We solicited this post from a veteran researcher whose work has at times been under attack in the mainstream media. They have asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their experience and suggest constructive actions other researchers might take if they find themselves in a similar situation.
The actual research and researcher’s location is deliberately anonymised in this post.
We think the advice that’s offered here is insightful and very useful. Research into controversial topics needs to take place, and those who undertake it can run the risk of being targeted. It’s always good to have clarity about how much support you can count on from your institution – or networks – should something like this happen.
As academics, we quickly become used to people disagreeing with us.
Our families might disagree with how we spend our time. Our line managers might disagree with our research priorities. And granting bodies might disagree with the claim that our research should be funded. These are all par for the course in academic life.
Different, however, is when those outside of the academy disagree with us. Typically, when this occurs, it involves an ideological conflict between our values and those of others. When this conflict is heightened by particular debates over current social issues, this can result in considerable backlash against academics.
In my experience, such a backlash tends to take the following forms:
- Active attempts to discredit the research (e.g. through questioning methodology or interpretation of findings)
- Active attempts to discredit the researcher (e.g. through questioning their personal values or personal life)
- Active attempts to discredit research itself (e.g. through questioning academic pursuits as having any worth)
In certain cases, speaking back to the first form of backlash can be productive. This might involve working with your university’s media team to develop a statement that can be released to clarify any misperceptions. It can also involve selectively engaging with media outlets where you are likely to be given a fair opportunity to clarify any misperceptions.
To a certain extent, cases involving the third form of backlash can be ignored, given anti-intellectualism as an ideological position is difficult to counter through recourse to the merits of research, though recent examples demonstrate that there may be something to be gained by challenging anti-intellectualism.
Speaking back to attempts at discrediting us personally is something different altogether.
In my experience, when this occurs, academics are wise to adopt proactive approaches to minimizing further backlash.
This might involve:
- Making your social media private (if it isn’t already).
- Lodging complaints with social media if representations made of you are threatening or constitute harassment.
- Working with your university’s legal department to consider options for recourse through the law.
- Considering whether your union might be able to offer support.
Trying to speak back publicly to personal attacks is likely to further fan the flames and engender more attacks. Feeling compelled to minimise further backlash can often feel marginalizing, and certainly not all academics refrain from engaging publicly about personal attacks.
If you do engage publicly, it is useful to:
- Discuss with university administrators the extent to which they will publicly support you.
- Determine the line in the sand that is the point you might choose to disengage.
- Ensure that you are aware of the policies of your university and the relevant laws pertaining to free speech, and let these guide how you word your responses.
In my experience, the reality is that, even when we are in the right, there is the risk that at law (and certainly in public perception) we may be positioned as in the wrong. For me, I am always guided by my own personal safety as well as that of my family.
Finally, even to the staunchest of us, attacks on our research and personal lives can be wearing at best, and psychologically distressing at worst. This is as true for a once-off attack as it is for a prolonged series of attacks. It can be useful to have in place a series of measures to provide support, which may include:
- Accessing university counseling.
- Regularly touching base with your academic and personal support base to talk through your experiences.
- Keeping others apprised of new developments, and asking others to keep an eye out (particularly on social media) for any further developments.
It is realistic to expect that, if you and/or your research is brought into the firing line, you will lose time from your day due to having to decide how to respond, then responding, then dealing with the aftermath.
All of the above are opportunities for considering how much of your time you will give, when you will stop giving, and when it might be important to speak with your line manager about how the time spent has made an impact on your day-to-day work.
Importantly, none of the above is to suggest that the personal isn’t or shouldn’t be political.
Rather, it is to say that, as academics, we have the right to determine how much of the personal should rightly be treated by others as political, and to push back or step away when the line is crossed.
For each person this line will be different, but at the core of it all for me is to know what your own line is, even if you might renegotiate or rethink that over time.