Turning the Other Cheek

Like Milo, I have been called quite a few names in the past two weeks, although I like to think that mine are special.

Because, of course, we're talking academia here.

Here are a few of my favorites: "Addled, awful, and plain stupid thinking." "Plain wrong." "Out of this world." "Racist, civilizationist, and theocratic opinions." "Abhorrent views."

You can tell these are my fellow academics speaking. They go after my thoughts.

Tweaking the devil* [UPDATE: St. Dunstan grabs the Devil by the nose]
London, British Library, Additional MS 42130, fol. 54v
The Luttrell Psalter
Others, commenting more publicly, have gone after my status as a tenured professor.

Per The Guardian: "Rachel Fulton Brown is, believe it or not, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago...a woman with a graduate degree and academic publications.... Clearly, we can't put [what she says about Milo] down to stupidity"--although they would clearly like to!

Per Patheos: "I sincerely hope her grasp on scholarship in [medieval history] is not as shallow has (sic) her writing [in 'Bully Culture'] suggests."

"It's very smart of her," one of the more courageous graduate students in my own department wrote in an op-ed for The Maroon, our campus newspaper, "to come out after she had tenure."

Nevertheless, he continues, what I have said about the crisis of faith I see afflicting our academic culture at large is "selective historicist bullshit," while my own views about the importance of faith are "morally bankrupt." To be fair (we are talking a Chicago graduate student here), he credits me with expertise in my own field, but this expertise has "warped" my understanding of history "outside [my] imaginary niche of medieval Europe." Which means I am exactly the kind of "spineless" coward I have accused Milo's critics of being. (I used a far more colorful term.)

Colleagues in Medieval Studies across the country, including Jeffrey Cohen of George Washington University, David M. Perry of Dominican University, and Julie Orlemanski of the University of Chicago (yes, my own colleague), have piled on to make sure that everyone understands I am in the minority in the field. Or the tip of a dangerous iceberg, I'm not sure which.

According to Josephine Livingstone, writing for the New Republic,
strong veins of conservatism run through the field. Despite the efforts of scholars like Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Geraldine Heng, contemporary white supremacists and gender traditionalists sometimes look to an imagined version of the Middle Ages for a 'purer' time, when (they imagine) sexual, racial, and theological identities were simpler.
They're wrong--the white supremacists and gender traditionalists, of course--but my saying so is another of the things that has angered my colleagues. (Things were much, more complicated. Just ask Rupert of Deutz.) Apparently, my language was too blunt. Not ladylike, you might say.

Professor Perry is "troubled...to see someone using their (sic) academic status to craft a nonsensical defense of Milo as a Christian visionary." (Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto seems rather to agree with me, that Milo is a kind of trickster or jester. So there's that. Eric Mader at Clay Testament would also seem to agree with Peterson and me. My take is that Milo is a holy fool, like Francis, another great imitator of Christ.)

Professor Orlemanski is upset that the Sightings piece did not come with a trigger warning (in her words, a proper frame):
Instead, as a junior faculty member who works in medieval studies at this university, I have spent more than a dozen hours since the article's publication three days ago responding to appalled graduate students, faculty at other institutions, and faculty here. Speaking personally, I feel angry and disappointed that "Sightings" did not take up any of this intellectual, institutional, and affective labor in advance and instead left it to me and others.
Plus, of course, in her view I am a bad scholar. All the more reason that Sightings should have given a trigger warning:
The logic and historical basis for her claims regarding Christianity and the university are...poor. Given the straightforwardly inflammatory content of the article, "Sightings" might have insisted on a high standard of argumentation and evidentiary support, and I am disappointed [that word again!--FB] that they did not. Instead, my colleagues and I are compelled to spend our time producing "more free speech" pointing out basic failures of journalistic and intellectual discourse. 
To reiterate: I am writing with a sense of profound disappointment [noun variant--FB] and frustration regarding how Professor Rachel Fulton Brown's piece was published.
Okay, then.

I don't have quite Milo's thick skin, so it has taken me a bit of time to get around to reading these take-downs. Ahem. Measured and thoughtful critiques. Plus, I have been busy defending him against the next great smear that the national media has tried to use against him, after exhausting "white nationalist."

