A guest-post and a dilemma

A request for comments and advice from Dr. Komarine Romdenh-Romluc:

I have tried to be brief, but there is a lot of essential information to convey. Please bear with me.

The World Congress of Philosophy (WCP), to be held in Athens, is fast approaching. I am supposed to be giving a paper at one of the panels. However, there is dreadful news coming from Greece, and I am not sure whether I can, in all good conscience, go.

People will be aware that the economic situation in Greece is dire. There is no money and ordinary people are suffering. There are no jobs. Many of those with jobs haven’t been paid. There is homelessness and hunger. With these conditions has come the rise of fascism. The far-right Golden Dawn is gaining ground.

Newspapers and blogs report that immigrants sans-papiers have been rounded up and thrown into detention hell-holes. Conditions are appalling. Some have been held for months with no access to asylum procedures. People are on hunger strike, and some have sewn their lips together. Protests are met with extreme brutality. There is more here, and I encourage you to read it. In addition, general attacks on migrants are on the increase. Little has been done to either prevent the attacks or bring the perpetrators to justice.

Foreign tourists have been caught up in the mess. A Korean backpacker and an African-American both separately on holiday, were arrested and beaten by the police. The latter – on holiday with his wife and children – was beaten unconscious in police custody, despite having shown them his US passport on demand. The US Embassy has issued a warning to Americans of ‘African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern descent,’ which rather suggests this is not an isolated incident.

On the one hand, the terrible economic conditions endured by ordinary people means that those of us in richer countries have some obligation to go and spend some tourist money in Greece. The workings of the world’s financial systems are beyond my ken, but I know that Greece did not get into these dire economic straits on its own. I also do not believe for one minute that all ordinary Greeks have taken up with the far-right, and I would like to try and help in whatever small way I can. Moreover, other European countries are also guilty when it comes to the immigration situation in Greece. The EU legislation surrounding immigration – specifically, the Dublin II Regulation – means that the country responsible for dealing with an individual’s asylum application is generally the one they first entered. As a result, those countries on the edge of Fortress Europe are having to deal with more immigrants, whilst being either smaller and/or economically weaker than countries further in. Moreover, it’s not as if treatment of sans-papiers is wonderful across other parts of Europe, as the recent ‘unlawful killing‘ of Angolan Jimmy Mubenga by British immigration officials illustrates.

On the other hand, I feel distinctly uncomfortable taking part in a philosophy conference in a place whose treatment of migrants is so appalling. I would like to make some sort of stand – however small – against the actions of the Greek authorities. Boycotting the conference and publicly explaining why I have done this may be such a stand.

(More selfishly, I am also mixed race, partly of South-East Asian descent. The implications of this have not escaped me.)

I would very much appreciate people’s thoughts.

41 thoughts on “A guest-post and a dilemma

  1. “On the one hand, the terrible economic conditions endured by ordinary people means that those of us in richer countries have some obligation to go and spend some tourist money in Greece.”

    I won’t presume to speak for the Greek people (who I’d like to hear from, of course). But, at the very least, I think I can say that it’s far from obvious that this is true. Greece’s problems are deep and structural. They stem from government mismanagement, unfair international pressures, and many other things that make it the case that it’s far from obvious that spending tourist money is going to help the average Greek person.

  2. Thanks. I was imagining that, e.g., spending money in a small restaurant would help the restaurant owners.

  3. I think most Greeks already feel like the West has abandoned them, so this won’t really make a difference either way?

  4. Thanks very much for this post. I am scheduled to give a talk at the WCP, and so I am in a similar situation. I’ve been entirely shocked and saddened by the reports coming out of Greece. It is evidently happening under the auspices of a police project called “Operation Zeus”.

    As an added difficulty, I have already spent the money on hotel and air transportation, and it is non-refundable. It will make little or no difference to them whether or not I show up, but will make all the difference to me. The hefty price tag attached to the trip is one I can barely afford as it is.

    My plan is to go, and then to pay very careful attention to what I see and hear. But I don’t know what advice I could give to anyone else, unless they are faced with strictly similar conditions.

