Cambridge, We Have a Problem

Posted on Fri 30 April 2021 in trans

I've been on Twitter, technically, for about a decade, but hardly ever used it. I did the whole flamewar thing in the 1990s on mailing lists and newsgroups, and the appeal of doing that kind of thing again in a short form-factor just seemed too exhausting. And yet, I've lately found myself spending time there, mainly to keep an eye on the Scottish Parliament elections, for which are being held this Thursday. And I also have a few Classics contacts too, a few more after an outing on a Classical Association panel on inclusive Classics. And so, I was introduced to a contretemps on Classics Twitter revolving around Mary Beard.

Now, I don't follow Mary, mainly out of indolence and my general Twitter disengagement, and so I am perhaps the last person to comment on what is and isn't appropriate on Twitter. I have a great deal of respect for her both as a scholar and as a public face of Classics. I have been appalled by the abuse that she has received over the years and the fortitude with which she has endured it, and kept going. I've not been that much under a rock that I've not noticed some of these occasions. All the same, I was struck by her question, ‘Is there a problem?’ I think the answer is, ‘Yes,’ and part of it involves the other reason I don't follow her—a personal one, and perhaps, to most people, a very trivial one, but it goes to the heart of the dispute.

For anyone not deeply involved in this spat, attention was called to the fact that Mary follows a number of people who hold anti-trans views. (I'm going to use that term; I appreciate that people do not like being labelled, and I am being purely descriptive.) As far as I understand it, the imputation was, both in the original allegation and the subsequent volume of reaction, that Mary shares those views. Now, I honestly could not tell from the Twittersphere what the truth of that question is (more below), but there is a problem here, and it is not so much in the question of who follows whom, as in the nature of the response.

Mary's response to the suggestion has included two key points, first that it is reasonable to follow people on Twitter regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with them, and second that we should deduce her position from her publications (in a broad sense). In fact that raises many more issues than it solves. In the light of Mary's publications, which have often featured discussions of public display, not least in relation to politics (for example on the Roman triumph), it is, to say the last, surprising that the public dimension of Twitter (including likes and follows) should be so easily disregarded. Thus, while it might be a tad obsessive to pursue someone's online activities to the degree of checking their follows (but hardly unmotivated, as we shall see), it is not unreasonable for people to draw inferences from public signs and symbols. In other words, is there a good reason to privilege one set of public signs (publications in Classics, blogs and TV shows) over others (Twitter)? Of course, some signs are more ambiguous than others and if it were that easy to move from narratives (documentary or otherwise) to author's personal opinions, many classicists would be out of a job.

So the first issue is not inconsequential, and the second is rather more problematic than it appears. It was the refusal to clarify that most struck me about this particular Twitter dispute. In a subsequent Don's Life blog post, which is paywalled, Mary opened by providing some of those clarification, namely that ‘It goes without saying that I deplore the harassment and hostile environment that many trans people face within the academy and outside it.’ This statement is very welcome, but it is also a good indicator of where the problem actually lies. In an ideal world it would go without saying, but regrettably at the moment it doesn't. And the issue here is not one of academic freedom, but of an awareness of the political realities.

This brings me to the other reason I don't follow Mary Beard that closely. A few years ago, she was invited to give a paper at Glasgow, and she gave a paper on Roman humour (this being in the run-up to her book on the subject). One of her central contentions was that Romans laughed at disability, whereas ‘we’ don't (or not any more). I literally sat there open-mouthed as to how anyone could think this in the 2010s. I came away not thinking that Mary Beard was an ableist monster, but that, like many non-disabled people, she had simply no idea about what it was like to live as a disabled person in this country and the way that they (we) experience the world, and that she had simply made an assumption without bothering to find out or actually think very deeply about this issue. I was disappointed and rather lost interest.

Much the same applies to the Twitter dispute, and the question of whether there is a problem. There is a vociferous campaign to erode trans rights and to prevent any further expansion of them, which I won't rehearse in detail here, except to note that this has included in recent weeks bathroom laws and Section 28 style legislation in certain US states; in Scotland the foundation of a political party by a former First Minister, and given substantial airtime by the BBC, whose only policy, apart from independence, appears to be pursuing an anti-trans vendetta (including accusing Scottish, UK and international LGBT and feminist organisations of seeking to legalise paedophilia); and a UK government studiously avoiding commitment to gender equality and abolishing its own LGBT advisory body. These things are manifest. So it should not be entirely unreasonable to expect that there might be, at least, a sensitivity here.

If we are to take the TLS blog at face value, and there is no reason to suppose otherwise, the question posed by Mary was a reaction in anger by a liberal academic being called out on values that they thought were self-evident. And I can sympathise with that: it is never comfortable, and I have had plenty of those moments myself. It is unfortunate, then, that the response to that feeling of discomfort was in this case to attack mainly junior colleagues or students, and not to seek to understand, but instead to welcome support from those that very obviously did not share those same values, and to accept that support in the name of freedom of debate. This is a disingenuous block around which we have walked a number of times.

Mary supports freedom of debate and has been consistent in taking that stance. But let us look at what that actually means in this instance. First of all, it is a debate about whether or not a fundamental identity exists or not (ones, indeed, currently recognised by law), and so it is I think reasonable for everyone to be aware of the consequences of seeking to debate those. I would invite Mary to consider whether she would be quite so cavalier when it comes to homosexuality. There are, after all, a number of religions that still hold that it is essentially against nature. Sure, we can have a debate about the contingency of sexuality and gender, and their development over time, but that's not what we are talking about here: it's about whether certain identities do or should exist at all. Second, there is no point encouraging debate on such fundamental issues if you are not actually going to stand up for your beliefs and values and argue for them. Otherwise, it is simply offering a megaphone, or worse, to those you claim to oppose. If it really should go without saying what those values are, then why not say politely but clearly to those angling to weaponise you in this dispute that you follow people despite their positions on these fundamental identities and that you are not seeking or welcoming their endorsement? Sure, you might lose some followers, but would that really be anything to lose sleep over?

It is a characteristic move of a certain kind of scholarship to invite people to step back and look at the bigger picture, often in a very abstract way, without maintaining a connection to the very real and material political and personal implications. I have been struck, and moved deeply, by the courage of younger colleagues who are affected or are willing to engage in the politics of our current situation, and have spoken up despite at times feeling that they are putting their careers at risk. In the same way, I have been awed by young LGBT political activists and candidates who have faced and are currently facing systematic harassment from this aggressive transphobic and homophobic movement and are handling it with firmness and composure. If we cannot recognise this political moment and respond accordingly, then Cambridge, we do indeed have a problem.