Professors welcome danger at Gaudino Forum

On Monday night, Associate Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson, this year’s Gaudino Scholar, hosted the second Gaudino Forum of the year, on the topic of danger manifested in personal life and the world. Bernhardsson moderated the discussion with input from faculty members from different disciplines: Markes Johnson, professor of natural sciences; Christopher Nugent, associate professor of Chinese; Cathy Johnson, professor of political science; Lois Banta, associate professor of biology; and  John Limon, professor of English. 

Professors from all three divisions explained how danger factors into their disciplines at the second Gaudino Forum on Monday.
Professors from all three divisions explained how danger factors into their disciplines at the second Gaudino Forum on Monday. Photo by Emily Calkins.

Markes Johnson was the first to speak. He focused on his experiences with three types of danger as a geologist. He prefaced his talk by explaining that growing up during the Cold War, he had wanted to be a geologist and explore the world his entire life, but even when he entered college, he “could not imagine working in a place like Russia or China.” As a geologist,  he discovered three primary forms of danger that geologists face: physical harm from the field, harm from the local culture and ideological harm due to conflicting ideas.

He identified first the danger of “work in the field”, citing three occasions on which he had “thought [he] was going to die” while on site in the Siberian Arctic. One occurred when he found himself “shooting the rapids” of an icy river in a dinghy. The second danger he identified was danger presented by the local culture, exampled by an occasion in Egypt when “two or three men picked up two by fours and charged [his geology site]” from a neighboring construction site. “When 9/11 happened, I had some foretaste that there were people out there who strongly didn’t like Westerners,” he said. Johnson also spoke of the dangers that ideas and misleading concepts can pose to people in some circumstances. In his case, he brought up giving a lecture on plate tectonics in China, after which “several senior Chinese geologists told [him] that [plate tectonics] simply could not be possible, because China was a united land,” while tectonics said it was three microplates. The idea posed a danger to ideas that the Chinese geologists had to protect.

The second speaker was Nugent, who prefaced his talk by saying that he was never personally put in danger in his field before going on to talk about the danger that scholarship can cause for other people, specifically the dangers that scholars have put the Chinese people into on multiple occasions. He spoke of a trend in China of “journalists misapprehending political circumstances,” and he referred to two specific cases. The first example he discussed was journalist Fox Butterfield, who he said put many of his Chinese contacts in danger by failing to sufficiently hide their identities in a book he helped write. The second case was  the coverage of Tiannamen Square, when journalists failed to accurately cover the story. Nugent said that journalists focused on “freedom-loving, English-speaking students,” when the people who were really in danger were “[Chinese] workers who threatened to form a labor union.”

“Because [journalists] missed the story entirely, the government was given essentially free reign to do whatever they wanted with the labor organizers,” Nugent said.

Cathy Johnson followed Nugent, addressing the issue of “how we who are not in danger respond as a collective to those who are in danger.” Johnson discussed when we should and  should not respond to such situations, what kind of help we provide and how government policy can help in times of distress. She particularly focused on situations in which the collective non-endangered group does not help those who are in danger, and the three ways in which the safe group justify that inaction.

One way to avoid helping those in danger is simply to ignore them, Johnson said. She cited murder-suicides and natural disasters as examples of situations in which the group not in danger refuses to help those who are. The second method of doing this, Cathy Johnson said, is to “blame the individual for the danger they are in.” When we blame people, we feel that “we are not obliged to help them” and that “helping them might make it worse because we might encourage them to remain at risk.” Finally, we can also justify not coming to the aid of others by convincing ourselves that “the individual who is in danger is a danger to us,” Johnson said.

Banta was the fourth faculty member to speak, focusing her talk on “nature as a source of danger and as a source of protection.” She began by explaining how cancer demonstrates both the danger of nature and the protection it can provide. She said that it is “a miracle we don’t all get cancer by the time we’re three,” given that it only takes one or two mutations for something drastic to occur, but that this same system is also demonstrative of the “intricate systems” that protect us.

Banta then discussed some other biological dangers, including anthrax, making the point that “what makes anthrax a good bio-weapon is actually anthrax protecting itself,” again demonstrating nature’s dual role of danger and protection. She also discussed the hygiene hypothesis, which states that the “immune system develops properly only when you are exposed to bacteria.” Banta ended her section by discussing water, particularly in the context of Hurricane Irene, and how it functions both to sustain and to danger us. Here in the Purple Valley, said Banta, we think of nature a source of comfort and solace, but it can also just as easily become a threat.

Limon ended the set of lectures, focusing his portion on danger and escapism in American literature. “We expect great writers to be heroic,” he said, but “facing danger in art is not the same as courting that danger.” He explained that in art, facing danger is called “the sublime,” and then discussed this concept in the context of a set of famous American works.

Limon used Michael Herr’s Dispatches as an example of a story  “about the impossibility of communicating from death to here.” He also noted that the story uniquely displays the physical courage of both soldiers and writers, as Limon also spoke of the “tradition of running away from battle” in American literature, referring to great works such as The Red Badge of Courage, Catch-22 and A Farewell to Arms.

Limon spoke of the “inevitable paradoxes of writing to danger,” saying that the book Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which details the story of two Jewish cousins before, during and after World War II, demonstrates “escape as art, escape as reality and art as escape,” and the idea of escapism as the only reasonable response to the war. “Jews could not take pleasure in confronting the sublime” when faced with the rise of Nazi Germany, Limon said.