The month of May, 2022 was particularly hellish for #ClassicsTwitter. In addition to the general Twitter nuttiness arising out of potential purchases of the platform by a certain businessman and all the hellishness associated with US Supreme Court rumours and various other US-based crises, #ClassicsTwitter had an unusually high number of subject-specific salvos directed at it. To wit: the month opened with a full on attack from #MedievalTwitter which, rather than being directed at the actual publication it was hurling accusations at, chose instead to centre out a high profile member of the #ClassicsTwitter community — who arguably was a major ally for their (i.e. the #MedievalTwitter’s stated issue) cause, as proven time and time again over at least a decade, I think — because they were obviously a higher-value target. While the wounds from that were still festering (and many long-time #ClassicsTwitter scions seemed to retreat to lurking status), the next salvo came as rumours of a decision in the Joshua Katz case began appearing in a number of right-leaning publications (web and print), being confirmed, and then #ClassicsTwitter watched in horror as several publications (such as the New York Times) seemed to be buying into the ‘threat to free speech’ spin that had been the only view given while giving short shrift — if any shrift — to the fact that there was a major sexual harassment issue which continued to affect present-day female students at Princeton. Indeed, the only publication which seems to have covered this in a proper manner was the Princeton student newspaper who exposed the issue in the first place. Just as attention to that was dying down, #ClassicsTwitter was hit with yet another blow, this time from Cambridge academic and Antigone journal editor David Butterfield, that he was accused of being a white supremacist for not being ‘woke’ enough, basically. While that one also hit some major newspapers in the UK (e.g. the Guardian and Daily Mail , odd bedfellows) it really doesn’t seem to have resulted in anything lasting (yet … not sure how plans to close the Classics program at Roehampton might spin into this). Still, coming on the heels of the others incidents, it was just another pile on event for #ClassicsTwitter.
As I watched all this unfolding over the course of the month, I couldn’t help but reflect on how oddly familiar it all seemed to be and the role social media was playing in amplifying ‘political’ things which probably aren’t really associated with Classics by those not specifically in academe. It was also something I’ve seen repeatedly in my years both within academe and outside as a rogueclassicist. Back in the 1980s, when I was doing my Master’s thesis (at Queen’s), e.g., feminist approaches to matters in ancient history were still in their infancy. I had never been required to take a course in ‘theory’ of any kind, and so it did not seem to be a big deal. That said, my thesis was on ‘Women in the Codex Justinianus’ (I considered myself a social historian) and prior to my defence, I was told one of the people on the examining committee was from the Women’s Studies department, and was told to expect ‘feminist’ feedback/questions. The defence went smoothly and I was left wondering why there was this angst about feminism.
A few months after my defence, I was firmly ensconced at McMaster, I had just returned to my office from an evening tutorial and was told of the horrific mass shooting at Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal which was clearly a reaction to feminism. It started me wondering what it was about feminism that could provoke someone to such action. I had grown up in an extremely political family, with a l/Liberal mother and a c/Conservative father. Political arguments were the norm growing up and it seemed all the neighbours were at our house every week to argue about such things (in a good natured way). The whole idea of ‘feminism’ didn’t seem to be an issue that ever came up.
A couple years after that, however, social media was born and for folks in Classics it came in the form of a listserv discussion group called Classics-l. There were plenty of others that popped up (e.g. Ancien-l, ANE, Ioudaios-l, as well as Usenet groups like sci.classics and others) but Classics-l was where the Classicists were. Dr William Slater was on the list and thought it might be useful for me to join and 30 years ago this September, I asked my first question there (looking for bibliography on a letter of Symmachus). Of course, I was hooked and being a tech guy, I felt very at home there, and soon I was answering questions and taking part in discussions with plenty of folks around the world. Being part of a global community proved to be (and still does) very intoxicating; the appeal was only reinforced when professors in your department would return from some conference in Europe and them being surprised how well a lowly grad student like you was known in Europe (I remember it kind of bugged one prof of mine who discovered I was better known than he was).
