Providing a shelter for exiled scholars – Additional Kone Foundation Fellowships to help researchers displaced by the war

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In March 2022, Kone Foundation granted extra resources to the Helsinki Collegium, to enable support for scholars who cannot continue to work in their home country due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Anton Kotenko, Sergei Medvedev and Anna Sokolova, all scholars recruited to HCAS in 2022, talked to us about the significance of the Kone Foundation fellowship for them and about the impact the war has had on the Russian research context. 

The March 2022 Kone Foundation Fellowship call was open both to Ukrainian scholars, who could not stay and work in their home country due to the war, and to Russian academics who had to resign from their positions in Russia because of their opposition to Putin’s regime and the war. According to the current policy of the University of Helsinki, the Collegium cannot fund researchers, who are officially affiliated with a Russian institution.  

The additional funding, enough for a total of 48 months of research time, was distributed through the Collegium’s ongoing Kone Foundation Fellowship program. This program has brought researchers from the Baltic countries, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine to the Collegium already since the year 2004. Due to this existing structure, it was possible to recruit researchers quickly, and the first fellows began their terms at the Collegium in May 2022. 

Among the first scholars arriving in the spring 2022 was Sergei Medvedev, who is known both as a political scientist and as an active columnist and broadcaster. 

“I left Russia at the start of the war, which was a spontaneous but a long-awaited decision. It was a situation in which there were no other options left. I could not stay in Russia any single day longer, for moral reasons but also for safety reasons. But probably the moral reasons were prevalent.”   

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk in the HCAS common room.

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk at the Collegium in January 2023.

It was a happy coincidence for Medvedev that the funding opportunity brought him to Helsinki, which is a research context that he knows from before and has come to appreciate. The Kone Foundation fellowship made it possible for him to both continue his career after resigning from Higher School of Economics in Moscow and to organize all the practicalities in a difficult life situation.  

Anna Sokolova, scholar of Soviet history, notes that the Kone Foundation Fellowship call was a rare opportunity, because it was open also for Russian scholars, who had decided to resign from their positions and leave Russia. Sokolova and her family had left Moscow and moved to Yerevan, Armenia, soon after the beginning of the war.  

“During those first months nobody really understood how many academics fled Russia. That was absolutely unexpected even for us. When my family arrived in Yerevan, we suddenly understood that there are lots of colleagues and friends around, and Armenians were extremely helpful and supportive. They were trying to do their best in this situation, but they were also not ready for such a huge number of colleagues arriving,” Sokolova explains. 

Anna Sokolova in the HCAS Common Room

Anna Sokolova in the common room of HCAS

Sokolova is grateful for Kone Foundation and the Collegium for providing an academic safe haven in which it was possible to recover from the shock of the war and figure out what to do next. The fellowship at the Collegium gave her a sense of stability and security, which was the most important thing in the immediate aftermath of emigration. 

“Since the war started, I was not sleeping, nor eating, and we understood that, although we do not know where we are going, we must leave. […] It might be hard to imagine that a single year of funding can feel like providing stability, but in our case it meant a really high level of stability in comparison to the situation of many other colleagues who have, like, two-month fellowships, forcing them to change countries and organize documents all the time,” Sokolova says. 

Prospects for the future 

One of the benefits of the Collegium as a host institution was that the incoming researchers could be immediately integrated into an active research community of scholars from various countries and disciplines. Anna Sokolova stresses that it was important for her to be surrounded by the supportive atmosphere at the Collegium, by the friendly communication and events, which forced her to connect with others and helped her not to concentrate on the dark side of the situation only. 

Sokolova is working at the Collegium on her project “On the Edge of Socialism: State Institutes and Everyday Life on the Late Soviet Periphery”. She says that since the start of the war, she has seen her research topic in a new light, as she has come to perceive connections between the late Soviet period and contemporary Russia. She will continue her work in the fall 2023 with a one-year funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation.  

“I got great support with my application to the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which I had to submit in October, quite soon after my arrival. Hanne [Appelqvist] and Tuomas [Forsberg] explained to me that this is exactly what I should do right now, and I did. I am very grateful for them for pushing me to do that.” 

Historian Anton Kotenko mentions that he has genuinely enjoyed the interdisciplinary setting of the Collegium.  

Being surrounded not only by historians of the nineteenth century Romanov empire, but by scholars studying such diverse topics as individual variations in perceptual chunking of spontaneous speech or general trust in society around you, makes one see the world in a whole new light.” 

When the war broke out, Kotenko resigned from his previous position at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. At the Collegium, he is finishing the project with which he applied to HCAS, a manuscript of a book on the history of Ukrainian national territorialization in the nineteenth century. Since the beginning of his HCAS term in October 2022, he has been able to secure further funding in the form of a three-year fellowship from the German Research Society. Kotenko is hoping that these two projects at HCAS and in Germany will become the first steps for relaunching his academic career in the next few years.  

“In 2024 I will start working on the history of zoological gardens in the Romanov empire as a researcher at the Department of History of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. And as far as Korkeasaari Zoo was opened in 1889, I hope to be back in Helsinki quite soon to look for the primary sources in the local archives related to its establishment and the first decades of its existence.” 

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation week in September 2022

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation seminar in September 2022.

Kotenko is also actively involved with organizing an HCAS symposium for the fall 2023 on the validity of historical analogies and comparisons. The topic will be discussed in general theoretical terms but illuminated by reference to concrete cases such as the war in Ukraine, which has prompted different historical analogies by diplomats, politicians, scholars and journalists who have tried to explain the war and predict future developments. 

During his year at the Collegium, Sergei Medvedev has been able to finish his book “A War Made in Russia”, forthcoming in the summer 2023 with Polity Press. Furthermore, he has been able to contribute actively as a columnist for several Russian-language exile media outlets. 

In the fall 2023, Medvedev will begin work at Charles University in Prague as the academic supervisor of a new master’s program in Russian studies. For the past 15 years, he has been making a Russian-language television program called “Archaeology”, named after Michel Foucault’s archaeological method, which offers in-depth conversations with academics on current issues. In Prague, Medvedev will continue his work of hosting intellectual talk shows for Radio Liberty, which has its headquarters in Prague.  

Emigration and the Russian research context 

Sergei Medvedev points out that the Kone Foundation Fellowship at the Collegium has significantly contributed to the possibility of Russian academics to continue to work abroad after the recent political developments in Russia. He adds that the crisis situation has touched different fields differently.  

“It is of course difficult to ruin entire schools and institutions that have been there for decades, but especially in my field, political science, the Russian research context has been ruined. Let’s face it, these days Russia is a fully grown classical fascist country. How can you do political science and think freely in a fascist state? You have to comply with the ideological dictate.” 

While researchers in the natural sciences may still have good funding opportunities and a better chance to stay in Russia, also their lives have become precarious because all contacts abroad have been effectively banned and news about professors being reported to the police are abound. 

Medvedev has followed the changes at his former university, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which used to be the most international academic institution and one of the best schools in social and economic sciences in Russia. 

“It is amazing to see how it is ruined from within. Since it is an important state institution, it is under the direct auspices of the presidential administration. The entire leadership has changed, and it is totally loyal to the war. There are war commanders coming there and talking to students, it has opened campuses in Luhansk in the occupied territory, there are recruitment points for students, and some of my ex-fellow professors are encouraging students to volunteer to go fight on the front. The university newspaper published reports about students who are fighting in Donbas on the Russian side operating drones and killing Ukrainians. It was just announced that there will be free education for anyone who participated in the war and for the children of those who are on the front. They are collecting money and goods for Russian soldiers at war, there are signs of propaganda at the university, without any reservation or shame. They have just joined the fascist operation. And this has been a global university where English speech could be heard just as often as Russian speech and with some Nobel laureates teaching. It is really striking to see such degradation in the educational scene in the matter of just one year, in an institution to which you belonged and where you worked for twenty years.” 

Anna Sokolova points out that while the total percentage of researchers who have left Russia may not be very big, the ones who left are those scholars who were the most active and the most connected to international academia. “In some departments, they lost only one or two scholars, but in other departments everyone left.”  

At the same time, there are many reasons why researchers opposing the current regime have been forced to stay, for instance, because they must take care of dependent persons such as their elderly parents.  Sokolova finds it important to stay in contact on a personal basis with her former colleagues who are still in Russia – not with institutions but with individuals.  

“Somehow I feel that my community is not complete without them, because we as a community of scholars in Russia were split in so many parts by this war, and I think if I can save any kind of connections in such a state of total disruption, it is very important both for us here and for them there,” she says. 

Anton Kotenko hopes that the crisis of the war will galvanize studies of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.  

“Many problems that have been discussed since February 2022 have their roots in the age of empires, but unfortunately, these have not been properly studied. Hopefully, historians will realize that they must take more responsibility for the world around them and provide it with decent studies of the past, which will develop from a larger number of visionary research projects.” 

 

 

Democracy and Contrarian Epistemologies 

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius and Tero Toivanen

In democracy, contrarian epistemologies – such as conspiracy theories, scepticism and, perhaps to a lesser degree, denialism – float near the epistemic centre. Tentatively defined as relational epistemologies founded on the deep-seated distrust of power-wielding authorities and knowledge-producing institutions, contrarian epistemologies have a long history. This alerts researchers to their longevity as a social phenomenon and the referentiality, rather than newness, of their content. While contrarian epistemologies are always present and available, their popularity peaks in crisis situations, such as the contemporary ‘polycrisis’, in which political, social, economic, environmental, security and health emergencies converge.  

At least, these seem to be the key takeaways of the HCAS Symposium ‘Conspiracy theories, denialism and scepticism: Contrarian epistemologies between epistemic fringe and democratic core’. 

