weapons in the 1940s care about the repercussions of a nuclear war? Had it ever crossed their minds that the mere presence of such would dictate world politics in the succeeding Cold War decades, and the later 20th century imperialism and War on Terror?

Knowledge is hardly ever neutral. And if it is, then this neutrality is tantamount to blindness. The wisdom of Desmond Tutu is eternally true and relevant, especially for my colleagues in the academe who are responsible in purveying knowledge: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

This is even more true in the historical discipline. As a teacher and a student of history, I always make it a point to go beyond mere presentation of facts and to move past demonstration of multiple perspectives. At the end of the day, historical discipline is a tool of issuing historical responsibility, of establishing causes, and of demanding accountability. It is a tool box in the formation of our moral judgments. Indeed, the historian is not judged by his skill in the collection of cold hard facts. As the eminent British historian E.H. Carr would put it, “to praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function.”

Unfortunately, in every oppressive regime that the world has ever seen, there has always been a guild of scholars who sided with the oppressors, not just through neutrality, but also through an active and methodical justification of the system. Nazi Germany had Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Heidegger, Fritz Lenz, and Josef Mengele. They backed up the oppressive regime by tweaking valid facts and theories to legitimize the modus vivendi of the oppressor and of their vision of the society. White supremacy, eugenics, anti-Semitism, slavery, and other systems of oppression were accepted as truths and were legitimized by academic establishments. (READ: [OPINION] The humanities vs Dutertismo)

During the American colonial period in the Philippines, American anthropologists and scientists would justify American colonization by “proving” the savagery and backwardness of the native population through ethnography, anthropology, and physiology. Later, American-sponsored historians would glorify the American period as a period of peace, prosperity, and relentless advancement in science, medicine, public instruction, and state modernization. 

Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ economic plan was drafted by the country’s brightest technocrats, one of which was the dean of the premier University of the Philippines’ (UP) College of Business Administration, Cesar Virata. Marcos himself would publish scholarly works ghost-written by the most acclaimed historians and political scientists of the time. Widely known was the three-volume historical work Tadhana: The History of the Filipino People, which was said to have been penned by a group of the most brilliant historians of UP in the name of Marcos. 

Ironically, this university was the epicenter of activism and resistance movement against the dictator during the Marcos years. Being the hotspot of resistance notwithstanding, some intellectuals in the university thought that in the time of injustice and oppression, their task remained the same: write and publish. This is disturbing. Academics are not slaves of academic undertakings. The task of the academic is not to proceed with neutral and apolitical theorizing especially in times of injustice. The commitment of the scholar is to the truth, but more importantly, it is in speaking truth to power. (READ: The moralist thinker in Digong’s Philippines)

When Rodrigo Duterte came to power, a good number of academics and experts from different fields threw their support behind the macho brute from Mindanao. Some of them saw him as the antithesis of the establishment, a few saw him as a leader that would usher in Leftist politics in governance, while others saw him as a representation of the organic political culture of the Philippines. Almost 4 years into his presidency, with 30,000 Filipinos dead in his bloody war on drugs, and the external debt of the country increasing to P7.94 trillion, a lot of them have already changed their minds, but a good lot has remained. 

Until now, Duterte is still compared to the celebrated figure of the Datu – the political figurehead of Philippine ancient civilization. His perennial tardiness and the tolerance of such was justified by the concept of pakikipagkapwa – an important concept in Filipino Psychology, which explains the nature and character of Filipinos’ relationship with one another, anchored on empathy and co-existence. Similar to what Marcos attempted to do with his Tadhana project, and several other works that provided justification for the dictator’s New Society trope, historical scholarship can also be used to explain and even legitimize Dutertismo. 

Brilliance and acumen are proven with doctorates and countless refereed publications. But scholars are not judged by degrees and academic accomplishments alone. At the end of the day, we are judged by our moral legacy expressed through the sides that we have taken in times of both normalcy and oppression. By whom? By history. – Rappler.com

Veronica Alporha teaches History at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. She acquired her MA in History from UP Diliman.


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