Political anthropologist dr. Martijn Dekker combines academia, where he specializes in human security, with activism. At the University of Amsterdam, where he teaches about conflict, social movements, international development, and other related subjects, Martijn has twice been elected Teacher of the Year. Besides teaching, he participates in social activism focused on issues such as racial, gender and income inequality, but also climate change and the cause of Palestine. Jason Magazine talked with Martijn about becoming an activist, combining activism and academics, and his thoughts about the current trends in social movements, polarisation, and activism.
When looking at your background, social activism has been a red thread throughout much of your career. What inspired you to become involved in activism and even make an academic career out of it?
When I was in my twenties, I was not much of an activist. After high school, I finished my bachelor’s degree in IT and when I was in the final years of my Bachelor’s program, I found out that I was probably more interested in people than in computers. By the time I started my master’s, I wanted to do another program. The VU then offered a pre-master’s program in Social Sciences, no matter which background. I went to VU and I decided to study anthropology. However, even then, I was not exactly an activist. But during the course of my studies, I got interested in Palestine, specifically Palestinian resistance. I read a book about non-violent resistance which I found very interesting, and I read about the first Intifada, the massive Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s. For me, growing up in the Netherlands in the 1990s, the combination of non-violent resistance and the Palestinians was something I had never heard of before.
I got fascinated by the issue and decided to write my thesis about non-violent resistance in Palestine. As an anthropologist, you usually do fieldwork, and so I went to Palestine. It was my first time travelling alone and the first time I travelled outside of Europe. I ended up in the Westbank. I believe it was this experience, witnessing injustice on such a massive scale, that triggered the activist in me. Since then, I have also started seeing injustice around me, in the Netherlands. 2005 is when the activist in me woke up, and following this realisation, I have become involved in activism, from gender to anti-racism.
You are an activist, but also an academic studying activism and social issues. How do you combine these two?
Of course, the combination between activism and working as an academic can be tricky. It is also true that some may look down on combining activism and academia. I remember vividly that once, I was standing at the coffee machine, wearing a bracelet with a Palestinian flag on it. I got it from a Palestinian friend. A colleague noticed the bracelet and asked me “How can you wear that and be objective?” But I cannot be objective regarding this subject. I lived in the Westbank for a year with Palestinians and I went through all these experiences together with my Palestinian friends. It would be nonsense to claim any objectivity if that’s possible in the first place. However, as I remained involved in activism, I tried to stay away from pro-Palestinian activism. If anything, I am pro-peace.
I also definitely did not plan my career this way. When I was in the final two months of my master’s program and was writing my thesis on non-violent resistance, I had no clear career in academia in mind. Through luck, I could pursue a Ph.D., and I was part of a research program called ‘Citizens’ Initiatives in War Situations’, which was partly financed by PAX. The research was set up by Mient Jan Faber, who is a mathematician by training. However, since his research chair had a lot to do with political science or anthropology, they sort of parked him at the political science department. And I was by extension also placed there without any background in political science, being an anthropologist. After I finished my Ph.D., I could start teaching at UvA and I have been doing that ever since. There is not really a master plan behind becoming an academic, it is mainly a series of coincidences.
Do you think from starting out as a young researcher, seeing the inequalities in Palestine, and noticing them at home, your outlook has changed or evolved over time?
I think what triggered me to look broader at inequality was something that occured after my PhD defense. My research concerned informal forms of security, and I was quite positive in my assessment of these structures. In Palestine, when something happens to people, they do not go to the police but rather solve things within or between families. In my analysis, I considered this to be a positive thing. But after my defense, someone came up to me and asked, “if people do not go to the police because they don’t trust them but solve things within the family, what does that mean for the position of women?” And in my analysis, I never thought about that. This is when I started reflecting why I had not considered this aspect and realised that it was not a part of my personal experience.