The symposium 

Organised on 1–2 December 2022, the symposium consisted of a two-day academic programme, featuring an opening address, three keynotes and five panel sessions, as well as the public event organised at Oodi, the Helsinki Central Library. The event attracted over 100 participants from Finland and abroad.  

Public event “Democratisation of knowledge and a crisis of democracy” at the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, with journalist Johanna Vehkoo (Tampere University), Alfred Moore (University of York), Emilia Palonen (University of Helsinki), Elżbieta Korolczuk (Södertörn University), and Martin Hultman (Chalmers University).

While the symposium website, including the programme, can still be viewed online, in what follows we would like to build on all the excellent contributions and reflect on what can be learnt from the symposium as a whole, especially as regards the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies to democracy.  

Our aim as organisers of the symposium was exploratory, as we posited the relationship between democracy and contrarian epistemologies as an empirical question. The answers given to this question by the symposium contributions appear to point to the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in democracy in at least three ways. Yet, this epistemic centrality renders contrarian epistemologies ripe for exploitation by actors whose motivations, goals and modi operandi run counter to democracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and knowledge infrastructures 

The first way in which contrarian epistemologies remain near the epistemic heart of contemporary democracies is through their close relationship to mainstream knowledge and its infrastructures.  

Indeed, as our symposium made plain, mainstream knowledge in its various guises is conventionally suffused with contrarian epistemologies. While conspiracy theories provide exciting plot structures for popular literature and conversational material for everyday talk  on social media, scepticism propels scientific debates and underlies investigative journalism.  

Although the imbrication of contrarian epistemologies and mainstream knowledge is inherent to democracy under the conditions of freedom of speech, it can also be exploited by undemocratic, or fiercely anti-democratic, actors who seek to colonise existing institutions or create their own.  

In this manner, the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary hijacked state media while changing the law to populate private media companies with its cronies. The international ‘anti-gender’ movement, in its turn, has levelled up from producing its own pseudoscientific literature to establishing universities (vide the Collegium Intermarium in Warsaw linked to the conservative, ‘anti-gender’ think-tank, Ordo Iuris).   

Contrarian epistemologies and the status quo 

The second way in which contrarian epistemologies are epistemically central in contemporary democracies is their broad usage by elite actors engaged in protecting the status quo and business as usual. 

The most instructive example here is perhaps the climate crisis, which has not been properly addressed, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting an impending catastrophe. The responses to such evidence range on the spectrum from wholesale denialism to scepticism towards its interpretations to the acceptance of evidence uncoupled from any meaningful action. Grouped together under the heading of ‘climate obstruction’, they can be understood as a contrarian epistemology of delay and inaction, which generates apathy rather than mobilisation while the planet rapidly warms; this epistemology has been promoted by fossil fuel companies, industries, neoliberal think tanks and contrarian scientists. 

Similarly, conservative political and social actors bent on preserving their privilege and position do resort to contrarian epistemologies if their status is threatened. An apt empirical example is, again, the ‘anti-gender’ movement, which both denies the existence of gender by binding identity with biological sex and discredits those who pursue, for example, gender equality, sexual rights or reproductive justice as agents of one or another global conspiracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and political actors 

The third way in which our symposium demonstrated the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies was by showing that they can act as a springboard to the acquisition of power through democratic elections, as evidenced by the rise of populist politicians worldwide.  

The compatibility between populism and contrarian epistemologies resides in that both are distrustful of institutions of power and knowledge controlled by the elite, who are always already corrupt and continuously scheming behind the scenes to secure their self-interest at the expense of the ‘people’. It is perhaps a curious feature of contrarian epistemologies that they can be used both by the elite actors to protect the status quo and by the populists to challenge that elite and, at least superficially, the status quo. 

Going beyond the populist hype, our symposium also looked at the ‘usual suspects’ of contrarian epistemologies, who can hardly be mistaken for being committed to democracy, such as European far-right parties and ultranationalists in Russia. In their hands, contrarian epistemologies often take aim at the weak and marginalised as well as at democracy itself.  

To drive home the point that contrarian epistemologies can aid the process of exploiting democratic politics to undemocratic ends, we also discussed the case of Nazi Germany, where the entire fascist project was built around the naturalised threat of the so-called Jewish cabal. 

Contrarian epistemologies: A litmus test for democracy? 

Our symposium showed the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies across the board. From popular culture and social media to journalism and the academia, and from the socioeconomic and political elites to the actors challenging those elites from the margins of democratic politics, the prevalence of contrarian epistemologies can be linked to the cherished democratic principles, such as freedom of speech. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that contrarian epistemologies are an indispensable element of any democracy.  

Yet, they can also be used to propel reorientation away from democracy. As much as the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies is an empirical question, so perhaps is their democratic character. 

They can engender critical knowledge instrumental in alleviating inequalities but, taken to the extreme, they may also subordinate knowledge to the ideology predicated on those same inequalities. Similarly, contrarian epistemologies can both mobilise and impede collective actions geared towards the democratic common good. Finally, from the perspective on democracy as a system of political equality, contrarian epistemologies can be pro-democratic when they target the elite and anti-democratic when they are turned against the weak and marginalised.  

At the current conjuncture, we know that our democracy is in crisis but we cannot really gauge the direction in which it is moving or grasp how far it has already gone. Under such circumstances, maybe we can turn to contrarian epistemologies – their content, prevalence and function – as a litmus test.  

We know that 21st-century authoritarianism and fascism do not come marching, clad in brown shirts. Instead, they may be creeping in on us through institutions of ideological indoctrination that disguise themselves as places of research and learning, through ‘petromasculinities’ that masquerade as objective economic realities, and through political actors that pretend to challenge the ‘elite’, all the while pitting the ‘people’ against other people. More research on contrarian epistemologies may be just what is needed to make sense of what is happening to contemporary democracies and to take stock of the extent to which they are still democracies at all. 

HCAS 20 Years – Anniversary Greeting

By Morten Kyndrup, professor, Aarhus University, HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS (University-based Institutes of Advanced Study), former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

Prof. Morten Kyndrup giving a talk at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration on June 15, 2022

Professor Kyndrup’s speech was delivered at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Helsinki Collegium in the Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to convey my greetings today on the occasion of this 20 years birthday of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. So first of all: Congratulations on the anniversary!

One might ask: Why celebrate such an occasion? There is nothing really honorable about age in itself. Everybody acquires age over time! What counts, of course, is what you have achieved, what you do, and how you do it. This indeed applies to Institutes for advanced study.

I am not going to repeat today the beautiful story about the rise and development of the phenomenon of institutes for advanced study since the first one was created in Princeton in the 1930’s – in fact based on an amalgamation of two different European University traditions, the British Oxbridge system based on colleges, and the continental Humboldt-tradition of free, individual research. As such, a nice example of import-export, since this American invention inspired by Europe was subsequently re-exported back to Europe and to the whole world. Moreover, the idea of institutions like institutes for advanced study has spread increasingly fast over the last 50 years.

Why, one might ask? This is another long story. But at this occasion two points should be emphasized (to avoid widespread misunderstandings): First of all, institutes for advanced study were never thought of as alternatives to the ordinary university systems, but exactly as tiny supplements, exceptions, lacunas, with space to work and to meet with, temporarily, top notch colleagues from other disciplines under alternative circumstances. And secondly: Meeting not in order to turn disciplines into interdisciplinarity, but to let disciplines fertilize each other in their proper disciplinarities respectively. The two are by no means the same thing.

Anyway, the idea of institutes for advanced study is not an easy one to realize. It certainly produces “structural difficulties” to be a permanent, marginal exception to an overall system – especially if that overall system owns you. Unfortunately, such difficulties have led many universities worldwide to opportunistic shortcuts. Over the last decades, many institutes have been launched under the name of “advanced study” without actually fulfilling the criteria for or following the tradition of such institutes. There are quite some examples of initiatives, which have aimed at profiting from the IAS-connected prestige without actually engaging in the necessary endeavors to create such an institution, being, literally spoken, just a sign on the wall, a name without any real substance. I have seen – and visited – institutes with just a couple of fellows, institutes with local fellows exclusively, and institutes which were in fact nothing but a university’s visiting program or a traditional disciplinary institute just under another label.

Now this is why two international network organizations, the UBIAS (University-based institutes of advanced study worldwide) and the NetIAS (A European network of institutes) were created, both with stringent membership criteria (grosso modo identical) concerning institutional status, admission criteria, kinds of fellowship programs, scientific independence etc.

This brings me back to the good reasons for celebrating the Helsinki Collegium on its 20 years anniversary today: Here in Helsinki no shortcuts have been taken. The Helsinki Collegium is a real “classical” institute for advanced study, and as such, it is a core and distinguished member of both international networks. Like any other institute for advanced study, the Helsinki Collegium has led a life full of dangers and obstacles, because that is how it is to be a small institutional, permanent exception in the margins of a much bigger system. But the Helsinki Collegium has stuck to the principles, has built up and preserved its status as a genuine institute for advanced study. As such, the Helsinki Collegium has been an ideal to many of its sister-institutes worldwide. When I myself was about to create the foundation for AIAS, a new institute in Aarhus, some 12 years ago, I traveled around to learn from existing institutes. The first three I visited was the WiKo in Berlin, the SCAS in Uppsala, both much older, well-established institutes, and the Helsinki Collegium, by then less than 10 yrs old.

Over the years, I’d like to add, a close and fruitful cooperation has been flourishing between the AIAS and Helsinki Collegium – at staff level, between fellows and of course between directors, bilaterally and in the international networks. At this occasion, I will take the opportunity to thank the Helsinki Collegium warmly for this cooperation on behalf of AIAS and Aarhus University.

