22 August 2013

The Value of Controversy and Colleagues

Over the past few days,  one American political science blog has been at the centre of a pretty hot controversy about a post on the value of networking for younger political scientists.  Follow the links below and you’ll find further

Brian Rathbun, the author of the post quit the collective blog called The Duck of Minerva, with a short note that included this comment:

Through poorly chosen and ill-considered language and images, I made light of women’s challenges both in their academic and in their daily lives, for which I am deeply sorry.

Thankfully, someone reposted the original Rathbun piece that some found offensive. Take a moment and read it before going on with the rest of this.  Be warned the title is crude and some may find it distasteful: “Intellectual Jailbait: Hunting for Underage Ideas at APSA”.  That’s the American Political Science Association conference he’s talking about.

There is one picture, not several.  It is rude, to be sure, but it hardly makes “light of women’s challenges both in their academic and… daily lives.”

Now read the whole post again.  Find any other words that do the same thing.  Good luck.

The best you will do is this description Rathbun made of his own feelings on certain types of networking:

Maybe this works for some people, but it never really worked for me. Russett was very cordial but a bit guarded, Keohane grudgingly acceptant of my existence, and Lake never responded to my emails. And worse, it made me feel like a slut. Worse – an ugly slut who no one even wanted to sleep with.  An unsuccessful slut. A virgin slut.

In an otherwise thoughtful and provocative set of observations about the potential value of networking, you might find the comments on slut off-putting.  But frankly, if some people think that “slut” or “ugly slut” are terms applicable only to women, then there’s where the problem lies:  in their own heads and not in Rathbun’s writing.

Rathbun the right thing by bailing from the Duck’s space.  He shouldn’t have apologised for things he did not do.  Rather he should have bailed because at least two of colleagues savaged him by ignoring the substance of his remarks and siding with the intellectual lynch mob that strung him up and put him on a horse.

One is from Daniel Nexon. The other is from Charli Carpenter.  What makes Carpenter’s post particularly odious is that it  pretends to side with those who make controversial comments while actually slapping the rump of the horse out from under Rathbun.  Carpenter proclaims her own intention to persevere in her presenting her opinions despite the “toxic environment” online.  One example she cites of the cesspool is that someone called her argument “horseshit” once.  In another case, she notes that someone called her a c**t in an online comment in a piece she’d written about Wikileaks.

What’s most striking about that last one is that the comment was made by someone identified only as “Anon”.  What’s more, Carpenter ignored the other comments on the same post that were thoughtful and that came from people who signed real names.  Her “defence” of Rathbun consists of a single paragraph about his writing and his contributions to the blog.  It appears carpenter wrote the paragraph after she’d finished the original post and its 13 paragraphs about her. 

What all this looks like is less about genuine controversy than about some people advancing their personal agendas using sexism as a cover.  People in Newfoundland and Labrador have seen not one but two examples of  this within the past couple of years. 

In any democracy, in any healthy intellectual environment, people have to be able to speak freely.  Challenging orthodoxy is one of the ways a healthy community has of learning and developing. Poking, probing, and challenging are vital aspects of intellectual inquiry.

Making controversial comments is hard, in no small part because lots of people online find it easier to hurl invective, usually anonymously, rather than offer thoughtful replies.  Not everyone has the guts it takes.  Making provocative comments is all that much harder when your colleagues don’t have your back and that is painfully obvious in the posts made by at least two of his former colleagues.