Monday, October 14, 2019

The Monster They Have Created: Tone-Policing, Victim Blaming, and the Toxicity of White Medieval Studies

by Helen Young and Kevin Caliendo

In the past few weeks, a blog post by Professor Howard M.R. Williams has been described as reasonable in many social media feeds. The post is in many ways unoriginal and uninteresting – the internet (including the medieval studies corner of it) is already littered with examples of white liberal racism masquerading as reasoned, reasonable discourse. However, it’s getting more attention than most examples of the genre currently. Given the traction the blog post has gained, and how events have transpired since it was posted, it seems important to us to point out some of the problems with Williams’ post, correct the record where it was misrespresented, and outline some of the impacts. Early medieval studies faces entrenched white supremacy and misogyny on the inside and emboldened white supremacists who weaponize medieval history on the outside. Williams chooses to blame those who do antiracist work for the abuse they face, arguing they fail to see “the monster they have created.” Variations on this have all been said before about so many similar things so many times, but these bigoted and hypocritical behaviours and statements cannot be left unanswered.   
Williams describes his blog post as “thoughts on how this recent debate has transpired and how the social media furore has been stoked and escalated, practices that I consider unprofessional and unethical.” It would be difficult to create a better example of tone policing than this post if one tried. Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst have described tone policing thusly: “dominant groups use tone policing to chastise the communication style of marginalized people who challenge their oppression…Through focusing on the manner in which the message is delivered, no matter the legitimacy of the content, tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged.” Later in the post, Williams positions himself as sympathetic, even supportive of the message, but comments that “I personally find myself estranged and saddened” by events and actions which he often grossly misrepresents. The post adds nothing to the discussion at hand. Its stated and explicit aim is to criticise and undermine medievalists of colour and their allies because Williams has been discomforted.
Williams’ own words about unprofessional social media tactics are nothing less than hypocritical because there is evidence of him participating in the “unprofessional” behavior that he is criticizing on his wall. On September 25th, a few days before his blog post, Williams posted a Twitter thread mocking Dr. Rambaran-Olm and other’s actions and calls for change that displays precisely the behaviours he criticises: subtweeting, using capitals, gifs and derogatory language including in his first tweet: “I've got something important to say about #academia on Twitter. READ THIS THREAD and AGREE WITH ME or else DOOM ON YOU! Actually I don't, no one is interested anyway in my whining bs, there isn't a thread, and neither I nor the neighbour's pet octopus gives an oily crap.” This is meant to be a parody of Dr. Rambaran-Olm and presumably others doing antiracist work, painting them as both lacking substance and authoritarian. His suggestion that concerns about antiracism and about sexual harassment in the field are “whining bs” underlines whose side he is really taking. 

While calling for civility and professionalism from scholars Williams feels are making the problem worse through their anti-racist action, he exhibits a lack of professionalism and dismissal of colleagues that demonstrates clear hostility. Why has he blocked Dr. Dorothy Kim on Twitter? Why won’t he engage with Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm, Dr. Sierra Lomuto, and Dr. Adam Miyashiro on their questions and clarifications to the blog post? He has responded politely to senior white colleagues and less politely to white graduate students, but has ignored questions by scholars of color. To base so much of the blog on a second-hand account of events was a mistake. To erase and ignore colleagues who have shown such a high degree of leadership to bring about institutional change is inexcusable. 

Williams has made no visible attempt (at least online) to demonstrate he is self-reflecting. Every response since has been defensive, albeit in a disingenuously “polite” manner that his Twitter thread belies. His apparent suggestion that discussions can be tempered and calm misses the point of BIPOC being exasperated over decades of racial abuse within academia and realizing being “polite” is not effective. Williams says that he advocates “passionate” debate, but suggests that the voices of BIPOC in this one are merely “constructed outrage” (or, indeed, “whining bs”). This again, is tone policing. 