All in all, there are indeed good reasons for celebrating this anniversary of the Helsinki Collegium. Not because of age, but because of the institute’s achievements as a genuine, classical institute for advanced studies. The Helsinki Collegium has developed itself and thrived in spite of occasional hard times and difficult conditions. On top of that, the Helsinki Collegium has also contributed substantially to making the very concept of these institutes thrive and evolve internationally.

Achievements like that are of course not signed by the walls of the building. They are the result of ongoing endeavors of the staff, of the board members, and not least of the fellows of the Helsinki collegium. Nothing comes out of nothing, and real world achievements certainly do not.

So, congratulations to the Helsinki Collegium, to all of you behind these achievements, no one named, no one forgotten. But I can think of at least a handful of living persons, having over the years done the most honorable, determined efforts to make this come true.

However, I would also like to congratulate University of Helsinki on this occasion. You can be proud of the Institute for advanced study you have created. It contributes immensely, not least symbolically to your reputation as one of the world’s leading classical universities.

The Helsinki Collegium is a distinguished member of the leading international networks of institutes for advanced study. I am confident that I can extend my greetings today to be on behalf of also NetIAS and UBIAS.

Finally, as we do on anniversaries, I wish you a long and healthy life in the times to come. I can promise you that it is not going be easy. However, I am confident that you will survive, develop yourself and thus remain among the best, classical institutes for advanced studies worldwide.

Morten Kyndrup and other guests at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration

(Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

 

The Content of Our Character: Coming to terms with Racist roots.

By Keith Brown

The recent debate at the University of Helsinki around the beloved Finnish boardgame Star of Africa—and in particular how to respond when cherished family traditions turn out to be vehicles for the unwitting transmission of racist stereotypes—hit home for me.  I have my own warm memories from growing up in England, playing games like the 1938 Buccaneer or the 1965 Mine-a-Million where the goal was to bring riches home from exotic locations.

We didn’t ever talk about race and racism. It wasn’t, after all, a life and death issue for my parents or for me—the way it is, so immediately, for black families in the United States. I knew nothing about sundown towns or “the talk” that most black parents have with their children, in the hope it will save their lives when—not if—they are stopped by police officers.

Instead, I enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness. As we played those games, or when the stick-figure battle scenes I drew included British soldiers fighting off Zulu attackers, neither my teachers nor my parents took it as an opportunity or an imperative to discuss the ways in which the modern world, and our own privileged position in it, was the product of resource-transfers and ideologies of white entitlement that were shaped by conquest and colonialism. Like most of the enthusiastic British audience of the still-popular feature film Zulu, which tells the story of the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift, I never asked, or was asked, what exactly the British army was doing in the middle of Africa.

“The defence of Rorke’s Drift” (1879), Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

50 years on, even after studying for a doctorate in anthropology and teaching international relations and global studies for almost two decades, I still have a lot to learn. That’s been especially clear to me over the past decade, as a naturalized U.S. citizen witnessing the heightened political polarization that followed the election of the country’s first black President. And even more so, watching the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 2021 and the disinformation that preceded and followed it.

Crowd at the Capitol, January 2021. Wikimedia commons.

I say witnessing and watching, because even though my wife and daughter are American-born, I have maintained the illusion that my English roots make me an observer, rather than participant, in America’s long struggle with its racist roots.  Graduate school room-mates in Chicago had to instruct me on the significance of Harold Washington’s legacy as the city’s first black mayor. And it was later still that I came to appreciate the distinctive legacy of Martin Luther King; both his commitment to non-violence, and his dream that future Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I still struggle to understand how anyone of good conscience can support action or speech that opposes those values. I know that some people, wittingly or not, do; but I’ve imagined that they and I have little or nothing in common.

And then, last month a letter I found in my parents’ flat shattered my illusions of innocence. Sorting through my late father’s papers, I found an envelope, postmarked Albany, Georgia, USA, and addressed to my great-grandfather, H.J. Decker, in Liverpool, England. Inside was a ten-page handwritten letter from his father-in-law, W.H. Gilbert, bearing the date July 20 1912. And on the very first skim through, on the penultimate page, two sentences stood out, which included the names of H.J. Decker’s wife and W.H.Gilbert’s daughter (Maud), and H.J.’s daughter and my beloved grandmother, after whom we named my own daughter (Chloe). Those sentences first bound me intimately to the sender and recipient, by naming the person we knew in common; and then repelled me. “Give lots of love and kisses to Maud and the kids,” writes W.H. Gilbert. And then, breezily, with no inkling of how his choice of words might resound decades later, “What did Chloe think of the postcard I sent her? ‘N***** in a cotton patch.’”

I had known that my grandmother Chloe was born in Georgia and spent significant time there in her youth. I recall also that, early in my teaching career in anthropology, she and I had at least one conversation about race, in which I tried to articulate to her the value of cline theory in helping students understand that racial boundaries are not inscribed in biological difference, but are rather culturally and socially constructed. We didn’t agree.  And perhaps for that reason, our conversations tended to focus on the more exotic and glamorous side of her family heritage; her Russian émigré grandparents, H.J. Decker’s parents, who left Moscow soon after their 1861 wedding to settle in Liverpool.

Gilbert-Decker-Brown Family tree. Graphic: Anita Mezza.

As Canadian-Scottish journalist Alex Renton discussed in the context of his recent book Blood Legacy, doing family history is not about passing judgement on our ancestors’ characters. It represents the opportunity and the debt we owe our elders to pay attention to the clues they leave behind, as we struggle to try to leave the world better than we found it for our children. I treat this letter, then, as a gift handed down through 3 generations, and seek to honor the legacy by trying to understand what they are telling me. I take as the core challenge—still relevant in these polarized times—to explain how good people embrace and pass on bad ideas.

The Experience of Combat

The start of Gilbert’s letter emphasizes an aspect of life that evokes our enduring curiosity and interest. Gilbert expresses as his goal to provide “a little history of my war experiences” on which, he hopes, his son-in-law H.J. can “elaborate… and make it interesting to your soldier boys over there.”

The opening of the letter.

In 1912, H.J. was a commissioned officer in Britain’s Territorial Force, established in 1908 as an Army reserve. His day job was as a cotton broker—the profession he had entered direct from Sedbergh School in 1890, and which had brought him across the Atlantic to the American South almost every summer. In the course of multiple visits to Albany, he and Gilbert had surely had prior conversations about combat, and H.J. had now solicited a written narrative that he could share with the young soldiers in the artillery unit that he would go on to command during the First World War (1914-18).

British artillerymen in combat, World War I. Image: UBC Library Digitization Centre, no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gilbert’s narrative ties me back to the US Civil War (1861-65)—and specifically, to the Confederacy of eleven Southern states which broke from the North after the election of President Abraham Lincoln. W.H. Gilbert enlisted as a volunteer in Georgia in April 1861, at the rank of private. The letter provides a chronology of his active service, listing sixteen “big battles” in which he participated, including 2nd Manassas (Bull Run, August 1862), Sharpsburg (Antietam, September 1862) and Gettysburg (July 1863). Reflecting on his extended service, Gilbert marvels at the charmed life he enjoyed for so long, and reports the moment his luck ran out.  “I guess I was engaged in about 40 battles and skirmishes during the four years, and I assume you don’t see how I came out as well as I did, for I rarely ever went into one that something about me was struck with a ball. Clothes, cartridge box, cap, haversack or something, and I had about concluded I would escape sound and all right, but the 12th of May 1864 I lost my foot as you know, and has been a drawback to me all through life.”

Luck and loss.

The letter includes other details of the experience of war.  He recalls the hardship of life on short rations, especially in the campaign leading up to Antietam, which other veterans also described as the ‘Green Corn Campaign.’”  He recalls the carnage of the battlefield at the 2nd Manassas, where “…we met a Brigade of Red Pants, …, Zouaves, and when the battle was over, one could walk full length of the Brigade on red britches, I never saw such a destruction of life in my life, red britches were discarded after then for they made too good a target.”  He speaks proudly of his own and his fellow-soldiers’ resilience and undertaking long forced marches where he saw “many a soldier marching without a shoe on and almost without clothing.”

Image: A.C. Redwood, Courtesy, New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

He mentions crossing the Potomac after Gettysburg, when ”water came up to my armpits and we tall men had to float the little fellows over.” And the experience of sleeping in the open, utterly exhausted, and waking up to find the camp was blanketed with snow.  These vivid, telling details are the common stuff of military memoirs, recalling comradeship, horror and a sense for the suffering and loss on both sides.

Trauma, Heroism and Impossible Odds

Understandably, Gilbert’s writing dwells in particular on his own personal trauma. He was at the “Horseshoe”—a defensive position designed to exact heavy losses on Northern attackers during the Battle of the Spotsylvania Courthouse—when he lost his foot. After first mentioning his injury, Gilbert then refers to the wound and its long-term negative effects four times in the course of ten sentences. He also reports his brother’s death at the fall of Petersburg (March 1865).

Apart from these intimate losses, and the description of piled bodies at the 2nd Manassas, the only other death he describes in the letter is Stonewall Jackson’s, in May 1863. Gilbert had already praised Jackson’s leadership, drive and inventiveness, and devotes extended time to the moment that he, like others, saw as a tragic turning point for the war effort.

Stonewall Jackson – as remembered and mourned. Image: John Esten Cooke, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The day he was killed, or wounded and died from his wounds, at Chancellorsville, he marched us 23 miles by 2 o’clock on a flank movement and we drove the enemy 3 miles by nightfall, with a terrible loss to them in killed and wounded, and we captured around 4000 prisoners and 16 pieces of artillery and that night he lost his life, which in my opinion broke the back of the Confederacy, because we never could fill his place.

