We challenge UA to acknowledge its active role in moderating controversial debates
- We challenge UA to acknowledge its active role in moderating debates, the power it has over the production of the ‘everything university’ and, most crucially, to assume responsibility for enabling constructive debates, PhD candidates and faculty of Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture writes.
Universitetsavisa (UA) has over the last years been the platform for a debate regarding freedom of speech, hate speech, racism and antiracism at NTNU and the university sector more broadly. In this opinion piece we want to bring attention to the role and responsibilities of the platform through which such debates take place. We would like to spotlight the presumed neutrality of UA as a moderator and producer of debate. The nature and shape of debate, including who and what arguments are (and are not) afforded space, has direct consequences for the university as a working and studying environment, as well as for those who participate directly in the debate itself.
The latter, we are convinced, has ramifications for who feels able and safe to speak and write, and therefore for the validity of the debate itself. Drawing on Stine Helena Bang Svendsen’s reminder that work for inclusion and diversity and against racism and discrimination is something that university leadership is legally obligated to take part in, we want to ask UA what they consider their own role to be in working against discrimination at the University.
According to their own guidelines, UA aims to contribute to creating an organizational culture characterized by openness and unity, where space is given to various positions addressing difficult and controversial issues (our translation). The question is how difficult and controversial issues are being addressed, by whom, and for what purpose.
When scrolling through UA’s homepage, one notices many pictures of people and buildings leading to articles about updates on campus projects, news about current changes in education and breakthroughs in research. News about “everything and anything university” is not particularly unexpected for a university newspaper. While scrolling, however, one also finds the same names and pictures reappearing over and over in headlines. Especially in the section dedicated to opinion pieces, some persons and authors appear regularly. It seems if you have many opinions, you get a lot of space. This is convenient for people who feel a desire for constant visibility.
It is part of a newspaper’s responsibility to select, however, how much space should be given to opinionated columnists, especially when these opinions could be seen as offensive.
As a newspaper, UA can decide who they want to invite and provide space for in the debate. UA, being an important platform for debate at NTNU, can determine which voices and perspectives they see as adding value to the debate, and whose inflammatory yelling and writing are unproductive, despite being covered by claims for the freedom to merely make “a joke” or express an “opinion”. Language is one of the key components here.
Like researchers, journalists know that language matters in how a topic, case, or person is being presented. We know that you often have to walk a proverbial tightrope when choosing words, especially when topics are challenging, emotionally charged, political, under legal investigation or all of the above. We know that the same person can be presented as either “sneaky” with dubious intentions toward a coworker or a whistle blower uncovering and speaking up against injustice – depending on the words chosen.
In a serious public debate, a media(tor) makes sure that the debate doesn’t slide to attacks. That means that the moderators (e.g. newspaper editors) recognize poor arguments, offensive language, repetitions, and baseless accusations and at the very least contextualizes them as such. Comment sections are a fruitful soil for these kinds of rhetoric, and even there a breach of the code of conduct can lead to the platform owners (e.g. a newspaper) to delete a comment.
It is therefore very remarkable to see that some opinion pieces are adopting the tone of comments in a comment section but seem not to be the subject of moderation or a code of conduct. We are wondering: What are the mechanisms of decision making when it comes to editorial choices? How does UA decide which opinion pieces get published and which are rejected?
The current debate in UA concerning work against racism and discrimination and for justice and diversity is primarily taking place through opinion pieces authored by students and junior staff, and defensive responses thereto by those who feel "unfairly characterized ". Judging from the timing, content and authorship of the opinion pieces published on the UA website, it seems clear that “the right to simultaneous response” for persons, groups or institutions that consider themselves victims of accusations has been a significant consideration. Over the past few weeks, we have seen this timing repeat itself, despite the fact that on several occasions it was not at all clear exactly who was being accused of what.
The “right to simultaneous response” appears to be liberally applied for fear that UA might be accused of bias and/or choking the right of certain contributors to speak. While we agree that the right to “simultaneous response” is an important aspect of ensuring meaningful debate, we are concerned that UA seems to be interpreting this right as being automatically activated merely by a simple mention of a person or group with a differing opinion. Surely, the right to respond should not function as a free-for-all to make unfounded and ill-intentioned accusations, as this too stifles debate and contributions from students and early career researchers.
The endless flow of personal accusations leveled through responses to opinion pieces that call for more extensive anti-discrimination work at NTNU resembles the debate culture of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, rather than of newspapers. Nonetheless, UA seems to be unwilling to take seriously their role as moderators and editors of user-generated content. The way in which UA facilitates the ongoing “debate”, we believe, is not in the interest of supporting an inclusive university community. Instead, it creates the impression that discussions of anti-racism and equality are matters of individual opinions and taste that can be distilled down to for-or-against positions that UA should provide equal space for.
This polarizes the readership while instilling a false belief that assuming an anti-racist position means entrenching oneself against the freedom of speech. The reality is quite the contrary — for all people to feel welcome to speak up, the moderator is obliged to create a safe space for the flow of response. People raising the uncomfortable issues and adding their voices are mostly students, temporary staff, and early-career researchers — those who inhabit a fairly precarious position in the university hierarchy. Already vulnerable, they expose themselves to have their credibility and intelligence attacked and ridiculed. Instead, we insist that their engagement in this debate should be acknowledged and supported, most importantly by leaders, like heads of departments, faculties, etc., but also by leaders of editorial boards of UA.
Running a newspaper comes with responsibility. In this regard, we are also concerned about where UA — as a university newspaper — stands with respect to the legal obligation to actively counteract racism. We wonder what does ‘actively’ translate into in this context. For now, UA seems to be providing a platform open to bullying, intimidation and gaslighting, all the while claiming that the issue at stake is precisely about the freedom of different opinions.
We would also like to highlight that UA is not fully dependent on user-generated content (unlike social media). This means that the newspaper is in a position to commission content, interview various interested parties, generate its own content, and at last, edit/reject what is sent to the paper.
We recognize the scope of UA and do not expect in-depth journalism worthy of Pulitzer prizes (perhaps we should?), but we challenge UA to acknowledge its active role in moderating debates, the power it has over the production of the ‘everything university’ and, most crucially, to assume responsibility for enabling constructive debates!
Maria Kirpichenko (PhD candidate, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture)
Angelina Penner (PhD candidate, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture)
Mari Haugaa Engh (Associate Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture)