Hwaet!

The post ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ attempted a brief review of what has transpired in recent weeks relating to the specific discussions of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pertaining to the long-established International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. While recognising the necessity and importance of these discussions, I reflected on the deceptions and insults, outrage and hyperbole, bullying and denouncing taking place on social media. Like the subject itself, this got heated!

Greater inclusivity and diversity in the field is a worthy cause and deserves all our attention and action. A society name-change is a relatively easy and straightforward issue to address if there is a broad perception that it is an impediment to these aspirations. Members have indeed voted in support of a change. However, I expressed my view that these discussions shouldn’t take place at the expense of mutual courtesy and respect, regardless of our academic position and background. Taking a stance on this debate shouldn’t justify mudslinging and trolling. I regard this a fundamental principle of academic digital public engagement and I’m far from alone.

Evidently, many clearly respected, appreciated, and (dare I say) agreed, with at least some of my points. A few did not agree and this is fine by me. However, I would add that some of the same behaviours I called out as unprofessional and unethical were actually exhibited in responses to my blog. Yes, let’s make that clear again: a post asking for us all to try not to adopt strategies that are divisive attracts those very strategies: bare-faced attempts to dismiss and disparage. This is not only ironic but self-indicting, when my first post hadn’t identified any individuals by name in relation to most of the practices I was criticising.

I tried to counter the key criticisms in tweets, but the scale of responses from a small number of people, and the limited space afforded on Twitter, made me think it wouldn’t be constructive to persist with this. In any case, I didn’t really want to respond to the innuendos and insults levelled at me.

I want to assure those who know me that I’m fully aware that criticisms come from a very small, if loud, fraction of medieval academics, and these are an even smaller fraction of the broader audiences I know who check into this blog. As a result, I don’t take these critical comments too personally, but I do take them seriously. Therefore, I do want to survey the aforementioned ironic acts of self-indictment amidst the more positive responses to my post, since they help to affirm my original argument.

Pile on

The volume of negative responses to my blog-post were exceptional to me, if still out-weighed by the positive ‘likes’ (150 at the time of writing). There was an overt attempt by at least two responses to cultivate a pile on from other colleagues, although it should be noted that most have been far more responsible in their social media behaviours and many sensibly refused to take the bait.

Weak arguments, misdirection and bluster

I would contend the following responses (paraphrased here to avoid appearing to attack individuals) might be seen as (in part or whole) bluster, misdirection and/or weak (my responses are placed in italics):

  • ‘you’re not helping by talking about how we say things, this is tone-policing of people of colour and alienating them’. I assure you that wasn’t my intention. My post related to the rhetorical social media strategies taking place, far more than the tone, in how we are debating important issues. This is ironic since those responding in this fashion seem to spend a good fraction of their lives policing the tone and character of other academics’ social media content. Very few of them are not white by their self-definition;
  • ‘by focusing on tone (I’m not, unless tone extends to all the behaviours I discussed), you are being personal and distracting us from the important issues. It was one blog-post, there’s plenty of time for others posts and other commentators to address further issues. I did promise a post in due course about the name ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and I will deliver this!
  • ‘you’re picking on a single woman of colour’. That’s not the case, and you are wilfully misreading my post to aggrandise yourself as a white saviour and deride me as racist. This is despicable and false;
  • ‘you’re playing down the debate by using modest terms like ‘spat’ and ‘kerfuffle’. I used a diversity of terms and deliberately avoided angry/martial/violent allusions such as ‘campaign’, ‘conflict’, ‘war’, ‘combat’, ‘row’ for very good reasons given the possibility that audiences of this discussion might span all manner of groups and perspectives;
  • ‘Please don’t focus on criticising the things we have said and done, focus on how we were merciful and restrained in not saying/doing more severe things’. I accept that part of the problem is that social media displays the aftermath of upsetting incidents and processes and projects them to a vast audience who weren’t witnesses to what has happened. I cannot comment on what actually happened, all we can do is go on information in the public arena. I’m also aware of British libel laws.
  • ‘how dare you cite things we say on social media and to the press without giving us a chance to carefully and precisely instruct you about how you should interpret it!’ You cannot ‘own’ a story and make it all about you, that’s the reality of social media and the media isn’t it?
  • ‘you’re being reasonable and balanced. Hang on, I’m going to be lambasted for saying that so I will now criticise you for misrepresentation because that’s what other people are claiming without foundation’. This is revealing of the pressure medievalists are put under to conform to a particular perspective when commenting on these sensitive issues.
  • ‘you’re a senior white male…’ I usually find it appropriate etiquette not to label people according to their gender, age and ethnicity. This might be seen as racist, sexist, ageist or all three! If not these things, it is most certainly reductive and rude.
  • the post represents white hegemonic patriarchy….’  I’m sure I am part of the wider patriarchal and racist society. I really doubt my WordPress blog is a significant force in any way for either good or ill in this sense; 
  • ‘it’s outrageous that you regard gifs containing violent gestures, violent fictional characters, dramatic gestures, shouting, and swearing as anything other than innocent jokes’. Equally, ‘it’s outrageous you parody the use of gifs using gifs!’ Gifs are being used as repetitive, emotive, rhetorical, visual devices. They can be fun and funny, but they can also be used to mock, intimidate and deride.
  • ‘There is no toxic environment that I can see, but there is a toxic environment I can see but it’s not new, but this toxic environment is here but aimed only at us’. I think the answer might be that there are some academics who really relish this toxic environment;
  • ‘you’re claiming people of colour created the monster of white supremacy’. Nope, a clear misread. Sorry if my wording was ambiguous. I wasn’t blaming any individual for the furore, but reflecting on how white supremacists have been drawn to the ‘monster’ of the  heated and ‘viral’ social media arguments and the national newspaper articles about it;
  • ‘you are lying/spreading misinformation/providing a false narrative’. No intentional misrepresentation has taken place on my part although I made clear I couldn’t tackle all that has happened. This is bluster: I used materials in the public domain and I cannot identify any clear inaccuracies in my post;
  • ‘you’re disingenuous’. Nope: and merely saying it doesn’t make it true.
  • ‘you’re wasting time and energy’. I didn’t make you read my post!
  • ‘you’re annoying’. I hear that a lot!
  • ‘you’re condescending’. I’m not responsible for your self-perception of inferiority!
  • ‘you’re an asshole’. I disapprove of those who mock beasts of burden and are ignorant regarding their dwellings;
  • ‘you’re post is pearl-clutching horseshit’. I’m still not convinced this isn’t a nautical riddle?

