35 Openness in Whose Interest?

Maha Bali

Originally published on October 29, 2019

I had the pleasure of participating in #OERizona, a hybrid free event (very well organized, very engaging for me as a virtual participant) ahead of OpenEd19. Thanks to all who worked on it – I know Pressbooks and Hypothesis co-organized with others. Here is just a lightbulb moment I had and others in Zoom chat said blew their minds… so I wanna articulate it better. It is now 20 mins past midnight, so hopefully I am coherent, but if not, you know why!

So I have always felt uncomfortable with frontloading permissions when we talk about Open Education. And I said that when Steel Wagstaff was talking about open as in free vs open as permissions.

So something occurred to me. I don’t like talk of permissions as what open is. I do, as a parent, want to raise a daughter who understands, respects, and seeks permission in her interactions with others. And this was my lightbulb moment. Permissions are paternalistic. To focus on openness as permissions is paternalistic.

[Hanni responded about marginalized communities and importance of permissions, and her comment made my lightbulb moment a *firework* moment]

Next point, building on this, though…

Discourse is so contextual. The same thing can be said by a white person and sound colonizing but it is completely different when an indigenous or postcolonial or person or POC says it. It is so contextual.

And so… I also thought of a couple of things.

First, permissions are sort of a response to copyright. In many ways, copyright is an unjust law that restricts and gatekeeps knowledge to less privileged people (and most money goes to publishers, not just authors). And I am uncomfortable with defining openness in terms of permissions with respect to copyright, we define open over it not being copyright…

And that is such a technical way to describe openness which for many of us is a worldview, a value, not a technical, instrumental thing.

My thoughts are… white colonizers came into other lands, violated them, and without permission basically looted resourced, destroyed people’s psyche, and, you know, basically colonized. To then, now, turn it around, and, after years of controlling knowledge and who had access to it, to NOW decide to be generous and give permission? This reminds me of how World Bank and USAID offer funding generously to help developing countries emerge when much of their economic struggles are caused from those same sources.

It feels… neoliberal and neocolonial. Or at least as something trying to be the opposite of them, while defining itself by them, thus recentering the Western/colonial hegemony. First it was about how this knowledge was protected, and now it’s about how it is shared. But it reproduces both the Western knowledge itself, and its place as the worldview that dominates how knowledge works in the world.

This is only the case when it is dominant cultures being open. Because, in the end, in whose interest is there act of being open? it ends up reproducing Western hegemony over knowledge again. Not because it silences other knowledges intentionally, but because it assumes Western knowledge is useful to others, and it ignores the privilege behind being open that makes it not feasible for less privileged voices to join in THAT openness that is based on permissions. There are other openness-es that are more values based and not permissions based. And they’re less financially tied and more accessible to more diverse people.

And here is the thing:

  1. I don’t mean individuals who give openly or give permissions are bad people or colonial. I am saying that framing the open movement in terms of permissions is a technical emphasis that makes it seem more aligned with neoliberalism than more social justice oriented ways of thinking.
  2. Context matters. Taking permission is important, as is giving permission. The people who invented copyright built their knowledge and wealth on colonized people’s knowledge and wealth. To now turn it into generosity of permission is problematic. On the flip side, people who have been marginalized had knowledge and more extracted from them, often violently, and their permission is so important! Because sometimes their openness is in the interests of the dominant groups and not their own. TK licenses are beautiful in their nuance. Same thing with women for example. Essential to ask permission e.g. to touch a woman’s body, even I would say to suggest anything non-platonic, you need permission.
  3. In my British school, we were not allowed to speak Arabic. It’s not that we could speak our native language with permission. We were not allowed at all except in the Arabic and religion classes. If someone then came and gave us permission to speak Arabic, should we praise them, when they never had the right to prevent us from speaking it? In a similar vein, if Muslims says a person does not have permission to touch the Quran unless they are clean (same as it is for Muslims, because it is a holy/sacred book), this permission should be respected. Does that make sense? Do you see the difference?

And this is why, for me, the violation of copyright in Egypt is transgressive. People won’t be able to learn medicine (because the dominant knowledge of medicine is in English by Western textbooks and scientists, in expensive imported textbooks) so they copy illegally. It’s against the law. But it’s an unjust law.

Then someone gives permission. But the entire discipline and industry have been gatekeeping and withholding for so long. They choose what to share and what to keep. They still control the permission. It seems paternalistic and neocolonial in this sense. Because again it reproduces a cycle of MORE Western knowledge offered to the world (how generous) and in comparison less minority knowledge, because also, minorities have less funding and resources to be open, less time to be open, more to lose and less to gain by being open.

If we want to tackle openness from a social justice perspective, we need to always ask whose interests are served by what we do and say.

Open Educational Practices as a human endeavor is so much more than a technical permission. And I wish we would push this aspect of it to the background of details and instead foreground the other aspects relating to social justice, connection, and co-construction of knowledge in potentially equitable ways, for the interests of diverse people, and on their terms.

And so you do not start understanding openness by comparing it to copyright. That is not why someone like me would be in it, nor will it ever be.

About the Author

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She has a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. She is co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org (a grassroots movement that challenges academic gatekeeping at conferences) and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound (an equity-focused, open, connected intercultural learning curriculum, which has also branched into academic community activities Continuity with Care and Inclusive Academia). She writes and speaks frequently about social justice, critical pedagogy, and open and online education. She blogs regularly at http://blog.mahabali.me and tweets @bali_maha.



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