I started thinking about how I could learn about these things that I have not experienced myself. I think that this involves listening to other people. So, I consciously started to do that and listen to other people’s experiences. I learned a lot about for example racism, and things that I had never heard about, such as micro-aggressions. I think that the learning process mostly happened over the past five or six years. In my activism, there was also a lot of frustration. I asked myself “why was this going on, and why didn’t I know about it? And why are there so many people out there who also don’t know about this?” Some of my friends say that I have radicalized over the past couple of years. However, this is only because I started listening to people who don’t have the privileges that I have. I try to take this into my teaching as well. By doing so, I have learned a lot.
Being an activist in the academic world, did you receive any pushback from academia?
Not that much. I think in the beginning it was mostly that I started worrying about this myself. Rather, I increasingly found out that I definitely was not the only one. There is activism, but also political involvement. It is often said that the UVA is a “leftist” university, but when I was working at the political science department at the VU, there were at least two people working who were senators for the Socialist Party. In the beginning I was wondering myself how one could combine research and teaching with being a member of a political party, or even being in Parliament for a political party. But we are professionals and I think we can make the distinction between personal views and general principles.
I do at times get critical questions. I remember once holding an introductory lecture for prospective students, and one of the parents who was present asked me about the “leftist indoctrination” that I was doing. However, this is absolutely not what I intend to do. My main goal is to let people think critically. What you are going to do with that, that’s totally up to you. I think that I can separate my own opinions from my academic work. What I believe is right, good, and just, may not necessarily be what you think is right, or just or fair. But we both need to critically reflect on what we see and what we hear. I am trying to give my students tools to think critically. I had to find my way in this, and by now I believe that it is quite successful. It is possible to combine these aspects. I have several colleagues who are politically active, or are activists, and who still produce sound research. Still, I do not think it is easy and I can see how it can be potentially problematic. If you let your views guide and influence your research, and when you start to ignore things that don’t really match with what you think is right, it is a problem. But I see that most people are able to avoid this trap.
Would you like to see more collaboration between activism and academia?
I think academia should be in service to society. Whether that’s developing medicine or good artificial intelligence solutions, or something else. And I believe that part of the mission of social sciences is doing something against inequality, so that we have a fairer society. If you consider that to be activism, then that’s fine by me. When scientists develop a new medicine, that is not seen as activism but when you try to contribute in terms of policies to do something about poverty or inequality, it is seen as such. In the end it depends on how you define activism. I am for a more equal society; does that make me an activist? Perhaps. But if that is the case, I do not see an issue at all with me combining activism and academia.
There was also criticism towards you, and other academics, for signing a petition to ban a lecture of Jordan Peterson. Considering what you just said about having a discussion with open ideas, would you still sign such a petition today?
The letter we wrote was not to ban him from campus. I am personally not a fan, and if they wouldn’t have invited him that would have been perfectly fine by me. But they invited him, and we were arguing to have a critical conversation with him, including somebody who has opposite ideas for example. We were not trying to cancel him, but the format of the show that they organized wouldn’t quite work for us. The University did not want to change the format to include another person, and that is why we signed this letter. I believe that his ideas about gender and sex are old-fashioned and have been debunked many times over the past years. In addition, he is not an expert in that field: he is a psychotherapist. I am not against inviting someone like Peterson, but we need to have a critical conversation about his goals. So, if the letter was the same, and if the argument was for a critical discussion and not for cancelling somebody, I would sign it again today. You must have very good reasons to disinvite somebody, and I don’t think this particular case called for that.
We live in an age of political correctness, and people are growing fiercer about topics like these. Especially on social media, there is a lot of polarization and sometimes even aggression concerning these topics. Do you recognize this as well?
I do see a lot of polarization, and that worries me because it seems that people stop listening to each other. It is as if there are two trenches, and they’re shooting at each other from the trenches but there is no willingness to reach out, and that worries me. At the same time, I also do not always feel the need to engage with all opinions. It requires balance, and I have to admit that I also sometimes find it difficult to navigate this. It is crucial to listen to people and try to understand where they’re coming from so you can have a proper conversation. At the same time, people say things which make me conclude that there is no need for me to discuss the issue anymore, because we will never convince each other, or others are not interested in hearing my side of the story.