  5. When thinking about boycotts, I take it to be a strong defeasible principle that they should be initiated by those directly affected. It was easy enough to see that apartheid was wrong in South Africa, but I think a boycott of South Africa would have been a highly questionable move if it had not been called for by the ANC. If there is no organized boycott, and no call for it from those doing the work on the ground in Greece, then an individual boycott by a US philosopher, however well-intentioned, runs the risk of coming across as a rather arrogant and purely symbolic move.

    So fwiw, my advice would be to be in contact with groups in Greece organizing against the various austerity measure, attacks on immigrants, etc and to follow their lead.

  6. Given that the consequences are so – er – inconsequential, the on-the-ground information you’ll get about the state of Greece (not to mention whatever you’ll learn in the conference, and the obligation you’ve put yourself under by saying you’ll give a paper) seems to be more what you should judge by. You can use this information in all sorts of ways, many perhaps that you can’t predict.

  7. The moral theorist side of me says that it stretches the concept of obligation to suggest my obligations include going to Greece! But this just dodges the real question, which is whether someone like Komarine, who’s already scheduled to present in Greece, should go. I can see the consequentialist argument that as long as you’re invited and it is possible to go, then you could do various kinds of good while you’re there.

    I’m not exactly a consequentialist, and I find it morally important to exercise the privilege with which we’re endowed to speak up on behalf of others, so instead of debating whether your dollars will help people of Greece, it seems more pressing to figure out which form of moral expression would best function to assert the respect for others that ought to be asserted. Would a boycott do it, OR, would it be more effective to go to that conference, where you have a platform, and say something IN your session or in a side-session?

  8. Sorry, I meant to say I can only say, yes the situation is dire in Greece, but it can’t get worse by your going. Outside of Greece we know so little about whats going on.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts, people. Just for the record, I’m a UK philosopher. I think my sense of obligation is affected by the fact that we’re part of the EU, and so perhaps have more obligation to help out other EU members in whatever small way we can. I’m not sure you, Kate, have an obligation to go to Greece, but for EU folks, I’m inclined to think we do. Even if it’s only a small one. But I’m not sure.

    I have wondered whether going and speaking about things is the best course of action. But I expect a very small audience. And I presume – given that there are, as far as I can see, lots of newspaper reports on the situation, I won’t be telling anyone things they don’t know. Not going, and speaking about reasons for not going, seemed like a better way to use the privilege of public expression. I could be wrong.

    Contacting groups on the ground is a good suggestion.

  10. BTW – I don’t expect my individual actions to have much – if any – effect. (I’m not under any illusions about my importance, or lack of it!) But one still has to try and do what seems right. Hence the dilemma.

  11. Shoot, I wrote at the same time as Mark Lance. He makes a good point, although in this case, harassment of foreigners is directly relevant to Komarine Romdenh-Romluc. And it’s a strange situation that conferees are put in. Some of them will be accorded “good foreigner” status, as rich, as not-staying, as educated, as desirable. But some of them will not. And that very arbitrariness is heinous. What are visiting conferences saying, that they’re trading on their desirability and confident they won’t be harassed or beaten or arrested because they’re the good (white, wealthy, temporary) foreigners (except when they’re not perceived to be one or more of these)?

    I’d suggest Komarine go, because I think it possible to accomplish something with other conferees. But the debate shouldn’t be what a protest of any kind can accomplish in the short run. I’m with Bernard Boxill on this one; the point of protest isn’t that a protest will have X amount of immediate effectiveness. If that were the measure of whether or not to protest something, then almost none of us would ever resist any injustice.

  12. Surely, Dr Romdenh-Romluc does not have a duty to put herself in harm’s way. It may be difficult to understand how profoundly unsettling it is to be subjected to racist street harassment, let alone police beatings, but questions of boycotts to the side, it seems that she would not at all be blameworthy for telling the organizers that she won’t travel to Greece because she fears for her safety. That’s an entirely understandable attitude.

    It’s regrettable that this will affect people of good will in Greece, and that other conference participants will miss her paper, but no one should feel bad about keeping safe. Maybe she could present by Skype?

