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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Ah,yes. Coyotes, always sniffing around the edges of things. But then I wonder, do coyotes actually sniff?

Happy news.  

    Today (Sept 13) Savage Minds posted my comment, sent August 31, along with two other comments.  All were dated September 1.  A discussion in need of a couple of cans of Red Bull, but a discussion none the less.  

I've had a couple of comments awaiting moderation, too. I suspect the delays are due to the start of new semesters.

Continuing a discussion. 

 

    In late November, just before Thanksgiving, Ryan Anderson began a lively discussion on Savage Minds, “The Social Role of Anthropology’s Racist Uncle.”  In part he addressed a scenario many progressive Americans faced as they prepared to journey home, where they were sure to encounter a racist uncle or equivalent at the family dinner table.  But he also raised a deeper question: the discipline of anthropology has its own “racist uncles” in the form of early anthropologists – he singled out Daniel Brinton for special scorn.  He argued that shameful past is with us today, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which anthropologists avoid dealing with the specter of racism in American life. 

 

Ryan (November 23): 

It’s time to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about race and racism. This includes those conversations with our less-than-open-minded family members and friends around the holiday table. Sure. My point was never to say that such conversations do not matter. They do. My point is that we can’t use those conversations—which focus on race and racism as they relate to others—to avoid critically examining ourselves when it comes to these issues. It may feel good to focus on that conversation with your uncle, mother, sister, father, or grandparent…but don’t let the investigation stop there. Even more importantly, such moments may also be a good time to think about why discussing certain issues can be seen as a breach of decorum and politeness—and what that might tell us about the social spheres we inhabit, maintain, and reproduce. Such taboos, I argue, tell us quite a lot about how everyday forms of racism actually work. These kinds of things are easy to miss when we’re always looking across the table, rather than within.

 

Good idea, but I’m concerned that Ryan takes the argument in what I think is just the wrong direction:  In the interests of the ongoing program at Savage Minds to “decolonize anthropology” he embraces the ever-growing platform of “identity politics” which aims to give full voice to victims of racism and other forms of discrimination at the hands of those who enjoy “white privilege.”  My concern is that movement actually serves to embed a racist perspective in American political discourse.  As the anthropologist Robin Oberg has noted on Open Anthropology Coop Facebook, identity politics privileges the ethnic or gender identity of a writer over his or her actual argument.  Long years ago Lévi-Strauss wrote that a barbarian is someone who believes in barbarians.  I’ll be blunt and apply that to our current situation:  A racist is someone who believes in race.  Let’s be clear: a movement like Black Lives Matter is as racist as that uncle spewing prejudice at the dinner table. 

    I was encouraged that another reader of the piece, John McCreery, contributed a criticism similar to mine to the discussion: 

 

John (November 24)

  Ryan, what, after all, does trotting out Britton and the fact—I don’t deny that it is a fact—that his ideas were used to legitimate the disenfranchisement of people of color, something we now abhor, actually achieve? I am questioning the relevance of this fact to current debate about how members of diverse racial, ethnic, and gender categories should behave toward each other. I observe that Martin Luther King had wide appeal outside the black population because his message, at least in the case of my people, white southerners of Scots-Irish descent, resonated strongly with Robbie Burns’ “A man’s a man, for all that” and the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. As late as Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the appeal to universal human rights that all should enjoy was the heart of the civil rights movements. Now movement language, it seems to me, is mostly about “You done me wrong. You owe me.” And, by the way, “Let me tell you about the bad, bad things your ancestors did to mine.” Universalism has become at best second fiddle to “my blood, my turf, my grievance” nationalism. Consider, Israel v Palestine, Turks v Kurds, Hindus v Muslims, Protestant v Catholic Irish, Northern v Southern Sudan, or the recent rightward turns in US, UK and European politics. Don’t you see just a wee bit of cause for concern?

 

Ryan responded sharply (November 26)

I doubt that any of these messages [by Martin Luther King] were the ones that resonate with you and other white Southerners. The problem here is that MLK’s legacy is often cherry-picked, co-opted and used as a tool to browbeat and admonish people of color today who protest and speak out. Perhaps it’s time to stop doing this. 

. . .

What movement language do you have in mind here? Black Lives Matter? Or? So you’re saying that all they’re doing is complaining about being wronged and rehashing history? Well, here are a few more quotes from King, the person whose message supposedly resonates with you: . . . 

