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Professor Ole Wæver's theory of securitization has been accused of being so racist that it should never be applied again. But the criticism is bad science, Wæver responds. He says he is caught in a catch-22 situation where it is hard to defend himself.
I‘ve been emailing Professor Ole Wæver for almost four months. Back and forth. Waiting for him to be ready to talk.
About his securitization theory, and whether it is racist. Its racism is something that two researchers claim in a scientific article in the journal Security Dialogue that has been viewed or downloaded more than two thousand times in six months.
The two researchers call it an ‘excavation’, and their claim is that the whole of Wæver’s theory is designed to bolster white supremacy and racism.
Ole Wæver has, since August 2019, attempted to respond to the scathing criticism that puts his theory on a par with such unpalatable ideas as phrenology and, as some would say, research into oil extraction.
It is a process which he describes as »deeply unpleasant,« marked by mistrust and lack of understanding from the journal, which has not wanted to allow Ole Wæver and his colleagues to defend themselves in a longer rejoinder.
»Personally, this has been a real low point,« he says.
»I’ve never felt so bad about my job, my career and my life as an academic. I’ve really never felt so alienated. What the hell am I doing here? Why have I spent my life on this?«
The Copenhagen School is a constructivist theory in the field of international politics.
It was developed in collaboration between Ole Wæver, the British professor Barry Buzan and the Dutch professor Jaap De Wilde over a number of years since the end of the 1980s.
The theory was given its name by the researcher Bill McSweeney, who criticized Wæver and his collaborators in a 1996 article.
In 1998, Wæver, Buzan and De Wilde’s published a book Security: A New Framework for Analysis, which has more than 10,000 citations.
Ole Wæver is behind the Copenhagen School’s most prominent concept, securitization.
Today Ole Wæver has his own research centre, the Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts (CRIC), which explores how to resolve conflicts without weapons.
It’s not unreasonable to call Ole Wæver a celebrity researcher. He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at The University of Copenhagen, and, like Niels Bohr in his day, has had a theory named after his university’s city. It is called the Copenhagen School and it is on the curriculum worldwide.
Wæver is the author of the concept of securitization, which describes how political actors can turn any subject into a matter of life or death, war or peace. Like when a government wants to make refugees a security issue and therefore assures voters that they need to introduce border controls, harsher penalties and other methods that previously were seen as inhumane or undemocratic. They securitize the issue. At present, securitization is taking place throughout most of the world as politicians respond to the spread of coronavirus.
The theory of the Copenhagen School is intended as a critical tool to cast light on the doings of those in power and to help make the world a more peaceful place.
But that’s not how two researchers, Associate Professor Alison Howell of Rutgers University in the US and Lecturer Melanie Richter-Montpetit of the University of Sussex in the UK, see it. In their article, they argue that racism is so integral to Wæver’s theory that it can’t be fixed. That the theory is anti-black, perpetuates a white, violent regime, and is designed to bolster white supremacy.
Ole Wæver hadn’t seen that one coming. He was on his way to Australia when the article appeared on Twitter. He was busy moving house and almost just retweeted it with the text ‘sounds interesting’, he says.
It was only much later, when he had landed in Sydney, that he read what the criticism was all about. And even though Ole Wæver is used to discussions, he was shocked, he says:
»I was appalled by the aggressiveness of it: that the criticism was so bombastic and so far-reaching,« he says.
»And such poor work. I’ve never seen an article that was so wide off the mark. And I’ve seen a lot of strange things over the years. It took me weeks to read it because it was just so painful.«
It gets a bit scholastic when you have to recapitulate the beef between researchers that was initiated by Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit. The two use jargon from the academic left wing like ‘civilisationism’, ‘methodological whiteness’ and ‘anti-black thought’.
So it is these words that are at stake. And they’re crucial if you want to try to understand why Ole Wæver is so frustrated. He sighs between his sentences. Pauses. Thinks about how he can formulate himself correctly. Emotions and academic professionalism all mixed up.