  13. I say go to the conference. I grew up in an area dependent on tourist spending, which suffered from chronic under-employment. The people in the restaurants, etc. on the ground who you will inevitably deal with need your money and support.

  14. If you’re questioning it, then it doesn’t offend your moral philosophy in any absolute sense— that wall could stop a train. It seems that not going (assuming you would love to go sans all unrest) would be a weak statement. You might want to consider your personal safety and do some research beforehand so that if you are confronted with or witness things that do offend your moral philosophy in an absolute sense then you might be better prepared to handle it materially and psychologically, Seeing violence and political unrest of the extreme that it is in Greece right now is not like anything I’ve ever witnessed. You? Have you ever been as close to a fascist uprising in progress?

  15. I’m going to encourage WileyWitch and all commenters, at this point, to back off of speculating as to what offends our guest’s moral philosophy. There are many reasons for questioning what to do, especially in a situation the guest makes a point of calling a dilemma, i.e., it already runs afoul of more than one of her moral concerns.

  16. Wiley, how does “considering your personal safety and doing some research beforehand” protect a non-white person from racist harassment?That to me sounds a little like saying that doing some research beforehand will protect women from sexual harassment – you just have to avoid “bad neighbourhoods”. Those people in the restaurant who you will “inevitably deal with” (M) will in most cases be super-nice, but in other cases they may be the source of harassment. I have had bad experiences in my native country Norway traveling with my Pakistani-American husband (some waiters at a fairly decent restaurant deliberately served him pork rather than the chicken he had asked for, and then watched, smirking, from the kitchen as he had the first bite).

    And is it really desirable to prepare oneself not to take offence at deeply offensive comments and behaviour as you appear to suggest? If the harassment is unavoidable, perhaps to some extent, but not if you can avoid it by not going. And how do you prepare your children for this sort of thing?

    I love Greece (we went there for our honeymoon six years ago, and had a great time). This year, we considered doing a family vacation in conjunction with the WCP, but I think that even if we had had the money, this really wouldn’t have been the time for us to go to Greece. There’s a reason why the US Embassy has issued a warning, and those reasons are closely connected to the experiences of immigrants in the country.

  17. Given that non-whites, including tourists and other visitors, are being targeted by fascists inside and outside of the police in Athens, I don’t think it would be presumptuous of you, as a member of one of the targeted groups, to pull out of this conference as a protest against this treatment, and also out of fear for your own safety. The drop in tourist Euros from targeted groups that steer clear is among the things that might make Greek authorities take this problem more seriously. To help resolve your dilemma, you might donate the money you would have spent on food in restaurants to groups in Greece that are fighting fascism.

  18. No one seems to have commented on how strong of an obligation arises from having represented to conference organizers that one would give a paper. I’m curious what people think on that subject, as that’s an obligation against which these others discussed above would be weighed.

  19. Nemo, I was thinking, myself, that the acceptance creates a prima facie obligation, but I didn’t bother mentioning it. I figure that the prima facie obligation is taken as a given in Komarine’s post. But the moral concerns she raises are all weightier than is the concern as to whether or not there’s one session more or less.

  20. Commenters who encourage Dr. Komarine Romdenh-Romluc to consider her safety are kind, but note that she only alludes to it in a parenthetical at the end of her guest-post. She’s prioritizing the moral dilemma of ethical responses to others. Suggesting she tell organizers she can’t come because not safe is only somewhat responsive to her question. Perhaps y’all are suggesting her safety *ought* to take precedence over her moral concerns?

  21. After just reading about Golden Dawn and Op. Zeus on Al Jazeera, I think safety should be a strong concern. I say go with your gut, and maybe take Mike’s good suggestion to support local Greeks who have family back there.

  22. Beta, I think that it can be easy to mistake a weaker obligation for a stronger one if the weaker obligation bears some connection to matters that are in and of themselves “weighty” or obviously morally fraught. What is happening in Greece is, in a general sense (and if accounts are true), very weighty indeed – weightier than (again, in a general sense) the number of sessions at an academic conference – yet it doesn’t follow that it gives rise to an obligation for Dr. Romdenh-Romluc not to attend the conference that is necessarily stronger than the countervailing obligation to attend it, even if the latter obligation is itself not an especially strong one. I’m not saying it doesn’t; just that that would appear to be precisely one of the things that calls for examination here.

