Wednesday, August 16, 2017

White Supremacists love the Middle Ages


White supremacists love the Middle Ages. Sure #notallwhitesupremacists, and, try not to @ me (or anyone else), #notallmedievalists, but white supremacists love medieval history, and they love medievalist popular culture too.

There’s the evidence of individuals, like in these tweets.

And the refereed publications, like in this thread from @drdarkage.

But the protestations about #notallmedievalists and #notallwhitesupremacists and the defensive, fragile posturing and arguments from academics on social media in the past few months show that this still isn’t enough to convince some people.

So here are some statistics from a pilot study analysis of the website Stormfront (click here for more information from the SPLC) that I ran in mid-2016. There were more than 4.5 million posts in about 372,000 threads; about 1.2% of those threads contained the word ‘medieval’. Many of these uses are in the negative adjectival way that’s probably fairly familiar. This is from a thread on the “Stormfront Ladies Only” forum:
Feminism to me is simply making up for the horrible way that women have been treated in the past (and trust me, we would be back to being Medieval property if some people had their way)”
There are also posts like this, from a thread helpfully titled “Praise of Medieval England – A Golden Age Revisited:”
The belief that everyone was a slave during the Middle Ages is a liberal lie. Serfs were serfs, and happy that way. Lords were happy as Lords, and Kings likewise. Society was nearly flawless and prosperous in Europe and Asia under a Feudal economy and government.” 
But this kind of quote isn’t what I mean when I say that white supremacists love the Middle Ages. It’s easy to dismiss that sort of statement as historically ridiculous and in any case, it’s just another individual.

Rather than relying on quotes like this, I used a program called SentiStrength which “estimates the strength of positive and negative sentiment in short texts” to analyse how much affect was generated in Stormfront posts. SentiStrength gives a score out of 5 for positive and -5 for negative, based on the greatest strength of what are termed “emotion bearing words” used in each piece of text (this is the short, blog version, more details available on request, as they say in the classics).

I analysed: a control group of randomly selected threads; threads about the Middle Ages generally or specific medieval events from the ‘History and Revisionism’ forum; and threads on medievalist topics, mainly from the ‘Music and Entertainment’ forum. In each thread SentiStrength gave a figure for each comment/post, which I then averaged.

The threads from the control group came out with scores between 0 and -1.4,  with 7% at a neutral 0 and 93% below. This means that the background noise on Stormfront has negative affect. Perhaps not surprising given that it’s a hate forum, but since the tag-line is “White Pride, World Wide,’ you’d think they’d be happier and prouder. And they are, when they are talking about medieval history and medievalist pop culture.

The threads that at least began with a post about medieval history range from 1 to -1, with 13% positive, 20% neutral and 67% negative. Talking about medieval history made these white supremacists happier than talking about most things (from feminism to plumbing tips and recommendations for local businesses).

The threads about medievalist topics (video games, movies etc) averaged between 1 and -0.5, with 13% neutral, 47% positive, while the 40% below were less strongly negative than the equivalents in the other groups. Seeing an all-white medieval ‘past’ on a screen makes white supremacists even happier than medieval history.

Sara Ahmed writes that “love becomes a way of bonding with others in relation to an ideal;” on hate forums like Stormfront the ‘whites only’ Middle Ages are an imagined object of love that helps create bonds within a community of hate.

White supremacists love the Middle Ages because for centuries (literally) medieval history and language and literature was taught as though Europe was a ‘whites only’ space. Which it wasn’t. And, for centuries, European nations and settler colonies have been built on the idea that medieval Europe was a wellspring of ethno-national identity. The Middle Ages are the period of history that global whiteness has laid claim to and loved since the eighteenth century. They’re not going to stop unless we make them. 

Helen Young is an honorary research associate of La Trobe University and the University of Sydney. Her research interests include medievalism, critical race studies, and popular culture. Her most recent monograph is Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (Routledge, 2016).


Matthew Evan Davis said...

Would it be possible to have the data set used included with this blog post? I'll admit I'm a sceptic about sentiment analysis, personally, (not about the conclusions), but those who aren't can then corroborate Helen's findings using other tools and eliminate any possible bias the tool introduces, which will only reinforce the truth of the results. Inclusion of the data set is something I'm trying to inculcate in my students and I think we should model good practice -- especially when speaking publicly and especially when trying to correct misconceptions and deliberate deployment of the middle ages in the service of modern political ends.

Matthew Evan Davis said...

And I just realized I typed "sceptical" rather than "skeptical." Not at my best in the morning.

Helen young said...

Matthew at this stage the answer is no. This post is based on a current pilot project which has been presented at a conference but is as yet not under peer-review. I'll publish the data set when the findings and methodology are peer-reviewed. At this point there's no possibility of replicating my findings given that, as I'm sure you've noticed, the details of my methodology are not part of the post.

jeb said...

I find the method here leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. The notion of members of an institution engaging in this form of covert surveilance to then target a message.

This form of monitoring tracking and surveilance is part of modern existance. Does not make me any more comfortable with it.

Neo Nazis and White supremacy certianly need to be stood up to and called out ffor what it is.

Our modern society and its method of displine and surveilance, is also something that needs to be challenged I think rather than replicated within academic departments.