Criticism, Care, and Colleagues

“If you agree with me that we have an ethical responsibility to support our colleagues who are harassed for their public scholarship, and you also agree that it is extremely difficult for those colleagues to respond in an appropriate manner to reasoned critique, how do we protect our ability to critique each other?”

That’s Donna Zuckerberg, classics scholar, editor of Eidolon, and author of the forthcoming Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Agein a post at the blog of the Women’s Classical Committee. The post follows up on a talk she gave about online harassment and abuse.

She begins by noting just how difficult it can be for those targeted for aggressive online harassment for their work to handle even the reasonable and polite critiques that also come their way:

I believe that when you’re receiving a massive volume of trolling and harassment—much of which is specifically calibrated to make you doubt your sense of logic and reality, and much of which is designed to make you doubt your credentials and qualifications—and you’re also trying to cope with the near-certainty that some of the people you work with in a professional context either agree with the trolls or at least feel that you brought the trolling on yourself by engaging in public scholarship—it is almost impossible to respond to even the most respectful, collegial critique without feeling attacked, often to a degree that is entirely disproportionate to how the critique was intended.

She quotes Laurie Penny on this point:  “Unless you’re on the receiving end, it might seem strange, even offensive, to equate mainstream critique with the outright violence of anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists. But for those of us who go through it every day, the context collapses into a flat field where people are firing at you from all sides and there’s no cover.”

Drawing on her own experiences, Zuckerberg writes:

I’ve also received many messages from people I don’t know that say, more or less, “I hate that you’re getting death threats, but I also think that you absolutely could not be more wrong.” On a surface level, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of message, and I believe that it is sent with good intentions. But I want to argue that it is unreasonable, even cruel, to expect or demand from someone to whom you send that kind of message that they respond by engaging dispassionately with your reasoned critique of their argument. And if we agree that we have some kind of ethical responsibility to protect, or at least support, our colleagues who experience trolling and harassment, we need to reconceptualize how we want to have professional disagreements with each other.

Imagine that while you’re being pelted with rocks someone tosses you a ball and says “let’s play catch,” and you’ll get the idea.

So what to do? We’re all about criticism and the exchange of ideas. How do we keep going with that while being caring and decent to our colleagues who are under attack?

Here are Zuckerberg’s suggestions:

If your colleague is being harassed, be kind. Be supportive. Tell them her you respect her, and resist the efforts made by trolls to minimize her accomplishments and frame her as a vapid attention-seeker. That kind of support can really make a difference to a colleague who’s experiencing gaslighting. Troll attacks are designed to make their victims doubt reality, and you can help her remember what reality looks like.

But maybe you feel that the reality is that your colleague was wrong, or could have made her argument with more thought or nuance. If you feel that way, and you’re tempted to engage her about it, think carefully first about what you’re trying to accomplish by it. Are you hoping to convince your colleague that she made a mistake? Because I guarantee, if she’s experiencing a troll storm, she already feels that way. She probably feels like it was a mistake to ever express any opinion in public. Or maybe your goal is to show that reasonable, civil discourse can still exist between colleagues?

If so, I would like to suggest: don’t address your critique directly to your colleague. Think carefully about who your intended audience really is. If the harassment is ongoing, then it is cruel to make your colleague the intended audience of your critique, and you may be contributing to her trauma. So don’t frame it as an attempt to engage, or an “open letter.”

By all means, make a bigger, more thoughtful argument about why what your colleague said was made from flawed premises. Stay far, far away from ad hominem attacks—engage with the ideas, but not with the individual. When the tidal wave of abuse has gone back out to sea, maybe she’ll be able to confront your argument in a substantive manner and really hear you and take it to heart. But let it be her choice whether to come to you and debate the issue, and maybe extended her a little more latitude than you normally would if her response to you seems a little disproportionately emotional or defensive. To you, it may just be another professional discussion, but to her it’s part of a much larger and nastier phenomenon.

But remember: if your intended audience for your critique is not your colleague, but rather a general public to whom you want to explain why her arguments were flawed, then your goal is, in fact, to engage in a form of public scholarship. Which means that you’ll be putting yourself out there too. You may be the next target. You won’t deserve to be, of course, but if you are, you’ll need support.

You can read the whole post here.

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

(via Matt McAdam)

Emily Blincoe, “Beach Pebbles”

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