Moderated Minds:  Is Savage Minds a “Safe Space”? 

     It’s a real shame.  To my knowledge there are only two well-established anthropology websites which incorporate an open access – open comment format that allows interested individuals not only to read but to comment on posts.  Those are the Open Anthropology Cooperative (www.openanthcoop.ning.com) and Savage Minds (www.savageminds.org).  It now appears that the latter is not as open-comment as one might like when the goal is the free and open exchange of ideas.  A visitor to Savage Minds is invited to comment on posts, but when he submits a comment it is routinely flagged as “subject to moderation.”  OAC has no such policy, but somehow seems to avoid lots of spam and porn.  So what is “moderated” on Savage Minds and found unsuitable for anthropology readers?  We can’t know, since rejected comments never appear on the site. 

    It may, however, be possible to assemble anecdotal data.  I offer one example.  A few days ago I submitted a brief comment on a paper by Nokuthula Hlabangane, “Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the Many Turns in Anthropology,” which appeared in the Savage Mind series on Decolonizing Anthropology.  It is a thoughtful piece in which the author protests the discursive strategies the discipline of anthropology has used and continues to use in order, she argues, to maintain a divide between a privileged Observer and a subjugated Other.  Read the whole thing on Savage Minds; it repays careful attention. 

    What bothered me about the piece, however, was that the author’s searing rejection of anthropology as it has operated up until now, propped up by “celebrated thinkers [whom she leaves unnamed]. . . [who] teach disciplinarity” is itself burdened by an academic jargon that renders her important arguments inaccessible to all but the tiny community of anthropologists-cum-courtiers prepared, nay eager, to revel in opaque language.  Hence my “blocked” comment to Savage Minds: 

 

August 8, 2016 Decolonizing Anthropology 

“Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall . . .” By Nokuthula Hlabangane

My comment: 

    Important, visceral ideas.  But is it really necessary to cloak them in the lingo you do everything to reject?  “Coloniality”??  Why adopt the effete mannerisms of academic anthropology, which is now enraptured by the abstract suffix, “ity”?  “Colonialty” can now keep company with other bloodless, antiseptic terms such as “precarity,” “alterity,” “sociality.”  Ways social-cultural anthropology has of insulating itself from any searching analysis of its discursive practices or of the world around it.  And “exceptionalising”??  Using such a contrived word is guaranteed to distance your piece from intelligent readers who may be ready to give your ideas a chance, if only they aren’t mired in such off-putting jargon.  Isn’t it possible that your very language is an example of “colonizing anthropology”?  What would anthropology be if we wrote real

 

    Alas, my comment was moderated and “blocked”: 

 Email from Savage Minds: 

-----------------------

Subject: Your comment on Savage Minds was held for moderation 

From: Alex Golub

 

Hello,

I am the comments moderator at the website savageminds.org. You are receiving this email because a comment submitted to this blog was recently blocked, and this email address is listed as belonging to the commentor. If you have received this email in error, please disregard it. 

This comment was not approved because:

it was mean ("effete"  "off-putting jargon")

 

Please feel free to rewrite this comment so that it adheres to our comments policy ( http://savageminds.org/comments-policy/ ). After you resubmit a comment that adheres to our comment policy, it will go back into the moderation stream and we will clear it. We apologize for the inconvenience.

----------------------

 

    It was mean.  Is this what intellectual discussion has come to?  My criticism was not directed at the author personally, but at her willingness to employ the sterile language now prevalent in academic anthropology.  I found that especially regrettable since her main argument aims at rejecting that “disciplinarity” (can’t escape those “-ity” words). 

    What alarms me here is not so much the specific case, but the thinking at Savage Minds which lies behind the editor’s blocking my comment.  If my remarks were “mean” and therefore unpublishable, then the implicit standard for acceptance must be the opposite of “mean,” that is to say, nice.  Savage?? Minds would have anthropologists think nice thoughts and write nice things about writing that, since it was found acceptable, must also be nice. 

