How Academia Handles Objectionable Ideas: The Case of Jongen at the Hannah Arendt Center

Earlier this month, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College hosted a conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times,” on the various questions posed by the current “worldwide rebellion against liberal democracy.” Among those invited to speak at the conference was Marc Jongen, who has a PhD in philosophy and is known as the “party philosopher” of the far-right nationalist, “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party, understood by many to be Germany’s contemporary political home for racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and Neo-Nazism.

On Monday, a number of academics published an open letter to the Center’s director, Roger Berkowitz, and the president of Bard College, Leon Botstein, in The Chronicle of Higher Education protesting Jongen’s inclusion in the conference. They noted that the Center’s live commentary on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook and its live-streaming of the event reproduced and publicized quotes from Jongen that “vilify already vulnerable groups” and “target refugees, immigrants, and Muslims.” By doing this,

the center lent its institutional legitimacy and communicative power to Jongen’s statements.What remains to be taken into account by the organizers is how this online content serves the interests of far-right propagandists. For instance, on October 14, 2017, Jongen shared the center’s post on his own Facebook account and official website, celebrating his invitation as a victory for the AfD’s “cause.” Arendt’s name and the center’s reputation have now been used to legitimize the AfD’s far-right politics. That is a direct threat to the plurality the Arendt Center says it wants to promote and defend…

The question is not whether Jongen has a right to freely express his beliefs but whether he should be granted the privilege and power to use the Hannah Arendt Center to advance his agenda. Having granted Jongen that privilege and power, the center and Bard College cannot evade their responsibilities, especially those that arise from the normalization and legitimation of the AfD. We strongly urge the Hannah Arendt Center and Bard College to recognize these responsibilities and consider how best to live up to Arendt’s intellectual and political legacy. 

You can watch the conference here.

The open letter was in part a response to the publication at Medium of Berkowitz’s defense of including Jongen among the 20 or so scholars, activists, and writers he invited to the conference. Berkowitz notes that Jongen was only elected to the German Bundestag as a member of AfD after he was invited to the conference. But he also provides a more robust defense of his choice:

I thought it essential that at the conference we include at least one person who represents the idea of an illiberal democracy… Mr. Jongen, as a philosopher, has made it his task to seek to articulate the intellectual and ethical arguments for the rise of German populism and the justification for the importance of ethnically-based national cultures. I invited him because he struck me as one of the few people involved in the rising illiberal democratic movements who could participate in an intellectual effort to understand the crises currently plaguing liberal democracies. 

Bard President Leon Botstein, in a letter to The Chronicle published yesterday, also defended the choice to invite Jongen:

The invitation by an academic center on a college campus, even one named for a distinguished individual, does not constitute either legitimation or endorsement. Right-wing and neo-fascist parties are a reality of modern political life. We cannot pretend they do not exist. We need to hear what their representatives claim directly so that they can be properly challenged. In this case, the speech was followed by a response from Ian Buruma, a preeminent intellectual and scholar, a longtime member of the Bard faculty, and now editor of The New York Review of Books. The event was part of a two-day conference featuring over 25 esteemed speakers on the crisis facing liberal democracies. The speaker was not presented in any context of endorsement or legitimation.

Neither Bard nor Roger Berkowitz, director of the Arendt center, needs to apologize or issue a denunciation. The accusation of an implied endorsement is actually an insult, given the public record of the college, the Arendt center, and the published public record of both Roger Berkowitz and myself…

Allowing the expression, in a public discussion forum, of views and positions that we find reprehensible is a necessary part of the exercise of freedom in the public realm. This is particularly true in the academy.

One way to conceive of academia’s options when it comes to the presentation of highly objectionable views is by way of a four-part distinction: endorsement, inclusion, acknowledgment, and ignoring.