Gilbert’s focus and tone, up to this point in the letter, highlight how the Confederate army’s prowess, combined with its leaders’ skill and cunning, brought early battlefield success. From this moment on though, the letter’s tone shifts, emphasizing that Confederate bravery and skill is not enough to overcome their foes’ superiority in numbers. On the first day of Gettysburg, he writes, “Our brigade drove the enemy through the wheatfield and city and our casualties were very small, but we gave them a terrible loss, but of course we could not hold it, for the odds were too great.”

“Harvest of death” – Gettysburg after the battle. Image: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And when reflecting on the larger course of the war, later in the letter, he inserts an observation about the ultimate reason for the war’s outcome. “I shall always believe that had Jackson lived, we could have gone into Washington from Gettysburg” he writes. But then he adds, “I don’t think we could have held it, for the reason we fought the entire world, capturing a good many who could not speak a word of English.”

This comment is consistent with data on the significant role of first-generation immigrants in the Union Army.  Most historians of the Civil War also agree that Jackson’s battlefield leadership was charismatic and dynamic; that Robert E. Lee was a highly effective general; that Gettysburg marked the decisive turning point of the war. Once the Confederate attempt to enlist foreign assistance against the Union failed, the industrial and numerical superiority of the North was bound to prevail in the war of attrition.

“Lost cause” and preserved convictions

Gilbert then builds on these data points—derived from his own intimate and immediate experiences of combat—with a reflection that is more open to question.  He first makes what looks like a straightforward statement in favor of peaceful negotiation over deadly war, writing “I had enough fighting then to last me up to date and a poor settlement is better than one fight.”  He then shares with H.J. his larger perspective on the causes of the war in which he lost so much, writing:

“There never was a war as useless…”

There never was a war in my opinion that was as useless as ours, for by listening to reason and common sense, of such men as B.H. Hill and Alex Stephens matters could have been amiably (sic) settled. And to the best interest of all. For slavery was a doomed institution and could have been abolished gradually, without a drop of blood being shed, but hot-headed politicians inflamed the people with their fire-eating speeches and the people went wild, and into war we plunged head fore-most.

The two men referred to here as champions of “reason” and “common sense” were both professional Georgian politicians. In the run-up to war in the 1850s, both had opposed secession on grounds of Southern self-interest. Both held office during the Confederacy—Benjamin Hill as senator, and Alex Stephens as vice-president. Both were jailed after the war before returning to public life and elected office.  They were both fierce critics of the ideas and practices of Reconstruction—the period of 1865-1877 in which serious and sustained efforts were made to undo systems of racial inequality across the South.

In Dreams of a More Perfect Union, Rogan Kersh offers a close reading of Benjamin Harvey Hall’s strongly worded critique of the impacts of Reconstruction in Georgia, delivered in speech at Atlanta’s Davis Hall in 1867 and reiterated in the widely circulated “Notes on the Situation.” He disputed the war’s victors’ claim to represent the Union, insisting instead that “This is not the Union of our fathers. This is, emphatically, a Reconstructed Union.” Hill told his Southern audience that both during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath, they had been targets of “a diabolical sectionalism in the very teeth of every principle of the American Union” (cited in Kersh 2001: 198).  In Kersh’s analysis, Hill advanced a vision of the Union with “space for southerners to manage local affairs, and particularly to determine the status of blacks in the region” (2001: 222).

In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens laid out what was at stake for the South in his “Cornerstone” speech. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd, he made the tendentious claim that the Founding Fathers’ criticisms of slavery as a violation of natural law were mistaken. Their error, in Stephens’ argument, was the cause of the political crisis of the Republic, and the government’s fall.  In the same logical vein, he labels abolitionists as fanatics who demonstrate a “species of insanity” because, “they were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.” Invoking divine authority, Stephens asserts that the new Confederate constitution would correct this fatal flaw.

Writing after Stephens’ death in 1883, A Macon Telegraph writer recalled that Stephens “always prided himself on what he called his “corner-stone” speech, wherein he declared slavery the great corner-stone of the new republic.” Kersh describes Stephens’s post-war views as demonstrating “warmed-over confederate doctrines” (Kersh 2001: 221). An example of Stephens’ revised language but unchanged mindset appears in his 1868 A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, in which he claimed that the labor system in place in the antebellum South was “so-called” slavery, which in his words “was not Slavery in the full and proper sense of that word” but was rather “a legal subordination of the African to the Caucasian race” (1868: 539).

In his choice of figures to praise, and in the statement that slavery was an insufficient reason for the war, Gilbert tacitly endorses what numerous historians—including Gaines Foster, Gary W. Gallagher,  Alan T. Nolan, David Blight and Nicole Maurantonio—identify as Lost Cause mythology. By denying that slavery was the sectional issue, Lost Cause ideology painted the South as the true heirs of the Constitution and the North as the aggressors. Lost Cause ideology continues to distort U.S. understandings of the past, and underpins contemporary racism. When Gilbert refers to “hot-headed politicians” with their “fire-eating speeches”, it is possible that he is thinking primarily of abolitionists like John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, whose actions and speeches in the 1850s were widely seen by Southerners as both treasonous and anti-Southern, thus affirming the perspective that the Confederacy preserved what was “best” in the Constitution.  It may also be a more general attack at Republic politicians—starting from Lincoln himself, and including those advocates of post-war Reconstruction—whom Gilbert viewed as posing a threat to his America.

“The Lost Cause”, Henry Mosler (1868). Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lost inheritance, and Recovered Status

W.H. Gilbert’s combat experience, clearly, was formative in shaping his worldview. So too, it appears, was his family background. In post-war census records, he is identified as a druggist, so a medical professional. His father, John B. Gilbert, is identified in the 1850 and 1860 censuses as a physician. In the year before his son W.H. Gilbert enlisted, John Gilbert’s real estate was valued at $19,500, and his personal estate at $42,950 (or around $650,000 and $1.4 million respectively, for a total worth of just over $2 million, in 2021 equivalents).

The high value of his personal estate was a function not of John Gilbert’s medical practice, but a second profession also listed in the census: farmer. Like many white families in the territory referred to as the “Black Belt,” the Gilberts derived income from cotton farming. In this regard, John B. Gilbert’s prosperity was a product of rapid transformation between the 1780s and 1830s, as state leadership encouraged settlers to invest in lands expropriated from the Cherokee and Muskogee nations. John Gilbert was born in Crawfordville, Georgia in 1814, just three years after Alex Stephens, who returned to the town to live out his old age at Liberty Hall. John Gilbert achieved financial security by moving north into territory made available by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. His personal estate valuation includes enslaved men and women: the slave registers for Lee County in both 1850 and 1860 identify John B. Gilbert as the titular owner of 26 (unnamed) people—almost certainly the labor force on a medium-sized cotton plantation.

Excerpt from the 1850 slave register of the US Federal Census, Lee County, Georgia, with entries #14-26 of unnamed enslaved people, in John B. Gilbert’s legal ownership.

John B. Gilbert died in January 1864, while his sons W.H. Gilbert and Rudolph were still on active service. He therefore did not live to see the break-up of the plantation which had depended on the labor of enslaved people. Most likely, the Gilberts’ land in Lee County  followed the evolution of the estates around Albany that W.E.B.Dubois describes so vividly from a visit in at the turn of the century in the Souls of Black Folk, when he found scenes of “…phantom gates and falling homes… all dilapidated and half ruined” (Du Bois 1903/2007, 86). Mindful of historical change and conscious of the wars waged against the indigenous owners, the violence of the plantation system, and also of the asset-stripping that followed the Civil War, Dubois invokes an image of biblical retribution. “This was indeed the Egypt of the Confederacy,” he writes, as if mindful of Gilbert’s own recollections of campaigning, “the rich granary whence potatoes and corn and cotton poured out to the famished and ragged Confederate troops as they battled for a cause lost long before 1861” (ibid., 86).

W.H. Gilbert, though, parlayed this lost inheritance into a new venture, entering politics with some success.  He took a prominent role in veterans’ organizations, serving as president of survivors of the 4th Georgia Regiment. The Macon Telegraph reported from an 1893 reunion that Gilbert, now holding the rank of Captain, “carries more than one scar to attest his courage upon the field.”  He drew on his war record, and his father’s former standing, to win election as a city alderman as early as 1870, aged 26, before serving five year-long terms as Mayor of Albany, in 1885 and then from 1891-1895.

Example of Confederate Memorial day celebrations from Brunswick, Georgia, 1903. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This family letter, then, is not just the reflection of an old war veteran, sharing experience down the generations with the young soldiers whom his son-in-law will lead to war in France within two years. It also offers a glimpse of a world, which venerated Confederate bravery and gallantry in defense of true American values against all enemies. It reveals that early this century white Southern voters continued to elect officials who believed in the justice of the cause for which they had sacrificed and who read and endorsed authors who maintained and propagated white supremacist ideologies.

Historical voices, contemporary echoes

And finally, Gilbert’s letter shows how ideas about racial stereotypes get passed on without anyone really paying attention. We don’t know for sure exactly what Chloe’s postcard from her doting grandfather looked like. Most likely, it followed the genre used in advertising and other representations of the time, showing black people alongside cotton, usually smiling or at ease. The message such images intended to convey was of a world where people knew where they belonged and were happy in their work. That image of the south stuck with Chloe throughout her life.

