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Transcript: In conversation with Shakuntala Banaji


Clive Nwonka: I’m Dr Clive Nwonka, Lecturer in Film, Culture and Society and an Associate of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL. Today, it’s a pleasure to be joined by Professor Shakuntala Banaji. Shakuntala Banaji is Professor of Media, Culture and Social Change, and Director for the MSc in Media, Communication and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is co-Chair of the International Communications Association Conference of 2022.
 
Professor Banaji lectures in development in communication, world cinema, international media disinformation and has published widely on race, gender and audience politics, creativity, news reception and online civic participation. Her first monograph, Reading Bollywood remains the only critical ethnography of Hindi cinema viewing. Other books include edited collections such as South Asian Media Culture, The Civic Web: Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation, which is jointly authored with David Buckingham, Children and Media in India: Narratives of Class, Agency and Social Change and Youth Active Citizenship in Europe, which is co-edited with Sam Mejias for Palgrave.
 
Her most recent book, Social Media and Hate was authored with Ramnath Bhat and was published by Routledge in 2022. Social Media and Hate investigates the theoretical and practical intersections of misinformation and social media hate in contemporary societies. Throughout this episode, we’ll be discussing the themes of Professor Banaji’s latest book, her academic path, the intellectual source that actually inspired her work and the broader question of media and communication study and its relevance for the analysis of race and racism. Shakuntala, welcome to the podcast.
 
Shakuntala Banaji: Thank you, Clive, it's such a pleasure to be here with you today.
 
Clive: I want to begin with your latest book, Social Media and Hate. It’s a wonderful analysis and a multidimensional analysis of how we think and define hate speech but also the impact on marginalised lives. How would you describe the book?
 
Shakuntala: I’d say that if you just think of it as being about social media, then that’s really limiting and problematic and so when we started writing the book, we wanted to set out to talk about the context in which there was an increase and rise in various forms of dehumanisation, racism, sexism and misogyny online, and we wanted to set those into both national, historical contexts, as well as a global context, which a lot of people talk about now in terms of the internet being post-national or trans-national. I think we wanted to understand what kinds of hateful imagery and ideas work in trans-national contexts in the era of rising supremacism - white supremacism, Buddhist supremacism, Hindu supremacism in various different countries, and we wanted to show the linkages between those because in our view, work that simply concentrates on a single national context tends to miss the ways in ways in which these different far-right groups, different conservative imaginaries are building on each other’s different but still linked imaginaries of race hate.
 
Clive: So, in many ways, you’re describing the work and the themes as both trans-national but also cross mediatized as well, there’s different kinds of interactions with different kinds of media.
 
Shakuntala: Absolutely. In fact, one of the projects that we worked on which was a precursor to us writing this book was a large project set mainly in India, looking at the ways in which there was a rise in anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit vigilantism by the far-right Hindutva groups, and we were particularly interested in that project on WhatsApp in looking at the sociological context of the messages, memes, images that were circulating, which led to lynchings, which led to people being assaulted and beaten to death in public places by large groups of people, including women.
 
And when we started researching that, we really hadn’t anticipated finding the amount of media, mainstream traditional media that we did, and one of the findings which we pulled out from that work on WhatsApp in India was that there was a kind of trans-mediality to all the hate that was circulating online, and trans-mediality refers really to the reoccurrence of images, ideas, segments, genres, from media such as film, news, or even radio, and their re-splicing into social media.
 
So, what would happen was we were hearing a lot about how hate in the form of misogyny, racism or casteism was actually mainly being circulated in misinformation by people who had very low levels of education, very low levels of media literacy. The given wisdom at the time, we started doing that research in 2017/18, particularly amongst NGOs working to try to reduce social media replication of hateful beliefs and behaviours, was that if you educate people and you give them access to other media sources and you direct them back to mainstream media, to the news, then what would happen is they would be able to fact check for themselves and, therefore, they wouldn’t believe hateful disinformation that was being circulated. And there were two premises within that: one which is that it was ignorance that led to hate, and two, that it was the people who had least media literacy who were circulating hateful content in social media, that we set out to investigate. I should say probably set out to challenge, since both of us, Ramnath Bhat and I had some experience of mainstream media hate by that point.
 
And it became very clear to us within a few weeks of starting our content analysis of the kinds of images, very, very disturbing images and videos that people were sending us to look at, that this was not something that was confined social media. It was a trans-media phenomenon. There were clips from Hindi films, there were clips from films from Myanmar, there were images of Rohingya refugees which were being trumpeted as if they were Kashmiri Pandits being burnt out of their homes. There was a shocking mixture of different news clips and items from different eras, different states, different parts of the world, things from Syria which were being passed off as supposedly attacks by the Muslim community in India on Hindus, or attacks on innocent children in India. This was the kind of trans-media imagery and imaginary that we encountered and we, therefore, started to look more closely at what mainstream media were doing and saying, not only in the context of India but also in various other ongoing disputes around elections, around populist politics and, of course, we were led to countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Brazil, Columbia and we started to put together the idea for the book from that.
 