  • Endorsement: conveys agreement with what the presenter says or honors the presenter
  • Inclusion: provides an opportunity for the presenter to convey ideas and for an audience to discuss them (without endorsement)
  • Acknowledgment: the mention or discussion of ideas by those indifferent to or critical of them (with neither endorsement nor inclusion)
  • Ignoring: neither mentioning or discussing ideas, nor including nor endorsing their proponents, for intellectual, moral, or pragmatic reasons

In this particular case, no one is suggesting that endorsement is the appropriate mode by which the Arendt Center ought to have treated Jongen. Nor is anyone suggesting that ignoring ideas like his would have been the right approach, either, given the topic of the conference. Rather, the disputes are over (1) whether the invitation and subsequent participation of Jongen in the event constituted endorsement or mere inclusion, and (2) whether mere acknowledgment of ideas like Jongen’s would have been sufficient, given the aims of the conference.

On 2, when ideas are so objectionable that we have doubts about the wisdom of inviting their proponents to present them, but not so objectionable that ignoring is the appropriate strategy, there’s a reason to think inclusion, not mere acknowledgment, is the correct choice: namely, it’s not clear that someone other than a proponent could do an adequate job presenting and defending the ideas. But of course that is just one reason, and there may be other considerations that outweigh it.

Regarding 1, it is undeniable that the distinction between endorsement and mere inclusion can be a difficult one to make, in part because it is highly contextual, depending on the point of the event, academic and cultural norms, public relations efforts, media presence, and the like, which will vary across institutional settings. But that it might be a difficult distinction to make does not render it unimportant.

We need a good way of being able to hear from proponents of objectionable ideas without conveying approval of the ideas or the speaker. Suggestions for how to do that would be especially welcome.

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Greg Gauthier
6 years ago

Some of us would argue that there are many more “illiberal” voices on that speakers list, than just Dr. Jongen. I guess illiberalism is acceptable, though, when it operates in service of public policy one is partial to.

Reply to  Greg Gauthier
6 years ago

Who do you have in mind? I only know the work of some fraction of the participants, but don’t see any obvious examples of clearly “illiberal” voices, at least not in a strong or objectionable sense, other than Jongen, but perhaps I’m missing someone. Please elaborate.

Steven Klein
Steven Klein
6 years ago

As a signatory of the letter, I think you have misunderstood the stakes of this appearance. Jongen is a central figure in the AfD. He helped write it’s first platform and is now an elected member of the Bundestag. His philosophical credentials are very thin – a professor at an art school, he is not a major figure in German philosophy,. He is *only* known because of his extremely prominent role in the AfD. Thus, the issue was that by including him, the Center has provided the AfD with powerful political propaganda in Germany. This is why it was so alarming that he called his appearance a victory for the AfD’s cause. The AfD is currently engaged in an effort to counter Holocaust memory in Germany. Another leading figure has said that Germany needs to overcome its “culture of shame,” and Jongen has echoed his views. Think, then, about how it would look to a German audience to see he has been given a prominent position at the Hannah Arendt Center – named for one of the most famous refugees of the National Socialist regime. He can now use this appearance to dismiss accurate portrayals of the AfD’s radical politics as empty name-calling.

The second issue was their failure even by your lights of “inclusion.” If you watch the video, they present Jongen as a “deep thinker” who just happens to be in the AfD. They do not discuss the extremist rhetoric and politics of the AfD. And they most certainly do not present Jongen as a radical, far-right extremist thinker who is defending some horrible things in German politics, such as the Pegida movement (whose founder, for the record, had to resign because he posted pro-KKK material on Facebook). And then in his “critical comments”, Buruma himself indicated that he agreed not to talk about National Socialism! But how is that possible given that the AfD has become the magnet for revisionist currents in Germany. Lastly, it’s worth noting that even after Berkowitz wrote his post on Medium, the official Hannah Arendt Center account apologized to Jongen for the implication that he was anything like Eichmann.

I think it is a real question of how we should ethically engage with extremist views in academia. Yet the reality is this was a propaganda victory for the AfD and so was a completely mistaken way to go about achieving that goal.