A hundred years later, we have the freedom and the responsibility to interpret images like these, and this letter that draws our attention to them, differently. Thanks to a wealth of scholarly and creative works which document the stubbornness of racism in American institutions–including for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ana DuVerney’s 13th, we can see more clearly the reality behind them and put them into context. Gilbert’s letter, penned by a Georgia veteran, contains virtually every element of Lost Cause ideology identified by historians writing since the 1960s. We can, for example, examine the words of the leaders of the Southern States on the eve of the Civil War, and acknowledge that they were not simply defending state rights but advocating for the further extension of slavery. In works like the 1999 book Without Sanctuary, we can readily access postcards of lynchings that circulated widely alongside the one W.H. Gilbert sent his grand-daughter Chloe. Lynchings increased in numbers in the 1890s, a horrific and direct means of enforcing what data-driven analysis of that period identifies as “an intricate and complex system of racial subordination”.

W.H. Gilbert’s postcard to Chloe was also part of that system. So too were public monuments that sprang up across the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation and spread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the continued display of the Confederate battle-flag, whether on display at my great grandfather’s grave in Albany, or on the shoulders of self-styled patriots inside the U.S. Capitol on January 6 2021.

W.H. Gilbert’s gravestone, Albany, Georgia. Image: Brenda Arnett Darbyshire.

When I shared with a colleague at the University of Helsinki my discovery of an enslaver in my own family tree, they responded by saying “so, I guess you’re going to cancel yourself.”  I hope that they are wrong. What I hope instead is to prompt reflection on the legacies of the past. I believe that we best honor our ancestors’ voices by allowing them, and ourselves, the space to be wrong, and to aspire to a more just, equitable future. We stand a better chance of doing so by paying close attention to what they inherited, and what they–and we–choose to pass on.

References

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2013) Americanah. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Allen, James (1999) Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Press.

Anderson, Carol (2016) White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury Books.

Du Bois, W. B. E. (1903/2007) The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DuVerney, Ava (2016) 13th. Kandoo FIlms.

Gallagher, Gary W. and Alan T. Nolan (2000) The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Hill, Benjamin Harvey (1867/1893) Notes on the Situation. In Hill, Benjamin H (Jr.) Senator Benjamin H. Hill: His Life, Speeches and Writings. Atlanta: T.H.P. Bloodworth.

Kersh, Roger (2001) Dreams of a More Perfect Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stephens, Alexander (1868)  A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company.

“Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” – Summary of the Webinar held at the Helsinki Collegium on May 25, 2021

By Sofie Henriksen

In anticipation of the work of Finland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People (TRC), the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) hosted the online event “Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” on May 25th, 2021, for which 120 people from academia, government and civil society in 12 different countries registered.

Outi Pieski: Beavvit – Rising Together, installation, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim.

In line with the Collegium’s interdisciplinary mission, the event brought together Professor of Political Science Rauna Kuokkanen (University of Lapland), Professor of Law Mayo Moran (Trinity College, University of Toronto), and Professor of History David Collins (HCAS/Georgetown University) to discuss historical injustice and reconciliation in a comparative perspective. The event was moderated by Karen Knop, international lawyer and Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor at the Helsinki Collegium in 2020–2021, and Tuomas Forsberg, the director of HCAS and an expert in international relations. 

Truth and Reconciliation Process in Finland concerning the Sámi People

According to its mandate negotiated between the Finnish government and the Sámi Parliament, the purpose of the Sámi TRC in Finland is threefold:

“to identify and assess historical and current discrimination, including the assimilation policy of the state and violations of rights, to find out how they affect the Sámi and their communities in the current situation, and to propose ways to promote links between the Sámi and the state of Finland and among the Sámi people.”

“By forming a common understanding of historical and current discrimination,” the TRC is intended to “lay the foundation for reconciliation between the Sámi and the state and for structural change and trust-based interaction that supports the ability of the Sámi to maintain and develop their own language and culture, including traditional livelihoods – at the core of which is the connection to land and water.”

Rauna Kuokkanen, Research Professor of Arctic Indigenous Studies at the University of Lapland, discussed the prospects for a truth and reconciliation process in Finland. Drawing on political theorist Catherine Lu’s work on justice and reconciliation, Kuokkanen focused on the TRC’s mandate to address contemporary as well as historical injustice and its commitment to structural change. Kuokkanen argued that it would be inadequate to focus only on the examination and rectification of historical wrongdoings and relations between victims and perpetrators because this “interactional” form of justice, as Lu defines it, depoliticises reconciliation by concentrating solely on individual psychological healing. Instead, the foundational problems of structural injustice embedded in institutions, norms and practices must be addressed because they continue to reproduce injustice. Kuokkanen argued that structural reconciliation would require the Sámi to have “genuine and meaningful capacity to govern the central aspects of their society and culture, which inseparably include land rights and land use practices”. In other words, the self-determination of the Sámi people is at the core of structural justice and manifests as what Lu defines as ‘structural dignity’ within a reconciliation context. Kuokkanen categorizes the current form of Sámi self-determination of the Sámi as self-administration rather than self-government, based on the theoretical distinction by Stephen Cornell. Whereas self-government has decision-making authority and has a structure designed by Indigenous peoples themselves, self-administration is often imposed by outsiders, e.g. the settler state, and limited to administering the dissemination of state funding for cultural programs, service delivery and distribution of resources such as jobs.

Furthermore, Kuokkanen touched upon another important aspect of reconciliation related to structural injustice: how to hold the majority population accountable for past injustices. For this discussion, Kuokkanen drew on Iris Marion Young’s distinction between a ‘liability model’ and a ‘social connection model of responsibility’. Whereas the liability model assigns responsibility to the persons who have caused the injustice, the social connection model of responsibility aims at forms of structural injustice, in which linking the injustice directly to individuals is impossible. This is especially relevant in regard to colonial processes which took place in the past but continue as structural injustice in the present. With the social connection model of responsibility, the accountability is related to working against the unjust structures, in the Finnish context settler colonialism, which the majority is benefiting from and often perpetuating. In this sense, the liability model is backward-looking, whereas the social connection model is forward-looking. To illustrate this point, Kuokkanen gave an example of today’s teachers. Although they are not held responsible for the discrimination and racism that took place in the Finnish residential schools to which the Sámi were sent, they do have a shared obligation to counteract unjust structural processes by educating their pupils about the history and culture of the Sámi people in an up-to-date and non-stereotyped way.

Truth and Reconciliation Processes concerning Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada

To contextualize the Canadian TRC, Mayo Moran, Professor of Law, Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, introduced the background of the Canadian Indigenous-Settler relations and the Canadian colonial policies. Since 2007, Professor Moran has chaired the Independent Assessment Process Oversight Committee that assists in the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, the agreement that led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  Canadian colonial policies were designed to eradicate the Indigenous presence through dispossession of Indigenous land, cultural genocide and forced assimilation. As a part of the assimilation policy, Indian Residential Schools were established in partnerships with various churches. For 150 years, approximately 150.000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to brutal residential schools. Children were abused sexually, physically and spiritually.  Countless thousands of children never returned nor received any burial if they died. The schools have inflicted a profound intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families and communities.

Moran referred to the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) as a forerunner to the Canadian TRC. A Canadian government appointed body, it included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous commissioners and had the broad goal of investigating the relationship between Indigenous peoples, the government of Canada and Canadian society. In 1996,  RCAP submitted its five volume 4000 page report.  It contained 440 recommendations including legislative changes as well as the establishment of an Indigenous Parliament to redress gaps in education, health care and housing – which, Moran pointed out, is interesting in the light of Kuokkanen’s discussion of forms of Indigenous self-determination. Moran also noted that RCAP was rather similar to the Finnish TRC in origin and scope. To some degree, Canada’s RCAP could appear to serve as a cautionary tale to those hoping that the Finnish TRC will result in significant changes. But while the majority of the recommendations of RCAP remain unimplemented, it was actually very important in paving the way for the later Canadian TRC.  Among other things, it began to draw the attention of non-Indigenous Canadians to the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. Many commentators also believe it was responsible for inspiring efforts to address the legacy of residential schools which had been little spoken about until then.

Partly as a result of the discussions that began in Indigenous communities after RCAP, in the late 1990s, survivors of Indian Residential Schools began to seek civil remedies for historic sexual abuse and to bring cases against the federal government and churches. By 2005, there were tens of thousands of claims also for loss of language and culture, as well as intergenerational harm. The only alternative was settlement and in 2006, the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations, and various churches signed the Indian Residential Schools Agreement. At an overall cost of between five and six billion dollars, the Agreement created several programs including most importantly the Canadian TRC. In contrast to RCAP, the context of litigation settlement meant that Indigenous people had a powerful voice—no agreement could be reached without their consent and the TRC was one of the most critical priorities of the Assembly of First Nations. Referring to Kuokkanen’s use of Lu’s distinction, Moran noted how the 2006 Agreement had elements of both interactional and structural reconciliation. The interactional element was addressed in several ways. For instance, there were two reparations processes, one for all who attended residential schools and an additional one for those who also suffered serious physical or sexual abuse.   In 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister delivered an apology in the House of Commons to the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. The structural elements were addressed by the TRC which was tasked with the considering larger relationship and locating the history of residential schools within the broader context of colonial policy and ongoing discrimination.

Moran pointed out that although many worried that the focus on litigation and residential schools would distract from the larger narrative, the way that the TRC approached the residential school experience enabled it to serve as a focal point through which the whole Indigenous-Settler relationship could begin to come into focus for ordinary Canadians. Unlike RCAP, which involved broad discussions about politics, colonialism and sovereignty, the TRC approached settler colonialism from a profoundly human point of view: the terrible story of children forcibly taken from their families. Through this history, as Canadians we began started to understand something critical about our own history and place in colonialism. Moran noted that it is too soon to assess the significance of the TRC, since its 94 Calls to Action are only partly implemented. However, the discussions around the TRC have changed the conversation in Canada and forced contemporary Canadians to acknowledge themselves as settlers for the first time, which is in itself a critical step towards reconciliation.

Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation 

David Collins, Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, spoke of Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which he chaired in 2015-2016, and the projects that have followed it. The Working Group (WG) was established to address slaveholding in the University’s history. Founded in 1789, the University ran in part on revenues generated by enslaved labor on plantations owned by the order of Catholic priests, the Jesuits, who ran the university. That history includes a notorious sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838, revenues from which were used to relieve the university from financial stress. The dialogue begun by the WG has continued and broadened to include the descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuit order in the US. Together these parties have, as recently reported in the New York Times, announced the erection of a foundation – the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation – devoted to alleviating racial discord and inequity in American society.

Before turning to several general insights, Prof. Collins highlighted important differences between his case and the Canadian and Finnish examples, e.g., that WG’s efforts were sponsored by a private and religious parties, and the State had/has no role; and that no direct participants in the historical events, as far in the past as they were, could participate in the WG’s efforts. Prof. Collins then offered five insights from his experience in these efforts. First, he noted the crucial importance of the descendants as participants in the discussions. The emergence of the descendants as a participant group followed the WG’s public handling of the university’s slave-holding history. Their work inspired others, who were descendants, to claim, rightly, the history as not simply the university’s but also theirs. Engagement with the descendants was not part of the WG’s initial mandate, and their emergence – ultimately as multifaceted and heterogeneous – took time; nonetheless, engagement with them became a central recommendation in the WG’s year-end report to the university.  A second insight derives from this unexpected, difficult, yet fruitful engagement with the descendants: that a “common” history will still necessarily be look different from different perspectives, and to let one perspective dominate the story-telling inevitably leads to a distorted history. That was certainly the experience for the university as it was confronted by the history of the sale of 1838 as told by the descendants of those sold. The results have been enriching for the university and the Jesuit order.

Third, the WG’s work and the subsequent Descendant-Jesuit-University discussions took (and are taking) place in the larger context of race relations and tensions in the US, which constantly influence(d) those discussions. Several times over the last fifty years, the university and order had turned to address publically their history of slaveholding and slave-trading, but never before had the history attracted such widespread attention both within the larger university community and across the nation. Racial unrest since 2015 has provided a different backdrop to the historical investigations, and the history’s modern-day implications have been raised into high relief as never before. In short, context matters. Fourth, WG’s efforts as well as the subsequent dialogue have had a distinctive religious underpinning. On the one hand, this highlights a difference between the Georgetown case and many others, where religious language and divergent religious commitment can be an impediment to reparative projects on account of religious institutions’ participation in the injustices.  On the other hand, in the Georgetown case it gave some common language and values for the emergent dialogue. In this instance, Catholicism – with its concepts of sin, confession, penance, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation – has provided the common values that could be used both in indictment and in aspiration. Without such a shared touchstone, it is unclear how the Descendant-Jesuit-University dialogue would have proceeded. Fifth and last, there is so much unpredictability in this work. Participants need to be open to that, even as they draft ways forward and work toward particular goals. In the Georgetown case, no one anticipated in September 2015 that descendants would in 2021 be at the heart of any program of atonement and melioration. And yet today their participation is the single-most gratifying component to the work begun in 2015. Openness to the unplanned, Prof. Collins concluded, is clearly among the most important qualities for any group undertaking a process such as this.

Discussion

One of the themes discussed after the speakers’ presentations was that of the understandings and implications of the word ‘reconciliation’. Referring to Kuokkanen and Moran’s presentations, Tuomas Forsberg brought up how reconciliation, referring to the reconciling of two conflicting parties, is a substantively “thick” concept and can seem demanding and infeasible to many. In the Georgetown context, reconciliation was initially a part of the DTRF’s mandate, but Collins described how, for reasons such as Forsberg raised, the word “atonement” was slowly replacing the use of reconciliation. Atonement was a word that emerged in the discussions in which descendants were involved. Collins told of a descendant who, in line with the Catholic sacrament of confession, reminded the DTRF that reconciliation comes with penance. In a comment that illustrated the complexities of the implications of reconciliation, Moran noted that in the Canadian discussions on reconciliation, a departure from religious concepts was necessary precisely because Canadian churches had been involved in the Indian Residential Schools.

An audience member asked whether and how the Finnish TRC could contribute greater collaboration and solidarity within the Sámi community – a community in which certain conflicts are directly linked to colonization. Kuokkanen emphasized that the Finnish TRC is mandated to focus on the relationship between the state and the Sámi, and cannot resolve all conflicts. That does, however, not preclude reconciliation outside the context of the State-Sámi relations. To this, Moran added that the Canadian TRC held seven national events that brought together different groups to discuss reconciliation in what were called ‘learning tents’. Subsequent to these events, community initiatives separate from the national TRC process emerged focusing on commemoration and reconciliation in various ways. Moran described how one initiative was to restore a previous Indian Residential School and make it into an educational center for students to learn more about colonialism. In a starkly opposite and more symbolic initiative,  an Indian Residential School building was burned to the ground.

The last topic raised by the audience was the role of human rights in TRCs, which varied between the Canadian and U.S. contexts. Moran described how human rights were at the core of the Canadian TRC, both in a backward-looking manner, in terms of describing the wrong doings as violations of human rights, and in a forward-looking manner, in terms of Indigenous rights. In contrast, Collins described how appealing to human rights in U.S. courts or through U.S. legislation is not very well developed in relation to slavery and colonization. In relation to the Finnish TRC, Kuokkanen observed that one of its strategies is to strengthen the implementation of Sámi rights, articulated as collective rights in the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People. Therefore, the human rights discourse is embedded in the mandate of the TRC, but it is obviously still too early to say whether it will in fact be central to the discussion and whether the final report will be framed in terms of human rights violations.

This event was held just before the tragic news currently unfolding in Canada involving the discovery of children’s remains in unmarked graves on the sites of a number of former Indian Residential Schools.  On June 30, the Lower Kootenay Band said 182 human remains had been found at St Eugene’s Mission residential school, near the city of Cranbrook, British Columbia. The week before, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the discovery of 751 possible unmarked graves. These discoveries followed the May 27 announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc band that they had found 215 unmarked graves, most of which are believed to be children.

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed the issue in Volume 4 of its report entitled “Missing Children”.  In 2015, it identified over 4100 children who were known to have died while at residential school but noted that there were likely thousands more, many in unmarked and untended graves. 

The allure of conspiracy theories in a time of pandemic

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (HCAS Core Fellow)

Two people holding white paper with the text pandemic #covid19

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I initially became interested in conspiracy theories when studying a blog of a key Polish far-right activist in the context of my Collegium research on mediated racism in Poland. Although this activist first gained public prominence and recognition during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ as one of the leaders of the anti-refugee movement, my analysis quickly revealed that the crux of his writing was, in fact, the elaboration of a multi-layered superconspiracy machinated by the Jews. While the timeworn leitmotiv of the Jewish cabal secretly orchestrating the course of history survives and thrives primarily – though not exclusively – in the anti-semitic far-right milieu, the current proliferation of spurious theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the societal and political significance of conspiracy theories beyond the radical fringes. In Poland, for example, a recent survey has found that as many as 45 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘some foreign powers or countries are deliberately contributing to the spread of the coronavirus’, compared to 42 per cent who attributed the pandemic to ‘natural processes’.

With this in mind, it is as worthwhile to dispel conspiracy theories forcefully as it is to try and untangle their appeal.

Old explanations for a new situation

At the most basic level, a conspiracy theory refers to ‘the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof’ (Fenster, 2008: 21). Although they might be based on kernels of truth, conspiracy theories exploit undisputable facts as a source material for questionable extrapolations. In other words, they are based on ‘the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable’ (Hofstadter, 1966: 38).

As a major part of the political and social (dis)order on a global scale, the ongoing pandemic has rapidly given rise to an impressive range of more or less half-baked conspiracy theories that seek to explain the situation. Symptomatically, many of them have latched onto the already existing explanations and implicated the usual scapegoats. Accordingly, it has been possible for politicians to tap into the seemingly bottomless deposit of antisemitism and represent novel coronavirus as a yet another Jewish plot to alter the world order, take control of sovereign countries and ‘neuter their populations’.

In a similar vein, White House officials have repeatedly intimated that the virus has been engineered in a Chinese lab, perhaps even as a biological weapon. This theory is a perfect illustration of a ‘curious leap of imagination’ that Hofstadter wrote about: it has been inferred from the Chinese government’s secrecy, the underestimation of the number of infections, and the underreporting of deaths. What makes this theory truly useful, though, is that it handily reinforces two anti-Chinese views at once: it confirms the malevolence and callousness of China’s pursuit of world dominance but also, through exposing the security compromises that enabled the virus to escape from the lab, it betrays characteristic Chinese incompetence.

The new villains: intangible, yet personified

More ‘grassroot’ conspiracy theories differ from those propagated by politicians in that in their search for an explanation they turn to the realm of the invisible and the intangible. In particular, the phony links between Covid-19 and technology and/or science seem to take centre stage.

In the technology department, the most popular conspiracy theory draws on 5G scaremongering. In this view, 5G technology weakens the immune system, rendering humans susceptible to viruses which, in turn, use the 5G network as a communication channel. The novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan because it was – counterfactually – the first city where 5G coverage was rolled out.

The next level of this conspiracy theory has been spun by the anti-vaccination movement, which eagerly combines scepticism towards (medical) science with mistrust of technology. The ‘vaccine hesitancy’ groups have piggybacked on the spurious connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus in the origin story that they have concocted for the Covid-19 pandemic. In that tale, the novel coronavirus is produced by 5G technology so as to warrant the creation of a bogus vaccine, intended not to cure the disease but rather to implant microchips through which humans could be remotely controlled.

