Addressing Serious Harm, Reconsidering Policy and Building Towards Repair

in Journal of Legal Anthropology
Rine ViethPhD Candidate, McGill University, Canada

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This commentary draws on personal experiences, my time spent discussing acts of harm in the academy with activists, and a review of various incidences on issues of academic harm and responsibility. Over the last few years, I have observed numerous high-profile cases in anthropology – in various countries and various contexts – that have elicited a significant public response. Some frame this kind of harm as the proverbial ‘few bad apples’, an approach I reject as it ignores what enables harm. Alternatively, some attempt to use the idea of ‘academic freedom’ as a way to sidestep questions of interpersonal obligations. Recently, I have encountered this line of argument in defences made by some against allegations about John Comaroff, such as media pieces that I note have been later cross-posted to his own website (Comaroff 2022; Walsh 2022). Instead of settling into a debate about what is or is not ‘academic freedom’, I here highlight a different reorientation, a shift in framing: what I have called, in conversations with friends and collaborators, ‘academic responsibility’. This reminds us that whereas academic freedom is frequently framed as a freedom to or a freedom from, academic responsibility emphasises our responsibilities as scholars and the obligations which follow to others. This includes a refusal of what Zoe Todd (2019) calls a ‘failure of imagination’ – we can and must envision different ways of building scholarly spaces beyond what we ourselves have seen or experienced in the academy.

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