Phew! I think I’ve covered most key points. Put together, the feigned lack of awareness by a small minority of responses regarding the potential ramifications of the digital tactics being pursued is most revealing. I’m curious as to what this could reflect some mixture of conceit, collusion and/or simply a pervasive digital illiteracy among the scholars concerned.

Additional strategies

Additionally, I also noticed first-hand social media strategies I hadn’t been aware of or subject to before, so my post brought to the fore new behaviours I hadn’t been privy to taking place. These are dire practices too:

  1. Hashtags deployed to deliver direct slurs and insults;
  2. Pressuring those (including celebrities) who liked/commented on my post and demanding they reconsider their social media reactions. Some horrible histories could be written about some medieval researchers I think!;
  3. Claiming the precise timing, character and quantity of my individual responses to the whirlwind of comments appearing in my Twitter feed reveals my innate hatred of a particular subsection of people who responded. This is ludicrous. Some of the comments were assertions or rude and there was no point in answering. Some of those posting comments have hardly started their academic careers and/or have very publications to their name: I didn’t want to be accused of punching down by responding critically to them;
  4. Accusing me of blocking people who regard themselves as pivotal to the discussion, namely Dr Dorothy Kim. I haven’t blocked any medieval POCs to my knowledge, although perhaps they have blocked me?;screenshot_20191015_094047_com.twitter.android.jpg
  5. I was accused of being aggressive and personal by pointing out widespread social media practices that are aggressive and personal.

Summary

Let me reiterate, these are behaviours readily deployed in a response to a post asking everyone to reflect on their strategies and statements. It beggars belief!

I reiterate too, many responses to my post were positive, or at least fair and clear in their disagreements with me. Some that were critical had multiple valid points to make too and were civil. Still, a tiny number of responses support and extend my contention that there has been a pervasive problem with the fashion in which the debate is being collectively handled and those particularly responsible don’t like it being pointed out.

I hope that many will therefore read and reflect on the points I raised and will recognise that my intention was not to score points but to offer a level-headed perspective on a challenging and important issue for the field.

For those unable to accept my criticisms, that’s fine: go in peace (as Kenneth Williams would say). Also, keep avoiding those nasty shouty CAPS! Indeed their general absence in the responses to my blog-post might constitute a superb victory on my part. Likewise, despite some defiance, the gifs seem to have calmed down somewhat. Hopefully this is the beginning of a tidal wave of positivity and constructive dialogue we can spread through medieval academia on social media, as we slowly leave the infant stage of social media use and mature into fully grown digital humans. Wouldn’t that be nice!