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Mary Beard – civil defender in an unsafe space

August 6, 2017

What do academics do on their summer holidays? Most of them probably go on holiday like the rest of us. I’m not so sure about Mary Beard, who seems endlessly busy. When she’s not teaching at Cambridge, where she’s Professor of Classics, she’s blogging, writing books and educating us on TV about subjects including Pompeii, the Roman sense of humour and the myth of Romulus and Remus.

This summer you would be forgiven for thinking that she’s forsaken the olive groves of Greece and obscure museums in Southern Italy to remain at home and partake in an epic Twitter shit-storm about ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.

I should have thought that the answer to the question “was Roman Britain ethnically diverse?” was blindingly obvious. Even before the Romans arrived, we had Picts, Scots and Celts (or maybe not, depending which geneticist you believe). We had descendants of people who walked to Britain via the land bridge that connected us to the continent a few millennia earlier, and people who arrived in boats: Picts, Scots and Celts (or maybe not, depending which geneticist you believe). And probably a few Neanderthals into the bargain.

And when we became Roman Britain we were part of an empire that dwarfed the current European Union. Traders, legionnaires, slaves and administrators from all corners of that empire found their way to our shores.

But what is blindingly obvious to a dilettante like me – and compared with Mary Beard, I do consider myself to be a dilettante despite having attempted to study classics at school, university and ever since – is not enough for academics. They need evidence, theories rigorously tested and peer-reviewed. They need to publish learned papers and books, and collect citations from other scholars and authors.

What kicked off the shit-storm was a BBC programme that featured a black person as the head of a typical family of the time. This led to a bunch of in-growing toenails who identify themselves as alt-right questioning whether a black person would have lived in the country at the time. There followed an argument which – if you need to characterise it in terms of political personalities – seemed to be between folks to the left of Corbyn and to the right of Farage, with lots of others in between putting their oars in.

And, as she describes in her blog piece Roman Britain in Black and White, Mary ended up in the thick of it.

Not for the first time. She has an unfortunate habit of attracting online trolls that swarm around her like midges in the Scottish summer. Ignorant, rude and full of -ists – sexist, misogynist, ageist, uglyist and fattist for starters. And Mary found herself the target of much of this stuff for suggesting that some of the shit-stormers didn’t know much about Roman Britain. The beginnings of an academic feud broke out when Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan waded in. As she describes the encounter in her blog:

Taleb himself was slightly less insulting, slightly. He accused me of talking bullshit and started to turn the whole thing into a bit of academic warfare/oneupmanship: ‘I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!’ he wrote at one point.

I think I was courteous throughout, though I guess that is for others to judge. I think Prof Taleb did get annoyed when I said that I had read his ‘pop risk’ book, not the others. But I was actually trying to make clear that I had some knowledge of his work, though not a lot.

Taleb’s boast about his citations was very Trumpian, I thought. As in thin skin, big ego.

As I write this, the row is continuing. Mary is unfailingly polite. Others less so. I’m rooting for her. I love her work and her attitude to life. Taleb is a clever guy, and yes, The Black Swan sits in my library. But I ploughed through it with a sense of cultural obligation rather than the joy that came from reading Mary’s work. He’s not the kind of person with whom I would sip sherry in an oak-panelled study. Mary definitely is, though I suspect she’d prefer a glass of wine.

Regardless of whether you consider that braving the insults of all the -ists is an act of stubborn feminism on her part, or more generally a gesture of resistance to trolls everywhere – even famous ones – you have to say that she lives in an unsafe space, in stark contrast to the much-vaunted safe spaces so aggressively promoted by institutions and student organisations across the learning industry.

Though I’d like to think that most of the participants in the “debate” are consenting adults and not inhabitants of Broadmoor, I wonder what the unholy joust tell us about these so-called safe spaces, and the widespread practice of “no-platforming” of people whose views might upset the sensitive souls who like to think of their academic institutions as refuges rather than introductions to the grim and grimy life beyond.

Given that almost all of those whom safe spaces are intended to protect are likely to be users of one of more social media applications, how are they immune to the views of the no-platformed, when such views are so widely discussed on sites like Facebook and Twitter?

If a discussion about ethnic origins in Roman Britain can degenerate into what seems like a campaign waged by one eminent academic against another, with the hounds of hell yapping on the sidelines, how are the Twitter followers of Mary Beard, some of whom must include her students, to find a safe space from all the nasties out in the real world? The answer surely is that they can’t.

And what kind of example is Nassim Nicholas Taleb setting to his students with his bombastic contributions to the discussion? He may not care, but his reputation as a human being, if not as an academic, will surely have been damaged by the fracas.

When a young person goes to university, he or she enters an adult world. And in that world it is impossible to avoid ugliness, extremism of all stripes, and challenges to the mental status quo. If students are unprepared for that, then perhaps they should stay at home for another three years, or otherwise lock themselves into secure institutions so as to avoid the company of anyone other than fellow believers in whatever they hold to be true.

No platform? Fine, if you really believe in the fantasy of safe spaces. But there are platforms and platforms. Would you prefer one in which ideas can be confronted by ideas, or the one Donald Trump uses when he encourages police chiefs to rough up crime suspects? Or perhaps you’d prefer the one in which reasoned debate rises to the level of:

“Show me evidence of Black roman centurions. Show me evidence of black norman barons. Show black picts. Everything you write is BS you tw@.”

Twas ever thus, I’m afraid. And sad to say, for most of us the only safe space is under the sod, where we will silently wait for future historians to dig us up and draw conclusions about our ethnic origins  – and no doubt much else besides.

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