There has been a heated spat over the last month within early medieval academia concerning the use of term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe the field of ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonists’, extending to the use of the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in scholarly research.
I’m writing because this subject relates to my work in early medieval archaeology but also my interests in digital public engagement. Also, I’ve observed that my research has been explicitly cited in the online discussions and I’ve already been critical on the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in print multiple times regarding its racial origins and legacies. It’s an issue I’ve addressed before occasionally on this blog, as for example here and here.
I’m pleased we are having this conversation openly (finally). However, I do want to write some thoughts on how this recent debate has transpired and how the social media furore has been stoked and escalated, practices that I consider unprofessional and unethical.
How it started
The terminology medieval researchers use in our research, between academics, with students, and in our public engagement is absolutely crucial. Everyone should be aware of the significance of this topic in the context of the history of Anglo-Saxon studies and in the present-day climate of ethno-nationalism and global white supremacism drawing on illusions of a fantasy and exclusively ‘white’ and Christian medieval European past. Read Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm’s article here for one perspective on this.
The combination of the Trump administration, Brexit and broader linked global shifts in popularist right-wing politics have created a broader tense time for academics. The Humanities at large are being squeezed and their relevance and significance derided. Hence, things have been brewing for many years and interleave with, and stem from, other public medieval academic discussions regarding alleged sexual offences and sexism, race and alleged racism, and wider issues of inclusiveness in medieval academic discourse, especially regarding people of colour. I concede there are multiple dimensions I cannot go into because I simply don’t feel sufficiently informed about all of them (I’ve never been a member of ISAS). My point is that this situation has multiple root causes and multiple precedents; it’s important to be clear that this wasn’t ‘started’ by any one person or moment.
Still, from an outsider’s perspective, I’m aware that this particular flurry of debate was triggered specifically by the resignation of Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm from her position as Vice President of International Society of Anglo-Saxonists during a conference. She made the decision to resign because of the Society’s practices and, specifically, its name, which has been become considered tainted through association with white supremacists. She proceeded to change the name of, and send messages from, the Society’s Twitter account criticising her former fellow board members and the perceived Society’s inaction on the proposed name-change and a range of other related matters. During the consequent social media mini-storm, the Society has seen a host of resignations from its members, Board and its President. Other groups of medievalists have written open letters of support for Dr Rambaran-Olm and a series of individual academics used social media to criticise the name and behaviour of ISAS, and ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ more broadly, in no uncertain terms. I now understand that the Society has voted to change its name, but at the time of writing I’m not aware of any decision regarding what their new name will be…
Things got nasty fast
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably given the sensitive nature of the subject and our corrosive political climate, the academic kerfuffle rapidly got personal via social media. Rather than it being a process of lobbying for change at an institutional level deploying evidence-based arguments, specific accusations of ‘stealth racism’ and ‘stonewalling’ were levelled at the ISAS board members. Online commentators stated that the ISAS board should resign for failing to act. In turn, board members have expressed feeling bullied and targeted in their voluntary society roles by the tide of critical comments and personal accusations levelled at them on social media. The organisation was portrayed unambiguously as harbouring/facilitating ‘misogyny, homophobia and racism’ and being ‘sexist’, and that board members were accused of suggesting that the society needed to be ‘inclusive to racists’. Some of those who have expressed support, criticisms, doubts, qualifications or suggestions regarding the accusations levelled at ISAS have been accused of facilitating/perpetuating institutional racism, gatekeeping, or else trying to cash-in on the situation to promote themselves as ‘white saviours’ or gain invaluable woke-points. Individual medievalists were specifically denounced as being ‘invested in white nationalism’ and denying racism is even a significant issue. Further insults were slung about on social media in various directions and a number of individuals who were targeted for criticism and vitriol have simply had to suspend/leave social media as a result.
Medieval studies has had its dire moments in recent years, but it is now (hopefully temporarily) yet again a toxic environment in which little can be said on this issue whatsoever and by whomsoever without fostering further outrage and accusations of actually being a white supremacist.
