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Fulbright Austria Grantee Attends 2019 EU-US Young Leaders Seminar

First held in 2017, the EU-US Young Leaders Seminar is an annual seminar hosted by Fulbright Belgium / Luxembourg / Schuman in Brussels, Belgium that brings together young leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss topics relevant to their generation and beyond. This year, we sent US Fulbright combined grantee Elaine Chen to participate in this noteworthy event and are excited about her takeaways, which she shares below in her own words.

Reflections on the EU-US Young Leaders Seminar

By Elaine Chen

As I reflect on my year teaching English and conducting research as a combined grantee in Salzburg, Austria, I find the concern for the integrity of democracy that I have perceived from Austrian and American students, teachers, and academics alike particularly striking. Whether in classroom discussions on American federal elections or at kitchen-table debates about regulations on free speech, I have been lucky enough to experience numerous moments of critically minded, interculturally alert engagement in the collective work of upholding democracy. Demonstrative of this sensitivity to the essential precarity (and increasingly precarious essentiality) of institutions like freedom of press and elections were the exchanges I participated in at the 2019 EU-US Young Leaders Seminar on “Shared Transatlantic Challenges: Disinformation & the Changing Media Landscape” in Brussels, Belgium.

Facilitated by the Fulbright commission in Brussels, the seminar offered a cohort of American and European beneficiaries of Fulbright grants and EU-funded exchange programs the opportunity to discuss topics relating to disinformation and media literacy with representatives from the private sector, public sector, and academia. After panels with these experts—and moderated by grant recipients—the seminar participants divided into groups to discuss the themes of the presentations and to collect ideas for further action.

Throughout the three-day conference, a clear opposition between regulation and media literacy as responses to disinformation became apparent. Where many participants argued that the threat posed by disinformation outweighs the individual right to express one’s self freely, others argued that, in the hands of an authoritarian ruler, regulations of expression could be unscrupulously applied—indeed, to such an extent that would extend and not curtail disinformation. To that end, the argument went, media literacy would be far more effective than regulation at targeting disinformation and upholding democratic norms. Indeed, this central question highlighted the complex historical and ideological discourses around issues of democracy, free speech, and disinformation, both within specific national contexts and transnationally.

I enjoyed hearing these debates as much as I enjoyed engaging in them with the other seminar participants. Chatting, debating, agreeing, or disagreeing with an eclectic group of students, teachers, and researchers—from fields as diverse as theater studies, information science, security and intelligence, and journalism, for example—underscored the function of events like these and institutions like Fulbright itself in securing democracy: without variety, without dissention, a democracy is simply an inward-facing choir of self-satisfied ignorance—at best. Particularly in countries that continue to struggle with securing freedoms for their most vulnerable groups, it is as timely as it is urgent to stress, as Rosa Luxemburg stressed, that freedom always means the freedom of dissenters—or, as the case may be, “foreigners.”

To that end, it seems that thanks are due! To Fulbright Austria for giving me the chance to be a foreigner for a year. To Fulbright Belgium for giving me the opportunity to bring even more variety into a year already rich with experiences of difference, diversity, and dissention. And to the students, teachers, professors, classmates, and coworkers I met this year, who did their part to contribute to a freer, more open, and more democratic world—one play, one lecture, one seminar, one vocabulary test at a time.

All photos courtesy of Fulbright Belgium / Luxembourg / Schuman.