κοινότητα

I did not, at any point in writing this, literally stare at my belly button, but it is a personal response I wrote mostly for myself to digest the events of the past few days. I will probably not leave it up very long; it is too much of the moment. There are no links to specific Tweets, but it should be read in the context of these two (1, 2) threads, which it supplements rather than replaces.

Classics Twitter is something dear to me in all the best ways that online communities should be: shared interests and passions bring people together to share their knowledge and learn from one another. I would not be the scholar I am today without it. But it has also become a truism to say ‘it’s been a tumultuous day/week/month on Classics Twitter’. This has been doubly true since January, when Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s profile in the New York Times sparked the ‘Discourse (TM)’, which was mostly a stream of tedious op-eds from ill-informed commentators. But beneath this, more on Twitter than anywhere else, was a genuine discussion about what Classics is, what it should be, and how required changes can best be made.

The stakes of this conversation are high, especially at a time when Classics is facing an existential threat from small-minded and incurious university administrators (most recently at Howard University, the last Classics department at a Historically Black University in America.) And the issues are serious: endemic racism, structural inequality, and the protection offered to predators by academic hierarchies (and this is hardly exhaustive). People are deeply invested, and many who agree about the diagnosis disagree on the treatment.

On Twitter, this is a bad combination. Complex thoughts and arguments are inevitably spread across multiple Tweets, which makes it all too easy to take things out of context. The platform also encourages quick responses, and even someone who wants to follow along may find it difficult to disentangle the various threads of conversation. In these responses, too, concision inevitably gives way to obscurity. Meaning is shaped much more by how someone interprets your words than how you meant them to be read.

This is where community becomes essential. Even the best connected people on Classics Twitter know most members as digital avatars rather than human beings, and even when those real world connections exist, digital interactions are often far more frequent. In most cases, however, we are dealing with the disembodied voices of people whose deeds we do not know. But over time we do come to know each other as something more than mere simulacra.

In these ideal cases, we have the context we need to interpret Tweets more (though not always entirely) in line with their original intent. But, as your follower count starts to climb, these represent a decreasing proportion of your actual interactions. By Twitter standards, a few thousand followers is not that many. But a few thousand people is still much larger than any reasonable social circle. And, of course, more people means more opinions, and inevitably more disagreement. The result is a compounding scope for conflict.

The only solution I have found is, when in doubt, to interact with people in good faith. Needless to say, I do not always succeed in this, but as a general approach it has served me well. Nor does everyone deserve this benefit of the doubt, though they tend to make that clear very quickly. I acknowledge, too, that I am a difficult target for the more odious trolls.

I do not cultivate a deliberately contrarian viewpoint, and I do not pick arguments for their own sake. But I do hold what I accept is an idiosyncratic range of opinions, and value the opportunities to explain and explore them that Twitter offers. What this means in real terms is that I have developed a reputation for controversy, no matter, it seems, which side of an argument I come down on. It also means that I disagree, frequently, with many people whom I respect. But in spite of Twitter’s many handicaps, most of these disagreements are cordial, and they are a large part of why I enjoy the medium. It is to the patience and good will of my interlocutors that I owe these opportunities.

But sometimes there are situations which lack happy endings. Recently I tried to start a conversation in a way that was interpreted as dismissive and, because it concerned the views of an undergraduate, punching down. Many responses were fair: some genuine conversation, some people reaching out who were concerned about the undergraduate, and some stern disagreement (sometimes all three from the same person). But there was also something much worse: because the student was a PoC, and because of the disconnect between their point and mine, some took my Tweet as a willful and racist attack. To be sure, those who think that of me will not be reading this, but the experience was disheartening. I am thankful to those who were concerned and reached out, and in the end I took their advice. I should have figured out the context better before tweeting and adjusted my response accordingly. But does that error merit the label of ‘white supremacist’?

So I am worried about a situation where disagreement and misunderstanding lead immediately to accusations of bigotry. And it was in this vein that I (rashly) commented on the latest Mary Beard situation, which I saw in very much the same light: she was having opinions ascribed to her that she had not professed, and judged accordingly. The situation was complicated in ways I do not think were immediately obvious at the time, and it is now easier to see why the responses were so strong. But I still think there was much that went beyond what was proportionate.

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved. Singularly deplorable are the actions of genuinely hateful people who have, since then, starting harassing members of our community; I made my own account private for a time after I saw them in my mentions in a small attempt to prevent them going after those who had interacted with me. I do not know if it helped, but it certainly did not stop their attacks. The situation is abhorrent, and none of us should be happy until it is over. For my part I will be considering how better to support the victims (and other marginalised members of our community) in the future.

Where does all of that leave us? In a more contemplative place, I hope. Even in America, where many of us have been lucky enough to get a vaccine, the pandemic continues to funnel too many of our social interactions through online media. They are easy, and tempting, fora for venting, and as our social interactions remain limited, human connections are increasingly abstracted. Until that changes, we will continue to struggle — but in the meantime we must try to focus on the human. There are many important conversations to be had, and inevitable disagreements even between those who want similar outcomes. Results will require charity, which we should all strive to give and merit. In that vein, I am very thankful to the many people who did reach out to me as things unfolded, including some who had been publicly critical. I love our community, and it grieves me to see it hurting; you have all helped remind me of the good in it.

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