Clive: Just on that, one thing that has remained with me, having read the book, is, I guess, what you call provocative critique of the current analytical paradigm through looking at hate speech. One of the things you say here is, ‘studying harmful content production and ways of reducing it without attention to power geometries is a self-deleting endeavour’. Can you expand on this a bit more?
 
Shakuntala: So, in order to expand on that, I’d like very much to trace a pathway towards the kind of philosophy that both Ram Bhat and I have when we’re looking at social media hate, and this comes both from our politics over the past 30 years, as well as from our teaching and our encounters with both literature and anti-racist struggles. One of the key things I think that needs to be said at the beginning is that both of us see history as being absolutely crucial, if not the central issue in understanding any ongoing conflict or struggle anywhere in the world, and in understanding any ongoing dehumanisation, hate or violence anywhere in the world. And whether that history looks far back or just goes into the last 30 years, it needs to be related to the histories of similar things around the world and, therefore, a lot of people would like to think colonialism is done and dusted, it’s all over, what are people talking about in relation to reparations? They might want to ask in the US, why people are so invested in struggles against incarceration, where there’s a de-carceral movement.
 
And all of these things we want to link back to the everyday context of discrimination, the everyday context of police violence that people experience. So, if we take a single country like Brazil or we take a single country like India, there are multiple different factors that would be relevant to the work we were doing, and looking back at our history of reading, the work we did, reading Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, reading about The Persistence of Caste by Anand Teltumbe, work which looks at the current day violence and the way in which it’s linked to histories of struggle. So, this was not just work which looked at violence against minoritized communities in the context of them being complete victims, it was the work of looking at how people had struggled back against oppressive regimes. We looked at the ways in which the Quilombo, for example, in Brazil, were implicated in decolonial, anti-colonial struggles. We looked at the ways in which there was a persistence, despite much talked about racial mixing in Brazil, of a hierarchy, a racialised hierarchy in everyday living situations and who was picked up and picked on by the police, and which communities got targeted by paramilitaries, and whose homes got taken and whose land got taken.
 
A lot of people asked us at the beginning of writing the book, Social Media and Hate, why do you see it as so troubling and problematic just to look at one case of something online, so a case of, let’s say, misogyny online or trans-misogyny online without also looking at the multiple other intersecting factors around this, and the reason we gave is because our politics and our lived experience of politics has told us that to do so actually leads us into an impasse. There’s no way out of that if you see these struggles as completely individual. If you don’t see the struggle against fascism and Hindu fascism in India as also intersecting both with these anti-Muslim imaginaries and trying to defeat them within peoples’ lives as intersecting with anti-caste imaginaries and trying to defeat and throw out caste in peoples’ lives, then you end up in a kind of silo where you might yourself be very aware of one particular form of discrimination, in fact, you might be a champion and giving lots of solidarity to one group but then you’re also missing out on your own prejudices and biases, which is something I think that a lot of us have tried to work on with our students.
 
So, rather than taking what I now see as the packaged neoliberal version of intersectionality, where we simply list characteristics of an individual to make them more applicable in a diversity search or something, so that an institution can claim something about us, I think it’s really important to go back and dig into the histories of one’s own family, one’s own community to understand where and at what point one has developed or one’s community has developed strong prejudices which then translate into material practices, material practices of exclusion. So why, for instance, are certain groups of people not allowed into malls without shoes on their feet in India? Or why, for instance, does the state come down more heavily on indigenous groups who are trying to preserve their language than they do on ex-colonial groups? These are the kinds of questions that one might ask and in which, in the matrix of that, you situate the single image or symbol or meme that is sent to a Black woman professor or a Muslim woman journalist repeatedly day in day out.

*Trigger warning: reference to threat of sexual assault and violent imagery (12:45 – 13:05)*

So, a lot of the people we spoke to were themselves activists and they didn’t want to conceive of themselves as victims of hate. They didn’t want to conceive of themselves as people who had given in. They were part of a resistance and yet they were being brutally surveilled, both by the state, as well as by these online and offline vigilante groups. They were being pursued and a typical thing that people would tell us about, and here I have to give a trigger warning, would be opening their inbox in the morning and receiving photographs of their children walking to school with a rape or a death threat appended to these or the image of a Black woman or a veiled woman with a noose around their neck or a noose coming towards them. These kinds of horrific images were the ones we were passing through day in day out, trying to get a sense of what were the hierarchies of hate, who provoked more hate and hateful conduct in people. And, of course, I would like also to bring the discussion to the UK when we talk more but I think that sort of answers your question about the critical urgency of not breaking up different forms of discrimination from each other, of trying to understand them within historical matrices, particular places and also within a class context.
 
Clive: Listening to you now and talking about speaking to people within these circumstances, it then opens up your whole theoretical framework that you and Ram established in the book, to try and work through what you describe as the dialectical relationship between communication infrastructure and technological affordances. What’s centred in that dialectical relationship is listening and you draw heavily on Spivak and the idea of a subaltern voice.

