Should Academic Societies Make Public Statements about Political Incidents? – An Interview with Katia Chornik

This month, Katia Chornik talks to the student representative Núria Bonet about her statement paper on the role of academic societies – such as the RMA – in making public statements on political developments (Should Academic Societies Make Public Statements about Political Incidents?). Katia is a researcher and journalist who founded the Cantos Cautivos project, which collects songs and stories on musical experiences in political detention centres during Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Núria interviewed her about her paper to understand her arguments but also the resistance she has encountered about it.


Find Katia Chornik’s statement paper KChornik_Should-Academic-Societies-Make-Public-Statements-about-Political-Incidents_RMA-Newsletter-21.2-Nov-2017.


Katia’s statement paper calls for academic societies such as the RMA and BFE (British Forum for Ethnomusicology) to make public statements on worrying political developments such as Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim Ban’. The paper describes the mixed reactions at the BFE AGM where she proposed this measure; some argued that making a political statement would interfere with the society’s legal status as a charity while others argued that this was a moral rather than political issue. Katia says that she does not agree with ‘suggestions that we should not get involved because this is political’. She explains, ‘this is an issue of citizenship, comradeship,  and sensibility. This is something that affects us and our colleagues directly. Things that are happening now in the US are clearly attempts against the concept of humanity. You can label it as you want but I think this goes beyond politics. I would like to believe that people of any political beliefs would be against this type of persecution’.

There are precedents from academic musical societies making public statements about political developments. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the SEM’s (Society for Ethnomusicology) statement on torture. It condemned the use of music as an instrument of torture, following press reports from 2004 onwards, which exposed the use of music in Guantanamo and other centres run by the CIA and its associates. The SEM has in fact published a number of public statements, the latest being a response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 . The AMS (American Musicological Society) came out against torture in 2008, albeit less publicly in the newsletter and in a ‘softer’ manner ( , p. 5). In the UK, the Musicians’ Union and other groups took action, and Peter Gabriel headed a letter signed by a number of famous musicians which was sent to President Obama. While there was some activism, the UK academic societies did not react. Jeff Todd Titon, who drafted the SEM statement against torture, reflected on its significance for the organisation in his Introduction to the 2015 OUP Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology: ‘[It] was a significant step in SEM’s evolution. It recognizes that ethnomusicologists are citizens of the world with social responsibilities, and that our professional organization has not only the right but also the duty to represent the profession’s ethical beliefs and act upon them.’ (pp. 28-29)

Katia sees a dichotomy between discourse and practice when it comes to citizenship issues (or matters) and music academics. ‘Many people in ethnomusicology, for example, do work which is explicitly for the benefit of society and in favour of human rights. They are very ready to do good for others. It is therefore striking that there might be a reticence to engage in issues like the ‘Muslim ban’ publicly. The suggestion that the ‘Muslim Ban’ has nothing to do with music, and should therefore not interest a society such as the RMA, is quickly squashed by Katia: ‘I don’t agree that the travel ban does not have anything to do with music. There are constantly international music conferences being organised in this country, and the fact that these restrictions exist means that academics from other countries cannot come to them (The Guardian, ‘University conferences at risk as academic speakers refused UK visas‘). They cannot contribute and they cannot collaborate with academics here. Just recently this happened to a researcher – not a music scholar but still a researcher – who lives and works here (The Guardian, ‘”Leave immediately”: scientist is latest victim of Home Office blunder’).’

There is growing interest in reaching out to the ‘real world’, to be involved in public engagement through public musicology, applied ethnomusicology, etc. This year, the Institute for Musical Research organised a Distinguished Lecture Series with Prof Martin Stokes on ‘The Musical Citizen’; one of the lectures was on ‘Public music studies and citizenship , and the SMI (Society for Musicology in Ireland) organised a whole conference on Public Musicology.

Finally, she shares a highly personal but compelling example of the power that academics can exert: ‘My existence, the fact that I was born, is due to academic activism. My parents were political prisoners during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. My father had done a PhD in Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley] during the 60s. As soon as it became known that my parents had disappeared, the scientific community rallied. First in Chile, one of my father’s colleagues raised the alarm. My father worked at the Universidad de Chile and my mother was a very famous ballerina at the time. The scientific community made an international appeal, even Nobel Prize winners were involved, and they made so much noise about the disappearance of my parents (they focused on my father because he had a link with the US)! He had studied at Berkeley thanks to the Plan Chile-California, established in the 60s., which gave out grants for student exchanges. When the president of this exchange, the vice-chancellor of UCLA, heard that my father was in the hands of the secret police, he decided to suspend the exchange plan until both my parents were found alive. My father’s story appeared in the US media and even reached the US Congress. It was all thanks to the activism of academics!’

Katia appears weary of sharing this story because she believes that we should not only become engaged in issues when they affect us personally. She believes that she would still hold the same opinion about the role academic societies today, without this personal background.

What do you think? We are keen to hear from both sides of the argument and invite you to engage in the discussion. Get in touch with the Student Representatives (!


