When I first read Mary Beard’s latest post entitled “Is Classics toxic?”*, the first thing that came to mind was the term whataboutism. This term isn’t new, but may be particularly fresh for those of you who have paid attention to the events of the last year.
Whataboutism is the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.
The accusation (probably): concerns raised by members of the discipline about Classics’ white supremacist history (and present), aka the thing that makes Classics “toxic.”
The counter-accusation: people only think Classics is toxic because it has been (wrongfully) co-opted by far-right, repressive movements.
Now I don’t disagree that the co-opting of Classics by the far-right has been a big problem. But what Mary Beard does when she foregrounds “big picture” issues is overshadow the concerns of non-white individuals within the discipline in favor of promoting a “better” public-facing image of Classics.
Nowhere in this post does she call attention to the micro- and meso-scale issues that have cropped up within the departments and institutions that make up the Classics community over the last few months (or years). Even her brief acknowledgement of the “lack of diversity within the modern academic subject” is vague: does she mean a lack of diversity in subjects or in actual people?
I suspect (based on the rest of the post) she means the former.
BIPOC are forced to face individuals and institutions that refuse to stand up for or support them, but what about all the good things that Classics (that is, the study of Greece and Rome) has to offer on the macro-scale?
“Maybe we could use this to political advantage, I can’t help thinking that one of the best ways of countering the conscription of Classics into the agenda of those far-right groups, with their white masculinist ideology, might be to celebrate the role the subject has played in the struggles against apartheid, in the proto-gay movement, in Trade Union activism and the thought of Marx.”
The role Classics has played in the struggles against apartheid (for example) is important, but so are the struggles that BIPOC endure on a daily basis in a system that continues to drag its feet on the path toward anti-racism.
Classics might not seem toxic to someone who takes a casual interest in the subject. Classics might also not seem toxic to someone working in the discipline, but who hasn’t felt particularly affected by its “bad history” – like Mary Beard herself.
Often, the people who feel most attacked by attacks on Classics are the ones who aren’t affected (or less affected) by the discipline’s history.
As she says in her post, the good and the bad aren’t mutually exclusive. I agree. They can exist in the same department, or even the same person. But when a system built on white masculinist ideology persists and continues to oppress marginalized groups (as it does to this day), it makes Classics hard to love.
It might not be toxic for some people (the Mary Beards of the world), but it certainly is for those who aren’t part of the majority.
Mary Beard’s call for “celebrating” the ways in which Classics has contributed to good things alongside the bad is just a thinly veiled attempt at tone policing those of us who are unhappy with the state of the field.
Perhaps she’s less worried about the co-opting of Classics by far-right groups than she (and others like her) is about it being critiqued by members of the discipline who aren’t white, male, straight, and/or nondisabled. Well, we are tired. And we need to be heard, without being told that we are being too harsh or too critical or too unsympathetic to the other side.
“The history of Classics (and all other subjects) is more complicated than any good/bad (burn-it-all-down/preserve-the-lot) dichotomy would suggest.”
Burning it all down, at least for me, doesn’t mean reducing the discipline to ashes and sweeping them under the rug. There are plenty of people in the discipline who love studying the ancient world, but hate the environment in which they’ve had to study it. As some have said, you can study Greece and Rome and critique the field, too.
I think that this image paints those of us who are advocating for a more inclusive, anti-racist discipline as people who would set fire to Classics and stand by watching it burn. But I don’t really think that’s the case, even though I often feel like this GIF:
What “burning it all down” means to me is dismantling the oppressive, exclusionary, and racist systems that underpin it. It means turning a corner towards becoming a discipline that is openly and actively seeking to do better by its diverse communities without undermining their valid opinions and contributions.
*I will not be including a link to the article because I don’t think more people need to read it