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Quiet professor with controversial voice

After contentious posts on Facebook, THEO PANAYIDES meets an easy-going psychology professor who turns into a zealous activist against issues such as bullying and racism

The post on Facebook – the reason why I’m here, in this small bare office at the University of Cyprus, though not the only reason – went up on March 23 on the personal page of Panayiotis Stavrinides, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology. That was the day when elections were held for the university’s student union and far-right party Elam won a seat on the governing committee for the first time, prompting Panayiotis’ response: “If one of my students declares themselves to be an admirer or supporter of Hitler, I will fail them for their political beliefs regardless of how well they do on the course,” he wrote firmly, adding: “Zero tolerance for neo-Nazis”.

The post currently has 593 likes and 31 shares, which is impressive though hardly earth-shattering. No-one at the university – whether student or staff – has even mentioned it, shrugs Panayiotis, and the comments on his page are mostly positive. Still, it’s sparked some discussion and “there was also intimidation,” he says, though not to his face; social-media discourse being what it is, those enraged by the post have mostly seethed among themselves, egging each other on and posting humiliating things about him. A right-wing former MP impugned his masculinity, “calling me a lady, then someone said ‘Someone should go and break his face’ and he agreed”. Such reactions are sadly inevitable – but the case also raises interesting questions for neutrals, especially on the limits (if any) on freedom of speech. Simply put, is it ever right to fail a student (or fire an employee, for instance) because of their political beliefs, no matter how repugnant one finds those beliefs?

Panayiotis seems an unlikely vessel for such strongly-held views – a thin, bespectacled, almost birdlike, rather sad-eyed man with a mild, amiable manner. He’s as old as the Cyprus problem, having been born in 1974 (albeit in January, a few months before the invasion), and mentions that fact with a kind of wry gallows humour, as if weighed down by its symbolic significance. His style doesn’t seem that of a provocateur. “I honestly do not enjoy confrontation,” he says. “I enjoy debating”. Online debates tend to turn ugly nowadays, I point out. Yes, he agrees, but he tries to avoid escalation, “and when I see that it gets out of control, I’m the one who will eventually withdraw. I’m not here for ‘red meat’, as they say in the United States. I’m here for advocating, debating, discussing”.

He has a tendency to play things down – or perhaps they really are so unremarkable, who knows. He’s twice run for high public office, for MEP in 2014 and mayor of Nicosia in 2016, both times backed by Akel (he won a respectable 31 per cent in the mayoral elections, and 10,000 votes for his EU ambitions), but makes it sound like an interesting experiment he conducted as a sideline, with no realistic hope of succeeding: “At least I provided an alternative voice”. Our conversation isn’t frustrating per se – he’s too amiable for that – but it is rather anti-climactic, with me pointing out all the dots one could plausibly connect in dissecting his personality, and Panayiotis gently insisting that there’s nothing to connect.

Here’s one dot: he lost his mother (to cancer) at the age of five, the kind of trauma that could lead – at least conceivably – to a lifelong yearning for the sense of security that comes with a mother’s unconditional love (and might be channelled, for instance, into strongly-held political views without many shades of grey). Another dot: his published work specialises in childhood bullying, especially as it relates to parenting – he and his colleagues have published papers with titles like ‘Parenting at home and bullying at school’ and ‘Authoritarian parenting, power distance and bullying propensity’ – which seems clearly linked to his years of “advocating” against forms of social bullying like racism and homophobia, and possibly related to his own childhood.

I lay out the dots, but he stubbornly denies the existence of a bigger picture. “You know, some things happen coincidentally in life, we don’t have to find deep explanations”. His professional focus on bullying is just a useful way of exploring the topic of childhood aggression, without any personal resonance. He himself wasn’t bullied at school, nor were his parents authoritarian. “Trust me, I’m 1,000 per cent honest! I had wonderful parenting. Dad was – just an idol to us”. His dad remarried soon after the death of his first wife, and Panayiotis had (and has) a fine relationship with his stepmother and two half-siblings. Losing his mother was devastating, of course, but “there is resilience”; overall, he has happy memories of childhood in a now-vanished Cyprus – not just before social media but even before colour TV, with the post-invasion scars of refugees and soup kitchens but also, for instance, playing in the fields with the neighbourhood kids and his grandma throwing down a treat of bread with margarine and sugar from the window of their flat, wrapped in a plastic bag so he could eat while playing. The family weren’t rich, and he later worked in diners to make ends meet – 12-hour shifts, 7pm to 7am, three nights a week – while doing his first degree in New York; his dad was a psychiatric nurse at the Nicosia mental hospital, another dot Panayiotis refuses to connect. “I think I was curious. I was curious about human nature,” he says vaguely, trying to pinpoint what pushed him into Psychology.

I’m not getting many traumatic experiences out of you, I observe good-humouredly.

“I would lie if I said anything else. Mostly my life has been a normal, smooth life of an average person fulfilling some of his aspirations.”

Maybe. Then again, the average person doesn’t usually run for a seat in the European Parliament, or write articles on social issues (much of his public writing appears on a platform called cyprusnews.eu), or get invited on TV talk-shows to argue for the separation of Church and State. That’s “my, let’s say, activistic side,” sighs Panayiotis, quickly adding that he’s by no means a major figure in the activist community – but that’s one dot he grudgingly agrees to connect, the link between his interest in individual bullying and societal bullying, oppression, call it what you will. “I’ve been advocating about gender equality, gay rights, and of course against bullying in schools or in the workplace. When you’re a social scientist, at some point, whether you like it or not, you become somewhat of a – I don’t know, social activist, or a ‘public intellectual’ if I may use this term,” he admits, his pained demeanour suggesting that he’d really rather not use the term, if at all possible.