The two researchers, Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, find Wæver, or his work, guilty of three things that make his theory racist:
The first is civilizationism. In the opinion, te Copenhagen School is characterized by distinguishing between ‘good’ normal politics – which is supposedly typically found in the West – and ‘bad’ securitized politics — which is particularly prevalent in The Global South. Wæver thereby legitimizes colonization, Howell and Richter-Montpetit write.
The second accusation is methodological whiteness which, according to Howell and Richter-Montpetit, is prevalent in the Copenhagen School. The argument here is that the theory’s method is useless for engaging with racial issues. This is partly due to its focus on speech acts, i.e. the idea that certain statements are actions with real consequences. Here, the theory, according to the criticism, is blind to anything but ‘white’ voices, and so it excuses and reinforces a white and racist status quo.
Finally, Wæver’s theory includes anti-black thought and racism, according to the criticism. It does so, because key texts in the Copenhagen School particularly refer to African examples of fragmented civil wars, and because the theory considers Africa as a singular entity where most of politics has been securitized. In this way, Africa is constructed as a threat to Europe; as a kind of »updated ‘White man’s burden’«, Howell and Richter-Montpetit write.
Ole Wæver disagrees. He is aware that you may find a few problematic quotes in a back catalogue that dates back to the mid-1980s. Sentences about Africa’s so-called ‘failed states’, which he »might not write that way today«.
»We’ve all been part of a pattern of talking about Africa in a problematic way. But it just has nothing to do with the theory as such,« he says.
But many of the other charges are completely unwarranted and »are based on the premise that you ignore the largest part of what we’ve written,« he says. Especially since the theory was conceived as an attempt to criticize dangerous developments in Europe. The Copenhagen School has always criticized Europe:
Dammit, we were involved in the politics, I was active in the peace movement in the 1980s. It was in this context that we got the ideas for the whole theory. It was to intervene in these political debates …
»Dammit, we were involved in politics, I was active in the peace movement in the 1980s. It was in this context that we got the ideas for the whole theory. It was to intervene in these political debates and because we were concerned about developments in the North,« says Ole Wæver. »If something is integral to the key concepts, you will find it in the texts where we developed the theory.«
According to him, his critics ignore the majority of his and his colleagues’ analyses and highlight a particular positive image of Europe, as if this view represented their general image of Europe.
Security Dialogue is one of the largest scientific journals on research in international politics and security.
It is also the journal that has published the most articles about the Copenhagen School and securitization theory.
Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit’s article Is securitization theory racist? Civilizationism, methodological whiteness, and anti-black thought in the Copenhagen School is the most read article on the journals website for the past six months.
He calls the criticism »intellectually lazy« and the analysis of his theory superficial. He says that Howell and Richter-Montpetit misquote him in key sections of their article – to substantiate a claim for which they could not find evidence:
»Then we’re out beyond the realm of academic debate. Then, in my opinion, we are talking about scientific misconduct.«
Like where the two researchers want to link Ole Wæver to the classical philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose theory of a ‘social contract’ for society is considered problematic and racist in some academic circles. The Jamaican researcher Charles Mills has, in particular, done a »solid analysis« of why the ‘social contract’ can be considered racist, according to Ole Wæver.
And Howell and Richter-Montpetit have tried to copy this analysis, by using quotes that are not from Ole Wæver at all, but from another researcher, cited by Wæver. The authors have attributed the quotes to him because »without this, they have nothing,« says Ole Wæver.
Security Dialogue has corrected a number of citation errors which Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan have pointed out.
The University Post has presented the criticism by Ole Wæver to Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit. They will not comment, but point instead to an upcoming article in Security Dialogue where they respond to the criticism.
So far, Ole Wæver has not responded to the criticism in public. But he and another member of the Copenhagen School, Professor Barry Buzan, have for months been working on having a rejoinder published in Security Dialogue. Just like Lene Hansen, Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, who is also under scrutiny by Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit in the article. Professor Hansen’s rejoinder was published in March 2020.
Security Dialogue has said that they will not print responses that are longer than the 4,000 words that are usually assigned to them in the journal, according to Wæver. Many publications uphold the principle that people who are the target of serious accusations should be given the opportunity for a reply that is published together with the criticism. But neither Ole Wæver nor Lene Hansen have received such an offer.