Shakuntala: Okay. Interestingly, and when I was thinking of our conversation today, Spivak didn’t jump into my mind, although she’s been at the back of a lot of my teaching for more than three decades now, and the people I thought of first when I was thinking about how do I discuss the intersections of racism and misogyny or the intersections of trans-misogyny and the other forms of discrimination we’re discussing today, people that jumped out at me were Frantz Fanon and Edward Said and Toni Morrison; I thought of histories of slave resistance, but absolutely at the back of that, there is a debate which Spivak speaks to about who or what is a subaltern and I have a lot of problems with ideas that her argument is that subalterns speak only through their silence or that many subalterns do not remain subaltern if they resist in some way. So, my argument, of course, tracing back from her work to Gramsci and Ram’s experience in working with these kinds of concepts, our conclusion was that actually subaltern groups are very complex and that they themselves have other subaltern groups. So, a lot of the work I did before on children and childhood, for instance, or that Ram and his groups have done with Adivasis in India, suggest that these subaltern labels can be applied from the outside but are not necessarily perceived as such by the people you’re talking to, and that means that they have their stories to tell and will tell them in ways which position them as powerful, vis-à-vis certain other groups.
 
For instance, when I was talking to urban working-class boys about the kind of suffering they might go through because of their class, many of them expressed extreme misogyny in their responses. Many middle-class boys expressed extreme misogyny. So, there was an intersection there between being subaltern as children or because of their class but also a sense of privilege in the reproduction of particular social practices and imaginaries which belong not to subaltern groups but rather to dominant and hegemonic groups.
 
I think Spivak’s very useful at elaborating why we need to have that debate about representation and one of the things we wanted to do in the book is to actually listen to people who are the recipients of a lot of hate on a regular basis, and to hear how they conceive of and bear and argue against, but also organise against, these kinds of things and how they conceive of the connections between the material reality in which they’re living, their everyday lives with work and children and buses and transport, and these things that happen to them when they open their inbox or they receive a WhatsApp message or a forward or somebody says something, either about them personally or about the group they belong to, so Dalit women or Black woman or trans people, and how it feels to be in a private space and being spoken to like that.
 
And then I go back to Spivak and think what does it mean if people are just deleting things? What kind of action or act is that? Do you become the silent subaltern if you’re simply taking yourselves out of spaces or deleting things, deleting yourself from groups because you can no longer speak in there because of what’s happening? And that is actually the experience that a lot of people have of being made subaltern in these kinds of online social media spaces.
 
Clive: One thing you did mention there that I do want to expand on is Toni Morrison and in many ways, what you’re describing so far - hate speech, where it exists, its platforms - there’s a narrative construction that I think is particularly interesting and what narratives produce - anxieties, actionable behaviour, laceration on particular identities – these are, in many ways, useful fictions of race that you’re describing when we think around hate speech as a narrative.
 
Shakuntala: They are and there are multiple different fictions depending which country you go to, and I think it’s really, really important that we put fictions about race, and also fictions about what constitutes racism, within an international context. I think it’s really important that we go back to basics, and to do that, I’d like to talk a little bit about the context of race in the UK that we were researching and also that I’ve lived for the last three decades.
 
One of the really interesting things about coming into the anti-racist struggle in the UK 30-something years ago as a young person was that here we didn’t have that many words to describe ourselves, and so a lot of us who came from very, very different backgrounds - some of us were British Asian but from South Asia, some were from British Asian but were from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, others were of African descent but come directly from Africa, others came by the Caribbean - so there were many, many of us and we all called ourselves Black in the anti-racist struggle back then; and we were also in spaces where there was little time, because of the kinds of work we were doing in the, at that point, anti-Nazi struggles and anti-racist struggle, there was little time to actually think inward about what did people really mean about themselves, what did they think about themselves, how did they want to describe themselves?
 
And I see this problem of description and silo-ing getting worse and worse over the last 30 years, and so, at some point, people said this is not good enough, we need more descriptors and then there were descriptors like ethnic minority, there were descriptors like British Asian and then British Asian and British Black and then of African descent, and then what happened was that a lot of people who had been showing a lot of solidarity for many, many years ended up working in smaller and smaller spaces with different people. Maybe not a bad thing because you get burnt out working across multiple struggles but I think perhaps we lost a certain kind of vocabulary which came with a more internationalist conception of what it meant to be anti-racist.