Panayiotis with other Akel candidates for MEPs

Strangely enough, the fact that he is (or appears) so moderate only adds to the certitude of his beliefs. Someone who rants and raves, after all, could potentially be moved – passion is changeable – but someone so calm and unexcitable is settled in his mind; he’s just noting things as they are. Take his Facebook post, for instance. “You know that I train psychologists, right?” he begins by way of explanation. “Can you imagine someone practising psychology and believing in superior races? Believing in the usefulness of eugenics? Believing that gays are basically mentally and physically ill?… This is total absence of basic psychological knowledge”. Panayiotis’ point is that someone with neo-Nazi views could never be allowed to be a scientist, simply because those views go against science. It would be “like giving a medical degree to a serial killer,” as he wrote in a follow-up post – or perhaps, to give a more sensational example, like giving a teaching degree to someone who admits to a sexual interest in children. It would be unethical.

There’s a big debate to be had here – and I must admit I don’t wade into it, partly because I don’t feel qualified to do so. Is the science really as settled as he claims? (Maybe it is; then again, it’d take a very brave university to fund new research into such incendiary topics, even if it wasn’t.) There are also practical issues with the statement he made on Facebook. Can’t a psychologist hold his private beliefs, yet still be professional in his work? What if the hypothetical Hitler-admiring student passed his exams by giving the ‘right’ answers, as opposed to what he believed? (“Then this person is not a true believer,” smiles Panayiotis, slightly ingenuously.) Above all, what about freedom of speech? Isn’t a person allowed to believe what they want, in a democratic society?

“Democracy has limits, right?” he replies, quoting Karl Popper’s aphorism that the only way to maintain a tolerant society is to be intolerant of intolerance. He rejects the notion of a polarised world pitting extreme Left against extreme Right: “There is one side that talks about racism, about hate, against the rights of gay people and the LGBTI community, against basic human rights – and then all the rest do not talk about this. That’s the distinction, in my mind… Whether the Left can debate with the Right about privatisation, how we should govern, public services – all that is good, and I’m not sure many times which [side] is better to follow. But all these are part of the democratic debate. Hate ideology is not.”

Panayiotis Stavrinides is surely a ‘true believer’, to use his own phrase – though not an angry one, at least not overtly. His style is affable, but his ideas are uncompromising. I mention one of my current bugbears, the way the definition of ‘hate ideology’ seems to have expanded to include even jokes – but he sees nothing wrong with that. “I don’t know, I think sexist jokes, or racist jokes, should always be bad,” he replies with his usual mildness. He even seems to approve of the recent fuss (mostly on Twitter) where jokes from 90s sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld were filtered through today’s sensitivities and proclaimed ‘problematic’: “Societies change, and I think it’s a good thing that we develop resistance against things we used to do in a bad way in the past. Does this mean that we have to lose our humour? No, I don’t feel I lost my sense of humour. But there’s humour, and then there is – being an asshole.”

Maybe that’s the key, in the end. Maybe that’s what really upsets him about bullies, whether in the playground or the public sphere, not so much their politics but simply the ‘asshole’ behaviour of picking on others. His biggest frustration, he says – rather surprisingly, for someone so fond of debate – is “rudeness [and] lack of manners”; he can’t abide people being nasty. The affable manner isn’t a façade, it seems, it’s the actual person. How can he be so easy-going, I wonder, yet still such a zealous activist?

“You can advocate,” shrugs Panayiotis, “but at the same time you can be very – down-to-earth? I don’t know, introverted? Laid-back?” He himself is quite understated, when not appearing on talk-shows and making controversial Facebook posts. “I enjoy the relaxed life. I’m not much of an adventurer or anything. I like to travel, but – as I say to my fiancée, I wouldn’t go bungee-jumping”. He likes quiet pastimes: books, movies, long walks, going out to dinner. Then of course there’s the fiancée – they’ve been together for two years; he proposed last Christmas – the start of a hoped-for new chapter in his life. At 44, he’s finally looking forward to becoming a dad. “I think I’m ready”.

Family life may make him more circumspect. Even if threats of violence are mostly idle bluster on social media, he’s very conscious of the fact that he’s not alone anymore; he needs to think of his loved ones. Nor is he likely to stand for public office again anytime soon; “I think I’m done with elections”. It’s even possible that Panayiotis’ political views will eventually take on a convivial mildness to match his demeanour, as he grows older.

Possible, but not very likely. One could take issue – and comments on Facebook have done so – with the assistant professor’s zero-tolerance tactics, pointing out that ostracising an 18-year-old for neo-Nazi views is only going to make those views seem more potent, and drive him (or her) further into their embrace; much better to engage with the student, and argue the case against their beliefs. I might also add – though I realise it’s kind of a side-issue – that any political agenda which ends up policing humour, or upbraiding Friends and Seinfeld for simply being made in the past, has lost all sense of measure or historical perspective. All this, however, is by the way when it comes to Panayiotis Stavrinides – because his left-wing politics is deep-seated, mixed up in his mind with good manners, with the post-invasion solidarity of the Cyprus he remembers from childhood, and of course with the empathy he feels for the weak, the bullied, and people in general. “Freud used to say, ‘A healthy adult is someone who can love and work’,” notes Panayiotis. For him, the two are identical.

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