By Margherita Dacquino
Please allow me to tell you about my recent journalistic epiphany.
Traditionally, the press’ role is to broadcast accurate news and information to its audience. This is frequently done in the rush of the moment, navigating readers’ emotions, enthusiasm, and fears. Timeliness means everything to journalists: their popularity and in some cases their salaries depend on it. Thanks to technological innovations, the news cycle has become almost real-time, and journalists are constantly close to being burnt out.
As an editor of a student-run publication I recently learnt that, at times, it is useful to step back, let conflict slide away, and lay aside the narcissistic pleasure of being read by many. This is exactly what happened in the last two weeks.
Last month, the motion of the then-upcoming Lafayette Roundtable was announced: “Social Justice is a Form of Envy”. Posters promoting the event were put up on the walls of the Institute and soon we all had a say: some students praised the provocative nature of the motion, many others condemned it; others criticised the inappropriateness of the speakers as well as the debate format; several others questioned the lack of justification from the organising team.
Prompt critics materialised overnight on social media (Whats App, Instagram, Facebook), doing all of the above on their platforms of preference. On my end, I felt the Institute was showing one of its hidden faces, one that is at loggerheads with social justice, the one epitomised in the architectural design of Maison de la Paix. Student members of the Critical Theory Reading Group initiative took the lead: they harmonised these dissenting voices into a constructive critique, where academic rationality met with lived experiences and emotions. Their cheeky, insubordinate minds made them organise an alternative debate that was intended to be a counter to the original Lafayette debate. They created a space where a counter-narrative could happen.
I must admit that, as an external viewer counting on covering the ongoing events, I was thrilled – an epistemic and moral battle was going on, expertise versus diversity, social justice versus neoliberal meritocracy. A dream come true for a journalist to document.
Unfortunately for me, on the week the debates were taking place, a piece of bigger news monopolised the volatile attention of the student community – namely the Directrice’s email, the following General Townhall and #stopsilencingstudents movement. The online outrage against the Lafayette Roundtable’s motion soon vanished away, already becoming history. The debate motion was now a new item in historical archives. All the same, I had a feeling that something could still be learned. And, I was right!
A few days after the debate took place, the organising team provided a forum to address concerns and critics. Only two people showed up, both belonging to the Critical Theory Reading Group initiative. Anticipating an argument with what they thought was a unified, maybe conservative Geneva Debate student team, the two critical readers were armed with a series of well-structured criticisms.
But life is full of surprises: the organising team was a picture of diversity in opinions and experiences, willing to admit its errors and eager to learn from them. When I decided to interview members of both the Critical Theory Reading Group and the Geneva Debate, I was yearning for friction and bellicosity. Yet, I received unanimous feedback from both sides: The in-person Geneva Forum had been a positive learning experience.
Alas, my story was indeed gone. The ordinary newspaper reader likes gossip, intolerance of contrasting opinions, and I had nothing of the kind to offer. But, I had something better: a moral for life…
As a journalist, it is easy to navigate the wave of enmity. We live in what Achille Mbembe calls a “society of enmity”, our own identity depends on our antagonism towards the Other. What could be easier than to foment such hostility when having a spot on a public platform?
This is the mistake, often intentional, of many contemporary journalists. Today’s political debate and mainstream media create enemies: whether the Republican against the Democrat, the Christian against the Muslim, the European against the refugee, the billionaire against the social justice advocate, or the feminist against the misogynist. We all live in an urgency to find our enemy, prove him/her wrong and erase him/her from the public scene.
It is thus important to ask whether the momentary enemy we have detected is really an antagonist or just someone that has access to news, opinions, and knowledge different from ours; someone to condemn online, or someone to engage in person. Dialogue between factions is elevating, enriching, and possible. It is thus the role of the press to allow this dialogue to happen, portraying it for the public to see that social, ideological, and political confrontations can bring positive change.
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