 

“. . . you and other white Southerners” – doesn’t this remark come perilously close to transforming John’s descriptive phrase into a, yes, racist allegation? 

    Again, I think Ryan is perfectly right in advocating that American anthropologists take a hard, critical look at how the discipline of anthropology itself is practiced.  But that task does not begin to be met by simply endorsing the program of identity politics. 

    I found the exchange between Ryan and John important, and sought to contribute with a post of my own to Savage Minds.  I submitted that reply on November 29 and received the standard “awaiting moderation” message.  My reply did not appear, although several have been posted to the thread subsequently.  Nor did I receive an email from Moderator Golub rejecting it, as I did with my attempted contribution that began this “Moderated Minds” thread.  On that occasion Golub found my reply “mean.”  Perhaps my November 29 piece was also deemed “mean” or otherwise unsuitable for the sensitive ears at Moderated Minds.  Since it did not appear there, I offer it here to OAC readers, as I did my rejected piece of last August. 

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Lee (November 29)

    As a member of the (mercifully disappearing) Grumpy Old Man contingent in anthropology, I’m with John here (a perhaps less grumpy old man than I). 

 

    John:  “As late as Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the appeal to universal human rights that all should enjoy was the heart of the civil rights movements. Now movement language, it seems to me, is mostly about “You done me wrong. You owe me.” And, by the way, “Let me tell you about the bad, bad things your ancestors did to mine.” Universalism has become at best second fiddle to “my blood, my turf, my grievance” nationalism.”  

    You go, John! 

    Critics of “identity politics” – the apparent heir of the civil rights movement – argue that “diversity” is just another name for divisiveness, and that emphasizing difference and exclusiveness can only hurt the body politic.  Their general argument is hard to refute on logical grounds: How is social integration promoted by the self-segregation of groups dedicated to emphasizing their own distinctive identities?    

    What bothers me is not the assault on my “white privilege” which identity politics represents – sorry to disappoint –  but how very timid (I’ll use a stronger word, cowardly) that assault is.  As John indicates, the signature slogan of the most prominent group in the identity politics movement, Black Lives Matter, “Hands up!  Don’t Shoot!”  effectively translates as “We give up!  Don’t hurt us!”  Never mind the fact that the slogan turns out to have been based on a lie, its message is the very opposite of that of a true social protest, of anything like a revolutionary movement.  John mentions Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, but does not go on to discuss the original Rainbow Coalition: the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s effort to bring together radical groups of the late ’sixties in a genuine revolutionary force.  Savage Mind readers may want to consult Wikipedia here for details of Hampton’s life and death at the hands of the Chicago police and a counterinsurgency group within the FBI, COINTELPRO and compare those violent assaults on freedom with the injustices now dealt them by officiants of “white privilege” – injustices which call for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” 

    Here’s another comparison.  The Panthers’ discourse was often punctuated by bullets; it called for violent revolution.  Another figure of that bygone era, Malcolm X, used similar rhetoric: 

“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” 

 Or, on being interviewed and rejected for the draft, he told draft board members that he wanted to be sent to the South to . . .

“organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers.” 

A few years later another major figure in ’sixties black activism also refused military service. 

Muhammad Ali:   

“I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.” 

 

Now the comparison: 

    Fast forward to July 2016.  President Obama met with government officials, law enforcement personnel, and two leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in a “Forum on Policing” following the assassination of five Dallas policemen.  At the meeting he declared that “We are one American family,” and continued: 

    “We're not even close to being there yet, where we want to be. We're not at a point yet where communities of color feel confident that their police departments are serving them with dignity and respect and equality. And we're not at the point yet where police departments feel adequately supported at all levels.” 

    Of the two leaders of Black Lives Matter, DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett,   McKesson, who alone is quoted, had constructive things to say:

    “The meeting -- which lasted over four hours -- included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Black Lives Matter activists DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett.

McKesson called the meeting with Obama and leaders ‘productive’ and [said]  that the President was ‘incredibly solution orientated in this conversation and pushed to challenge people to think about the concrete things that both the administration could do and law enforcement and activists could do to make sure that we address the issue of police violence head on and also that our communities are safe.’”

http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/13/politics/obama-black-lives-matter-mee...

    McKesson’s rhetoric, which sounds like that of a candidate for public office, contains not the faintest echo of that of black activists of the late ’sixties.  Oh, and at the meeting

they even held hands.  Did they sing “Cumbaya”? 