Mark B. Salter, the Editor of Security Dialogue, who has been presented with the criticism by Wæver, writes in an email that it is not normal in academic publishing to invite comment or rejoinders to regular research articles.
He also writes that Wæver and Barry Buzan were invited to submit an 8-10,000 word article, but that they refused. Their reason, which is stated in the rejoinder they eventually did submit, is that the longer article would have to conform to a standard scientific format, i.e. contain new knowledge, include a literary review and so forth, whereas they wanted to respond to an accusation.
The difficulties in working out how the rejoinder might be given meant that the racism claim was left there, unrefuted, for almost nine months, seven if you count the Lene Hansen piece from March.
»It was quite clear that the editorial board of Security Dialogue would not acknowledge that anything unusual had happened at all. Their whole attitude was: ‘This is just a professional debate.’ And we said: ‘Yes but, we’ve been accused of being racist. This sets off a whole register of rights and procedures. We must have a particular right to respond, because this is potentially defamatory.’«
Instead, they were accused of being presumptuous and wanting special treatment, according to Ole Wæver:
»On a human level, I felt that there was no recognition of why we were hurt by this at all. It was just us acting strange by reacting to it,« he says.
Mark Salter from Security Dialogue writes that for reasons of confidentiality, he will neither comment on the disagreements with Wæver and Buzan nor characterize their request for a rejoinder.
What the hell is this world if people are like this?
It’s as if the roles have been reversed. Ole Wæver is usually the peace researcher you call up when you want a well-known, critical researcher to say something about world peace. Now he’s the one who is taking the flak; he’s the one who is being gossiped about: Is he a racist? Maybe, I don’t know. He certainly feels that way: »Damn, it’s really incriminating to be accused of racism. It is not fun to be marked a racist either personally or professionally. But the journal just rejected this out of hand.«
»The people who read the journal are also the people with whom I associate the most. They’re the ones that I’d hang out with at a conference. That’s why it’s been so tough personally. What the hell is this world, I’m part of, if people are like this?« he says.
Security Dialogue rejects the idea that Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan are being personally accused of being racists.
»We hold that Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s article does not make a claim about the character, attitudes, or opinions of individuals. And we take [their] argument at face value when they write “The argument presented here is not a personal indictment of any particular author.” As I read it, their article is a critique of the foundations of securitization theory,« writes Mark B. Salter.
But this is not a valid argument, according to Ole Wæver:
»They’re basically trying to have it both ways. To say it, and not to say it – to have a shock effect and thereby get the clicks because everyone knows who it is they’re attacking with this fierce rhetoric, while they are hiding behind this one tiny disclaimer,« he says.
After several months of correspondence, the journal agreed to publish a shorter response. Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan have chosen to publish a longer, in-depth response on a University of Copenhagen website.
In both the short and long responses, Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan hit back hard at Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, and write, for example:
»H&RM could perhaps best be used as a teaching tool for how not to make an academic argument. This kind of deepfake methodology should have no place in academic debates, and should certainly not be published in a reputable journal.«
With deepfake, a word describing computer-generated forgeries of real people’s words and appearance, Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan believe that Howell and Richter-Montpetit have built up their argument from small pieces of theory, which they then put together in a way that makes them ‘speak’, as if they were detached from the original texts.
Security Dialogue’s editor, Mark B. Salter, does not answer The University Post’s question about how he judges the academic merits of Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s article, but he writes that the article (in an anonymous form) went through an academic peer review to assure its quality.
Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit are part of a larger theoretical movement that aims to ‘decolonize’ scientific theories and make the academic community more aware of the racism, sexism, colonialism, ableism, etc., which, according to the movement, is all-pervasive.
And it’s not just the Copenhagen School that is denounced by the two researchers. In fact, according to a post on Alison Howell’s website, they are in the process of writing a book called ‘Race and Security Studies’, where they attempt to criticize security theories in a more general sense.
