Notes On A 'Civilised' Debate

Mary Beard
Historian Professor Mary Beard posted a picture of herself in tears after being accused of racism

Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.

This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.

Meanwhile, the historian David Olusoga tweeted a defence of Mary Beard:

Later, he complained about a ‘lynch mob’ which of course is a charged phrase in itself.
Olusoga’s intervention also prompted a backlash, with Gopal and others noting that he failed to engage with the criticism levelled at Mary Beard. Olusoga (as a black male academic) was giving ‘cover’ to a white female academic and BBC colleague by branding the criticisms as ‘ridiculous’ and illegitimate.
It is not really for me to comment (or worse, arbitrate) on who I think is right in this argument.1 I do not know enough about the ideas and issues being debated, and I am certainly not attuned to the dismissal and abuse that women, people of colour and in particular women of colour experience every day.
However, I do want to make a few notes on how these arguments play out.
First, its tempting to label the objections to what Beard and Olusoga have said as ‘political correctness’ or an Orwellian policing of language. As I said at my Cambridge Union speech many moons ago (and again on Twitter today) such objections do not seek to make us forget history, but to remember and re-examine our past. It is entirely right that we interrogate words and phrases like ‘civilised’ or lynch-mob.
Second, I think it is worth noting how the argument winds itself into ever tighter circles. From my Leeds Beckett speech last year:

Many arguments arise around the limits of free speech, asking ‘should this person have said this thing’ and ‘do we allow this person to say that thing’. But the argument often devolves, or loops, into a discussion of whether we have the right to pronounce on whether something can be said or not!
I say something; You say you are ‘offended’; I say that you’re being too ‘sensitive’; You say that I need to ‘check my privilege’; I say that you’re ‘weaponising your identity’; You say that I’m ‘delegitimizing’ you…
Ad nauseam. Like a game of Mornington Crescent, it’s a race to see who can reach a point of unassailable piety the quickest.

During that same speech I also noted how these debates only happen between people on the socially progressive left, who would otherwise be allies in a wider political struggle. Right-wing reactionaries, who use words like ‘shithole’ to assert superiority over other countries, get the day off.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an assertion that Gopal and others are being petty or taking aim at the wrong target. I think its right to call out lazy thinking and casual racism wherever one sees it. Rather, I simply note the asymmetry, which is a feature of how the left and the right (or should I say, the progressives and the conservatives) think differently about politics and political discourse.
Finally, the role that social media plays in our discourse is desperately relevant to this argument. In the past few days Wired has published two fascinating pieces on the distortions that new technology brings to our politics. Last Monday, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Volgelstein published ‘Inside the Two Years That Shook Facebook—and the World’, and on Friday Zeynep Tufecki posted ‘It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech’. In their piece, Thompson and Volgelstein regularly cite the campaigning work of Tristan Harris, who was interviewed on the Ezra Klein show this week. All these pieces note how social media optimises for conflict and outrage, rather than longer, more nuanced thinking or (Harris’s phrase) ‘time well spent’.
Indeed, both Mary Beard and David Olusoga note how the argument has not been helped by the brevity of Twitter. “I really should have learned by now that it is a very bad idea to try to make a nuanced contribution to a topical debate in 280 characters,” said Beard in the opening lines of her TLS blog post.
Its also important to note that the abuse that both sides suffer during these affairs usually comes from third parties wading into the debate. The abusers are conflated with the main protagonists, which further enrages those on the other side of the argument. In this manner, it is possible for people to equate a legitimate and thoughtful response as somehow ‘abuse’ or a ‘silencing’.
Which makes me wonder how this debate would have looked without social media. I wonder if Mary Beard would have made quite the faux pas that she did on Twitter? And even if she had (her TLS post drew ire too, let us recall) she would not have received abuse in return. Priyamvada Gopal would still have written her critique, but Olusoga probably would have tried to answer some of that criticism in his defence of Mary Beard, or even accepted the validity of that criticism.

1. Some might say that such a recusal is itself an exercise in privilege.

2 Replies to “Notes On A 'Civilised' Debate”

  1. This was a very interesting read. So often an attempted “explanation” for something is branded an excuse or as condoning which it is not . Of course the explanation may be incorrect but if we don’t look for an explanation for any particular abhorent behaviour we are handicapped in finding a solution.
    Your piece is a warning to those who tweet !!

    1. Indeed. I think there would have been a way to say what she wanted to say far more precisely, perhaps with a Lord of the Flies literary reference. That is probably the point she wanted to make, and the fact that she did not make it like that rather does suggest some lazy, sterotypical thinking on her part.

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