For instance, I’ll give you an example, just recently a lot of people, obviously and quite rightly, have been very upset and unsettled by what is happening in Ukraine and have been showing solidarity, again quite rightly, and putting up profile pictures which are the Ukrainian flag and actually constructing what is going on between Ukraine and Russia in an ethnic way and thinking of it as a sort of racist struggle. But if you dig a bit deeper under that, there are multiple different layers. There’s an association of Russia with the Cold War and the USSR and the West with a democratic bloc in some peoples’ minds. So, there’s a lot of other forms of prejudice which you could construe as a sort of racist prejudice. I’ve seen people saying things like 'the more Russians that die the better' and actually making statements which I think are really dangerous, really problematic and are going to cause trouble in the future. And, of course, if you go back to what was happening in 2015 when Syria was being devasted, both by the Russians and by the US and their allies and by Iran and various other actors, and Syrians from all different walks of life were being thrown into complete despair and pushed out of their homes, there was a really, really different sense of solidarity and discourse going on. So, just real differential there in how people responded, even people on the left, even people from pretty humanitarian backgrounds and, of course, if you take that to the media and to social media, it’s almost like, in some peoples’ world, that conflict didn’t exist - the only time that conflict impinged on anybody in the UK or in Europe or in the US was when those refugees who’d been bombed and burnt and tortured out of their homes ended up on the shores of Europe.

And I think that kind of understanding then leads you to realise that you can have very, very strange multiple forms of racism. So, you can have working-class Black people in the US drafted into the US military and going to Iraq and then dehumanising or behaving in ways which their white colleagues are doing against the local Iraqi population, and lack of acknowledgement of those possibilities, the possibilities that the Indian community, the British Asian community might be extremely racism against Black people and that that has an effect in how they vote in referenda. That kind of underlying racism within racism, what I was talking about before where subalterns have another subaltern group that they are pushing down on or punching down against, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that and you begin to see how people selectively show solidarity with ideas and frameworks with ideological views online where they would have very little in common with the people making those kinds of transphobic or racist or anti-Semitic statements at any other time, but they come in and they selectively agree on particular topics and that’s really dangerous. So, you have to have an internationalist view of what racism is and how racism looks. You can’t have a single framework for understanding what racism looks like, if you’re going to do this kind of trans-national work on social media and hate.
 
Clive: It’s interesting that you mention the international at this point because I think it’s fair to say that you take quite a critical position towards the current legal framework around hate speech, particularly the absence of any accepted definition of hate speech inscribed in international law.
 
So, one of the things that I found interesting was, at the same time you were doing the research with Ram, there was now these public statements by the UN High Commission on hate speech in a human rights context, I’m thinking particularly the comments made by Michelle Bachelet in Geneva in November 2020 where she outlined two of four key principles as part of their action plan against hate speech, and to look at two of them, one, to address hate speech we need more speech, not less but also we need a new generation of digital citizens in power to recognise, reject and stand against hate speech. What I'm discerning there is the idea that there is a certain autonomy among citizens to challenge the very forms that are oppressing them. What are your thoughts on that?
 
Shakuntala: Of course, it would be ridiculous of me to disagree in the very literal formulation of either of those statements and I think it’s interesting to see how they play out in real life contexts. What does it mean to say we need more speech? Well, I think three or four things about that. One, it’s really, really important that we look at who’s being censored and who isn’t being censored, but censorship comes in multiple forms. For instance, a lot of working-class people don’t have access to mainstream media platforms, they don’t know a journalist whom they can ring and just say can I come on and talk about my community, and this is the case across countries in Europe and Asia and Africa and Latin America, you don’t necessarily have that kind of access to public mainstream media, they don’t get to make films and be producers. So, you’ve already got a certain level of silencing or lack of speech going on because of social class issues.
 
Then you’ve also got the social media framework. For instance, if you look at the work of multiple different people like Kishonna Gray or Ruha Benjamin, I think what you’ll see in their work is that actually there are again very clear groups of people who are being silenced and not allowed to speak, or being silenced because speaking leads to so much hate in these online contexts, and they tend to be Muslim women, Black women, trans people and it’s really, really dangerous to assume that just telling them 'speak more, you have the space to speak, social media has given you the space to speak', is somehow evening up the playing field.
 
So, what you need to do with a statement like that, 'what we need is more speech to combat hate speech', is actually to think about the structures that there are in place in our society which mean that some people already don’t have that more speech. And, of course, you probably know that I’ve blogged about this issue around cancel culture and while I think that UN pronouncement and that speech in particular was talking to a growing feat that people are fighting back against racist imaginaries in verbalised form by saying this person has done this, against misogyny, by saying this person really shouldn’t be given a platform. That’s actually just a fraction of the way in which current structures silence certain groups of people. And that screaming out about cancel culture is actually simply a lot of people in many positions of power finding it very frightening and scary to be held accountable in some way, which is not to say that there are no miscarriages of justice going on within that field or that everybody who’s screamed at or shouted down actually deserves that kind of harassment, but it does mean that actually cancel culture is a red herring. That whole word, that whole talk around social justice and wokeness being so dangerous is an apparition of the right and far-right who have somehow found a language of appealing to liberals who don’t have the same kind of problematic histories of experiencing racism, of experiencing and being at the receiving end of caste-ist violence or anti-Muslim violence, as a lot of people do. And, therefore, it’s a red herring because it distracts from what’s actually going on, from the structures which make it very, very difficult for certain large groups of people.