The thing about Classics-l, though, was that, although it was an early form of social media, it had the same ‘amplification’ qualities that Twitter has. Within a year or so of its creation, ‘political’ things started showing up on the list. At first, it was actual politics — generally American politics — and it really had nothing to do with the list except to identify who was on the ‘left’ and ‘right’. Feminist scholars emerged as being on the left and it was clear that a sizeable portion of others were reluctant to engage with them, for reasons unknown to me. There seemed to be some unstated ‘threate’. Interestingly, on the several occasions I requested such political discussions to be removed, freedom of speech was brought up (by both sides) as overriding my concerns.The label ‘political correctness’ was also freely bandied about and it was always a subject of mockery to be labelled as ‘offended’. At some point in these seemingly perpetual discussions I began to identify more with the ‘right’ than the ‘left’ and even started listening to Rush Limbaugh as a result. There were plenty of arguments — some major — on list over the years that devolved into right v left (e.g. when ‘Who Killed Homer’ came out) but for the most part they would die down and the list would move on. By this point in time, I was pretty much against feminist approaches to Classics but only when evidence was being hammered to fit a theoretical framework. It really bothered me as well when such approaches clearly ignored evidence which contradicted the point they were trying to make. I had one major event revolving around that sort of thing, involving a well-known prof who will remain nameless (and who actually had their department’s lawyers read my posts) but it was an isolated, exceptional incident. Whatever the case, as mentioned, the Classics list discussions would amplify these things and as a result, members would leave the list, return to lurking mode, continue discussions offlist, etc..
But it wasn’t just feminist approaches that caused such kerfuffles. When Black Athena came out, there was much reaction on the Classics list (including by me) but most of it seemed to be on the ‘same side’: polite skepticism. The arguing about that one occurred in other venues and eventually on a listserv set up by Harper Collins (the publisher of Black Athena). I cannot remember which list had the most discussion (I’m thinking possibly Ancien-l, possibly the Usenet sci.classics group) but I do remember hardly any of the professoriate would touch it (other than Mary Lefkowitz). Accusations of racism were freely hurled about, but it always seemed to be from people outside academe. As with feminist approaches, my issue with the ‘Afrocentric’ approach at the time was that a lot of it (not necessarily Bernal, but Diop and others) was that it hammered and/or ignored evidence to suit their approach. And also as with the feminist approaches, the controversy seemed much ‘bigger’ than it actually was, because it was being discussed in the echo chamber of social media.
At some point I was exposed to yet another theoretical approach which would relate to what we would now call same-sex marriage. An acquaintance I had from the Classics list sent me some documents or something from someone in Medieval studies (who, coincidentally, perhaps has also felt the ire of both #MedievalTwitter and #ClassicsTwitter) which touched on Roman law and ‘brother marriage’. They were having an argument, apparently, over whether such things did indicate that same-sex marriage might have been allowed under Roman law. I couldn’t find anything in the texts I was studying to support the idea, and that was it for that. No amplification, no one offended, no loss of sleep.
I mention the latter incident because it would ultimately lead to my ‘aha moment’ regarding theoretical approaches in general. At some point after I had left academe to become a grade school teacher and rogueclassicist, I came to the realization that proponents of these different theoretical approaches were looking at things through a lens that was simply different than mine. They were seeing things which, because of my upbringing and privileged background, I simply would not see unless they were pointed out to me. As such, I realized these approaches were valid on their own and my knee-jerk resistance to them was major shortsightedness on my part.
So when the current #ClassicsTwitter May kerfuffle hit, I was observing it all though much different eyes than my Classics-l heyday. The terminology had changed from ‘politically correct’ and ‘offended’ to ‘culture wars’, ‘woke’, and the like but it was basically the same on that score. What was, different, however, was that there were all these online publications — mainstream and not-so-mainstream — following along and commenting. Back in the ‘politically correct’ days, the major news outlets used to send someone to the Modern Languages Association conference to make fun of the ‘politically correct’ papers being presented, but I don’t think it ever reached the Classics side of the literary conference world (it might have). Now they just have to Google a name and rewrite something that was rewritten before. In essence, there was just one extra level to the amplification, but the amplification itself wasn’t really ‘bigger’ as a result.
The point of all this is that our response to the events of May 2022 on #ClassicsTwitter should really be “Who cares?”. I can tell that a large number of ‘big names’ who participated regularly on #ClassicsTwitter seem to have gone into lurking mode in the wake of it all. Again, stuff like this has been going on for decades — folks left Classics-l too — and in the heat of the moment, it seems major and a harbinger of the end days and not worth one’s time.. But it only lasts a couple of days and then the news cycle begins anew, without any mention of us. Withdrawing from the discussion really doesn’t benefit anyone in the the long run.
That said, Classics abides and will continue to do so, despite those who haven’t had an aha moment in their life and despite ourselves..