What role do you see social media playing in the increasing polarisation of society, and how does it shape activism?
Social media offers a lot of opportunities, many people have access to it so it’s very easy to spread a message and engage with each other. However, often things get lost in translation. Twitter for example limits the use of characters and thus creates the need to be very brief and direct. I know that friends and students have told me that there’s a Twitter-Martijn and real life-Martijn, who is way more nuanced than Twitter-Martijn. That’s why I decided to tweet less last year. I got into problems by being very direct and realized that this is not helpful. The real me wants nuance, wants to listen to people and understand people. That’s how I got into this, by listening to people. I think social media on the one hand can facilitate that, but on the other hand it can also make it much more difficult. You can just throw things out there and stop listening. I think it can go both ways, but the type of communication sometimes makes it difficult.
There has been a lot of attention given to the COVID-19 situation, taken together with the polarization that we discussed, do you see that this situation might become so tense that it can lead to security problems in the future for Western countries?
This is difficult to predict, but what I do see is that people start to trust their government less. This is certainly an issue that can become problematic. At the same time, humans tend to be a bit like goldfish. When things return to normal, people will probably forget about this very quickly. It is very difficult to point to long-term trends after a year. The lack of trust in government is a serious issue and I wonder what it will do to international relations. There are a lot of countries that blame the West, and big pharmaceutical companies for holding on to their patents. Global inequality is again emphasized and highlighted. This inequality has always been there, but this situation has made it even more visible. But again, I am not sure if Covid itself will have long term consequences. I regard climate change as a much more important issue, and in a way our focus on the pandemic is taking away from this huge issue that has not gone away.
Do you think contemporary social movements and even the polarization of the social debate, can be seen as consequences of climate change and maybe to a lesser extent, COVID?
I have the feeling that COVID just lands on a situation that already is very polarized. So, I don’t think that COVID leads to more polarization. What I see the last couple of years is that there are broadly two “sides”, one on the “right” and one on the “left”. When suddenly a new issue appears, both sides look to position themselves, and end up choosing opposite sides. Whether it’s climate change, racism, or now COVID, it is often the same people opposing each other. This is fascinating to me, and I am not entirely sure what the defining fault line is here. It is hard to tell if it is for instance class, or political preference. I have the feeling that COVID appeared, and then two sides – of course it’s more nuanced, but for the sake of the argument let’s say two sides – are starting to position themselves. On COVID I also have the feeling that they switched sides: in the beginning the more right-wing parties in the Netherlands were arguing for lockdowns and strict measures and the left was not, and suddenly it turned around. It is fascinating how this polarization works through all kinds of other phenomena.
What topics do you see playing an important role in the future?
I think climate change is a major issue. What complicates that, is still inequality. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible, so we’re talking about economic inequality but also inequality between groups, genders. I think inequality is indeed one other major issue. Personally, one of the things that I’ve become interested in as one of the largest problems of our age is the issue of masculinity. I believe that many of the issues currently seen stem from questions around masculinity, what it means to be a man. It leads to psychological issues amongst men, but also it leads to violence. I think societies have a lot of work to do in trying to redefine what it means to be a man. The idea that many people have is that men need to be dominant and powerful, and that they should not show emotions. This can lead to a lot of issues, not only personally but in international relations as well. In conflict situations, for example, I repeatedly see behaviour that is influenced by masculine ideals. Therefore, it is important to redefine what being a man is. To do this in a small way, I have started to wear nail polish on a regular basis. People look at me weirdly when they see it, because it is still commonly held that it is strange for a man to wear nail polish. But why would it be? Does it make me less of a man? Doing small but symbolic things like this, and having discussions with others about it, is for me the ideal form of activism. Ultimately, activism is about human beings interacting, and humans are very complex. Of course, demonstrations are very important, but trying to live your life, and engage with the people around you, may be even more important.