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"Our silence is the biggest threat to democracy"


During 2020, the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, along with the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) and the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), intends to conduct a survey of researchers’ experiences of being exposed to hate speech and threats. This issue was raised during the g19 researcher conference.

In recent years, a series of events that attracted widespread media attention have served as a reminder that researchers constitute an occupational group that is subjected to threats, abusive attacks and harassment. This kind of harassment often has a connection to the researcher’s work with politically and/or ideologically charged questions and it has an impact on their participation in the political conversation.

During the g19 conference earlier this autumn, an open panel discussion was arranged to shed light on the threat to democracy that this kind of harassment entails, but also on the conditions under which gender studies research is pursued in terms of the work environment and equal opportunities to work in academia and advance one’s career.

David Brax is a philosopher and works as a senior analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg, and will be leading the Secretariat’s part in a planned survey of researchers’ exposure to hate speech, in conjunction with Sulf and SUHF. He stressed that threats against researchers can vary, and that it is not just the more dramatic – and for the victim, traumatic – events such as death threats that are of concern.

“More commonly occurring expressions of hatred are belittling comments, for example. They are easy to play down, but they raise the threshold for expressing one's views, for participating in public discourse. This in turn affects what research comes out because some groups of researchers are more frequently subjected to hate speech and threats than others. This results in an imbalance that affects which areas and issues get researched.”

Different impact on different groups of researchers

Zahra Bayati has a PhD in education and works as a senior lecturer in teacher education at the University of Gothenburg. She highlights the importance of understanding that different groups of researchers are affected differently, and that employers need to act when told that their employees are being subjected to racism for example, which also occurs in academia.

“The impacts of this hate speech and threats are not the same for all victims and the kind of harassment is different depending on the victim’s sex, race, religion and other social categories. There are degrees of hell. But we cannot give way to fear, regardless of whether the threats and the hate speech come from the system itself or from small groups on the Internet. Our silence is the biggest threat to democracy.”

Jenny Gunnarsson Payne is a Professor of Ethnology at Södertörn University. Based on her research, she directed the focus of the panel discussion on the emergence of an ‘anti-gender’ movement in Sweden and internationally:

“This can be seen against the background of how we began talking about gender and not just sex in the mid-1990s while respect for the rights of LGBTI people grew. This was challenged by conservative groups who saw this development as a threat to traditional family values. Now it has grown into a transnational movement.”

Jenny Gunnarsson Payne says that both organisations and individuals are involved, but that in the strict sense of the word it is not in fact any kind of cohesive movement where everyone thinks the same.

“There are Christian, secular and extreme right-wing movements and individuals who do not consider themselves to have much in common but who embrace the rhetoric. The term ‘gender’ acts as a symbolic glue between them and gives them a symbolic common enemy.”

Critical research is percieved as a threat

Anders Lindell is a policy expert working for Amanda Lind, the Minister for Culture and Democracy. The Government of Sweden’s policy points to three challenges in safeguarding democracy, one of which concerns the democratic conversation where more and more people are becoming reluctant to participate in public debate as a result of a harsher climate for debate. In this, the Government has relied on surveys of the exposure to threats and hate speech of elected representatives of the people, writers and artists, and journalists.

“But in fact we know relatively little, and so far only the survey of elected representatives has been followed up. Threats impact both individuals and social institutions, and in the latter case, they have a negative impact on faith in democracy. There are also other professional groups who are subject to threats such as police officers, but not specifically when they are exercising their democratic rights.”

Jenny Gunnarsson Payne emphasises that it is important to understand why gender research and other critical research is perceived as a threat.

“It is not just a matter of ignorance. It’s more a case of the production of alternative knowledge, with books and anti-gender courses on the Internet and other places, all of which undermine the legitimacy of research. In countries such as Poland and Hungary, we have seen the consequences for the relationship between the state and the research community. Gender mainstreaming has been replaced by the mainstreaming of traditional family values; courses in gender studies has been replaced by family studies.”

Investigation together with Sulf and SUHF

David Brax harks back to Anders Lindell’s statement on the lack of knowledge:

“Surveys of some occupational groups’ exposure to hate speech and threats have been carried out, but not of researchers. Researches are not either a group that is mentioned in the Government's strategy, despite the important function of research in the democratic process.”

Together with Sulf and SUHF, the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research is planning to conduct a systematic investigation next year of the hate speech, threats, acts of violence and harassment that teaching and research staff in the higher education sector are exposed to. An advanced study based on a broad survey is intended to result in recommendations for preventive efforts and further research.

“In this sector, there has been talk for many years about threats. We hear a lot about threats to gender studies researchers, but there are researchers in other disciplines who are also exposed to such threats. What topics are so provoking that they result in threats? We want to find out how the land lies,” says David Brax.

Text by Jimmy Sand