  23. If you do not go, it seems to me that the only effect would be on the readers of this blog – namely, that you’d look to them as if you actually did something against racism in Greece. How about going there and protesting there, in front of the department of labor or justice – if it is a real concern of yours? Or devoting a talk to the issue at the University of Athens? The concerns with safety mentioned here seem completely exaggerated. As someone who has recently been to both Turkey and Greece – it’s a bit ridiculous.

  24. Joe, for those who have experienced racist physical attacks as well as harassment, concerns with safety are not “ridiculous”. Are they “ridiculous” because *you* didn’t experience this when you visited?

  25. From the link in the post:

    Last summer, a Nigerian-born American, Christian Ukwuorji, visited Greece on a family holiday with his wife and three children.

    When police stopped him in central Athens he showed them his US passport, but they handcuffed him anyway and took him to the central police station.

    They gave no reason for holding him, but after a few hours in custody Ukwuorji says he was so badly beaten that he passed out. He woke up in hospital.

    “I went there to spend my money but they stopped me just because of my colour,” he says. “They are racist.”

    It is impossible to determine how many people have had a similar experience – but enough Americans for the US State Department to issue a warning to its citizens travelling to the country.

    It updated its website on 15 November to warn of “confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens”, as well as a wider problem in Greek cities of “unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants”.

  26. I think Mark’s point is important: a boycott is a much better idea if it’s what locals on the right side are calling for. My Greek friends are very much in favour of tourists coming and supporting local businesses. So I don’t see a clear moral case for boycotting. (Of course, this changes if it turns out locals are calling for that, but I haven’t seen any suggestion that they are.) However, the safety case for not coming seems to me potentially very strong indeed. I do like Mike’s suggestion of donating money you would have spent on restaurants to anti-fascist groups.

  27. So there is no police/immigration racism in US? And if there is, should we stop lecturing? In any case, it is true that are such cases as you mention in Greece (as there are such cases in pretty much every European country – in some a lot, say Russia, and in some less so, say Norway) and one should be careful. But it is false to think that they are so widespread as people portray it here. There are millions of people visiting Greece each year from all over the world. It is also true that things have been difficult in Greece recently, but it is not an unsafe country.

  28. Sorry I’ve given offense, it wasn’t mine intent. I’m not blaming anyone for anything, just saying that it’s a big and potentially frightening deal to travel in Greece right now. The State Department issued the advisory for a reason.

    Knowing what options you have if something went wrong— like where the embassy is— might ease your mind, is all.

  29. The problem is that westerners consistently blow the danger of travelling to non-western countries out of proportion. Greece and Russia aren’t Africa, but extreme right wing propaganda in the UK has been telling people that Greeks and Eastern Europeans are dangerous criminals for years to fuel anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments. UKIP is pretty much a neonazi organization with the support of a good chunk of the British population and the UKBA are extremely racist and have mistreated people of colour numerous, numerous times – however, nobody’s too frightened to travel to the UK because Britain is a “civilized” western country.

    And what happens in Britain is nothing compared to the US where as we’ve just seen you can get away with killing young men of colour very easily.

  30. Commenters, attend to the post regarding Greece. Comparing other countries to other countries is not responsive to the dilemma in question.

  31. Thank you for all your thoughts. Mark’s point about boycotts seems exactly right.

    Nemo – I was, as Beta says, taking it to be a given that I have a strong obligation to go, given my commitment to giving a paper. I was taking that as a sort of background consideration against which, the other factors should be weighed. But I should perhaps have made that clearer – just didn’t want to add to an already lengthy post.

    Andreea and Joe – I wasn’t suggesting for one minute that other places don’t have problems with racism and poor treatment of immigrants – I tried to allude to this in my post. Boycotting another country doesn’t imply that the rise of fascism and ongoing racism in the UK means that one should stop lecturing – the actions it’s appropriate to take to combat these things in one’s own country differ. Boycotting one’s job doesn’t seem like an effective way to put pressure on one’s own government (unless a general strike is called). Instead, other measures are appropriate. These can include such things as taking part in demonstrations, helping asylum seekers access appropriate legal help, contributing to destitution funds, campaigning for better immigration policies, etc. etc.