And in our book, we do address this, we talk about who can and cannot speak. For example, one of the things that you might say if a young politician in the UK today posts a statement about something, there is a hierarchy in regard to both how much what they say would circulate, and how much what they say would be targeted in terms of hate. So, let’s say, a young British Asian female politician posts something about the inequity between the responses to Syrian refugees and Ukrainian refugees, without making any kind of political statement on what’s currently going on, other than one of solidarity for the refugees. This person would be jumped on and receive hate based on their ethnicity, based on their gender, they would get misogynistic things sent to them and, of course, this is an everyday experience for young female politicians, particularly those with frameworks on the left. So, we actually need to think about ideology as being something which also contributes to the hate people get and the hate people give. Now, if a young male cis-het man from a white community were post the exact same comment, the statement would both be picked up, agreed with and circulated far more and far more quickly, but it would also receive critique based more on the content or language of the statement itself. So, if one of these statements about the inequity and acceptance of refugees from different countries were to be made by a white cis-het man, completely correct statement, same thing said by the British Asian woman politician, he wouldn’t be attacked for being a white cis-het man saying that, it would be far more likely the content of the speech.
 
Now what does that tell you? That tells you that there are some people who structurally are positioned in such a way that whether they are playing online games, or going into a WhatsApp group, or walking into an office, or walking along the street, they are structurally positioned in a way whereby their speech is both more highly surveilled and policed but also attracts a particular form of diatribe - racist, misogynist, transphobic diatribe - that other people’s don’t. So, there’s a hierarchy of hate, there’s a hierarchy of speech, there’s a hierarchy of whose speech counts and also of whose silencing is understood and regarded by bodies like the UN as worthy of intervention.
 
Clive: I’m really interested in your methodologies during writing the book and also doing the research, firstly, given that the approach is qualitative but also that your interviews were conducted during a global pandemic. How did you approach those questions of positionality, horizontality, privilege and the creation of safe spaces and that could be compromised by, say, proximity or lack of it? I’m describing this as a methodology, but maybe I should be describing it as a practice instead?
 
Shakuntala: I like to think of it as a practice. I’ve worked over the last 30 years with numbers and numbers of absolutely amazing and wonderful researchers, who have either wanted or not wanted to be in academia, and have collaborated with me or brought me into their projects, and one of the things that I find most difficult to work with is someone who has an extractive view of either social situations in terms of how those social situations transform into research, or of research subjects.
 
And what do I mean by that? I think there are obviously hierarches in research. There are hierarchies in the way in which professors employ researchers or research assistants to collect and extract data from places. There are hierarchies between researchers, research assistants and the people that they are interviewing and how they draw stuff from them or from those communities, what they write about and what situations they go into. So, I would have to say that one of the things both Ram and I and the four researchers who worked with us on this book project, and then previously on the WhatsApp report, how we felt about it was a profound reluctance to actually do the research. It was traumatic. It was traumatic already when we were going through the textual data that people were sending us. It was ethically compromising to watch what were, in effect, live snuff videos with people being lynched. It was absolutely something that made all of us pause to think about why we were doing this. We asked ourselves multiple times whether we wanted to ask people about this thing happening to them, this thing they were experiencing and, of course, we also accepted that many people didn’t want to dwell on this and didn’t want to have this conversation.
 
And then when we were setting out to do the work, one of the things that actually helped me at least was the fact that I have also over the years received such an amount of this kind of intersectional hate, let’s put it like that, online and in my inbox and in various places, despite the multiple ways in which one might be careful and careful in social media. It actually made me far, far more empathetic to raising these issues with people and there are three ways in which we tried really hard to make this research something that was what we call trauma-informed in terms of how we interviewed. One of them was actually having people from local neighbourhoods and places do interviewing with us and develop the schedules of interviews with us, in order to make sure that we weren’t misreading histories, that we weren’t coming from outside and imposing a framework on what people were telling us, and that sort of deep listening to peoples’ stories about how we got here.
 
The second one was that we actually were really interested in what people thought were the solutions to these things, both in the medium-term and in the long-term, and while we didn’t say we’re looking for simply a technological solution, something which takes the affordances of the technology and tweaks it so that the algorithm means you don’t receive this hate. We listened when people talked about technology and technological solutions, but we were also very aware that for most of them, underlying what they were saying about social media hate, was this desire for a different world. The desire for a world in which the very structures which enabled people to dehumanise each other outside of social media - in politics, in everyday spaces, in jobs, in the family - that a lot of the people we were speaking to were wanting changes in those arenas as well.
 
And a particularly salient case probably would be in the UK around Black Lives Matter and we spoke to these incredibly inspiring young people and our researcher in the UK too is young and when we were listening back to them, all of us together and coding the interviews, the conversations were about us learning as well, about what it’s like to be a young person showing solidarity for other young people in this moment, in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic. And we were extremely alert to an understanding of how talking about these things intersects with mental health issues and how talking about it could both be cathartic but could also be retraumatising. So, I think all of those different strategies come into play but I would say again that I would describe us in many ways as reluctant researchers because it is actually painful hearing day in day out about peoples’ horrifying, painful, violent experiences.
 
