On the responsibilities of panelists

So you can tell what’s coming here.  The short version is: should panelists provide for a good show (topical, interesting, cutting edge, the presentation of new research, ideas, or think pieces only), or should panelists ensure that only correct knowledge is promoted for presentation and discussion at panels that deal with specialised knowledges?  And what responsibilities (if any) do professional conferences have for the promotion of ideas?  Is it the responsibility of panelists to advise presenters about the acceptability of their reported work, effectively arguing that it should come with a proviso, a trigger warning or some sort of message effectively stating that this paper represents the views of the presenter but is not necessarily endorsed by the panel or the conference?

Has it come to that already?  Already implying the potential and anticipated inevitability of such a stance for professional anthropological conferences?

In my area of anthropological specialisation there are some ‘out there’ ideas and thinking around topics to do with how people live in the world, with each other and the thinking and practices that they undertake, create and participate in.  This is essential and I’m a firm believer in the idea that change frequently comes from the periphery of disciplines as individual practitioners reach out and extend our discipline in new ways thorough their (our) extended reach in thinking, reading, fieldwork and anthropological practices that interpret and make sense of these more generally.

You just have to go out and act anthropologically in the world, whatever your specialty.  After that, come and tell us about it.

So what happens when papers challenge orthodoxy?  Is it the right of panelists to act as censors, as gatekeepers and defacto peer reviewers of new thinking and practices?  Many would argue that this is indeed the very role of conference panelists to act in academically responsible ways, and that advice should be given to individual presenters to modify their work, think about their conclusions, advise that this is their personal viewpoint, or similar.

For a discipline that’s only 200 years old , we seem to be a bit too worried about challenging orthodoxy.  It strikes me that academic and professional conferences are the very place where new ideas should be presented by practitioners to their peers for question and debate.  Isn’t this the premise for invitations to plenary speakers?

At a recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) in Sydney, some ideas were clearly too dangerous for discussion and speakers were pulled from the program.  Heated public debates argued for the merit of this, and there was a social media frenzy both about  the content of the proposed discussion, the speaker, the politics around the presentation and title of the proposed talk and its pulling from the festival. And the inevitable meaning of this for the festival, and what it meant to challenge moral boundaries in thinking and discussion within society more broadly.  Not to mention the commercial aspects … But does this happen at professional, academic forums?  Could it?  Should it?

So back to the anthropological panel and its processes: while the thinking and decisions around presentation are well intended, there are inflexibilities attached to the structure and organisation of conferences that mitigate decision making around inclusions and exclusions.

Nevertheless, feel free to put forward all your ideas, thinking, critiques, comments and practices and bring them along for scrutiny and interrogation by your peers.  After all, that’s what professional conferences are for.  They, like many parts of anthropological practice itself provide a moment, a meeting point, a location much like the village water well, as a space for talking, listening and making sense of each other’s symbolic worlds, their practices and meanings.  And talking about it  between people of the same status as you.


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