The post asserts that scholars with a stake in these matters are organizing social media attacks on senior scholars in “volunteer” positions within ISXX, ignoring the fact that those board members gain standing in the field and institutionally through their positions and that there were elected to serve the membership. He neglects to recognize that Dr. Rambaran-Olm too, had taken on this voluntary position as 2VP as an Independent Scholar. Not having institutional backing, Dr. Rambaran-Olm took on this role to better the organization and subsequently her field because she believed in making change. Yet, the board of ISXX failed consistently to address racism, sexism and gatekeeping within the field and within the organization. Williams says:

Online commentators stated that the ISAS board should resign for failing to act. In turn, board members have expressed feeling bullied and targeted in their voluntary society roles by the tide of critical comments and personal accusations levelled at them on social media.

He frames this as a controversy with sides and a dust-up on Twitter where the real victims are the (white) senior scholars who are being asked for accountability to the organization and the field. Referring to our colleagues as “online commentators” creates a false binary between serious and professional scholars and a Twitter-mob trope.

Asking for those in leadership positions to be accountable or step aside is not bullying, nor is a string of resignations evidence for an attack (it is worth noting that it was not Dr. Rambaran-Olm who initially called for the board’s resignation, rather it was called firstly by an established scholar).  White people, especially women, claiming victimhood to elicit sympathy when their actions and failures around race are scrutinised and criticised is a repeated pattern of behaviour that is widely recognised both within and outside academic forums.

 Several former board members and longtime ISXX members were among those demanding change because they took the time to listen to Dr. Rambaran-Olm, Dr. Miyashiro, Dr. Wade, Dr. Fradenburg-Joy, Dr. Kim and others. It is also worth noting that one of the board members who has now resigned, publicly confirmed Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s account of stonewalling and other problems behind the scenes. Dr. Rambaran-Olm has also mentioned that she has received emails from other apologetic board members who have resigned, but has not shared those publicly. This evidence does not need to be made public, but Williams’ lack of knowledge about this situation is galling, especially in light of the fact that he has situated his blog post as an authority about the events. 

In the blog, Williams also attacks the medium where this debate takes place, stating “the academic kerfuffle rapidly got personal via social media.” He fails to recognize or chooses to ignore that racist abuse in the field “got personal” for BIPOC from the time they entered the field and indeed before they arrived. Our institutions are built on it and white scholars personally benefit from it whatever their level of antiracist action. He dismisses Twitter and social media as a noisy and hostile environment where one side of this debate can’t get a fair shake. Where is the appropriate venue to discuss these issues? One of ISXX’s biggest problems was that the leadership paid lip service to change. Change was necessary but not right now, not like that, and not so noisy. This echoes common and long-standing racist criticisms of activists in numerous fields.

In advocating for more formal institutionally-driven change Williams is asking BIPOC and ECRs to speak in venues that are consistently denied to them. For example, all ECRs were removed from the election ballots for the ISXX board, totally denying them a formal voice on the organization (and thus one of the reasons Dr. Rambaran-Olm resigned). Many graduate students entering the field don’t have access to our organizational meetings or the connections or confidence to be heard. What shakes their confidence? When they do speak up on Twitter, senior scholars attempt to intimidate them. 

There is evidence on Twitter of Williams punching down and trying to shame or tone police grad students for participating in this conversation. Yet he has responded politely to tenured white scholars, thanking them for their points. 