    Does this perspective on intellectual life remind you of something?  It does me:  the phenomenon of “safe spaces” that has spread like a cancer throughout American universities and beyond.  It is a frightening movement:  controversial ideas and controversial thinkers make students feel threatened, even if those ideas merely constitute “microaggressions,” so they need to be protected from them.  In safe spaces – rooms with closed doors, well away from the seminars and lectures where all manner of scary things are being said.  Soothing music is played; milk and cookies are sometimes provided (are nap blankies also given out?).  Is Moderated Minds now a safe space? 

    Anthropologists should be especially concerned about this suffocating trend, because as ethnographers we all too often find ourselves in places that are not at all nice, or even safe.  The glaring problem as I see it is that anthropological writing is blighted by the prevalence of “effete mannerisms” (Blocked!) and “off-putting jargon” (Blocked!) at the very time when we are confronted with a blood-drenched reality in the ethnographic field.  It is an awful, paralyzing disconnect.  As I urged in my blocked comment,  let’s write real.  

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Lee,

Times appear to have changed, and our younger colleagues seem delicate in ways that we, of an older generation, may find effete. This is a trend by no means confined to anthropology. As part of the research for my book on Japanese consumers, I asked an old friend, a member of Hakuhodo's board of directors, what he thought of young people in Japan (this was c. 1998). He said, "They are too gentlemanly and will always avoid a fight." He contrasted them with the members of his own "burning generation" of corporate warriors. "We were so eager to understand what others were feeling," he said, "that we trampled into each others' hearts without taking off our shoes." Around that same time, I heard a Keio University professor say that, if we imagined ourselves as living in a sea of information, older Japanese were sharks, ravenous at the first scent of new blood in the water. Their descendants, he said, are jellyfish. They float around, absorbing and processing whatever they run into, then excreting the by-products back into the sea.

The director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, whose research I used in that book, suggested that young people were now seeing themselves as products, to be perfectly packaged and waiting with "silent appeal" for someone to notice them. In the last of the studies of children I included in that book, the Institute labeled modern kids amenbo (water striders), skimming over the surface of society and oblivious to the storms that would kill them.

These sorts of remarks can, of course, be read as the sort of thing that grumpy old people have been saying at least since Socrates. But there is something disturbing to this old man about the habits of excessive deference that come down at the end of the day to  "You can't possibly understand.If you can't praise me, just leave me alone."

Why not try submitting the same remark without the words 'effete' and 'off-putting jargon' and see what happens. You could have been more polite and made the same criticism. 

That said, from a quick look the piece in question is short, highly rhetorical and does not brook argument or offer disputable evidence, so it is not surprising that it hasn't had many comments. 

I believe "mean" and "mind" derive from the same root. It might be interesting to see a "Mean Minds" (Savage-er Minds?) that included only posts and banned comments.

I assume Lee's comment was never read by the author, only the moderator. It is the moderator who speaks for the author, as well as Savage Minds various publics. And the moderator is responsible to the smooth operation of the site, not to enabling academic debate. "Mean" could index the work Lee's comment might cause the moderator, rather than any harm it might cause the author. I don't think the issue is clearly politeness or generational sentiment. The work of moderation has to be taken into account.

It seems to me, the more interesting question is how the language of management and moderation, in the interest of all varieties of "safety," work their way into new venues and are put to new, and unexpected, uses. For example, the occupation of an administrative building at Ohio State was put down this spring after an administrator argued that staff would not feel "safe" if they saw protestors chained to the building as they arrived to work the next day. Also, he claimed the student's protest was "scary" to some staff members and had forced them to leave work early.

This video from the Ohio St incident is a masterpiece of the moderator's logic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__iQGa0OkIs

 

I am reminded of an incident many years ago when I was editor of the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club's club magazine. A tempest erupted when an author wrote a piece in which he described another member as "an idiot." In the next issue of the magazine, I announced a firm policy: Applying pejorative labels to other members would not be permitted. On the other hand, if someone wrote that "X was seen last night in a state of extreme inebriation, jumping naked into the swimming pool with the Hash House Harrier's rubber chicken on his head," and there were witnesses to verify the story, I would publish that. Not so very different, I thought, from "The medium, possessed by the Lord of the Dark Heaven, rammed metal spikes through his cheeks and beat his back bloody with a sawfish bill." That I witnessed myself. 

