Perhaps the best paraphrase of the old Socrates quote that the more we know, the more we realize we know nothing – is the one given by Einstein: As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
Petnica research center, as is well known, is all about growing knowledge. Petnica has produced some of the most recognized and respected scientists from Serbia – although many of them no longer live here. It also produced me, a student, then a junior associate, then the head of the socio-cultural anthropology seminar until 2007 and then again for a short period from 2009 to 2010. In Petnica, I gained scientific self-confidence and methodological foundations that I still follow today, more than 20 years after I first came to the Station, and more than 10 years after I left Serbia.
Some of us are only now learning that, along with knowledge, ignorance has been growing in Petnica for years. Ignorance of abuse, ignorance of coercion, ignorance of blackmail. I share my sadness and disappointment with many former colleagues, but also gratitude and full support for the girls who gathered the courage to once again face the trauma they experienced and talk about it. They must be trusted without discussion, just as any victim of sexual or any other abuse must be trusted without discussion.
The point where I feel my opinion differs from those of others is that I, as someone who studies the politics of knowledge, believe that ignorance, just like knowledge, is something that doesn’t happen by itself, but needs work. Ignorance is made possible by shrugging, closing one’s eyes or looking the other way. Ignorance is made possible by growing up in a toxic culture, where some types of violence are accepted as “normal” or an integral part of life. Ignorance is made possible by agreeing to participate in that culture, either because there is no choice or because the price is acceptable.
In this sense, just as it is an achievement to write a paper for the Petnica notebooks, it is also an achievement not to notice that some students return from getting those papers printed more frightened than you would expect (what level of fright should be expected in that situation, really?). Just as it is an achievement to organize a place where, year after year, high school students can talk, learn from, and collaborate with top scientists in the field, it is an achievement not to wonder – even once – whether such close contact opens up the possibility of abuse. Finally, just as it is an achievement to participate in the often male-chauvinistic world of science on an equal – or higher – footing with men, it is an achievement not to wonder whether our own participation legitimizes the kinds of relationships that can turn into abuse.
In that sense, all of us who have ever been in a position of power in Petnica bear part of the responsibility. This, of course, does not relativize or trivialize the hierarchy of responsibility that includes all those who knew about this and did nothing. But, for those of us looking from the sidelines – a position in which, let me remind you, the survivors of violence can never be – it carries an additional responsibility: to consider carefully the types of injustice, inequality and violence we still turn a blind eye to today.
The author is an associate professor at the University of Durham, Great Britain. She was the head of the socio-cultural anthropology seminar at Petnica research center 2005-07 and 2009-10.
Translated by Marijana Simic