The post, moreover, is riddled with errors of fact and telling omissions that, had they been included, would have painted a very different picture. Williams says: “at least to date no far-right politician or high-profile journalist has written or vocalised an attack on any individual academic or groups of academics as a result.” In fact, Dr. Rambaran-Olm had already been, at the time Williams posted his blog, specifically targeted in a video by right-wing extremists. A prominent white supremacist and member of the far-right milita group the Oath Keepers posted a long attack video about Dr. Rambaran-Olm on September 27th (more than a week before Williams’ post was published). In the video, he suggested Dr. Rambaran-Olm was intentionally stirring up controversy and invading a “traditional” white space with “anti-white racism.” He discussed the Washington Post article at length in the video, skipping over the white people mentioned in it and reserving his vitriol for Dr. Rambaran-Olm, whose picture he kept returning to throughout the video. His Twitter and Youtube accounts show a history of anti-Semitism (describing Jews as not having souls), using standard alt-right lingo, and attributing the ISXX controversy to an attack by Jewish “cultural Marxists” who he accused of a conspiracy against white people. The video ends with photos emphasizing his military background and his membership with and presence at far-right militia rallies. Since then, he has continued to attack Dr. Rambaran-Olm, issuing a second video in which he repeatedly shows her picture and rants that she shouldn’t be part of an “Anglo-Saxon organization” because she is “not at all Anglo-Saxon.” When Dr. Wade raised this issue to Williams, Williams accused him of trying “to score points” and ordered him to “desist.” 
Williams states that Dr Rambaran-Olm resigned as VP “of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists during a conference.” It is difficult to tell whether Williams even knew what conference she resigned at because his understanding of the situation is littered with inconsistencies and falsehoods. By leaving out the name of the conference – Race Before Race – Williams erases a multi-period, multi-disciplinary event, and the intellectual work and expertise of the scholars present. Such a conference might be considered (among other things) part of a sustained “process of lobbying for change at an institutional level deploying evidence-based arguments” that Williams claims to espouse, but it is clear that Williams does not regard the arguments made by Dr. Rambaran-Olm and others as “evidence-based.”
Williams twice accuses Dr. Rambaran-Olm of taking over the official Twitter account of the (former) ISAS. This is incorrect. The account in question was one she created and offered to use to boost ISXX related matters during her time as Second Vice President of that organization, but it was never officially recognized in the constitution as belonging to ISXX.
With the label “a range of other related matters” – a term so vague it can’t even be called a euphemism – Williams fails to mention protection of a known sexual predator, safety of BIPOC and victims/survivors of abuse, accessibility, gatekeeping, exclusion of early-career researchers, and the lack of sexual harassment (and other kinds of harassment) policies among the failings of ISAS and its board raised by Dr. Rambaran-Olm and which drove her resignation. As a result, the post strongly implies that the decision was a publicity stunt aimed at bringing about nothing more than a name change. This is demonstrably very far from the truth.
Many have praised Williams on social media for this “level headed account” without a full appreciation of events or the inaccuracies and hypocrisy of his blog post compared to his earlier Twitter thread. His version of history does damage. 

Flippant subtweets and erasure and dismissal of our colleagues shows a lack of professionalism and hostility. Williams has a voice and a forum and chooses to use it to attempt to make valued colleagues feel small and unimportant. At great risk to their careers and even their safety, Dr. Kim, Dr. Miyashiro, and Dr. Rambaran-Olm have brought focus and clarity to these issues of racism and sexism plaguing our field. They deserve to be heard and engaged and Williams does our field a disservice with his current approach to these matters. 

Williams’ blog and Twitter posts, and his behavior after its publication, stand out as one of many poor and damaging attempts by senior white scholars to address and downplay a crisis in our field. BIPOC have advocated for change through all available institutional channels and through their publications, often to no avail. These conversations extend to social media, which Williams chooses to attack as an inappropriate venue because it gets “nasty” (a word with its own misogynistic connotations). Social media is an environment where ECRs, professors of all levels, independent scholars, and our students can easily access, learn, and be heard. Blocking and ignoring BIPOC online raises questions whether Williams would engage these issues face to face with the scholars who have taken the lead to build a more inclusive field for years. 

Early English studies operates in a racist and sexist hierarchy. Williams, a senior scholar in a privileged position, is choosing to actively work against dismantling that hierarchy. For his efforts, some praise and defend him while encouraging the BIPOC he has marginalized, mocked, and ignored to be more charitable and less “militant.” The tone policing, double standards, marginalization, and erasure of BIPOC in the aftermath of Williams’ blog post is white supremacy. It is easy for scholars to object to the racist posts of anonymous alt-right trolls on YouTube or Twitter, but many who are comfortable speaking up against that fail to confront and instead participate in the white supremacy that permeates our academic discourse.   

