Who Do We Think We Are?
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of (virtually) speaking to the attendees of the WCC’s AGM about harassment and abuse. I spent a significant portion of that talk recounting my own experiences, but I want to summarize my argument here – and hopefully encourage further discussion.
I believe that when you’re receiving a massive volume of trolling and harassment – much of which is specifically calibrated to make you doubt your sense of logic and reality, and much of which is designed to make you doubt your credentials and qualifications – and you’re also trying to cope with the near-certainty that some of the people you work with in a professional context either agree with the trolls or at least feel that you brought the trolling on yourself by engaging in public scholarship – it is almost impossible to respond to even the most respectful, collegial critique without feeling attacked, often to a degree that is entirely disproportionate to how the critique was intended. So if we as a field want to be thoughtful and compassionate toward victims of harassment, we need to rethink the tone, tenor, and timing of even our professional, collegial discourse.
Laurie Penny recently wrote: “Unless you’re on the receiving end, it might seem strange, even offensive, to equate mainstream critique with the outright violence of anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists. But for those of us who go through it every day, the context collapses into a flat field where people are firing at you from all sides and there’s no cover, not for you… Whoever you ask, it’s always someone else doing the real harassment — it’s those men over there who are violent and sexist, whereas our way of dealing with difficult women is reasonable and fair. It’s legitimate critique.” She continues, “Most people experiencing the spittle-flecked, dedicated kill-you-cunt wank-mobbery of the comments section are also subject to the self-satisfied concern-trolling of the top half of the internet.”
I can attest to the truth of this statement. As I was receiving an avalanche of abuse, a former coworker of mine at the Paideia Institute sent me a message telling me that he was deeply sorry for what I was going through and his children were praying for me. But he also wanted me to publish in Eidolon a response he’d written to “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,” the article I’d written that had led to my harassment. In his response, he argued that the real victims are the professors who are sympathetic to some of the Alt-Right’s less openly offensive ideas and who have been silenced and shamed by thought-policing arguments like the one I made in my piece. I was then pressured by another colleague to publish the piece to show the scope of my dedication to spirited yet civil disagreement. But while the tone of the dialogue was civil, and the tone of the first colleague’s email could even be called kind, I felt attacked.
I’ve also received many messages from people I don’t know that say, more or less, “I hate that you’re getting death threats, but I also think that you absolutely could not be more wrong.” On a surface level, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of message, and I believe that it is sent with good intentions. But I want to argue that it is unreasonable, even cruel, to expect or demand from someone to whom you send that kind of message that they respond by engaging dispassionately with your reasoned critique of their argument. And if we agree that we have some kind of ethical responsibility to protect, or at least support, our colleagues who experience trolling and harassment, we need to reconceptualize how we want to have professional disagreements with each other.
But does this ethical responsibility exist? Obviously, many among us would say that it does not. I speak about this issue very much from the context of someone who was educated in and operates in the United States, where whether to engage in public scholarship is still a choice. My understanding is that the situation in the United Kingdom with the REF is much more complex – that, indeed, one could make an argument that public engagement is mandatory in the UK, and not a choice at all. In that case, the ethical responsibility would seem to me to be obvious. But even if one does have a choice in the matter, as my colleagues in the U.S. do, I think that responsibility still exists. This is a key part of an argument made by Tressie McMillam Cottom, who argues that “public engagement” is often conceptualized as a de facto good without reference to a cui bono. She argues, in effect, that the neoliberal university encourages professors to put themselves into positions where they are likely to become the targets of vicious online attacks. She writes, “Academic capitalism promotes engaged academics as an empirical measure of a university’s reputational currency.” This is important to remember because the “decision” to engage publicly can, to an observer, look like shameless self-promotion or attention-seeking.
Many people who engage in public scholarship do so out of a genuine desire to democratize knowledge about our field and partially because of immense pressure from both within and without the university to justify the existence of the humanities through public engagement. That kind of pressure is real and very powerful. So while the question of whether or not to engage in public scholarship may indeed be a personal choice, it is a choice that benefits not only the person who engages, but in some ways the entire discipline. There are many of our colleagues who don’t really want to write for the general public, even in the face of all that pressure, and we should absolutely support that decision – but those colleagues may then have an even more pressing obligation to support those of our colleagues who do venture out into the treacherous domain of the internet and are then punished for it.
So if you agree with me that we have an ethical responsibility to support our colleagues who are harassed for their public scholarship, and you also agree that it is extremely difficult for those colleagues to respond in an appropriate manner to reasoned critique, how do we protect our ability to critique each other? Because, of course, that ability is of the utmost importance to us. It is, more or less, what academia is for: we put forward our ideas, we disagree with each other, we try to move discourse forward. We have to be able to disagree, even vigorously, with our colleagues. And sometimes the harassment of those colleagues is triggered by an argument that we may feel needs to be critiqued and contextualized. How we handle that critique and contextualization, however, will be the key question here.
Many of my suggestions here are simple common sense. If your colleague is being harassed, be kind. Be supportive. Tell them her you respect her, and resist the efforts made by trolls to minimize her accomplishments and frame her as a vapid attention-seeker. That kind of support can really make a difference to a colleague who’s experiencing gaslighting. Troll attacks are designed to make their victims doubt reality, and you can help her remember what reality looks like.
But maybe you feel that the reality is that your colleague was wrong, or could have made her argument with more thought or nuance. If you feel that way, and you’re tempted to engage her about it, think carefully first about what you’re trying to accomplish by it. Are you hoping to convince your colleague that she made a mistake? Because I guarantee, if she’s experiencing a troll storm, she already feels that way. She probably feels like it was a mistake to ever express any opinion in public. Or maybe your goal is to show that reasonable, civil discourse can still exist between colleagues?
If so, I would like to suggest: don’t address your critique directly to your colleague. Think carefully about who your intended audience really is. If the harassment is ongoing, then it is cruel to make your colleague the intended audience of your critique, and you may be contributing to her trauma. So don’t frame it as an attempt to engage, or an “open letter.”
By all means, make a bigger, more thoughtful argument about why what your colleague said was made from flawed premises. Stay far, far away from ad hominem attacks – engage with the ideas, but not with the individual. When the tidal wave of abuse has gone back out to sea, maybe she’ll be able to confront your argument in a substantive manner and really hear you and take it to heart. But let it be her choice whether to come to you and debate the issue, and maybe extended her a little more latitude than you normally would if her response to you seems a little disproportionately emotional or defensive. To you, it may just be another professional discussion, but to her it’s part of a much larger and nastier phenomenon.
But remember: if your intended audience for your critique is not your colleague, but rather a general public to whom you want to explain why her arguments were flawed, then your goal is, in fact, to engage in a form of public scholarship. Which means that you’ll be putting yourself out there too. You may be the next target. You won’t deserve to be, of course, but if you are, you’ll need support.
People like to say, “If you do X, you’re letting the trolls win.” If you let them get to you. If you pay attention to them. If you let them silence you. But I think the biggest victory for the trolls would be if we let them poison further our professional environment. So how we treat each other will reveal not just who we think we are as a discipline, but who we really are.
Donna Zuckerberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Eidolon. She received her PhD in Classics from Princeton, and her writing has appeared in the TLS, Jezebel, The Establishment, and Avidly. Her book Not All Dead White Men, a study of the reception of Classics in Red Pill communities, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in Fall 2018.