Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been watching the extremely ugly and misogynist twitter assault on Mary Beard over the last week or so. Like many of you I’m sure, this has made me angry, sad and more than a bit worried. It’s a manifestation of a blood sport approach to debate that Mary, and multitudes of the rest of us, deplore.
The abusive combative exchange not only makes me feel ill, but also a bit despairing at the lack of change in academic cultures …. let me explain.
When I was a young person, thinking about whether to pursue an academic career or not, there was a notable propensity for some academics to verbally pulverise anyone who disagreed with them. I have a very vivid memory of a Masters’ tutorial where the topic was whether Stanley Livingstone was an imperialist or not. The tutor, a senior academic, took great umbrage at anyone who wanted to answer in the affirmative and shouted, berated and belittled, effectively silencing everyone. He relied on seniority, bluster and fear to make the case that if someone didn’t think they were an imperialist then they weren’t. (Yes, it was a pretty untenable argument and maybe that’s why he felt he had to defend it so vigorously. And yes, the gender politics were also what you might have predicted. )
This wasn’t the first time he’d yelled and carried on like this – but it was a last for me. I hated it. Everyone in the Department knew about it and no-one did anything. So why sign up for a career where hierarchical intimidation was accepted? I decided then and there that if that’s how the academy conducted itself I wanted no part of it. Instead I went to work with young people who’d been kicked out of school – many of them were young offenders. They were often very friendly and nice to be around, and if they weren’t, at least there was a good reason for their mean-ness and outbursts.
Coming back into the academy much much older, and at a different time, I was at first relieved to see that academics had largely left insufferable ad hominen brutality behind. Conference behaviour seemed to generally be kinder. Teaching in particular was much more focused on support and reasoned discussion. Yes, people were still often less-than-nice to each other, but hunger games pedagogies and gladiatorial argument seemed to have largely disappeared.
Yet, and yet, here it all is. Still. But now on social media. Not in the relative privacy of a tutorial or seminar room, but full frontal in public. Just not face to face. A senior academic bloke flinging insults into the ether without actually witnessing what happens as a result to the person under attack, to others who are watching or trying to support, or to social media practices/cultures. And then the hangers on join in. Triggered by their ‘guru’ they wade in. More mass nastiness – distanced, much of it anonymous, some of it just smart-assery, a lot of it rage and bile.
This is not the first such incident*. This kind of joustery-to-the-death makes social media a very unhospitable place. Somewhere where narcissism prevails, where tribalisms are constructed and reinforced and a pernicious anti-ethics prevails.
And this kind of social-mediatised behaviour is not something that can be fixed with calls for academic niceness and kindness. We need to name this badness for what it is. It’s not clever. It’s not a sign of intellect or learning. It’s just harassment. Plain old bullying. And sometimes just criminal hate.
Civility in academic discussion – what Martha Nussbaum might call a practice of moral emotions which recognises and values other persons and perspectives – seems sadly at risk on social media. Bravo Mary Beard for continuing to demonstrate what it means.
As many have already noted in print and on social media, red in twitter tooth and claw is academic conduct unbecoming and unwarranted. Encouraging others in attack behaviour in the name of some kind of robustness or anti-‘political correctness’ is equally, perhaps even more noxious.
So what can be done, other than to back off, or to persist graciously and courteously, as Mary Beard has done. Well, at a time when we academics are required to engage more with publics and public debate, we need our institutions to openly condemn violent and combatorial social media practice.Alison Phipps made this point quite some time ago, calling for universities to consider the impact agenda and what it asked of us. She noted that the ways in which those who spoke about questions of equity, gender and race in particular were liable to be vilified and threatened. Phipps called for some kind of institutional action.
Nothing much seems to have happened in the three years since her call for intervention. Institutional ‘duty of care’ seems still to be a notable absence rather than an active presence in social media turmoils . Yet the impact and public engagement conversation continues unabated – and as if none of this nastiness happens.
Those of us who have no stomach for social media verbal violence need to know that we have institutional backing against macho belligerence – torrents of crude abuse cannot masquerade as intelligent debate. Less Coliseum, more Socratic dialogue please. Universities – we need your explicit and open support if we are to speak about our work with publics who aren’t always receptive, prepared to listen or to behave decently.
*A new edited book contains systematic analysis of these kinds of incidents. Watch out for BAROUTSIS, A, RIDDLE, S and THOMSON, P Eds Education Research and the Media: Challenges and Possibilities Routledge – coming in late 2018.
