No invincibility here

29-03-2021 · Column

Academics are in the business of ideas. We are not making widgets on the factory floor or baking cakes. We are fashioning and shaping ideas that unveil truths about the world. Then, we share those ideas to different audiences. First of all to students, who are normally receptive. They came to Maastricht University precisely to learn and because the university's reputation for scholarship. General public listeners are also generally sympathetic. Over the years, I presented at many Studium Generale Maastricht events, the last being a preshow at Lumière for the film The War Room where the Q&A was fun and went much longer than scheduled. 

But every once in a while, a member of an audience is surprisingly, bitingly critical. For example, on the U.S. election night in November 2016, after I gave a presentation at the School of Business and Economics, two men wearing MAGA hats confronted me. My presentation forecasted what U.S. foreign policy would be like if Hillary Clinton won and if Donald Trump won, which I thought was a real prospect at the time. The two students, who were Americans, clearly did not like my projections. I was afraid to walk back to my car in the dark. I admit that I partially ran.

Earlier this month I was reminded of this incident after I was again unexpectedly, bitingly confronted. I was one of three speakers discussing U.S.-EU security relations, with my part forecasting Joe Biden's foreign policy. In the Q&A after the presentations a member of the audience stood up and said he was offended by the bias against Trump. While all three speakers were critical of the former president, I was clearly the focus of his remarks. 

If I am perfectly honest, in both cases it felt as if being a woman was a factor. While feeling vulnerable because of my gender might be real or imagined, one should not discount the academic’s distinctive vulnerability of being critiqued for his or her analysis. Perhaps it is a matter of miscommunication. If that's the case, repackaging knowledge might make it more palatable. But what if large portions of society simply disagree with your ideas? Does that make them bad ideas? What do you do with bad ideas? Do you toss them out like the cake that didn't rise?

Sometimes, yes. Some ideas do not survive the test of time. For example, modern neoclassical economics, which undervalues morality, is undergoing needed scrutiny. And some notions of the truth simply do not catch on. The famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas.” While some ideas may fall to the wayside, integrity and accuracy remain the building blocks of an academic’s profession. While I may not be invincible, I will keep trying to get it right.

Roberta Haar, professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at UCM


No invincibility here
Roberta Haar prof.