This also applies to so-called Foucauldian security theory, which, according to Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, repeats the philosopher Michel Foucault’s »whitewashing of raciality and coloniality of modern power and violence.«
This is almost patricide. The thoughts of Foucault is the theoretical basis of some of the most recognized feminist and postcolonial theories of the modern era, including those of Judith Butler. (Even though Butler has criticized Foucault too).
According to Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, racism and ‘whiteness’ are so integral to some theories such as the Copenhagen School, that you cannot separate it from its positive aspects (if there are any).
They write without any reservations: Foucault has whitewashed the racial issue. Wæver’s theory is racist. End of discussion.
But whether you agree with the criticism of Wæver or not, the situation raises some questions. Can theories even be racist? What type of reading does it take to demonstrate this? And what does it mean if a theory is branded as racist, for the researchers themselves and for the freedom of research in general?
Ole Wæver is, to start off, on the ‘woke’ team and conscious of social issues. He says that the criticism of racism is important. He wouldn’t mind if the Copenhagen School was trashed in a connection with a wider critique of the social sciences, he says. Because we need criticism. But if you’re going to target one particular theory and denounce it as racist, you need something more and substantiated:
»It’s such a strong claim that you really have to all your paperwork in order. And for me there is this contrast between something so hard, far-reaching, personal and destructive — and this exceptionally thin basis to the claim. In fact it’s absurd.«
He says that Howell and Richter-Montpetit misunderstand a core concept, normal politics, in his theory, and then make a misleading presentation of the theory’s analyses. All to conclude on something that they haven’t studied, namely how the key concepts of the theory are actually shaped, he says.
But there are plenty of anti-racists who have done really good analyses of how social science is racist, says Ole Wæver.
»We have all contributed to institutions that, taken together, maintain some power structures in this society. And so we all help to reproduce some racist structures,« he says.
»But if we are going to avoid mud-slinging and mutual destruction, we need to do it in a much more systematic way,« he says.
Ole Wæver says he could also ‘call the two researchers out’ for being »American cultural imperialists« because they, according to him, simply mechanically transpose American college politics. But would it matter?
»Then you could escalate your choice of words about each other. This is also increasingly happening between feminists and postcolonialists, who are individually accusing each other of being different things,« he says. And sighs: »It’s going to be unbearable for us to live in this world.«
»It sickens me to read an article about me being a racist, which I also know will be read by people outside my own profession, and who don’t have the opportunity to understand it. So if I’m looking for funding, or someone is nominating me for a prize somewhere, or someone wants to invite me to something, people will say: No, that guy, there’s something about him being a racist.«
He calls it a »catch-22 situation on at least three levels,« which makes it difficult for him to respond without being pigeonholed with the wrong types.
On the one hand, parts of the anti-racist community consider themselves, by definition, the victims, he says. Here, even good arguments are oppressive:
»They feel that they are being marginalized by mainstream researchers. In other words, whatever we do will be portrayed by them as an attempt to silence them. It’s catch-22 in the way that if I respond at all, it’s as if I’m trying to fight what they’re doing. Even if the response is to demonstrate that the criticism breaks with fundamental principles of method, logic and reading,« says Ole Wæver.
In addition, he finds that there is widespread and consistent outrage on social media if people complain over unfair racism claims. Whining from the victims of racism criticism is seen as pathetic compared to what the ‘real’ victims of racism have to go through, he says.
Finally, it is difficult to respond to the criticism of Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit without it being used to undermine the important issues that they also highlight. You can be turned into a straw man for »political correctness« and »identity culture«.
»I know very well who would like to use what I say. There are loads of right wingers who will jump on this and use it to say: Look how crazy they all are, these anti-racists. I have absolutely no desire to support or to become a spokesperson for them,« he says.
»At the end of the day, the worst thing about that article is that it probably weakens the fight against racism. Howell and Richter-Montpetit dilute the concept at a time when real racism is gaining ground. What should we call it, if the word just signifies virtually all of the social sciences? And at the same time, the article makes a mockery of critical research. I’ve heard from colleagues who sincerely thought this was a hoax, a parody that someone had tricked the journal into accepting in order to de-legitimize anti-racism. I wish it was.«
Translated by Mike Young