At that stage, however, some questions still remained unanswered. Does 5G technology generate the virus autonomously? And who is supposed to take control of humanity once it has been microchipped?

A douche, with liquid dripping, photographed in front of a stash of cash

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Any conspiracy theory becomes complete when the ultimate orchestrator is unmasked. And for Covid-19 pandemic, Bill Gates emerged as the grand operator. As a vocal critic of the Trump administration, a technological mogul turned philanthropist, a zealous proponent and generous funder of vaccine development, the Microsoft co-founder is the perfect scapegoat for a crisis that emerges on the intersection of technology and (medical) science.

According to this theory, the evidence of Gates’s culpability abounds. In a 2015 TED talk, he publicly and brazenly anticipated his evil plan by criticising and revealing the shortcomings of global pandemic preparedness. He has even had the audacity to cipher his evil plan in the official name of the disease: ‘COVID-19 (C)ertificate (O)f (V)accination (ID)entification – (1)=A (9)=I “Artificial Intelligence“.’ Already all-powerful, Gates is set to benefit from the pandemic, and the vaccine it brings about, in two ways: through garnering financial profit and enslaving humanity.

The discreet appeal of conspiracy theories

Predictably, the conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic are based on evidence that is circumstantial at best and, more often than not, simply absurd. As such, they have been repeatedly debunked, declared a public health hazard, and ridiculed. Yet, the old plots still circulate, and the new ones continuously emerge, in social media and certain legacy media alike. We must then ask: what currency do conspiracy theories have in contemporary information-rich societies?

Crucially, not only are conspiracy theories a conviction or a set of beliefs, they also fulfil certain cognitive and psychological needs which are otherwise unmet in times of crisis.

Firstly, a conspiracy theory is a mode of cognitive mapping: an attempt to disentangle a complex situation through concocting a graspable, though not necessarily plausible or logical, explanation (Fenster, 2008; Jameson, 1988). Thus, the belief in conspiracy theory helps people to make sense of and navigate a confusing and inhospitable reality (Bale, 2007: 51).

In the case of Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories provide complete, simple, seemingly rationalistic and watertight explanations. This is in stark contrast to the available scientific knowledge – complex, fragmented, changeable and contested – and to the actions of political decision-makers and state authorities, which appear haphazard and self-contradictory. Accepting that the pandemic has a singular cause (technological/military experiments), however absurd, might be more manageable than coming to terms with the complexity of the situation in which too many variables remain unknown.

Secondly, a conspiracy theory functions as a (maladaptive) coping mechanism. Under circumstances of social change, upheaval or crisis, conspiracy theories serve to grasp a rapidly unfolding situation that has a bearing on one’s life but is beyond individual control (van Prooijen and Douglas, 2017). To do that, such theories often rely on spurious new evidence to confirm what is already known, namely a superstition or a prejudice (Byford, 2011). By outsourcing blame onto the usual suspects, conspiracy theories enable people to rationalise, albeit in a way that does not stand to reason, their present difficulties (Bale, 2007). Accordingly, conspiracy theories provide a way for those who view themselves as innocent victims of the pandemic to explain their predicament as having a known, identifiable and evil source, be it the Jewish plot, Chinese incompetence, or Bill Gates’s machinations.

Thirdly, and relatedly, conspiracy theories are a paradoxical way partly to overcome the feeling of powerlessness (Bale, 2007). By denouncing culprits, individuals can reassert their own agency: while in the know, they are able to act on the previously incomprehensible and overpowering situation. If one believes that Bill Gates is single-handedly responsible for Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic, taking to Instagram and bombarding Gates’s profile with accusatory messages might seem like a reasonable and potentially effective course of action.

Taking all the above into account, ad-hoc factual refutations and emotional dismissals might not do much to dispel the allure of conspiracy theories. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories will always be a step ahead of carefully crafted, evidence-based theories in providing an overarching, rationalistic, simple and, therefore, compelling explanation.

While I do not claim to have any practical pointers on how exactly to combat the adverse effects of conspiracy theories, it seems to me that a more effective way to do so would be to enable general public to accept, and cope with, the complexity and unpredictability of the world. Admittedly, this would require some sweeping changes in political communication, media crisis reporting as well as schooling and education, to name but a few examples.

Portrait of Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius

Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (Photo by Tero Alenius)

References

Bale JM (2007) Political paranoia v political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice 41(1): 45-60.

Byford J (2011) Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fenster M (2008) Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2nd edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter R (1966) The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jameson F (1988) Cognitive mapping. In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-357.

van Prooijen J-W and Douglas KM (2017). Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies 10(3): 323-333.

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

The makings of early Islamic identity

By Ilkka Lindstedt (HCAS alumni)

During 2016–2019, Ilkka Lindstedt was a Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. In this piece, he presents some results of his Collegium project “Early Islamic inscriptions as historical sources” and demonstrates that the development of a distinct Islamic identity was slower than what has commonly been thought in scholarship on early Islam.

Fred M. Donner begins his 2002–2003 article “From Believers to Muslims: Confessional Self-Identity in the Early Islamic Community” (Al-Abhath 50–51: pp. 9–53) as follows:

Studies of early Islam, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have almost without exception taken as axiomatic that Islam from its earliest days constituted a separate religious confession distinct from others – in particular, distinct from Judaism, Christianity, Magianism, and of course from the mushrikūn, those who “associate other beings with God.”

In this article and later studies (particularly his monograph Muhammad and the Believers, 2010), Donner has questioned this idea of a distinct Islamic identity during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 CE) and some decades later. As his evidence, he uses early dated and datable sources, such as the Qur’an, Arabic coins and inscriptions, as well as Syriac texts.

Photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

Fig. 1: The beginning of the fifth surah of the Qur’an, photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

First, he points out that the community seems to have lacked a proper name in its beginning. The in-group appellation used by the early sources is muʾminūn, “believers,” scarcely a word that would differentiate the community from Jews and Christians, who also called themselves believers. Second, Donner notes that the Qur’an and some other early sources often present the “People of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians, favorably and as belonging to the community of the believers (though the evidence is conflicting and stereotypical and othering views of the Jews and Christians are present too).

For example, Qur’an 3:113–114 states: “There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous” (transl. Abdul Haleem).

Thus, Donner argues, it is probable that the early community of believers included people from distinct backgrounds: Jews, Christians, gentiles, and others who accepted the stringent monotheism of the community and the Qur’an as a new revelation adding to but not necessarily supplanting earlier revelations. To use the terminology of social psychology, the believer affiliation that the Qur’an articulated and put forward was a recategorized and superordinate identity that did not exclude religious sub-identities.

According to Donner, it was toward the end of the seventh century – around 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – that Islamic identity properly speaking started to be articulated. This occurred through e.g. discoursal processes where the believers adopted the names “Muslims” and “people of Islam” as their in-group designations and drew the border with Jews, Christians, and others by emphasizing the overarching signification of the Prophet Muhammad and rituals that were specific to Islam.

Arabic inscriptions and the “parting of the ways”

Fred Donner’s hypothesis of the late “parting of the ways” (to borrow a concept from early Christian studies) has been received with both appraisal and criticism. In any case, his studies have been widely read, and even those critical of the argument have had to react to them.

To test Donner’s hypothesis, I conducted, during my Collegium Fellowship (2016–2019), a systematic analysis of early dated Islamic-era Arabic inscriptions engraved or painted on stone. These are a unique corpus of evidence, because it is

a) produced by the members of the community of the believers, so it does not suffer from outsider stereotypes;
b) produced by both elite and lay people;
c) often absolutely dated by the writers;
d) the inscriptions are religious in nature and hence proffer information on how the believers perceived and articulated their religiousness and religious identity.

For a comprehensive examination of the available evidence, I collected the (around one hundred) published Arabic inscriptions dated to 640s–740s CE, a period when other sources are scarce. I reread, translated, and analyzed the inscriptions. My study will be published as an article entitled “Who Is in, Who Is out? Early Muslim Identity through Epigraphy and Theory” (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 46, 2019). As my analytical framework, I used the social identity theory, promulgated in social psychology since the 1970s.

The Arabic inscriptions, I submit, provide evidence corroborating Donner’s suggestion. If anything, the inscriptions suggest that the Islamic identity-formation process was slower than Donner put forward in his article, with identity negotiation and permeable borders being attested in the epigraphic texts well into the eighth century CE.

To summarize my findings, the corpus of dated Arabic inscriptions attests indeterminate pious formulae up to the 690s CE, when the first instances of the emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad surface in the texts. In the 700s–720s, there are first mentions of specifically Muslim rites such as pilgrimage, prayer, and fasting. Moreover, it is in the 720s–730s when the words Muslims and Islam began to become consolidated as references to the in-group, supplanting the more ambivalent “believers.”

In my article, I suggest that it is around these decades (720s–730s CE) when we should date the “parting of the ways.” That is to say, since that time most Muslims have categorized themselves as being separate from other religious identifications, such as Jews and Christians, though intergroup contact and influence naturally continued throughout the centuries.

The Qaṣr Kharrāna inscription (710 CE)

As an example, let us cite the following text. It is written in ink on the wall of a building nowadays known as Qaṣr Kharrāna, in Jordan. The text is written by someone named ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar; the inscription is dated to 710 CE. The ink is badly damaged today (see Fig. 2, around the center of the photo, for the inscription), but most of the text is still decipherable.