  1. To be worthy of the name, a learned society must be able to pass what I call the “Socrates” test — that is to say, it must be able to tolerate and support debate and dissent even on fundamental precepts and values. At the same time, where wider political issues bear upon the discipline falling within the purview of the society or its practitioners, there can be a compelling case for public intervention. Therefore, I would propose that a learned society should be empowered to make public statements about political matters, subject to the following rules:

    1. No Public Statement shall be promulgated officially unless and until the full statement had been approved by a vote of all members, excluding honorary or corporate members, of the society in good standing.

    2. The aforementioned vote shall be a secret ballot conducted under the auspices of reputable persons and/or an organisation external to the society (e.g.: the Electoral Reform Society). Under no circumstances shall the proposer of the statement be permitted to act as Returning Officer.

    3. If approved, all official promulgations of the Public Statement shall state prominently: the quantity of votes approving; the quantity of votes dissenting; the quantity of votes abstaining; the quantity of votes spoiled/invalid; the quantity of votes not cast (as opposed to abstaining).

    4. Prior to the vote, any member of the society shall be entitled to submit, either anonymously or signed, a Notice of Dissent to be appended to the Public Statement. Provided the Notice of Dissent is received by a reasonable deadline [explicit minimum timeframes &c. to be added] specified by the Returning Officer, it must be disseminated alongside the voting papers.

    5. If the Public Statement is approved, any Notice of Dissent submitted in accordance with §4 above shall be included in all official promulgations of the Public Statement. The Returning Officer shall furnish an opportunity for others to express support for any Notice of Dissent, either anonymously or signed, such support being stated in the official promulgations.

    6. Provision may be made by further clauses for a process by which members can propose amendments to a proposed Public Statement prior to the vote.

    The purpose of these rules is to focus the minds of those proposing a Public Statement, to ensure that they propose something which is likely to elicit widespread support from the membership. They also ensure that there are tangible means for the diversity of opinion in the society to be rendered visible to the outside world. Such diversity and dissent should be celebrated, not hidden.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. We hope to encourage this debate, your thoughtful ideas are most welcome! I will note them down for consideration.

    2. SVM: you raise sensible points but your proposed mechanism could be too lengthy, meaning that any
      statement might be obsolete by the time it is approved by the whole membership. I understand from Jeff Todd Titon, who proposed the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Position Statement on music and torture, that in the SEM and in the American Folklore Society, the Executive Board of each organisation decides whether or not to consult its membership as a whole, or any of its various committees, or no one but the members of the executive board, before issuing statements on behalf of the society. These boards are elected officers of the societies, and if the members don’t like what they do, they can vote them out. What the board does depends on the nature of the issue, its relation to the society and its profession, whether the issue is ongoing or chiefly of the moment, etc. In cases like the so-called Muslim ban, or the Charlottesville march, these boards issued statements after consulting only with board members. They also consulted with other, similar academic societies’ boards, through the American Council on Learned Societies. The feeling on the AFS Board (on which Jeff served in 2015-2017) was that because these were urgent issues, statements must be made quickly to have any effect; and that the vast majority of the membership would be in support of the statements anyway—which in fact they have been.

      1. Contrary to Dr Chornik, I do not think urgency or impact are valid excuses for not consulting the membership at large. In a world where technology facilitates all too many uninformed knee-jerk reactions, learned societies need to stand back and deliberate on their Public Statements. I would also argue that Public Statements, whilst they may be triggered by a particular event, ought to consider the issues at hand generically, in order to articulate clearly the *values* that underlie them (such values being arrived-at by consultation and debate among the membership at large). In that way, they would not be obsolete, even if media attention had diminished. Moreover, it would ensure that the society, unlike the media, were not adopting double standards (Trump is not the first USA president to enact sweeping restrictions on visas from predominantly Islamic countries; Obama — a president who, despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, holds the record for being at war the longest, and under whom drone strikes were scaled-up enormously — enacted comparable restrictions effecting even more such countries, yet where was the chorus of condemnation?).

        I think it is also worth reiterating that, for all that it might be valid for a learned society to make political Public Statements, it is fallacious to make analogies in the society’s role to politics /per se/. So, when Dr Chornik argues that “boards are elected officers of the societies, and if the members don’t like what they do, they can vote them out”. Unlike in a trade union or a parliament, elected office in a learned society is primarily an *administrative* rather than political mandate. Even if I disagreed with the political views of a candidate (of which I would probably be unaware in any case, since candidate statements focus, quite rightly, on the candidate’s suitability/experience and how he/she proposes to go about the role if elected), I would still vote for him/her if I think he/she would be the best person available (and, let us be honest, elected offices in learned societies tend not to be contested very fiercely) to discharge the duties of the elected office for which he/she is standing.

  2. SVM, in your last comment, you mention the need “to consider the issues at hand generically, in order to articulate clearly the *values* that underlie them”. I think this is a good idea, and I agree with you that members should have a vote on that. Several academic organisations have general codes of practice / values / ethics, which members must accept to become and/or remain members. Citing my own Newsletter piece, and in reference to the BFE debate, “This statement could then be used to decide which developments the society should react to. In other words, if an incident directly violated one or more of the organization’s values, and was related to and/or impacted our profession, then we should react publicly.”

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