    On the one hand, it is true, I think, that nowhere (except perhaps warzones) is as dangerous as people say it is. But it’s not true that people don’t worry about travelling to so-called ‘civilised’ countries in the same way as those that are depicted as ‘uncivilised’ by the ‘Western’ media. For example, I, for one, have worried about my safety in certain parts of the US (especially as I am generally mistaken for Mexican when I go there). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other members of ethnic minorities have similar worries that the majority society just doesn’t get to hear about. Also, there is a difference between a general impression of danger created by the media, and specific advice given out by embassies, who tend to be conservative in their advice, and have been criticised for this tendency by travellers who find themselves in bother.

  32. As a Greek, I’d like to add a couple of things, though I have no concrete advice to offer.

    First, on the personal safety level, I do think that the threat is being exaggerated. Please read the entire US State Department report: https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=13731

    To quote: “Statistics suggest that violent crime is considerably less prevalent than in other European countries, and Athens experiences less violent crime than comparably sized metropolitan cities.” Athens has traditionally been one of the safest European capitals, and although undoubtedly things have gotten worse in the last few years, especially on the anti-immigrant/racist front, I don’t think you will be unsafe in Greece.

    On the other hand, the unreliability of Greek cops in cases of racist harassment or violence is a problem. Although racism among cops is a problem in many countries, I suspect Greece is toward the bad end of the spectrum on this score. The Greek police force was never properly purged after the end of the dictatorship in the ’70s, and its right-wing nationalist culture has survived over the decades. Indeed, close relations between Golden Dawn and the police have been well-documented long before the current rise in Golden Dawn’s popularity (Golden Dawn has been around for a long time, but used to get under 10,000 votes nationally in elections). This has been exacerbated by the fact that Greece is also home to many radical leftist/anarchist groups, some of which engage in violent protest and attacks against people and property. There is a vendetta dynamic between such groups and the police.

    And the plight of immigrants in Greece really is appalling, and needs to be widely publicized.

    Greece saw a very sudden and very steep rise in immigration over the last 20 years, and it never managed to catch up either in terms of a workable legal framework or in terms of infrastructure. Things were not terrible (though they were not great either) so long as the economy was booming, but now that there is no economic activity to absorb large numbers of sans-papiers immigrants the lack of any public infrastructure capable of treating them with any degree of decency shows very badly. Moreover, the current government has neither the resources nor the will to do anything about the issue (the leading New Democracy party is, on the contrary, actively fishing for votes among the far right). As for Europe more broadly, as you point out in your post, they seem happy to simply push the problem back to the peripheral countries—which increasingly means to Greece, as Spain and Italy have taken a very aggressive stance in policing their maritime borders. (Something which is not really an option for Greece, given the topography of its eastern border.)

    In a past life, before moving abroad and becoming a professional philosopher, I was involved with left-wing/anti-racist groups in Greece. My contacts are very rusty, but if you are interested I can try to put you in touch with people in Greece who would know more about all this, and might be able to give you concrete advice for how to help or what to do when you are there, if you decide to go.

  33. … Oh, and as to whether visiting helps Greece, I’d say that, although the amount of money you are likely to spend individually won’t make much difference either way (unless I’m really misinformed about academic salaries in the UK!), the success of events such as WCP does matter. Public support for education and culture has totally collapsed in Greece, so any sign of life in these areas is invaluable.

  34. I am still planning to attend the WCP ’13 in Athens, and I share the misgivings expressed here. My plan is to support philosophy in general and the more relevant panels and papers. Upon return home I expect my opinion on the situation in Greece will carry more credibility, at least. I’m also thinking that those who are concerned about the Romdenh-Romluc reservation could perhaps develop a joint statement, to be released after the conference. Absenteeism is high at these conferences, at least it was in Istanbul, and I think it is unfair to in effect punish the organizers for the wrongs of their government. Philosophy Now magazine might be receptive to an article on this issue, for example.

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