Photo by Hannu Aukia

Fig. 2, photo by Hannu Aukia

“O God, have mercy on ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar and forgive him his earlier and later sins and those that he made public and kept secret and those that You know best; he … if you do not forgive me and have mercy on me, I will be among the losers [Quran 11:47]; my Lord, You bestow benefactions upon me, for You are certainly the Benefactor; and You have mercy on me, for You are certainly the Merciful; I ask You that You accept from him his supplication and prayer; amen, Lord of the world, Lord of Moses and Aaron [Quran 26:47-48]; may God have mercy on who recites it [the inscription] and then says, ‘amen, amen, Lord …, the Mighty, the Great’; and ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar wrote [this inscription] on Monday, al-Muḥarram 27, in the year ninety-two.”
[AH = November 24, 710 CE]

The writer asks God to forgive his sins and have mercy on him, among other things. The inscription contains some Qur’anic quotations and adaptations (referring to Qur’an 11:47 and 26:47–48), but apart from that there is nothing we might call Islamic identity signaling (and even the Qur’anic passages cited do not include anything that would not be acceptable to Jews and Christians). The writer does not mention the Prophet Muhammad, but instead refers to Moses and Aaron, figures that are venerated by Jews and Christians too.

Religious categorizations and pluralism in early Islam and modern Islamic thought

All in all, the epigraphic record, complimented with other contemporary evidence, show us that the Muslim affiliation came together around one hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad through the construction of perceived shared ideology, social history, scripture, practices, and other common features. It should also be noted that Muslims were, for many centuries, a minority group in the Near East, conversion to Islam being very slow.

The issues of religious categorizations, inter-religious dialogue, and pluralism have been revisited in the modern era by many Muslim scholars. There is an ample literature on these questions. To mention one example, Jerusha Lamptey’s book Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (2014) tackles the question of religious categorizations head-on. She offers an insightful reading of the Qur’an that is in agreement with the idea of pluralism, suggesting that according to the Qur’anic categorizations the differences between religious groups are lateral rather than hierarchical.

She notes (p. 165) that “all revelation and messengers share a common goal of teaching people about God, of guiding them to correct practice, and of warning them of individual accountability and the Day of Judgment.” Since the Qur’an rarely mentions the Prophet Muhammad by name and more often simply talks of a messenger (rasūl) or the messenger (al-rasūl), Lamptey (p. 250) interprets that “in the Qurʾān all people are called to obey a messenger but they are not all called to obey the same messenger.”

Social categorizations are subject to change, if need be, as well as to social and historical context. Fred Donner has put forward a bold and intriguing hypothesis as to how early Islamic identity was articulated and established. In my article, I suggest that the evidence of Arabic inscriptions and social psychological analysis agree with the claims of Donner’s studies. This line of research requires naturally more probing and refining and comparisons with Arabic literature (which is, however, not contemporary but later). An increasing number of Arabic inscriptions and papyri, for example, are published every year, and scholars must take them into account. Furthermore, the studies on early Islamic identity that have been carried out so far do not discuss geographical and other contexts in detail. It is to be supposed that social categorizations functioned in divergent ways in different regions and environment. Hopefully, with more sources available, it will be possible to study the makings of Islamic identities in all of their variety.

 

Making of: Moral Machines

By Susanna Lindberg & Hanna-Riikka Roine

As our contemporary world is increasingly digitalized, the ethical, moral and political issues it encompasses require our immediate attention. Technology can no longer be considered as a mere tool since it has a significant effect on both its users and the surrounding environment as well. This can be seen, for example, in the way we assign new tasks to our computers every day. Needless to say, digitalization has been extremely useful in science, technology, economy and everyday life; despite this, however, we also need to examine our relationship to digitalization with a critical eye.

Moral Machines? Ethics and Politics of the Digital World conference began as an idea to bring together N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University) and Bernard Stiegler (University of Compiègne), the two prominent scholars examining the constantly increasing digitalization of our society. After they agreed to come, we started drafting the overall plan for the conference and quickly realised the vastness of the topic. The development of technology and digitalization are phenomena which comprehensively shape our society, and it is for this reason that such phenomena should be examined in an interdisciplinary context.

N. Katherine Hayles giving her keynote lecture at Think Corner (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Furthermore, we saw an urgent need to reflect upon the moral and political implications of digitalization, not only the technological aspects. This is why we not only wanted to appeal to scholars from multiple different fields, but also to create an arena focusing on the humanities and social sciences perspectives. On top of that, we wanted to include an artistic programme.

Initially, Moral Machines was supposed to be a much smaller symposium, but after the call for papers closed, we had received so many good proposals for papers that the symposium doubled in size. This is also why we ended up having six keynotes in a fairly small conference: besides Hayles and Stiegler, we had contacted Erich Hörl (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), Maria Mäkelä (Tampere University), Frédéric Neyrat (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Francois-David Sebbah (Paris Nanterre University) about joining us.

Susanna Lindberg and Hanna-Riikka Roine opening the conference (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Due to the wide variety of perspectives to the topics of the conference, the first day of the conference was dedicated to fiction, media and art, while the following two days had parallel session tracks focusing on philosophical and sociological discussions. The presentations ranged from fictional representations of moral machines and the understanding of social media as a moralistic storytelling machine to discussions of various uses of data and theories of thinking and knowledge in the digital world.

The first day culminated in the artistic evening programme organised on the Tiedekulma Stage, with Otso Huopaniemi’s performance, Riikka Talvitie’s composition for the solo clarinette of Fàtima Boix, and the performance of Black Mödernism, a group consisting of the poets Matti Kangaskoski, Eino Santanen ja Tuomas Timonen. The artistic programme proved out to be a real success. As many of the people participating in both the sessions and artistic programme of the conference pointed out, the performances engaged the same questions as the academic presentations but from a completely different – and therefore refreshing – angle.

black mödernism’s self-directing “A to B Networking Collective” presents: “A:sta B:hen. / From A to B. Kaksiarvoinen moraaliesitelmä / Binary Moral Presentation.” (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

The conference had almost 120 registered participants, and many more came by to catch the keynote talks and sessions and watch the artists perform. From our perspective, everything went quite well, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Moral Machines confirmed the fact that while the challenges that digitalization poses are complex and numerous, they are being addressed and examined within various different fields. To our delight, Moral Machines was able to bring some of these together in a way that easily surpassed the instinctive digiphilia or digiphobia. In the end, it appears that most presenters rejected the idea that ethical, moral and political responsibilities could be delegated to machines only (as in the famous “moral machine” experiment. However, in the contemporary world, digital systems affect all existential and social situations, either because computing itself takes over certain affective tasks, or because ethics and politics take an active stance to technological frameworks and human-machine assemblages. No doubt, in order to follow the transformations of ethics and politics in a digital world it is useful to assembly expertise from different areas, as the conference was able to do.

Some Thoughts on the Helsinki Collegium

By Tuomas Forsberg

More than one month has passed since I began as director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The first month has been extremely busy but also very rewarding: the new fellows arrived just a fortnight after me and the new academic term has started at full speed.

Photo by Veikko Somerpuro

Director Tuomas Forsberg with the Fellows and staff of the Helsinki Collegium in September 2018 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

The HCAS is a wonderful, unique place as an interface of international scholars and interdisciplinary research in the field of humanities and social sciences, including law, theology and education – the five faculties of the City Centre campus in Helsinki. My own background is in political science and international relations, but I realized that I have many close academic friends in all these fields, and I have published at least one article in anthologies edited by a researcher from each of the five faculties of the City Centre campus. In fact, back in the late 1980s when I was a University of Helsinki student, I also completed at least some courses in all these faculties (yes, even in theology). And not only that: I cannot escape thinking that I have grown up alongside all the above broad disciplines: my parents were theologians, my dear aunt and godmother was a philologist, my aunts and uncles teachers, and one uncle – as well as my wife – lawyers.

Time for Research and Collaboration

The mission of the HCAS is in line with the key idea of advanced studies institutes to produce top-class research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates something original. This often means applying the metaphor of building: we do not tear down an old house and quickly build something new and different; instead, we solidify the building’s foundations so that the house can be renovated. For that, fellows need time to focus on their research and the freedom to develop their own agendas.

The HCAS also needs to be a community. A strong identity and esprit de corps has been a strength of the institute in the past, and without a sense of community the whole HCAS idea would be lost. The joy of research comes from discoveries and findings that are often very subjective moments, but no researcher would be able to achieve much alone. Although researchers in the humanities and social sciences often have their own projects, sharing ideas with others is crucial. HCAS fellows come to the institute as individuals, but they hopefully leave with many friends and partnerships that might even be more important in the long term than the research carried out during the fellowship.

The HCAS mission also includes collaboration with the university faculties. Although the point of the HCAS is to enable scholars to focus on their research, “splendid isolation” may distract the younger fellows from taking the necessary next steps towards teaching positions. Many researchers based in the faculties would also be very happy to get even a glimpse of a famous scholar who has landed at the HCAS for a year.

The Three Fs, or the Core Elements of Research

This balance between focusing on research and internal activities vs. teaching and outreach is a longstanding issue often to do with perception and visibility rather than substance. Having a strong esprit de corps is not the same as being inward-looking. Even if the HCAS’s mission concerns the area of basic research rather than policy-oriented knowledge, it can still be vitally important in many different ways. A good example of how the HCAS can be “useful” and reach wider audiences was to promote the lectures on “useless knowledge” that in fact became very popular.

When I was the acting director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 20 years ago, we used to describe three core elements of research with three Finnish words starting with H: hyvää (good), hauskaa (fun) and hyödyllistä (useful). I wonder what would be the best translation of this slogan. Maybe three Fs: research should be fun, functional and freaking good!

One feature of the HCAS known widely in Finland has been to reflect academic practices and contribute to debates on science policy. Here, I see no reason to change course, and I hope that this blog can find readers and contributors and in this domain as well.

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)