Clive: Reluctant researchers is such an interesting term to use because, moving to yourself, was the intention for you always to go into academia? What motivated you to pursue that kind of field, given your background and the level of activism you're involved in but also this idea of praxis and making particular work exists in an academic context?
 
Shakuntala: No, in fact I have to say honestly that the idea throughout my twenties and teens was never to go into academia. I had examples of academics and activists ahead of me and I was very much more on the activist side. I had at various points sworn that I would never do a PhD and it was a dreadful thing to do and I watched how it took people away from their families and away from their everyday activities and messed with their mental health, and here’s a shoutout to my doctoral students who all seem to develop some illness during the course of the PhD. So, doctoral work is not something that you do or necessarily jump into saying this is a pleasant alternative to everything else. You have to feel called to it.
 
So, throughout the 1990s I was actually a schoolteacher and I taught English and media and drama in the classroom in a big South East London school and I still keep in touch with many, many of my students from them, bless them, they’re in their thirties and even in their early forties now, and absolutely lovely people. I taught them from the age of 11 to the age of 17/18 years old. Some of them have become incredibly good friends over the years and that was where I taught books like The Color Purple and Beloved and God’s Bits of Wood, In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck. And I tried through teaching literature and having really interesting conversations around race and racism in the classroom with my school students to develop an imaginary of a different and better world. And, of course, influencing all of that were two big books about teaching The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, and both of them were very much asking questions about how to do democracy - really in a grass roots way in the classroom - how to do democracy while also holding strongly two things: an allergy to injustice and an ethics of care. That’s what I and the other young teachers that I ended up training over the years were trying to bring into the classroom.
 
I don’t know if you remember this but at the end of the 1990s, there was a huge swathe of cuts to education and education funding and that, of course, had massive knock-on effects in the school where I was teaching, and we contested that through the trade unions. The area where I was teaching in was a fairly deprived area, so the cuts were simply pushed through but alongside that came this very heavy privatisation agenda for schools, and an incredible prescriptive curriculum.

So, I would say I got the best of that decade in teaching in the classroom where we had so much freedom to do incredible work with those students, both in media studies and in English and literature, and I think it left an indelible mark on many of the students and they came through really different human beings than they would have had we not had that freedom over the curriculum. And the increasingly prescriptive curriculum meant that I wanted to go somewhere and teach in place where I was able to continue doing that kind of freedom and care work that I had wanted to do in the classroom. And I thought okay, I’ll take a break at the end of the 1990s and that led to the PhD, which ended up being one of the happiest times of my life, researching cinema audiences in India and in the UK and spending endless hours in cinemas. Of course, again asking questions about racism and casteism and misogyny and the politics of cinema and the politics of audiences, but nevertheless, actually doing the PhD was just such a wonderful thing for me. Now it’s something that I look back on with a kind of nostalgia and wish I could go back to that.
 
Then came ten years of very, very precarious work as a researcher and union activist and it was exhausting, Clive, I’m sure you know what precarity is like and I have colleagues currently in that situation. It was bouncing from contract to contract, six months, eight months, part time, three contracts together. You ended up working 70-hour weeks with a small child, trying to fill in here and fill in there and always watching the full-time sort of tenure track jobs going to other people who met criteria better than one did. It was a very demoralising period having done the PhD and got there, and I think, again, if I’m a reluctant researcher, I’m also an accidental academic because it was sheer luck I got into my current institution of a whim. I ended up doing a maternity cover and coming to teach and I was still teaching and working somewhere else, so I was working like a 1.5 job. It was exhausting but slowly, slowly I made a home for myself at my current institution. But it’s never going to be easy and it’s never going to be the thing that I feel absolutely at home with, the way I do just with teaching, and teaching I think is completely my passion and if I had to say what would I like to see happening in academia, I’d like to see that widening out of imagination in terms of how we write, how we research, what counts as research, who counts as a researcher and I’d like to see a much more capacious and generous and compassionate system than the one that we find ourselves in today.
 
Clive: You talk about the imagination there because in many ways, given the current state of higher education, are we talking about a utopian idea, what you’re prescribing?
 
Shakuntala: Well, are we talking about a utopian idea? It’s only utopian if everybody accepts the status quo because the status quo isn’t really a status quo, we’re being pushed, we’re being pushed in worse and worse directions, where we’re being pushed into situations which are kind of unliveable for some people. So, while it may be a rare occurrence for the media to pick up that an adjunct professor or someone who’s just doing associate work for a few weeks in some colleges, also sleeping in a tent somewhere or working in a bar or a restaurant - and I’m absolutely no stranger to that kind of work - I think if we don’t fight back, if we don’t find collective ways of resisting, then that’s going to be where everybody ends up, or where most people end up because I don’t see that the privatisation of education is something that just stops. I think the idea that it only affects students through fees is crazy and completely unethical, because it doesn’t. It does affect students, it affects the kinds of people that we get in universities. It affects the space that the university is. It also affects the curriculum and what you teach and then, of course, you’ve got all this surveillance. So, there are increasingly insecure academics working within surveillance systems, where things they write and what they do are being examined, both by national governments for heresy, if you like, but also by their discipline and also by their department because there are hierarchies of publishing and hierarchies of citation, and that makes for a really troubling and dangerous environment for imagination.
 