Journalists take notice/are approached
The noise of the furore quickly filtered out far beyond narrow specialist academic circles via social media, and in particular through The Washington Post where an article focused on the resignation of Dr Rambaran-Olm was published on 19 September by Hannah Natanson. The article explores how the situation has emerged and developed from Dr Rambaran-Olm’s viewpoint, with supportive quotes from other vocal academic protagonists based in the US and Europe. The article and the comments unquestionably make clear the racial origins and persistent racial and racist associations with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in some quarters of academia and wider (particularly but by no means exclusively) American contexts (as revealed further in the horrific examples cited by Dr Rambaran-Olm herself during academic events and procedures). The ‘comments’ section of the online article constitute the predictable polemic, incorporating racist bile and hate, directed at Dr Rambaran-Olm (rather than those white scholars who have supported her), in her attempts to make the subject and society more inclusive. See also the Inside Higher article by Colleen Flaherty. In short, the media attention has made the discipline and any who have raised issues, identifiable targets for extremist and hateful comments, both by other academics and those beyond the academy. This has fed back into social media, amplifying the reach of the issue and its discussion in increasingly polemical fashions.
The alt-right wade in
Then we come to the next stage. Some (hopefully only a few) alt-right commentators pitched in with derision, drawn to this debate and calling it a result of ‘cultural Marxism’.
The response from some of the academics already involved was interesting. Rather than realising the monster they have created and immediately blocking out these voices to curtail attacks on themselves and others in vulnerable positions, some regarded it as necessary to draw attention to these comments and amplify them with retweets and posturing against the alt-right trolls. Moreover, these academics have seemingly accused those of not participating in arguing with non-specialists as somehow also condoning alt-right views and thus facilitating the problem within the field. Further still, the implication has been posited that the offensive and derisive comments are evidence that far-right world views are associated with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and indeed pervaded ISAS in the first place. In other words, hitting the radar of extremists seems to have had a validating effect for those most vocal in their field, and offering righteous legitimisation to accuse any academic expressing doubts regarding their stance as equivalent to, or even worse than, these extremists. I have even seen one academic claiming on Twitter that white male academics are a bigger problem than white supremacists.
This academic society discussion started with conferences, has now played out via social media, and has been picked up by journalists. Subsequently it has been deployed as a (very small) political football by those with little or no interest in the academic field in question. In the process, some vile things have been said by academics aimed at other academics, all in the public gaze. Academics themselves have received threats and trolling. Also, it’s worth noting that the focus and intensity has shifted in these 3-4 weeks, from lobbying to change the name of a learned Society which has been considered insulting/off-putting to people of colour, towards the blanket-expunging of a term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from academic and popular discourse.
Stepping back, perhaps this can be now seen as a predictable cycle for academic online arguments seen in many fields, but I’m particularly aware of this as a repeated dimension of spats instigated by US-trained/based medieval literary scholars and historians.
I do suspect this discussion has now run its course to a degree, and I certainly hope it doesn’t escalate further. At least to date no far-right politician or high-profile journalist has written or vocalised an attack on any individual academic or groups of academics as a result (note: this did happen very recently in other situations with comparable pathways of social media academic disputes). Although something additional is happening I hadn’t expected: the concerted mining for old social media posts to back-project the controversy…
I have absolutely no objection to society name-changes if members are in favour and if their names become moribund or beyond salvation. Passionate and sincere lobbying is also fine by me. I’m also partial to the occasional rant or two on subjects that matter to us deeply (like this one). Likewise, I fully recognise the wider context of the problematic nature of the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in which this name-change has been proposed and has been revised, especially for people of colour. I therefore applaud critical reflection on our societies and institutions, their racist origins and their enduring legacies. I would normally imagine I’d be readily allied to the aspirations to change how and who, and even why, we study the Early Middle Ages. Fostering new voices and fresh approaches must always be celebrated and welcomed, most certainly including people of colour already in, or potentially drawn to, medieval studies. Hence, I’m keen to support fellow academics with practical solutions to enhance the inclusivity of the field and I feel I have a solid track record of doing so. In a follow-up post I will outline my own academic ‘take’ on the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and how we might move forward.
