On Academic Activism

(Conférence de Nathalie Heinich, University of Antwerpen, 12th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research September 12th, 2022)

My topic will be academic activism. And the issue of activism in the university raises two problems: the first has to do with its very principle, while the second has to do with the nature of the causes defended today by this activism, which I will summarize under the term « identitarism ». The first problem, activism in the university, is specific to the scientific arena, whereas identitarism has spread throughout the political world.


So let’s start with the first problem : academic activism, which I addressed in my booklet Ce que le militantisme fait à la recherche (Gallimard, Tracts, 2021). It opens with a quotation from the French historian Jacques Julliard, who explains that we have experienced « three glaciations » in terms of the quality of research at the university: the « soviet-Marxist glaciation » of the 1950s and 1960s, the « Maoist glaciation » of the post-1968 period, and the « Islamo-leftist glaciation », which we could call today the « woke » glaciation. By this he means the influence of a militant, politically committed conception of teaching and research: according to this conception, all the work done at the university should be oriented towards a political concern for the modification of the social world. But we, researchers and teachers, are paid to produce knowledge and to transmit it. This is a goal that has nothing to do with politics, even if, of course, our productions can be used to support political causes – and most of us, including myself, are happy about this. I tried to demonstrate in my pamphlet that the confusion of these two « arenas », the scientific and the political, leads to a catastrophic drop in the level of intellectual production.

During the 1990s, French sociologists could observe the rise of what has been called « critical sociology », that is a trend mostly influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s work. A turning point was La Misère du monde, a collective book published under Bourdieu’s direction in 1993, and strongly oriented towards a committed sociology, more explicitely than in his previous works. It thus attracted to his thought people who were no longer academics but, above all, activists. This evolution was connected with the craze for Michel Foucault’s thought, which tended to be read, in a very reductive way, as a critique of all powers, of all constraints. And at the end of the 1990s a link was established between this sociology and the radical left, represented in particular by the ATTAC movement, struggling for taxes on financial transactions.

Another trend added to this growing tendency. It arose in the 1980s, mostly in anglophone countries – the UK and, moreover, the US – and in the literature departments or in the departments of French language. This trend is that of postmodernism, or French Theory, based on French authors such as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard. It spread the idea that there would be no objective truth, that everything would be relative, that any discourse could and should be deconstructed. This fashionable intellectural trend left an extremely powerful and, in my opinion, deleterious imprint on the Anglo-American academic world, because it contributed to blurr the boundary between science and opinion, between objective, reliable knowledge and subjective, contextual points of view. Then the way was wide open for the replacement of academic production and transmission of knowledge by academic activism.

It is thus this conjunction of French and American trends that has led to the current confusion between the academic and the political arenas : a confusion which paved the way for wokism. It is often said that the « woke » phenomenon comes from the United States. That is true. But it would not have had this success if it had not been grafted onto a form of militantization of the relationship to knowledge that essentially came from critical sociology and the political uses of Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s thoughts.


Now let us come to our second point : « identitarism » – in other words « identity politics », as my colleague Laurent Dubreuil named it, based on a communitarist conception of multiculturalism. It arose in the 1990s and 2000s, or even 2010s, mostly in the United States. Identitarism focuses exclusively on discrimination by reducing any individual to his or her status as dominant or dominated, discriminating or discriminated, whether by gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. It is thus closely connected to activism through various collective movement : women, gays, coloured people, etc.

This identitarism goes hand in hand with the rise of academic “studies”: Gender Studies, Race Studies, Gay Studies, Disability Studies, Fat Studies… All these “studies” are based not on academic disciplines, with their conceptual frames, methods, intellectual traditions, but on the study of communities defined by the fact that they would systematically suffer discrimination. This means a direct import of unquestioned slogans, and a drastic reduction of the corpus of concepts, of which only « domination », « discrimination », « patriarchy » remain. As a result, « studies » destroy the traditional architecture of disciplines (sociology, history, anthropology, philosophy, etc.) by replacing them with an organization of knowledge centered on the sole notion of discrimination, that is, on a political agenda. Hence the catastrophic loss of disciplinary knowledge, the dramatic reduction of conceptual tool kits and, on a global level, the impoverishment of large parts of the social sciences.

For example, the word « islamophobia » relies on a voluntary confusion between race and religion, and between an unacceptable call to hatred and the legitimate criticism of fanatic ideologies. Or else, the concept of “intersectionality », which is so fashionable in those « studies », essentially relies on the assertion that it is more difficult in our societies to be a woman of color than a white man : yes – and by the way, next time they will discover the moon, maybe? This is the intellectual level of a school of thought that spends so much time and publications in order to demonstrate what is already well-known.