The only ways in which white western academics have expertise in race and racism are either as their perpetrators and beneficiaries, or through studying, listening, reading, researching (we are researchers). There is a wealth of information about what actually is helpful as anti-racist work. Ibrahim X Kendi’s book How to Be An Antiracist is one place to start, Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s Twitter thread is another. Yet white scholars often position themselves as authorities able to pass judgment on what is “really” racist and to reap the rewards of the foundations BIPOC have laid. As Dr. Sierra Lomuto’s Twitter thread lays out, “whiteness thrives on the backs of POC” even as white scholars engage in anti-racist work. She shows this process at work in Whose Middle Ages?, a recent collection of essays that challenges common myths about the medieval era commonly invoked by white supremacists. Dr. Lomuto points out that, while the volume is an important teaching resource with anti-racist aims, it was edited by white scholars and includes only two essays by scholars of color. These conversations are vital to the future of our field. If Williams or others want to genuinely “support fellow academics with practical solutions to enhance the inclusivity of the field” these would be good places to start.
Please note that unlike Williams, we have reached out to Dr. Rambaran-Olm to find out if we were giving an accurate representation of events. Given that Williams has that same access, he could have done that too, but decided to write his post without crucial information. 
We would also like to add that since Williams’ blog post is being passed around as authoritative, it has brought one established scholar back to Twitter after going into hiding. Guy Halsall had left Twitter after not wanting to deal with the fallout of his bullying of graduate students advocating anti-racism and for his calling Dr. Rambaran-Olm an “imperialist” for asking colleagues to consider the terms they use while working to make the field and ISXX less racist. He decided to return to defend the honor of Williams against preemptive attacks that never materialized. 
This is no doubt personal for Halsall, given that his partner is one of the last remaining members of the ISXX board. The board member may not be answerable for her partner’s actions, but it is truly ironic that she is currently drafting a harassment policy for the organization. She need look no further than her partner as an example of what NOT to do when it comes to harassment and bullying on social media as an established white male scholar. Given that there are receipts that this board member did not participate in the discussion over the sexual predator before the collapse of ISXX, it is interesting that now she is fully invested and wants to include something about online harassment (information confirmed by a resigned board member). 
Although Halsall has locked his account and blocked a number of scholars (those who he believes are “cohorts” of Dr. Rambaran-Olm), he continues to maliciously spread lies (confirmed as lies by another board member), malign women of color (Dr. Rambaran-Olm and Dr. Kim), attack ECR (like Dr. Erik Wade), insult people who “civilly” respond to Wiliams (like Dr. Eric Weiskott), and issue veiled threats at the same grad students he initially verbally abused, claiming it would end their careers to tweet about anti-racism. These attacks show a pattern of abuse and these veiled threats are worrying given the number of people who have come forward to state that they have been on the receiving end of abuse at the hands of Halsall in the past. These threats extend beyond the graduate students mentioned. Halsall’s comments perpetuate a system of abuse of power and imply to Halsall’s students that if they dare speak up against racism, sexism, bigotry or prejudices of any kind, this may prevent them from being hired in academia. Halsall continues to tweet behind a wall, demonstrating cowardice, but more importantly exemplifying the type of “unprofessionalism” and “uncivil” behavior that Wiliams was highlighting.
 Both Halsall and Williams paint BIPOC scholars advocating anti-racist action as liars and uncivil attention seekers, while refusing to engage with them and attacking and mocking ECRs who support them. Their concern for civil debate and “evidence-based arguments” does not seem to extend to their own social media presences or claims. Dr. Rambaran-Olm tagged Williams to alert him of Halsall’s actions, but she received no response. The hypocrisy is no less damning for being so predictable.