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EDITORIAL — Ole Wæver is subject to an unfair accusation. But instead of ignoring his critics, he attempts to win the argument based on their own assumptions. And this helps to make an already principled debate on alleged Copenhagen School racism even more interesting.
Research is a hard game to play. You slog away at your theories, studies or experiments. And then you put it all out there, so others can assess how well you thought things through.
It has to hurt if other researchers’ criticism reveals that the thoughts do not really stand up to scutiny. But if the assessment was objective and the criteria were fair, you can take comfort in the fact that you may have contributed to everyone, including you, learning from the experience.
If things are done fairly.
We wrote a story about what it has been like for the prominent peace researcher Ole Wæver to have his research dissected in a particular type of anti-racist academic laboratory. And it’s a story that begs the question: How can you objectively criticise and judge the thought of others?
Two researchers, Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, from universities in the US and the UK respectively, have – in a scientific article in a well-known journal – conducted what they call »an excavation« of Ole Wæver’s thinking, and the outcome is a conclusion that looks a lot like moral judgment. Wæver’s thinking, which should help expose the exercise of power, is in fact racist, the two researchers argue. And thereby … evil.
Now the debate is raging. Ole Wæver has fought back, hard. He accuses his critics of using a deepfake methodology in their scrutiny of his theories. It sounds like something from an episode of the dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror.
He says they’ve cherrypicked from the texts of Wæver and his coauthors, and spliced them together as they please, just like deepfake videos can say and look like anything.
Wæver is respected in his field, a heavyweight from that part of the academic left that also fostered researchers like Howell and Richter-Montpetit. On Twitter, people write that Wæver, by taking the critique of his theory personally, and by lashing out at younger researchers shows signs of suffering from »white male fragility«. The concept does not sound too academic, but is, incredibly, used in the subject area; it is really just a case of bullying.
Of course it’s personal if your life’s work is suddenly labelled racist. If you claim this, the arguments have to be incisive. But Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s arguments are problematic. A dense web of wild accusations based on a highly selective reading.
Wæver could have just dismissed the criticism as nonsensical, as many intellectuals on the right have done already. He could portray the criticism as just a tendency on the left to see racism where everyone else has not yet discovered it.
But he doesn’t. Wæver is himself a declared anti-racist. He wants to win the argument on the critics’ own terms. He takes their criticism seriously, recognises that structural racism is a real science-theoretical problem. It just doesn’t, in this case, apply to his own theory. It’s a laborious argument, and it makes him vulnerable.
And it also makes the debate more interesting. Perhaps Wæver’s showdown with the anti-racist inquisition could be a wake-up to the woke part of academia? It is from here that, in recent years, the most interesting contributions to the cultural development of universities, and society more broadly, have come from. The debate over the rights of minorities, sexism and racism in campus culture, and the overrepresentation of white men on syllabi, all stem from here. These are important debates, and the academic left’s criticism of norms and culture are often both legitimate, well-founded and timely.
This is why the criticism has to be fair.
Translation by Mike Young