Steven Klein
Steven Klein
6 years ago

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. To be sure, I don’t mean to say you were making such a judgment – I just wanted to make clear that the issue isn’t just representing views but including actual political actors. You are right that there is a risk of making our choices beholden to those who would manipulate or lie about them. I think in our normal, day-to-day academic interactions, we cannot fixate on that risk. But I think the concern is greatly amplified once the individual in question is a political actor and not just a member of a community of scholars. Then we cannot assume that they are just engaging in a scholarly exchange – we must be much more sensitive to the broader political ramifications of our actions. So that, I think, is the failure of responsibility here.

Steven Klein
Steven Klein
6 years ago

Also, your readers may be interested in this reflection, from the perspective of Hannah Arendt’s own thoughts about judgment and responsibility:

6 years ago

I’m not sure that it is possible for someone to invite a speaker to a conference *without* at least some sense of endorsement. You don’t have to call someone a “deep thinker” (which clearly conveys a form of endorsement) to convey a sense of approval of someone’s work even if one disapproves of the content. The fact that they were invited to speak at the event implies (quite clearly) that the Institute believes that the person’s ideas have merit, that they deserve to be heard, even if they are false. That conveys an endorsement: this person is making legitimate moves in our game and their views merit engagement. Sure, that isn’t endorsement in the “I agree with you” sense but it seems pretty clearly to be a kind of endorsement.

I hazard to say that it probably isn’t possible to hold an academic conference where speakers are invited that fail to endorse the speakers in the way I discuss above. Is that kind of endorsement dangerous? Potentially! By legitimizing the avenue of research you encourage others to pursue it. When that avenue of research is, like the AfD platform, not merely theoretically dangerous, then whomever invites such a speaker rightfully merits some of the fallout should the legitimacy granted to them ultimately lead to greater harm.

6 years ago

One way to have inclusion without endorsement is to make an explicit statement/disclaimer that the presence of any individual in the event is not an endorsement of their ideas. Another way is to restrict instances of inclusion of people with bad ideas to those settings where there are people with opposing points of view with equal or greater opportunity to express them. And obviously avoiding positive terms of appraisal like ‘deep thinker’ will help. 😛

I agree that a lot of the time inclusion is a better option than mere acknowledgement. Inclusion may involve some sort of borderline endorsement — i.e. it sends the message that the person’s views are worth engaging with — but I think that is acceptable. It is better to have such borderline endorsement and an opportunity for people with offensive views to have a voice and people with the right views to rebut the offensive views, than to silence or ignore offensive views in order to avoid borderline endorsement.

6 years ago

I think there is some confusion caused by trying to think about this kind of case in terms of general academic norms of inclusion and acknowledgement. If this were a case of someone presenting their research findings, findings that, let’s suppose, led to objectionable conclusions, then this discussion would make sense. It sounds, however, like this is merely a political figure using the center as a political platform, in which case it seems reasonable for the center to decide whether or not they want to allow something like that, to allow someone not there as a presenter of new research or insight, someone only there to peddle their political platform. What good does this do in the academy? And to anticipate an objection, I do think this should cut both ways, and that political grandstanding of any kind needs to be rooted out of universities to preserve their integrity, or we are going to have a nasty fight on our hands in the future in which the implicit authority of the university platform is increasingly abused for political purposes.

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
6 years ago

I certainly share the view that the Hannah Arendt Center in particular is a poor choice of venues to engage in debate with a German far-right leader, and that one shouldn’t go into such a debate with an agreement not to mention the Nazis.

On the broader issue, though, it seems to me that once a far-right party is winning 12% of the vote in a country like Germany, denying them legitimacy by shutting their leaders out of debates in the academy is a poor strategy. At that point, sadly, the ship of publicly-perceived legitimacy has sailed and it’s time to engage them in debate.

That said, once again, I agree that the Arendt Center is probably not the best place for that debate to happen.