These « studies » took over in French universities in the 2010s. They have been coupled with another new plague called « cancel culture », that is to say all those cases where activists allow themselves to prohibit or prevent, by threat or even by physical force, the production of discourses that they consider « problematic ». This cancel culture is based on the idea that it would be legitimate to restrict the freedom of expression of others if what they say does not correspond to our conception of the good. From a democratic point of view, such a violation of the freedom of expression obviously constitutes a major regression.

« Cancel culture » and « studies » convey the idea that people should be defined once and for all by identities built on well differentiated communities, and that the members of those communities would have the right to control what can be said or represented about them. This movement has accelerated in France during the two last years with the surge of the term « woke », owing to the massive power of social networks. In my view, the « woke » movement, that is the systematic awakening to discrimination, is a current form of the Protestant awakening theology. It is important to understand that we are confronted to a form of individual guilt politics. For example, the term « white privilege » is part of this form of guilt-tripping of individuals and blacklisting of those who don’t think right. This is a kind of religious intolerance or, as my French colleague Pierre-André Taguieff put it, « punitive neo-puritanism ». So one should not overlook the affinities of this « woke » movement with a religious and more specifically Protestant sensibility. 

This is a major difference with the activist academic movements of the post-Sixties leftism, which fostered all kinds of freedom, be it of expression or of sexual practices. But there is another and still more important difference between the post-68 academic activism and the present one : this difference lies on the fact that studies, cancel culture and, more generally, the « woke » movement, are no longer just marginal phenomena limited to a few activist groups, but they are carried by institutions. More and more calls for research projects, at the French and at the European levels, are linked to these themes. Our colleagues who do not wish to work on the new standard topics – gender, intersectionality, racism, homophoby, etc. – have difficulties to find funds for their projects or fellowship for their students. A colleague of mine, a French anthropologist specializing in Islamism, testified that she can no longer get funds for her work because all the research themes focusing on Islam are immediately reinterpreted as « the fight against Islamophobia ». 

And finally, as Laurent Dubreuil explains, in the United States, this movement is driven not only by academic institutions but also by big companies, particularly the GAFAs, which impose mandatory trainings related to discrimination. This is obviously one more big difference with the leftist activism we were used to fourty years ago.

Attack on Republican values

As a conclusion, I would like to convince you that this extremely problematic situation constitutes a double attack on democratic and republican values : first on the academic level, and then on the political level. 

From an academic point of view, it is an attack on the autonomy of science and a misappropriation of public funds by academic activism. Indeed, we are not paid by our fellow citizens to be activists in the frame of our academic positions, but to produce and transmit knowledge. Therefore, this militantisation of the university constitutes a form of misappropriation of public funds, leading to a drastic decrease of the intellectual level, and to the incapacity of so many students today to understand what real research is.

From a political point of view, it is an attack on the value of universalism, because it reduces individuals to a community affiliation. Wokism imposes the perception, designation and treatment of persons according to a rigid identity frame, whatever the contexts : no chance to suspend identity assignations, no possibility to state that being a woman may be relevant in certain contexts but not in other, and the same with our sexual orientation or the color of our skin. What a prison ! 

And please, don’t let people say that fighting for universalism would be a right-wing position, or even worse. This is a mere strategy not to respond to our arguments : « You are right-wing, and so we don’t listen to what you have to say ». In doing so, they forget that there is an old and great tradition of what we call in France the « gauche républicaine » – the republican left – which defends universalist values, freedom of expression and secularism together with equality of rights. Personally I stick to this leftist tradition, as many people do in France.

How to resist

This is why I consider that our main intellectual task today is to resist : to denounce intellectual impostures, to display the absurdity of pseudo-demonstrations, the poverty of too many articles published in so-called serious journals. It is the scope of a site we created almost two years ago in France, the « Observatoire du décolonialisme et des idéologies identitaires » (« observatory of decolonialism and identitary ideologies ») that I invite you to visit at the address « decolonialisme.fr ».

But at the same time, we must be careful not to confuse our own militant productions – for example, the columns we publish in newspapers, as I often do – with our scientific productions. I am sometimes criticized for criticizing academic activism while doing activism myself. But I never publish committed papers in the same media as my academic productions : what I submit to scientific journals has nothing to do with what I submit to newspapers. This distinction is fundamental, since it is the condition for what Max Weber called the « axiological neutrality » of researchers and teachers – their capacity to suspend their personal opinions in the frame of their academic activity. This is why we have to keep this distinction in mind if we want to fight against the harmful influence of activism in the university.

And yet, as the many colleagues committed in the same concern for the autonomy and quality of science, I try to continue my work as a researcher with all the rigor I can muster. I keep on hoping that it is by publishing good articles and exciting books that we can persuade students that there is something else than the distressing discourse they are offered by those I called « academo-activists » (« académo-militants »). And finally I try to encourage all my colleagues to spread those ideas, as I am doing today, hoping that reason will finally prevail.


Tribune des observateurs