Yes, Classics is Toxic (Reprise)

It’s been a little over six months since I published “Yes, Classics is Toxic”, and it seemed only apt that I revisit it now. Somehow, we seem to be in the same place today that we were in December. I wish I could say I was surprised. 

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Two things come to mind as I sit and think about the current #ClassicsTwitter fiasco: on the one hand, Classics remains toxic. On the other hand, the role of respectability politics in that toxicity.

First, a note on respectability.

According to Wikipedia, respectability politics is made up of three main facets:

  1. Reinforcing a hierarchy to contrast a respectable individual against a shameful other
  2. Encouraging people to defy stereotypes attributed to different aspects of their identity in attempts to present one’s self as respectable
  3. Tailoring one’s behavior to better comply with white, middle-class cultural norms, and consequently reinforce the status quo

In essence, respectability politics concerns who is deserving of respect and what it means to be respectful in particular contexts and within particular groups. Obviously, in this case that context is academia.

The term is most often used in discussions of what one should or shouldn’t wear in ‘professional’ settings – a topic that recently blew up on Twitter. However, this is not my primary concern here. Instead, I want to address power relationships more broadly.

Let’s get more specific and break down this definition a little further.

Reinforcing a hierarchy to contrast a respectable individual against a shameful other

This is manifest in academia in at least four ways, all of which are based in one’s personal ideologies. This can be summed up in the following way: that white, male, straight, and nondisabled individuals are more deserving of respect than those who are not. 

In addition to these things, we must also include the power imbalance inherent in the professor-student dichotomy.

It has been demonstrated in the last few months (at least) that Mary Beard adheres to this particular ideology in at least three of the five ways listed above. She regularly uses her position (senior academic, public scholar) and her massive following on social media (nearly 300k) to harm those over whom she believes she has power. 

In the latest instances, she has intentionally quote-tweeted a trans student and a student of color, inciting a deluge of harassment that ranges from absurd to downright nasty.

That this has happened more than once and that she has actively sought out and exposed those (with much smaller followings, and who she herself usually does not follow) who criticize her makes it impossible for her to plead innocence or ignorance. 

She has knowingly caused harm to precarious and historically excluded groups in our discipline. 

She has knowingly contributed to the toxicity of the discipline which she herself has tried to erase.

In her ‘woe is me’ defense – which she has also used on multiple occasions – she flips the script and makes those who criticize her out to be the ‘bad’ ones. Often they are shamed by her followers for their lack of respect – whether this is by tone-policing or by simply chastising them for not showing deference to a scholar of her caliber.

This shouldn’t have to be said (again – I can’t remember who said it first) but being a prolific scholar does not give you a free pass to be a racist or a transphobe. Sorry.

Encouraging people to defy stereotypes attributed to different aspects of their identity in attempt to present one’s self as respectable

For BIPOC studying the ancient world, making it in the discipline is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s an accomplishment. You’ve done what few others have done before you. You are contributing to changing the appearance of the field, which will in the long run have effects on how many more BIPOC will be attracted to it in the future.

On the other hand, it’s a loss. It’s not a question of whether or not you will lose something of yourself in the process, but when and how much. 

How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to ‘make it’ in this field which is growing more toxic by the day? How much are you willing to give in order to help make it better?

For many of us, openly criticizing problematic, senior members of the field is a huge risk. And, as recent events have shown, apparently even subtweeting them is dangerous. For some it’s a risk worth taking, but for others, it just isn’t.

It might seem heroic for white allies to speak on behalf of their BIPOC colleagues, but this can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and hierarchies in the field. It’s true that some people will only listen to the complaints of those who look like them, but what that does is contribute to the idea that the only legitimate critiques come from white (male, tenured, etc) individuals.

Rather than trying to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’ in every instance, step aside and give BIPOC the mic. Insist that they should be listened to and amplify their stories. Legitimize their narratives and opinions, rather than contribute to the idea that they are too ‘emotional’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘passionate’ to be taken seriously. 

Tailoring one’s behavior to better comply with white, middle-class cultural norms, and consequently reinforce the status quo

What the long history of tone policing and respectability politics more broadly in academia has done is tried (and often succeeded) in putting individuals from historically excluded groups ‘in their place’ (in the hierarchy).

We have to learn to ‘fit in’ in order to survive in a field built on white cultural norms and ideals, and often this means playing nice and not rocking the boat, even at the expense of our own safety and mental health. 

When we do have the courage to voice our opinions – well, as we have seen, it doesn’t always end well.

God forbid someone lodge a valid criticism of another scholar in our field. Criticism and civility are not mutually exclusive. 

I used to think that this was the only way anything in this field would change. Forcing people to confront their problematic assumptions and behaviors, I thought, would set them on a path toward changing their tune and that this would have a domino effect.

But Mary Beard and her supporters have really shown that there are enormous roadblocks in this path. The most glaring one is a lack of accountability and consequences. 

How many instances of harm is it going to take for people like her to finally be deplatformed?

Clearly, more gentle routes – like having an honest conversation about those harms – do not work for everyone. This is especially true when it comes to folks who refuse to see what they are doing for what it really is, and instead take to playing the victim time and time again.

We aren’t kids on a playground. Stop accusing precarious ECRs of bullying you when the facts are all there. It’s despicable, and frankly it’s getting old. 

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