Hope Is the Thing with Feathers



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8 Minutes

Post by Maartje van der Woude, Professor of Law and Society at Leiden University and Chair in the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society.

I had the honor to present the closing remarks for the ‘Beyond Critique’ seminar that was organized to celebrate Border Criminologies 5th birthday on April 19th and 20th, 2018. This post is a condensed version of this speech.

My central message is to have and to hold on to hope. Because, even though it might be easy to lose hope while being confronted with all the hardships, unfairness and inequality that many of us encounter in our fieldwork, I am hopeful that we can and already do make a difference as a network. Yet, as I will argue, in doing this, we need to keep reflecting upon ourselves: as a network, as public intellectuals and as humans. In this post, I draw on a series of discussions I have had over the past two years with close colleagues and friends who are all grappling with the question on ‘how to make both a social and a scientific/ academic impact’ or perhaps put more simply, how to balance activism with academia and figuring out what ‘activism’ could entail. I would in particular like to thank Professors Tony Platt and Carol Serron for their insights and inspirational speeches on this topic, as well as Ian Loader and Richard Sparks for making me think more deeply about my role as an academic through their 2013 publication Public Criminology?, and last but not least my wonderful PhD students for being already so aware of their role as public intellectuals and for asking all the right questions leading to stimulating discussions.

About a little bird called ‘Hope’

Before I proceed, I would like to share a poem by Emily Dickinson, which is called ‘Hope, is the thing with feathers’ and was published in 1998 by R.W. Franklin.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

In the poem, Dickinson, who loved birds, pictures hope as a bird. According to Andrew Spacey’s  interpretation of the poem, hope, like a bird, has feathers and can perch in the human soul. Its feathers might be soft and gentle to the touch, but are made up of complex individual fibres, which make them strong in flight; their unity is strength.

Hope can also sing: It sings a song with no words. It's as if Hope is pure song, pure feeling, a deep-seated longing that can take flight at any time. Dickinson writes about how hope sings the sweetest when the Gale starts to blow. Or, in other words, when life is rough, the pressure relentless, there is Hope, singing through the chaos and mayhem. Even when things are extreme, Hope is still there with no conditions. It can give us strength to carry on in the most adverse of conditions, and that makes hope an important thing to hold on to.

To me, this poem reflects what it feels like to be part of Border Criminologies and what Border Criminologies stands for. Border Criminologies represents the bird in the poem. By creating a network, Border Criminologies has (1) connected academics and practitioners from all over the globe, who are working on matters of migration and border control, and, by stimulating discussions and debates across the borders of our profession, discipline or country, ( (2) mobilized and activated people and (3) offered the public at large access to a huge range of resources and information related to migration and border control.

This makes me hopeful. Hopeful that this vibrant network will indeed continue to prove that there is strength in numbers and that, even now, that times seem to be particularly tough with regard to policies and political discourses around migration and borders in many Western liberal democracies, together, through different outputs, we can make an impact.

Inspired by our 5th anniversary celebration in April, now is the time to move beyond critique. How? Through dialogue. Dialogue in order to understand, to bridge divides and to eventually, move to a better, a preferred future for all.

Climbing the wall of empathy

This past month, I re-read Sociologist Hochschild’s ‘Strangers in their own land’. In trying to make sense of why those Americans who need the government and federal resources most, are so hostile to ‘big government’ Hochschild embarks on a thought-provoking journey from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California, deep into Louisiana bayou country, a stronghold of the Tea Party, the conservative right. In trying to understand this paradox and trace its roots, Hochschild’s mission is empathy, not polemics. She takes seriously the Tea Partiers’ complaints that they have indeed become ‘strangers’ in their own country – triply marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism. This book made me very depressed about the irrationality behind some of the reasoning of those on the conservative right, something that unfortunately is not unique to the United States; on the other hand, it also made me hopeful to see the humanity of those we sometimes too easily to ignore. By ‘climbing the wall of empathy’, Hochschild was able to separate warring camps in an increasingly polarized polity. Such wall-climbing is intended to be a first step toward an urgently necessary dialogue. 

I hear some of you saying that this sounds rather naïve and that the time for sensible conversations – especially when dealing with the poignant realities in the field of migration and border control - is long past and that the only way to bring change is through direct and public action. While I agree, I am firmly convinced that action and dialogue are not mutually exclusive and that seeking a constructive dialogue is indeed a form of action.