    What might Malcolm X have said about that Thanksgiving dinner and the racist uncle Ryan describes?  Perhaps he would have pointed out that the turkey platter resting on the dinner table featured a large, very sharp knife.  Seated just across the table, the uncle’s throat was within easy reach . . . 

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    Is there racism in America?  Yes, and it is practiced by many whose affiliations and backgrounds cross-cut our society.  A focused cultural analysis cannot choose sides, but must examine the workings of that society to identify fault lines, contradictions, bare-faced lies.  In that endeavor the anthropologist cannot afford to be “nice,” cannot avoid being “mean.”  The world the anthropologist confronts is not nice; it is full of meanness, and much, much worse.  There should be no “safe spaces” for critical thought. 

    “Savage Minds” will soon be no more.  Whatever moderate / moderated gloss it acquires it will have renounced the truly savage – wild, free, unfettered by convention – thought that our time sorely needs.  

Lee, thanks for the strokes and pointing out some common ground we share. Allow me, however, to attempt to refute the proposition that, "the anthropologist cannot afford to be 'nice,' cannot avoid being 'mean.'"

In that distant time and galaxy where I grew up, mutual respect did not require constant agreement. Difference could be acknowledged without being "nice" (an excuse to avoid debate) or being "mean" (attacking the other's opinions as malice or stupidity).

Later, while being trained as a volunteer for a crisis counseling line, I was taught the art of active listening, which begins with silence, putting aside preconceptions, and opening oneself to understanding the feeling as well as the content of what the caller is saying. Additional steps include minimal encourages (what my spouse calls affirmative 'sublinguistic grunts'), reflecting feelings, open-ended questions, tagging and paraphrasing, all designed to elicit elaboration and create opportunities to lead the caller to his or her own insights about what is going on. In this context, the sin or sins is to leap to judgment and insist on one's own conclusions.

I later found this training invaluable in business contexts, where similar techniques are the heart of successful selling. No proposition is more compelling than a conclusion that a customer believes to be their own.

Oddly enough, when it came to political and academic debate I have found myself falling repeatedly into the Punch-and-Judy routine of hammering away at ideas I dislike and eliciting anger in return. The alternative, learned in seminars, is to lurk until an opportunity presents itself to put the knife in. The only result of either tactic is hard feeling that ends the debate. Why do I fall so repeatedly into this trap? I blame it on schooling and the habits of protest I developed during the sixties. Why is it that we must "fight" for what we see as the right? Why not seek common ground for persuasion or seduction or cutting a win-win deal instead?

I think of Deirdre McCloskey's observation in On Bourgeois Virtue that academics tend to behave like aristocrats or peasants obsessed with honor or turf and united by their contempt for compromise, the bourgeois virtue par excellence.

Where, then, do I wind up in discussions of race? I leave that topic for another day. Here I assert simply that sharp analysis does not have to be mean and, like a surgeon's scalpel, should only be cutting when surgery is necessary.

This is an interesting point. What I am thinking, though, is that the contemporary situation comes back to the collapse of social instiutions of every kind under the Friedmanite/Reagan/Thatcher regime of the last 30 years. In a nutshell and crudely drawn:

The right wing won the battle and took control via their politics-via-economics leverage system; i.e. they took control of society in order to make money for themselves. But, interestingly, liberals took control of the cultural regime. We can call this the 'being nice' culture if we want to be sarcastic, which made great advances. Even in the U.S. with its evangelical and historically backward attitudes to rights (the US only struck down its sodomy laws in 1986) and its entrenched racial divide, the liberals changed the tone of culture so that people felt the need at least not to talk badly to others even while the liberals own economic behaviour contributed to extreme economic/social inequality--all that gentrification and those converted loft apartments.

After 1980 the newer liberals made almost no headway with the the older liberal agenda of 'equality of opportunity', but they did have considerable success in creating an ethos of civility -- 'being nice'. Not being rude to people who are very different to me. Quite a lot of this gained legal status sometimes in a back door kind of way.

The trouble is that the 'being nice' cultural regime was radically at odds with the social fact that, e.g., in America, black families systematically can never reach the same average levels of assets and income as white families, and that the people in the de-industrialised hinterlands have no chance of social or economic mobility in a system hijacked by those people who had a positional advantage when the game started.