Working through my colleagues' comments to give you something of a taste of what I am up against in continuing to stand up for him--which, never fear, I will--has helped. A bit.

But the lesson here, at least for the moment, is not "fuck your feelings." It is, as Milo always reminds me, "remember to laugh."

This can be hard. I am going to have to sit next to Julie in our Medieval Studies Workshop--or maybe not. I wonder if my mere presence will cause her to leave. I will likely encounter David and Jeffrey and Josephine and Suzanne and Geraldine at conferences.

I am more sanguine about Usama Rafi, the graduate student in our department who wrote the op-ed. He wrote back to me after I left a comment on The Maroon site, and we have since realized that we play similar roles among our colleagues. Namely, to piss them off. You gotta laugh.

In his words:
Thankfully, both of us have the same attitude towards feelings, so no hard feelings. For what it is worth, I find virtue in what I feel are vices too. The fact that so many are shocked about your views is evidence that you must have been a hell of a teacher in class. I will continue to respect your for that and encourage others to appreciate that.
Which is pretty good going, if you ask me, considering he and I have never met and we have now exchanged only a handful of emails. It took three for us to get to this point.

"You have heard," Jesus told his disciples, "that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Until this past week, I had always thought of this teaching in terms of letting others attack me, which seemed hard and impossible. I want to hit back.

Now, however, I think it has a different meaning. Turning the other cheek does not mean you don't parry. It means you take the attack and transform it, as somehow, miraculously, I did with Usama.

I realize I have been practicing this turning all year as a Happy Warrior. Trying to find a way to turn the attacks coming at me from my colleagues, family, and friends, into opportunities for further conversation. It takes training. I could not have survived this past week without having practiced these kinds of conversations, online and in person, a lot. But it also takes joy.

Milo is right about this as he is about everything (well, okay, not quite everything, as he has now humbled himself to confess): we must never lose our ability to laugh.

The question is, how do we help others to share our joy?

*One of my readers wants you to know that I am an embarrassment to my profession for calling the grotesque a "devil" (and also that I mistyped the shelf mark, now corrected): "BL *Additional* MS 42130... on fol. 54v depicts a Bishop with a crozier, and holding a pair of what appear to be medieval tooth pulling implements (these appear as such in medical manuscripts from the period). That is not "the Devil" [FB--note capital D, which I did not use]. That grotesque, like many others in the manuscript, is perhaps demonic, but also perhaps simply playfully monstrous--Satan himself is depicted differently in the main illuminations rather than the marginalia. Time to reread Camille, I think. If you're going to embarrass us transatlantically, please use correct reasoning about the illuminations you cite! God knows I can't pretend to even begin to address your historiographic and theological problems, but as a medieval art history PhD...this alone is embarrassment enough."

[UPDATE: Another reader has suggested a different reading. This image depicts St. Dunstan pulling the Devil by the nose, as in the nursery rhyme her father taught her: "Saint Dunstan as the story goes, / Once pulled the devil by the nose, / With red-hot tongs which made him roar, / Which could be heard ten miles or more." A quick Google search finds what appears to be corroboration in Ghost Chronicles: Tales of the Supernatural, edited by John Harper (2010): "Then there was the encounter between St. Dunstan and the devil, which is illustrated in the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter and in a window of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There are several versions of the incident. A popular one says that St. Dunstan, then working as a smith, had his forge in a cave at Mayfield in Sussex, where Satan came to tempt him in the form of a beautiful girl. But St. Dunstan, who was apparently prepared for the visit, seized the devil by the nose with a pair of red-hot tongs. The pain caused the devil to roar so loudly as to split into three pieces the rock in which the cave was situated and then to jump as far as Tunbridge Wells, where he landed so violently as to cause a spring to flow, which accounts rather pleasantly for the chalybeate spring (mineral water containing salts of iron) to which the town owes its fame as a spa. An eighteenth-century writer said that the tongs used in the fight were then still preserved in Mayfield Church, but the incident is also said to have occurred at Glastonbury, where St. Dunstan was born and was to become abbot." Clearly, a mystery worth investigating further! h/t Elizabeth for the nursery rhyme.]

Popular posts from this blog

The Merry Medievalist

Judge MILO

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me

Catch-22: Christmas in America