Academia-fatigue, systemic shocks and the power of drama

(reblogged from the University of Manchester Migration Lab website, 13 Dec 2017)

As researchers, we often register for conferences excited and hopeful, arrive at them slightly nervous and, as our energy wanes throughout long days of listening, thinking and acting out our professional personas, leave them rather exhausted. Moreover, as human beings, our levels of motivation, concentration, and intellectual capacity are not constant. Once in a while I find myself experiencing ‘academia-fatigue’, longing for a more human or ‘real-world’ experience of research and its relevance. It was amidst these vague sentiments that I sought reprieve in ‘The Tin Ring’ performance at the Migration Lab’s World on the Move conference.

Like many of the other participants, I took my seat in the audience with little or no expectations. One woman in a plain black dress stood in front of us with a single chair as her story-telling tool. However, the journey we were taken on from start to finish was nothing short of utterly captivating. The brilliant Jane Arnfield took on the persona of Zdenka Fantlová and recounted in three-dimensional glory her experience as a Jewish Czechoslovakian girl during the Holocaust. The story was incredibly personal and marvellously human, centred around love, naivety and determined survival. When Zdenka’s tale finished and Jane abruptly became herself again with a casual ‘Thank you,’ the audience continued their applause almost indefinitely, spellbound by what had just been shared with them.

Stories of the Holocaust and Holocaust survival are not new. The event has captured the interest of every modern generation, as its status has been elevated throughout the ages to the epitome of evil and monstrosity. It is often held up as a turning point in the history of humanity, particularly regarding the acceptability of racism. However, as living memory of this atrocity fades, it is in danger of being seen in almost mythical terms – acts committed in an ancient context, far removed from our current geopolitical reality. We must continue to remind ourselves of the reality that was the Holocaust, the human beings behind it, and its human consequences.

The inclusion of The Tin Ring performance in the World on the Move programme is timely. Throughout the conference there were many reminders of the volatile and divisive context in which we conduct our research today, from neo-fascism to Euroscepticism to hostility to asylum seekers. Sadly, racism, or indeed genocide, did not end with the liberation of the concentration camps. Just as Jewish minorities across Europe were vilified, ostracised and dehumanised then, so we have continued to see discrimination and disadvantage for, as well as violence towards, black and minority ethnic groups. Most recently, we are seeing a transnational discourse that seeks to scapegoat, criminalise and exclude Muslims.

Many would argue that Islamophobia is the 21st century’s anti-Semitism. In the same way that Jewish people were culturally essentialised and treated as biologically inferior, Muslims, an ethnically and phenotypically diverse ‘group’ have been racialised into a homogenous mass with predetermined undesirable or unassimilable characteristics. Donald Trump’s targeting of Muslims in his immigration policy is an extreme example, but closer to home the policy rhetoric of ‘Fundamental British Values’ is a more subtle and perhaps even more dangerous way of casting Muslims as the problematic Other, whose way of life cannot coexist with ours.

Such fear-mongering has ultimately resulted in the demonisation of the millions of asylum seekers and migrants who have been displaced by conflict in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. This is a bitter reminder of the old trope ‘history repeats itself’. The UK, like many other countries, sought to keep out unpopular Jewish asylum seekers during and immediately after World War II, resulting in tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of potentially preventable deaths. We still shudder at the thought of individuals being sent to the gas chamber who might otherwise have been able to escape, but how many of those waiting in refugee camps or forcibly returned to unsafe countries have not survived, and how desensitised has Western society become towards this?

The two and a half days of presentations, discussions and workshops provided by the World on the Move conference were extremely valuable – both for their intellectual stimulation and their professional networking opportunities. But The Tin Ring offered a uniquely valuable contribution. For me it was a welcome shock to the system, a jolt awake for my senses. It brought us face-to-face with the most catastrophic final destination of racism, and its position in an academic conference reminded us that the Holocaust is not just a story to be told. Rather it should serve as a constant reminder to race-relations researchers of the continuing urgency of our subject matter.

Find out more about The Tin Ring via this link.



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