 

Michael:  It might be interesting to see a "Mean Minds" (Savage-er Minds?) that included only posts and banned comments.

    This is a great idea, with roots that go very deep in social theory.  Van Gennep, Goffman, and Turner have proposed in various ways that a structure or social system can best be known by paying close attention to what count as infractions, transgressions, usurpations of everyday order, of what seems to keep things running smoothly.  That’s why I’ve spent lo these many years as a boundary hunter.  So a text which included only posts and comments banned by some Moderator should reveal a great deal about that Moderator and the system s/he was defending. 

    But don’t expect this (eminently reasonable) proposal to get very far.  For example:  Back at the dawn of the millennium the honchos of the AAA came up with a nifty idea:  Since anthros so enjoy devouring every word of the latest issue of AA, why not have someone comb through the musty issues of AAs from decades ago and select a couple of dozen articles to include in a Centennial Issue of the journal?  Those should really fire up the membership!  Since I was having my own problems with the AA editor at the time, a slight modification of this proposal occurred to me:  A glimpse into the past of American anthropology would be better provided by compiling submissions which were highly controversial, that is, which received a couple of glowing reviews and a couple of damming reviews – and were ultimately rejected because there was no – ah, that holiest of words, consensus.  In this way we could go a certain way toward describing the discipline as our late-and-greats had proposed: by what is rejected as some sort of threat to the smooth running institution.  So I fired off a letter to the editor of the Centennial issue, suggesting that s/he include a volume or two of controversial submissions, and that a catchy title (in keeping with Turner’s anti-structure) might be the Anti-American Anthropologist.    I did not hear back. 

    Were those Centennial volumes ever published?  I suppose so, but by then I had moved on and didn’t check.  Did any anthropologist with a brain ever read them?  Don’t know, but I have my suspicions.  If they in fact exist, have they made the slightest ripple in the flow of intellectual life?  You’ll have to point those out to me. 

    If this stale anecdote has any relevance to my little jousting with Moderated Minds it is this:  Whereas Moderators / Editors of old based their editorial decisions on a canon of scholarship, of something wistfully described as a body of facts and rigorous analysis, today’s Moderators have pretty much abandoned that increasingly slippery ground (whose facts?  interpretations for what purpose?) and now cling, like an imperiled mountain climber clawing at a crumbling cliff face, to a notion of civility.  As somebody’s grandmother used to say (not mine; she was a cantankerous old lady), if you can’t say something nice . . .  

  

So 'mean' here meaningfully 'means' that it offends the 'mean mind' or the 'moderate mind', i.e. the average cognitive response re. what a comment in this kind of context should look like. 

oh, and the 'modal mind' too.

Do we allow kurtosis?

Yep, that's just what I mean(t): 

\operatorname{Kurt}[Y] - 3 = \frac{1}{( \sum_{j=1}^n \sigma_j^{\,2})^2} \sum_{i=1}^n \sigma_i^{\,4} \cdot \left(\operatorname{Kurt}[X_i] - 3\right), 

Exactly! Exactly!

So a variant of the problem of noise and signal in communication.

Savage Minds needs a better quality Hi-Fi system.

We might profitably revisit the binary opposition of reality v illusion/fiction that makes anything socially constructed seem insubstantial. Got my copies of Isabelle Stengers' Cosmopolitics I and II and am finding myself intrigued by her ecologies of practices and the observation that fabricated things are often substantial and durable as well. Pottery and structures like the Pyramids and Great Wall come instantly to mind. So do obsolete computers and hardbound books. . . .

P.S. this is partially stimulated by a discussion of the pedagogy of race on Savage Minds, where younger colleagues are observing to their dismay that teaching students that race is socially constructed leaves them with the message that it doesn't matter any more.

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