An inclusive, critical yet pragmatic dialogue

To bring about change, it is vital that dialogue is inclusive. Academics need to engage in conversations to gain a deeper empirical and theoretical understanding of the various phenomena that we are studying and appropriate methodologies to do so. Perhaps more importantly, we need to communicate with those who play a vital role in the creation and enforcement of the laws, policies and practices that we as scholars tend to study and critique.

As Tony Platt recently commented in an unpublished lecture on Academic Activism in Rotterdam, ‘recognizing that we live in a moment of global uncertainty and chaos does not mean that we need to start from ground zero or wander aimlessly into the future’. We should be inspired by the rise of new social movements on the left, grappling with a world in crisis and danger, trying to construct new utopias, figuring how to mobilize against inequality and injustice. For the first time in a long time, there is an intergenerational conversation under way, and signs of life in what we used to call ‘radical criminology.’ Given the opportunities and possibilities at this historical moment, at the same time as justice and protection of those in vulnerable positions are at stake, we need to be part of the advocacy and policymaking process.

In her 2015 presidential address, that was published in the Law and Society Review in 2016, former president of the Law & Society Association, Seron, reflects upon the role(s) that academics have, or can have. She specifically states that ‘although our scholarship may suggest reasons to indict the whole system and start from scratch, that is not practical—and we need to be practical if we are to be effective’. She advocates for ‘pragmatic’ policies that may not solve all problems but promise to ameliorate or avoid crises. Although laws and regulations may have little prospect of undoing the root causes of economic, racial, ethnic, or gender inequalities in the contemporary politics of many Western liberal democracies and beyond, I agree with Seron that despite these limitations, there is a lot of room for pragmatic relief from these inequalities. The work of criminologists, (legal) sociologists, (legal) anthropologists and lawyers can play a vital role in the development of more pragmatic policy without framing our scholarship to ‘fit’ the policymakers question and losing or undermining our academic independence. The challenge is to deploy our understandings of criminological and socio-legal theory and rigorous methodology to explain our work – the outcomes and its importance to and relevance for current societal issues - to a broader audience.

To be sure, this is not an easy task, as public intellectuals – academics, or experts – are increasingly mistrusted or at least their insights don’t seem to carry as much weight as once before. Mistrust that is sometimes linked to the alleged overtly leftist perspectives of many academics which in the US has led to the ‘reporting’ of academics for their political beliefs. In addition, there is always the uncontrollable risk of your research being used to further strengthen the very systems and mechanisms we are trying to critique.  This is all true and problematic. Yet this does not mean we should refrain from trying. While our thoughts and practices might differ, social justice is our common goal.

Without compromising our scholarly commitment to ‘speak truth to power,’ it’s time to build bridges with policymakers and a wider array of interest groups -  including legal advocates, bureaucrats and the general public - where the results of our research may inform the writing and implementation of policy as well as daily practices. Building these networks or even a bridge between academics and non-academic audiences takes time, and will not always be easy, nor successful. Nevertheless, if we want to bring about change, we need to share and discuss our work with a wider audience. Looking at my own experiences in which I have shared and discussed my work with policy makers, street level police officers, border patrol officers, marginalized minority groups, etc. all these interactions and exchanges were extremely challenging but also incredibly humbling and gratifying. They also lead to the opening of doors that would otherwise have remained closed to me, doors that have led to unique fieldwork access.

Academia meets Art

In enhancing the discussions between different groups, we need to be aware of the fact that it is impossible to represent the complexity and the hardships and experiences that undocumented migrants or asylum seekers – or the complex circumstance under which various criminal justice actors need act and decide for that matter - through ‘just’ writing. We need to visualize it, perhaps even experience it. As members of the Border Criminologies network have shown, art is a powerful and effective tool for stimulating open and constructive dialogue in which all parties involved want to partake. As academics, we can be more creative and team up with artists in a meaningful and hopefully powerful way to spark discussions between groups that seemingly tend to be on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to matters of migration and border control.

Looking ahead with confidence and hope

It is with great confidence that I look at the future of Border Criminologies as a Network that continues to build the multiple bridges that are needed between the various divides that are present and that are standing in the way of the discussions that we need to have about migration and border control and the creation of what I have called more pragmatic policy.

There is no storm that can abash the little bird called Hope. I am very hopeful that we can overcome the very real challenges that are inherent in building these necessary bridges and that we can find creative, non-conventional ways, or at least some form of common language, to really engage in the much needed dialogue that we ought to have with all actors and parties involved. Only that way we can start to move beyond critique.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

van der Woude, M. (2018) Hope Is the Thing with Feathers. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/hope-thing (Accessed [date]).

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