However, I cannot regard the constructed outrage and the strategies and tenor of the debate as incidental nit-picking or ‘necessary evils’ for change. The banal rhetoric of ‘taking sides’ or else you are ‘the enemy’ is shameful, divisive and needless. These online behaviours have their cost and legacies too, not just within but also beyond the academy. Hence, I personally find myself estranged and saddened by the predictable escalation, self-aggrandised posturing and unethical targeting of individual academics that is ongoing in this spat. All of this has been fostered by ill-considered practices on social media including taking over society social media accounts, subtweeting, naming and shaming, screen-capturing segments of emails and old tweets and re-posting them out of context and with denouncing commentaries, cancelling, exorbitant uses of gifs, swearing and (perhaps most heinous of all) the over-use of shouty CAPITALS!
I don’t mind uncomfortable discussions and even a bit of hyperbole and humour, but researchers of all backgrounds must all try to remain constructive and positive, not personal and divisive. This is for our collective benefit and safety as academics, whatever our expertise, seniority, academic affiliation, gender or ethnicity. Also, this is for the benefit and example we set to our students and the wider public who are looking on aghast and perplexed at our social media behaviours. The gap left by the hijacked Twitter account of the society was filled (temporarily – it was reported) with a bogus one spouting far-right manure. This affords a perfect analogy for the intellectual stance being adopted by certain medievalist regarding the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: a real danger with completely abandoning any academic term in historical and archaeological contexts because of the genuine worry that it is tainted by association by extremists is that the term gets owned by the uneducated/poorly educated who are then only fed information by extremists and frauds. Moreover, the threat presents itself that the public become even more estranged by being reprimanded by academics regarding their terminology and everyone who offers a view is denounced, labelled and/or ‘cancelled’. The public thus perceive more proactive aggressive academic gatekeeping to replace the pre-existing passive and pervasive academic gatekeeping. Where instead do they find out about the ‘Anglo-Saxons’? Certainly not in anything being written by academics past, present or future.
Looking to the future, this constitutes an ethical issue for public digital engagement across disciplines. Some academics will probably keep replicating what they perceive as effective strategies online each time a new threat/problem is identified linking academia to political concepts and appropriations by extremists. This is because outrage = likes. Also some individuals do seem to regard themselves as self-appointed Internet police for terminology. Still, each time it all kicks off, we must remember to try our hardest to balance the importance of making our scholarly voices heard to address perceived injustices and problems in our field against the real potential harm we might cause to each other and our discipline in doing so.
If this persists, I would suggest it is unfair to expect us all to have these spats, sling insults and innuendo at each other, and then miraculously ‘calm down’, forgive and forget, and return to sober and reflective dialogue with each other and writing until the next round. Equally, it cannot be expected for these flurries of outrage to be vented, and then everyone returns to attending the next expensive international conference for more sycophantic smiling and back-biting only to provide fuel for a new round of accusations and outrage to circulate online. In any case, individual flurries of ‘debate’ are already coalescing into a near-constant ebb and flow of never-ending academic online rage. This cycle is not sustainable, professional, and it is unethical, especially for those without ‘tenured’ positions, because it is creating a hostile climate, especially detrimental for students, early career researchers, or those without secure academic positions and affiliations the debates was hoping to help. Equally, I cannot see how it makes us look like serious scholars to our public audiences and thus attract under-represented groups, one of the aspired aims.
The issues under discussion are very serious ones and reveal many complex connections between medieval research and its current socio-political context. Scholars cannot and should not sideline these any longer and changes to our language and practices are rightly being proposed and discussed. However, ganging up and berating each other in the fashions witnessed in this debate fosters puritanical digital demagoguery. I regard this as an unhelpful ‘Anglo-Saxon attitude’ we should be uniting against.