You can very easily feel that you have to write in this cookie-cutter 6/7,000-word journal article style where your every third word is a citation to a living white female or male professor, and I’ve seen this happening. I’ve seen people who come in writing really beautifully, almost kind of auto-ethnographic writing, where they come into social science and then they have that beaten out of them over the course of four years. And when you talk about a utopia, I think your utopia is actually just a liveable academic space.
 
So, if we want to get a liveable academic space back, far from utopia, we need to fight at every single level, in committees, through the work we do on a daily basis with students, by giving people alternative imaginaries, by presenting the books that made us come alive when we were younger, by collaborating with people and being generous in our collaborations and by going on strike, by refusing our labour, by doing anything that we possibly can to say this is not a liveable situation for many people. 
 
Clive: I remember us talking at length during June 2020 in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and what was happening across social media in response to the killing as a basis of protest, activism, political participation, mass movements. What do you think was distinctive about that period in the use of social media as a site of political mobilisation beyond the fact that we were in a global pandemic?
 
Shakuntala: It was June 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic was an incredible time, and after the outpouring of horror at George Floyd’s murder, I think for a very brief moment what you saw was a silencing of certain forces. Not even a silencing, but just a dwindling of certain forces of hate online because there was a) such a pushback, such an elemental pushback from so many different communities of colour, from Black people in the US, Black people in Britain, from South Asian communities who fought against racism, from East Asian communities who fought against racism, in multiple different countries; this same cry went up about these kinds of events being completely unacceptable and this public murder of someone because of their race.
 
Very quickly, of course, there was pushback and a resurgence from the right but in that moment of maybe two or three weeks really, it was not much longer than that, liberal institutions had to waiver because they had in front of them an absolute incontrovertible example of how structures and everyday racism came together. And that meant that the voices of young people who were protesting against these things, who felt emboldened and enlivened with themselves, were stopped and searched multiple times by police on the streets, that those voices had more purchase in the online sphere, that they were listened to, they were taken more seriously.
 
So, if you like, in that three-week window, people were talking more about a decolonial anti-racist curriculum. People were being invited onto news programmes to talk, whom you never heard or saw talking before, and people were in the streets despite Covid, despite the lockdown, despite all the tragedies that were taking place around them and they were doing this in very careful ways and they were contesting things that were happening.
 
But, of course, as many of us predicted and could see was going to happen, very quickly the liberal establishment again linked hands with the right and right-wing racist networks because that’s where the protection of capital lay, and we went back, not just to a status quo as it was before George Floyd’s death, but to much greater policing and surveillance of activists who worked against race and racism. It is absolutely no accident, in my view, that the whole drive against wokeness and social justice, against critical race theory, has come in the last 18 months since those outpourings of anger and grief by young Black communities; it is absolutely no accident.
 
Clive: Returning to your book on a related question, you construct a topology of hate speech and hate speech actors. One of them you describe as opportunistic actors, so individuals who troll, spread misinformation to increase their fame, following or finances. You’re in many ways describing this nature of capitalism, an outcome of a certain neoliberal agenda, but equally those who are pushing back against these actors are creating in the same space, the same social media space, but also the same neoliberal space as well, and all it can bestow to us in terms of economic gain, notoriety, individualism, a certain presence of the self. How can people pushing back against those forms of hate articulate a space outside that neoliberal hegemony which, in many ways, social media is becoming or has become?
 
Shakuntala: I think there are three answers to this and they don’t all fall into line, which means that they actually contradict each other, and I think one has to do all of them. The first one, of course, is building networks of solidarity within communities which are offline. I think that’s absolutely crucial for many people but it’s also very difficult for many people and we have differential access to face-to-face communities particularly during a pandemic.
 
So, for instance, I have connected with and seen and spoken to many people who would never come to certain kinds of events when they were face-to-face because they have small children or because their disability means that it’s really difficult to travel, or they would never ever get to stay up to a particular time of night for some reason because they work or their job prevents them to do that. So, building online communities is not an either/or with building offline communities. One needs to, where possible, where you are privileged enough to be able to do so, connect with real life people and build things offline. So that’s one way of doing that. That doesn’t necessarily mean it's non neoliberal. We have seen, and Sam Mejias and I wrote about this in our book, the invasion of neoliberal imaginaries, even into activist spaces, into activist groups, the idea that you end up working yourself to death or you’re nothing is absolutely pervasive and it obviously counters much of the care and compassion that we hope people will have for each other in these spaces.
 
