This is extremely alarming. Conor Friedersdorf writes about how academics are trying to erase the scholarship of other academics who have been accused of #MeToo violations. They have become what the Soviets would have called “former persons”. Nikki Usher has argued that scholars who have been sexist should not be cited by other scholars — or at least should have their citations footnoted to recognize that they are Bad People.
But no substantive imperative to cite people based on their social cachet exists. And the “intellectual history” footnote system could easily go wrong.
Consequences might include:
- the (further) politicization of scholarship as academics disagree about what constitutes morally objectionable behavior and how it ought to affect citations;
- the new burden of researching the personal lives of scholars one cites;
- disingenuous virtue-signaling and citation call-out culture;
- bad actors who take advantage of the shift from substantive standards to subjective moral judgments to withhold credit from good scholars; and
- increased opacity in the profession as academics remove citations to scholars who influenced their work, making it harder to follow their arguments.
What if Usher’s suggestion were applied beyond academia?
If the poetry editor Usher alludes to in her original essay deprives the world of an excellent poem on moral grounds, or insists on noting the poet’s character flaws, then that editor communicates that he doesn’t quite believe in his field’s importance. The community of cancer researchers wouldn’t withhold a breakthrough because the academic who achieved it is a jerk in the cafeteria.
Lots of people recognized for giving the world something of great value were bad people. What’s the point in denying their contributions to their field, perhaps the only good that they ever offered others? Truth, not social justice, is the morally superior telos for academia.
That this is even taken as a serious proposal is deeply unsettling. What they’re saying is that truth does not matter; only political correctness does. This is the academic equivalent of devout Christian filmgoers declaring that third-rate movies are masterpieces because they carry a Gospel message, and the filmmakers were so sincere and godly. This is the academic equivalent of the declaring any scholarship or literature from someone who is ideologically unreliable must be sent down the memory hole, and its authors sent to Siberia.
What astonishes is how eager academics like Usher are to do this to themselves and their institutions and fields. Last night at Notre Dame, Ignat Solzhenitsyn talked briefly about his late father’s well-known observation that the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Solzhenitsyn fils explained that his father wanted his readers to recognize that any one of us, under the right circumstances, could help build a gulag, or send others to it. What Usher et alia are up to is a version of this.
If Usher taught at the University of Notre Dame, for example, and the administration passed an edict saying that scholars here were not allowed to cite the work of non-Catholic scholars, or if they did, they needed to document via footnote that the cited scholar had not affirmed the truth of the Catholic religion — under that circumstance, Usher would raise hell. And she would be right to! That would be a bizarre and totally unacceptable violation of the rules of scholarship, because it would frustrate the very nature of scholarship.
And yet … there Usher and her supporters are, proposing something that would destroy their own vocations for the sake of achieving ideological purity. It has been commonly observed that the communism was a militant secular religion. Emma Green writes about how political activism has become a substitute religion for some of the most engaged non-religious Democrats.I have no idea what religious beliefs Prof. Usher holds, if she holds any at all. But the push she and like-minded progressives have to purify scholarship by identifying the Unclean and casting them out, making them Former Persons — this, even though doing so is directly contrary to the telos of scholarship — is in essence a religious impulse.