In a recent blog post (Dec 2016), “No Wall to Lean On”, published on the Allegra Lab site, I wrote about a BC/Newton funded researcher workshop I attended in London. The research workshops initiated collaboration with a group of Turkish activist academics and colleagues from Queen’s University, Belfast, researching issues pertaining to refugees and migrants.
We were coming together to discuss, from different disciplinary and conceptual perspectives, the multitude of threats to life and wellbeing Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees and asylum seekers and North African migrants faced in their attempted journeys across North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and European Union. This was as they fled conflict, war and dire economic and physical hardship and persecution. The plight of refugees and asylum seekers has now been extended and exacerbated by the presidency of Donald Trump in the USA.
The workshop was an opportunity to discuss the intractable attitudes and hostilities these people face, their dehumanisation, the hubris and popul(ar)ist nationalist discourses at play within and across nation states, and the ever-deepening racism and xenophobia that spreads like a disease across national and institutional boundaries, and seeps into the collective psyche of everyday people in everyday practices in everyday places.
In writing the blog, it reminded me of the importance of leadership in educational and professional contexts, and that in every encounter with ‘the other’, we have in Levinasian terms, the responsibility of an ethic of care that transcends the ‘radical unknowability of the other’. These conceptual ideas are ones I have been grappling with in my own work in considering ethics and curriculum.
Too often leadership is taken up as the coercive intent to lead the other by presuming we know about them, that we know what is good for them, that we know better than them what is best, and that via institutional designations and appointments, we have the right to make such determinations. The ‘leaders’’ authority over ‘the other’ presupposes a naturalness of that condition, and that our knowing about or for the other is one of rightful superiority, thus creating the conditions for the others’ ‘epistemic suppression’, in Quijano’s (2000) decolonial terms.
But this form of leadership, which presupposes ‘natural’ and ‘rightful’ authority, does something else: It serves to suppress the spirit of the other, and thus has ontological other than epistemic effect.
I am reminded of the Ubuntu sentiment that speaks to an onto-epistemology of conscience and decency, something I have written about extensively in my own work since 2007 (Swanson). Ubuntu recognises that the diminishment of another, even by acting in the presumption of their interests, is a diminishment of self, and this in the collective means a diminishment of society more broadly. This diminishment is compounded when acting in the presumption of superiority of one’s own interests over those of others.
Often in leadership contexts, designated leaders feel they are maintaining ‘standards’ or displaying ‘strong leadership’ by overriding the rights and humanity of others, and by imposing their or the institution’s own interests and values over those of others who are without power.
The suppression of rights and values of the other becomes a diminishment and dehumanisation of them and therefore cannot be deemed good leadership. More than a diminishment of the other and suppression of their epistemic and ontological selves, it is a diminishment of self, and of the institution in whose name the leader makes presumptive judgements.
Rather than acts of strength, such leadership acts as weakness, thus installing a deadly flaw in the very centre of things … which takes me back to the arguments I made in Allegra Lab with which I began this blog post.
Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power, eurocentrism and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South, 1(3), 533-80. Available: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/23906
Please also see Dalene Swanson’s related publications here