A very welcome and timely piece as I commence writing a paper on the significance of language in dispute resolution practice. It bothers me greatly to see undisguised abuse on social media, usually in response to someone’s considered and well meaning expression of opinion about some topical issue or other. Any criticism of the abuse is usually met with an aggressive response that the perpetrator is merely exercising a right to freedom of speech and, incidentally giving further abuse accusing the critic of being a “leftard,” which expression I have taken to mean a combination of a leftist political viewpoint and “retarded” (as if the English language doesn’t contain invective strong enough to convey the writer’s contempt). I notice that MSN News has taken down its commentary page, possibly in response to the level of abuse it was receiving. An interesting view on all of this can be found in Timothy Garton Ash’s excellent work “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World” published by Atlantic books, London, 2016
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Having recently been the subject of abuse on Twitter for daring to challenge (politely!) a point of view at a conference I would just say simply do not engage with Twitter. It is only fuelled by attempts to reason with very inadequate individuals.
Thank you for writing this. I’ve been following this closely too. Partly because Mary Beard is, and her attacker was, someone I regarded well, based on one of his previous works. And partly because it’s so common. The Tuvel paper, reviewed and published in the journal Hypatia also comes to mind. In this case, it was alarming in the way several hundred academics signed a letter. Many called for Tuvel’s, a junior scholar, removal from her academic post. Uttering or publishing ideas and research through the expected channels, aka doing our job, sometimes now sees our academic peers publicly demanding professional or personal punishment or humiliation. The old and established way of challenging an idea or study would be to write a reasoned rebuttal piece or like, not to form a mob and demand heads. Now I see scholars doing just this, and I wonder if they find themselves professionally rewarded for it as it demonstrates “impact” or “engagement” or “guru” status?
Thank you for this post, I became aware of some of some of what happened to Mary Beard on the weekend, which was really appalling. I think last year I would have been shocked, but somehow this year it no longer surprises me. You highlight this as a social media problem. My experience is that this has either spilled over into the real world or was never absent from academia. I attended a large international conference in the last few days, and at a social event in one of its division on Monday night, someone in a senior position in that division essentially threatened me that if I dared to run again in the elections for a position in that group, it would be a “bare knuckle fight” and that I should take a deal and wait my turn. When I argued that academic professional organizations ought to be run on democratic lines and that these are decisions for the membership, he ultimately walked off and told me “I will not be looked down upon by a f***ing Pom!” I must admit I had to google the insult, because I am actually German and only took British citizenship two years ago. Aussie insults did not feature in the “Life in the UK” test. It’s easy to see this as the behaviour of an individual with issues. But then in my workplace there have been a number of incidents of inappropriate and aggressive language by some individuals towards other female members of staff. Obviously neither my employer nor the professional association behind the conference condones or encourages this kind of behaviour. But are they effective in dealing with it? I am really not sure.
Steph, this is appalling… you might be interested in a FB group called Women in Academia Support Network.
Thank you, Pat, for airing this one ~ it’s a matter of concern for all academics, and not just female ones. As a classical studies student I’ve followed Mary Beard since way back, and her
recent post on ethnic groups in Roman Britain brought screeds of comments, one of which was mine: *viz*., ” […] one of the best means of gaining an audience and getting oneself *noticed* is to hang on the coat tails of a famous / recognised Tweeter and then raise a ‘storm’ or whatever it’s termed?”
It was attacks on Mary that led to my cancelling my Twitter account. It would be interesting to know just how many of these sniping online creatures are male and how many female.
In Prof Beard’s 2012 book, ‘All in a Don’s Day,’ a comment was reproduced from one ‘Cerberus’: “The phenomenon you refer to is the on-line disinhibition effect, known … as GIFT: the Greater Internet F***wad Theory. The equation is: normal person + anonymity + audience = total f***wad. It has been proven time and again by such comments as you yourself have received. –Cerberus.” (p. 248).
I would not couch it in *quite* the same style, but the equation says it all.
However, what does it say about our self-styled ‘civilisation? Good manners are for wusses, behaviour’s on a par with soap operas, and the rising tide of violent online abuse seems, to me, to be nothing but pathological narcissism. Don’t engage with these lower forms of life and don’t print their nasty comments. All they crave is to see their pathetic avatars and monikers in print. They possess reduced emotional intelligence and lack both the empathy and the ability to interact normally on the social plane.