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In face of misconduct why do you need to speak up?

Speaking up requires proper mental skills and courage.

In face of misconduct why do you need to speak up?

Speaking up requires proper mental skills and courage.

On July.8 2019, I attended an event called “#MeTooAcademia”, organized by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the place I am currently affiliated with. The motivation of joining this event is from the academic misconduct I have been going through, the Dutch media coverage of similar stories and a suicide committed by a PhD candidate (Huixiang Chen) due to the academic misconduct. The academic misconduct basically comes from the grey area of the whole society, that’s the human mind, the spiritual part of the civilization, something inside and invisible, at least not so visible compared to the material, money and achievement people are always pursuing. In this grey area, anything nasty can happen: aggression, bullying, intimidation. threatening, coercion and harassment. People in academia tend to be more sophisticated (negatively smart), and there is a higher possibility that they could cousciously exploit this grey area to their own advantage, compounded by the widespread hierarchy issues. Academia needs significant change to find its meaning back. Setting aside this big question, in this article, I will present some of my thoughts over the experience of this event.

I am grateful that I had a chance to speak in front of the audience about the importance of speaking up in such a mental game, yes, handling misconduct is a mental game. Speaking up seems a simple action, but a genuinely complicated procedure which involves a lot of counterintuitive thoughts and mental processes. Speaking up becomes very difficult when people have too much attachment to things and ideas, which triggers the internal conflicts on their mind and blocks their actions. The imagined consequence of speaking up can cause anxiety when one fails to recognize the illusion over the result and cares about ‘self’ too much. So to speak, the ego is always the biggest hurdle. In this event, I shared my story (roughly) and my mental process of speaking up. Before speaking up, I felt a bit anxious about the consequence, but luckily, I realized the result is an illusion, it has not happened yet, and it is only in my head. The only way to know it is to feel it after taking actions, that is, speaking up. After speaking up, actually, I feel safer than before. I feel like transparent and candid because I have nothing to hide. Speaking up means making myself heard, and I could get more support from others. When the action is taken, thought also changes dramatically, you never know. Of course, speaking up requires a lot of mental skills and courage, but as a practical tip, don’t overthink, do it first, that is, speak up then “face” the consequence, which you will never know until you speak up. If you are the lucky ones to be able to speak up, please bear in mind, you are not speaking up for yourself, but for a bigger crowd who are experiencing similar situations. Your action will influence not only yourself but also others for the better.

Another interesting topic is the mental vulnerabilities caused by the widespread problem of PhD research and academia — overspecialization, which was mentioned by an audience in the event. Overspecialization is a severe issue affecting the meaning and essence of academic research. In other words, overspecialization is the symptom of the mental problems of academia. Overspecialization is similar to overfocus but on a population level. When one experiences overfocus, one can get the pleasure of concentration, but one also has one’s awareness distorted and even lost. This observation also applies to a group of people, when they overfocus similarly, they enhance each other, so they get the pleasure of resonance but drift away. It is not surprising that some external measures are taken by the government hoping to make academia more society-oriented and it is also not surprising that these measures don’t work as intended since it is a “mental issue” and solution should be found from inside. Speculatively speaking, overspecialization creates a false sense of security and facilities the boundary of the academia, so academia can become a career where people compete to climb the ladder and hierarchy is inevitably formed. People in this game risk losing the true freedom of thought and intellectual independence, which are the essence and meaning of academia. From young researchers in this game, they are climbing the ladder from the bottom like crazy and forms their security totally based on this, though a false one. This gives them the disadvantage when they are in a situation, without letting go of this mental attachment and taking proper actions (like speaking up), they are becoming the victims of the current academic problem.

From the perspective of the nature of mind, speaking up in one way or another is essential to solve the problem. Buddhism emphasises the oneness of mind, which tells us that we need to confront whenever necessary to rebalance the mind of the whole. In the past, people resorted to war and blood-shedding to achieve this, now, with modern civilisation, we need to confront mentally to accomplish this. Speaking up is one way to confront. If one keeps silent, one suffers the mental conflict oneself; but if one speaks up, one just externalise the contradiction, everyone sees it, and more people will join and support one. To sum up, if the mind of the whole is not balanced and one wants to balance one’s own mind confined in the body, and if everyone does so, everyone is suffering, but nothing gets changed. What a sight, isn’t it? Probably we need to reconsider the extreme individualism, perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye.

To the end of this writing, I would like to point out the importance of mindfulness to academia again. Buddhism emphasizes the oneness of human minds, so here we can say the mind of academia. When the mind loses its balance, the issue arises. Everyone in academia needs to arm themselves with proper mental skills to contribute to the balance of the mind. Especially, leaders need to pick up the appropriate mental skills to see how their mind works, to recognize the illusion they are always in and have a clear mind to act wisely and bravely. Luckily, these skills can be obtained by practising mindfulness with efforts. When academia became mindful, the meaning would come back.

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Chao (Cico) Zhang
Thinker, Doer, Mindfulness Meditator, Mathematician, PhD Candidate

With mindfulness and philosophy, I relish thinking about the meaning of being and doing.

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