So, the culture was very much at odds with the chaotic social trajectory -- the real patterns of action putting and entrenching people in their place. We already had a system that is grossly unequal in terms of its social outcomes; a society run as a Ponzi scheme for the rich. Suddenly, now, the mean, rude and savage elements in public discourse reasserted themselves to the great shock of the liberals. People had noticed the gross contradiction between being expected to be 'nice' while being ripped off. Most of these people owned guns, including automatic rifles etc. This coincided with the Right's own agenda -- why should the Right that holds all the economic power in society allow a bunch of liberals to dictate the cultural agenda?

 

John,

    All good and calming advice in these turbulent, divisive times.  I would suggest, though, that maintaining civility in argument (notable by its absence among spokespersons for identity politics) may proceed while finding the subject of discussion (for me, contemporary American society) decidedly uncivil.  As I see it, identity politics, which seems to have taken over at nee-Savage Minds, wants to have things both ways: denouncing the omnipresent evil of a society based on “white privilege” while demanding of that very society secure (read “segregated”) “safe spaces” insulated from that evil.  Neither program begins to allow a dispassionate cultural analysis into how badly things have come off the track in 21st century USA.  Hence my medical analogy of the cultural analyst as practicing a pathology of the social: both sorts of pathologists are given the diseased, broken bodies of subjects and tasked with discovering the nature and source of their affliction.  There is ample precedence for that approach in social thought -- Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Camus -- but that perspective has mostly atrophied among American anthropologists who, in my clearly jaundiced opinion, are busily reconstituting themselves as social workers with advanced degrees. 

 

Huon,

    If we want to identify an origin (or provide an origin myth) for “the collapse of social institutions of every kind,” at least in the US, I would suggest a date earlier than yours.  Specifically, 1970.  The death knell of the “cultural revolution.” The students at Kent State were murdered by the National Guard under orders from the governor of Ohio; Fred Hampton, Black Panther leader and pre-eminent radical organizer, was murdered execution-style by the FBI (cause of death: two bullets to the brain, fired at point-blank range); Nixon and his co-felon John Mitchell pushed through the Controlled Substances Act making everything from possession of pot to LSD a criminal act; meanwhile Nixon proclaimed Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America" and saw to it that he was in and out of prison; despite all the protest, Nixon continued to prosecute the war in Viet Nam – until US forces were routed in 1975. 

    The defeat of the cause of freedom has cast a long shadow, extending to the present.  I think that’s why today the voices of protest are pitched as whines: we give up, don’t hurt us, give us safe spaces.  The sad truth, again from my doubtlessly idiosyncratic perspective, is that the figure of the rebel, Camus’ rebel, has been denatured, declawed, become not revolutionary but victim

    It’s this outlook that brings me to criticize and mourn the decision at Savage Minds to un-savage itself.   

 

Lee, I happily agree with what you have written here. But allow me to add one more date, January 27, 1973, the day that the military draft ended in the USA, gutting the peace movement and resistance to later US wars.

Until that day, the possibility of being drafted and put in harms way applied to the great majority of American men and that danger was keenly felt by their sisters and mothers as well as the men themselves, ensuring a mass base for anti-war activities. With the end of the draft, the shift to an all-volunteer military had several important effects.

The idea of the citizen-soldier, and the duty to serve as a criterion of full citizenship, which goes back to the ancient Greeks was replaced, in fact though not in rhetoric (thus the endless drumbeats of describing everysoldier as a hero), by conceiving of soldiers as mercenaries, individually responsible for agreeing to possible death or injury as a condition of employment. It was only a short step, then, to making real mercenaries, military contractors, responsible for a growing number of formerly military roles. At the highest levels of government, leaders who were, in the early twentiet century, likely to be veterans were replaced by civilians who, in Dick Cheney's words, "had better things to do." And all of this happened while leaving the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower had warned us about the recipient of the lion's share of the US budget.

Returning, however, to my original point. Our intellectual elite's casual deployment of words like "fight," "resistance," and "protest" both assumes that protest without a mass base of support will be effective and is recommended by people who are highly unlikely to put their own bodies on the line. A rebel whose only weapons are tweets, posts on Facebook, or comments on blogs like Savage Minds is only a pale shadow of the protestors and partisans whose sacrifices made previous progress possible.

For those who may wonder, I do not excuse myself from this critique.

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