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Journalism, Academia, and the Future: A Q&A with Evelyn Finger

March 24, 2017 • By Evelyn Finger  Journalism, Academia, and the Future: A Q&A with Evelyn Finger

What is your professional background?

I have been a cultural editor for the German weekly DIE ZEIT over the past 17 years. My background is in literature, but for my newspaper I have written about various topics, including the two German dictatorships and Gedenkpolitik (memorials) after the fall of the wall. Among my main interests are totalitarianism in the 20th century and antidemocratic movements in the 21st century. I am responsible for our new section “Faith & Doubt”, which we established 7 years ago in order to strengthen the conversation on religious and ethical topics in our paper. It turned out that this field is even more controversial than we thought it would be.

 What do you see as the potential public relevance of The Enhancing Life Project?

We live in a world of escalating conflicts: within democratic societies, as well as between states and continents. Politics and public opinion seem not to be very well equipped to reflect upon, or handle, these multidimensional conflicts. When it comes to topics such as social justice, peacemaking, freedom, militant fundamentalism—we often face a poor knowledge about ongoing conflicts, and at the same time an ideological hardening of positions on both ends of the political spectrum, and even in the middle. The only way to overcome quick and dangerous opinion-making, specifically in instances where serious decision-making is required, is through deeper knowledge, clearer definition, more reliable information, and a stronger understanding of our values. This is a big task. The Enhancing Life Project faces this task and offers expertise in new sciences, as well as reflection from old disciplines. It is facing a challenge that neither politics nor media, neither academia nor civil society, can solve on their own.

Given your background as a journalist, how would you describe the preexisting relationship between academia, the media, and the public? 

In Germany, the relationship between academia and media is good, at least in terms of respect. However, not too many academics are ready to speak and write in both worlds: their internal public and the public at large. Someone from the academic world may be better equipped to describe the problem that the media causes here, but from my side, I can see that many wonderful highbrow academics are not aware of the necessity to bring their knowledge into the actual debates, and to shape those debates in some way. They do not see that the general public is capable of immediately recognizing the new, different, eye-opening point they make. 

Are there any ways that you can envision this relationship improving? 

I hope that we in the press can encourage more academics to use journalism, and the types of texts that journalists use, to make their message heard. We as journalists should help in two ways. First: we should focus on the main academic insights that are needed now to improve debates (e.g. about Shia and Sunni confrontation, about antisemitism, about right-wing populism, about borders of freedom of religion, about assisted suicide, etc.). Second: we should help create quick formats that work for the academics as well as for the audience. Classic example: an interview instead of an essay. 

I guess in the US the situation is different. From my experience, I appreciate the willingness and ability of German academics to articulate themselves in the media. But I feel there is a stronger resistance to speaking freely in American political contexts than in European ones: there is a problematic tendency to speak too “politically correct,” which means that in some controversial fields such as Jihadism we miss the clear message.

What particular interests did you bring to The Enhancing Life Project's seminar?

I am very concerned about a “liberalist” mainstream in the German press and public, that has an all-too-easy vision of a multicultural society—and that is denying not only the conflicts that may arise among people from different cultural and religious backgrounds, but that is also denying that these differences exist at all. I am very concerned that this ignorance will help to empower right-wing populism in Europe even more in the future. I hope that by communicating more informed content more honestly, we can strengthen the liberal forces in our free societies in order to build a peaceful, sustainable multicultural society. Only then can we pacify ongoing wars in the Middle East, help refugees in Europe, fight the inciting causes of migration outside Europe, and really offer a peaceful and graceful perspective for migrants in the West. The Enhancing Life Project is highly promising: it fuses very different academic disciplines, all of which will matter in the future, in an unorthodox way. It may help us to see the challenges of a modern, multicultural, new-media-centric society from all of the necessary perspectives.  

What do you think The Enhancing Life Project or Enhancing Life Studies can offer your profession, and why?

It is absolutely clear that the disciplines fused by The Enhancing Life Project are essential to political journalism. We need this knowledge, and we need these visions, both to understand the present and to talk about the future in an adequate way. You name the fields: from the ethics of new technologies, to practices of finding common ground in a globalizing world, we cannot discuss the enhancement of the future without the latest knowledge from the academic world. This project translates that knowledge into the present reality of public discourse. We need a project like this to handle the future now, and to handle it in an intelligent way. Why is the future so important? Because we all, regardless of our own backgrounds, will have to live in it.