Intellectual Activism

For some time, I’ve been developing my ideas on a topic I call “intellectual activism,” which I define as using scholarly research to inform and shape social change initiatives. Two weeks ago, I hopped on a train to New York to give a lunchtime talk on intellectual activism to faculty members of the City University of New York Law School (CUNY), located in Long Island City, Queens. CUNY Law is one of the nation’s leading incubators of future public interest lawyers, so this was a great opportunity to discuss the topic with a receptive group of colleagues.

I examined how law professors can use our legal scholarship as the foundations for engaging in legislative advocacy, impact litigation, and public education through social media. I used my work concerning workplace bullying and unpaid internships as personal examples, but the discussion went well beyond that, as others in the room shared their experiences and interests.

Theory, research, and practice all come together in this model. Effective intellectual activism requires sharp thinking and research, honest and dispassionate analysis, and common sense grounded in experience and observation. Ideally this blend leads to us to prescriptive responses that are, as I like to say it, responsibly bold.

For a copy of my paper, “Law Professors as Intellectual Activists,” go here.

2 responses

  1. I am very committed to the Healthy Workplace movement and have 34 year experience as a labor lawyer (I live in Washington DC). Does anyone have any suggestions about how I can most effectively contributed in a practical way to the Healthy Workplace movement — largely fuels by my disappointment in the traditional labor-management route (there ware approximately as many emloyees employed by unionized employees than in 1935 when Taft-Hartley was passed). One of my ideas is to reshift the focus of labor-management relations as a relative power dimesnion (in which the unions currently almost always lose out), to refocussing the issue of workplace abuse to a human rights issue. In other words, something to which employees are entilted to (as in the United Kingdom
    a standard of care by their employees, whether unionize or not) and not dependent on whatever
    power the greatly underpowered unions are able to gather. After 34 year, I see the solution for labor rieghts more in legisltative changes (e.g., EEO rights) that apply across the Bord and are not limited to whether the greatly-disavantaged unions are able to gather enough power to compete on a power
    basis with the typically greattly more enpowered employees.
    I welcome all suggestions at to how an individual (namely myself) can contrbute to woking for the human rights of respect, dignity, and fairness in the wokplace and not dependent on the employees
    in an individual company be able to gaher enough support, often under greatly unequalized circumstances. In other words, rendering employee rights as human rights and not based on the employees gathering majority support, just as now employees do not have to gather majority support to have guarntees agains discimination based on race, sex, disability, ethnic background. I believe at some point we have to evolve to understnd that employees, including the right to collectively bargain, are not rights only to be earned by majority support but as basic human rights — as those other rights mentioned above. Why should any employer be able to vote away the basic human rights of fairness, dignity and respect.
    The day is long past when we see these rights as having to be erned by majority support, often
    under heavily weighted imbalances of powers, but instead what many European countries see them to rightlfully be (and as incorported in the United Nations bill of rights) — basic human rights.
    I think we desperately need this change of paradigm with employee rights only enforceable if the unions can gain sufficient support to what they truly are — objective human rights (which can not
    be bargained away, no more than race or sex discrimination, because the employer has coercive means to coerve the employees to relinquish them.
    In short, the time has long past when employee rights should be negotiable or dependent on majority support. They are human rights which to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln
    are “inalienable.”
    This paradigm shift is necessary for the next state of employee rights and I urge each of you to seriously consider it. Employers don’t have the power to bargain away rights to be free frm race, sex, or age discrimination — all human rights. Neither should they have the right to bargain away another essential human right — the right of all employees to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness in the workplace. (Ironically, a point employers keep ignored, overwhelming studies show that where these protections are in place, the productivity of the employer is nothing but enhanced. I.e., in a falling economy, can we afford to ignore the human rights of employees, when the evidence
    overwhelmingly shows that by given them their proper due — they do have the high status of human frights after all — everybody beneiftis (except ultra-controlling managers of course) — the employees
    and the employer who respects human right as well.
    We desperately need to shift the discourse about employee rights to its rightful place —
    the issue is one incontrovertibly of human rights (and not a greatly uneven balance of power between
    the seemingly competing interests of management and employees).
    I stand for the human rights of fairness, decency and respect in all workplaces. Please join me and others who have recognized the true natue of what is at stake.

  2. Thank you, David, for sharing your ongoing body of work with us. I do agree that there is an intrinsic association between intellectual/research pursuits and the potential for subsequent and informed activism. And I am certainly most grateful that through your legal affiliations and, hopefully, through others, in time, the workplace bullying phenomena will gain recognition and provide critical insight into how bullying-across the spectrum of societal life-negatively impacts upon the very fabric of our work and societal/familial lives that threatens the fundamental quality of our interpersonal connections with one another as a human race and as a stable and self-sustaining country.

    I do agree, Gai, that focusing on the inalienable rights for all human beings to be treated with respect for one’s dignity is at the core solution for the bullying phenomena. At one point in time when I was employed at the advocacy agency for people with disabilities-I was recently wrongfully terminated-I was the human rights officer for the agency’s drop-in center. In that role I provided one-on-one counseling support, as well as human rights trainings to staff and consumers.

    When I transferred to the day time program, in time, I requested that there be a human rights training for the staff. I located a skilled trainer in the area who was willing to provide the trainings free of charge.

    Needless to say, those trainings never occurred, as my bullying supervisor refused to be open to the idea. She simply stated that there are interpersonal conflicts inherent in all work places, and that some of the employees simply need to toughen up and stop being so sensitive.

    In time I told her that seeing people who are concerned about being respectfully treated as being too sensitive is one viewpoint. However, another viewpoint could be that those very same people may find offensive remarks and actions as being insensitive. There wasn’t any follow-up discussion, of course. Naturally, an escalation of mistreatment ensued.

    Having said that, I do think that there is an additional component to this issue, as I am sure that this topic can be multifaceted in both the context and content of the issue studied.

    For me, those of us who recognize and advocate for the inalienable right to be treated with dignity and respect, tend to be individuals who embrace a more egalitarian approach to human relationships, whereby each person is considered to be of equal worth in relation to one another, irrespective of the societal/employment/familial roles that each may occupy.

    It has been my experience that the most toxic bullying patterns are initiated and supported by individuals/institutions who cling onto the hierarchal worldview of unequal worth/treatment, thereby filling the hole in the bully’s soul that somehow the person struggles with pertaining to internalizing the feeling of being inherently defective that is part of the hierarchal mindset and programing of individuals in society.

    In other cases, as with sociopaths, the bullying dynamic and motivation is slightly different and, in my opinion, a solution doesn’t appear to be available short of an intervention that occurs without the person’s genuine cooperation, although the person may feign cooperation until one can regroup and continue business as usual in a different, deceptive, and more veiled manner. .

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