The second thing to say is one has to have some kind of a liberal intervention, and what do I mean by that? That means that I do work with and others I know do work with the European Commission and with the UN and with the people making policies at Facebook or Meta, with people making policies at Twitter, and tries to make the current situation just a tiny bit more liveable for certain groups of people, because it’s completely out of control. And in the short- or medium-term there’s literally nothing more you can do, other than trying to rein in some of the surveillance and rein in some of the hate by making people more sensitised or alert to the possibilities for pogroms, for genocide taking place in certain countries. For instance, we had suggested to the WhatsApp technical and legal teams that they should have some kind of a genocide early warning or pogrom early warning system in places where their own networks, their own technology was contributing to the potential genocide of groups, like Myanmar, like Sri Lanka, like India. And this was something I think that is kind of non-negotiable, and quite difficult to implement but still would really give dividends if it were to be done. It is not about sanitising the current social media space, it’s simply about actually acting quickly because so many lives are going to be lost, are being lost as we speak. So many people are being devastated by what’s happening.
 
And the third thing, of course, is that you have ethical technologists such as Timnit Gebru and her colleagues, and various other people who have now spoken out, and whistle-blowers and whistle-blowing networks who take back the tech, if you like, and try to code in open ways which are also accessible for alternative communities. And that is a far longer-term, more capital intensive and more difficult strategy than building offline communities or trying to work in a liberal framework with the current existing authorities, either in government or in tech.
 
But it is ultimately the way obviously that we should be going because we all know, as Raymond Williams has said multiple times, and wrote about, that the structures of feeling which are encoded into particular forms of technology do follow the coders, they do follow the ideological frameworks of the people building the tech and the rationales for building that tech and if it’s neoliberalism, that’s what’s going to be encoded into the ways in which we are pushed to use it - that always on, always working, always visible. And then the flipside of that is the silence, the invisible, the people who can just be taken offline, the switching off of the internet in Kashmir and things like that. So, I think while we live in this world, there are long-term and short-term things that we can do but we have to engage in all of them at the same time.
 
Clive: I was unfortunate enough, in the sense that I wasn’t able to attend your recent teach-out outside the LSE, when you were talking about media representations, political mobilisation, activism, trade union activity. Of course, one thing you mentioned there was the Grunwick disputes which is very, very central to my own cultural history coming from North West London. In thinking about that, to conclude, I’ve always wondered about what are the residual conditions of the '70s and '80s, and even the '90s, that find some kind of presence, if possible, in our current approaches and methodologies. What can the online or even the offline movements, activisms, approaches that we’re seeing now learn and draw from the past?
 
Shakuntala: Oh my god, so much. That’s an intense question. What can we draw from the past in our online work and our online environments? There are multiple things that we can draw from. We can draw from people. For instance, the online can become an archive and a very accessible archive in many ways, if that’s what we want, of the histories of struggle and the different ways of initiating pushback against managements, against racist practices of policing that happen, and this is not just in the UK but in Brazil, there are young indigenous folk making podcasts and videos about their communities and the traditions that these communities engage in. There are land defenders sharing their views from one country to another, so that they are interweaving local practices such as the weaving of large tapestries, if you like, which tell the story of how a community has been killed by militias or the local police, and these tapestries can then be put online and shared with other indigenous peoples across different countries of the Amazon. So, people from Peru and Columbia and Brazil can end up seeing the ways in which others have fought, and it’s not just that those people will see it, it’s that we preserve those ways of fighting back. In India, for instance, songs and poetry which takes place in the format of a teach-out or strikeout or occupation can be captured and they can be broadcast either live or kept as an archive.
 
So, I think the archive function, the historical preservation function of the internet in terms of struggles and histories from the '80s and '90s, and even from different cultural and social backgrounds today, is vast and cannot be overestimated. There’s a joke amongst some of my students that I’m really keen on archives, but that’s also partly because history is alive and the archive is the place where history is alive in many ways.
 
The second thing I would say is that in the work we did in the Middle East and North Africa with many younger feminist and LGBTQ+ groups, they talked about the internet as a place where you sort of vetted people that you would then go on to meet in real life. So, these are groups that experience incredible amounts of misogyny and homophobia. These are groups who are attacked when they walk, when they talk, when they speak, when they post, when they write and, therefore, if somebody approaches them and says I want to join your group or I want to come and work with you, they don’t know who they are. And one of the things that the internet allows you to do is to meet with someone in a slightly safer space, shall we say, than a face-to-face meeting and get a sense of who they are, whether that happens to be someone who’s worked in activism and philanthropy over the years and has histories in the '80s and '90s, or whether that’s a young person like yourself, they get a chance to sort of meet before they meet, and that’s also good.
 
Then another thing that a lot of people have talked about is how watching on YouTube, the speeches, just the speeches of people like Angela Davis and listening to the poetry of June Jordan, listening to people talk has given so much space for creativity and imagination in communities which don’t otherwise get those people visiting them. And outside of academia it’s really hard to get access to books from the '70s and '80s, unless people have digitised them, so the function of the internet as a library, not just as an archive, is a place where you can access things which you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, is invaluable. I can’t overstate it.
 
Clive: Shakuntala, thank you for such an amazing expansive conversation.
 
Shakuntala: Clive, thank you so much. Great to talk to you.