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  • Ali Khan Mahmudabad

The Narcissism of Neutrality

Convocation and graduation ceremonies are deeply political events. This year, ceremonies across the world have been used by students and faculty to protest and bear witness to what is arguably the 21st century’s first live-streamed genocide, especially at a time when it is actively being invisibilised. The stickers, banners, and clothing used are markers of solidarity and symbols of protest. Reactions from both university administrations as well as sections of the student population have been varied with some arguing that convocations are ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ events. However, such neutrality is generally a cover for preserving status quo which, in turn, prevents students from engaging with the world. What is learnt in the classroom should not and cannot be mere abstraction because ultimately abstractions easily slip into deception.

Convocations are, of course, the culmination of one journey but they are also the beginning of another. They are moments when ethics and values are (re)emphasised, the importance of virtues and education are (re)affirmed, and some final bits of perspective and wisdom are offered to the graduands. For this reason, many universities seek to invite speakers who embody some version of success, whether intellectual, financial, political, or social. 

Speakers, despite varying levels of self-aggrandisement - seek to resonate with everyone in the audience: the university administration, founders, faculty, students, parents and of course sometimes the powers that be. This means there is always a danger of clichés and anodyne advice. A writer analysed a hundred commencement speeches and concluded that the four most common pieces of advice were: dream big, work hard, make mistakes, and be kind. Ostensibly these are all universally acceptable truisms but underlying them are a series of assumptions. 

Most of the speeches that follow this pattern place the individual at the centre of their concern. In making this point they say, as Steve Jobs famously did in Stanford, that the road to success will be full of disappointments, uncertainties, and hardship. Some intellectuals, politicians, and social leaders also speak of courage, change, justice, and truthfulness wherein the measure of success differs. Before reading her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ Maya Angelou said in her commencement speech at Wellesley in 1982: 

For around this world, your world, my world, there are conflicts, brutalities, humiliations, terrors, murders, around this world…fascism is on the rise, and be assured of it, sexism, racism, ageism, every vulgarity against the human spirit is on the rise.  And this is what you have inherited… It is upon you to increase your virtue, the virtue of courage—it is upon you.  You will be challenged mightily, and you will fall many times.

The most potent speeches stand out for speaking truth to power. It is therefore no wonder that these are often made by student speakers, many of whom remain untarnished by cynicism and buoyed by the hope of a better world. Some weeks ago Asna Tabassum, valedictorian at the University of Southern California, was banned from giving a speech by the university administration due to objections by pro-Israel groups about her social media posts on Palestine. The administration at the university, and perhaps beyond, realised that the podium was too powerful to give to Asna. In 2019 in India, students around the country, such as Rabeeha Abdurehim, refused to accept awards while others, such as Rajat, refused their degrees as a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act for differentiating amongst refugees based on religion. Earlier that year students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong wore banned masks at their graduation to protest against the government. 

Just recently, the administration of Ashoka University in India purportedly stopped students from a protest in solidarity with Palestine- they wanted to wear stickers and drape themselves in the famous black and white chequered Arab scarf or Keffiyeh. Others wanted to print leaflets and posters. Just a few weeks earlier India had voted for full membership for Palestine at the United National General Assembly. The students were told that apart from other consequences they might be ‘barred from entering convocation.’ The ban was in part because the administration had rejected the student’s demand to cut ties with Tel Aviv University and feared that the protest was against Ashoka and not for Palestine. The students argued that the university’s ties to Israeli weapons manufacturing companies as well as its intellectual contribution to entrenching apartheid demonstrated its complicity in the current genocide. The administration argued that to cut ties would constitute a political stance. Naturally, one wonders whether not cutting ties is also a political stance. And anyway, since when are universities apolitical spaces? 

If nothing else, a university should equip students to engage critically with the world so that they can imagine and then work towards a better world. And what could be more political than this? The narcissism of such neutrality results from thinking that the university itself is more important than the world around it. The university should be a crucible of learning, a waystation for those sojourning on the path of (self)-discovery, a shelter and reprieve from the cynicism of the world. The university, in and of itself, cannot be a cause but rather only a medium through which different causes are engaged with. 

This was underscored by Shaheen Mistri who was invited as a keynote speaker for this year’s convocation in Ashoka. She spoke of the ‘horrific’ plight of the children dying in Gaza, amongst other forms of violence that need immediate redressal. She then said it was ‘incumbent’ upon everyone to remember the words of a 12-year-old, Vijay, who had told her to always fight hate with love. Did the speaker not get the memo? If they could mention Gaza and quote a 12 year old then why could Ashoka students, who had spent 3 years honing and nurturing critical minds, not articulate and show solidarity? It was not without irony then, that many students did not ‘hold their heads high’ as they listened to Tagore’s ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ being sung during their ceremony. Pretty words or unwitting, damning self-indictment?

Historically, communist dictatorships, right-wing ethno-fascist governments, theocracies, liberal or socialist democracies, and good old-fashioned autocracies have all sought to subvert and control universities to make them a tool of their propaganda or just to silence dissent. In the case of certain democracies, one pernicious method of control has been through the use and deployment of capital. It is precisely these structures that are now being interrogated by young people who are no longer willing to put up with the hypocrisy of fetishizing peace in the classrooms while those who profit from war determine the direction of research, funding, and indeed politics. 

Capital can achieve extraordinary things and in the case of Ashoka it has created an incredible space of learning and research but it is important to be vigilant. It is important to remember that capital and individual or group interests should not dictate the intellectual contours of a university. Of course, this line of questioning is a dangerous task especially since capital creation is ultimately the what keeps the money flowing. However, much as some people might want, universities cannot be spaces for creating automatons. Those are manufactured in factories. There should be nothing more glorious for a university than to incubate minds that have the freedom to criticise the very institution that nurtures and produces them.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad is the Head of the Department of Political Science at Ashoka University.

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May 28

It is interesting that there has been no liberal critique in our college of the administration's decision to bar students from protesting at Convocation -- that it is against the ethos of the university to prevent individuals from expressing their individual points of view. On the other hand, the criticism has been autocratic in nature: "I think so, hence you should think so too". I think this is extremely regrettable. Too many people, including Professors, are failing to see that individuals expressing their preferences is fundamentally different from a "society" (defined as a group of people, be this a set of friends or a University) expressing its collective preference -- because going from the former to the latter involves aggregating divergent…

May 28
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Well said Bastian

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