On petitions to retract articles: I

By: | Post date: October 7, 2017 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland

The most interesting thing about Tsakonian is not that it is descended from Doric. That impresses nationalists, but the survivals of Doric are less overwhelming than the nationalists would like to think. The most interesting thing about Tsakonian, compared to other dialects of Greek, is the extreme phonological and morphological meltdown that it underwent. There’s nothing like it in the history of Greek. It’s like how Latin phonology melted down into French.

Or how Germanic morphology melted down into English.

Not enough Greeks know of the Dutch hellenist Dirk C. Hesseling, a pioneer of Early Modern Greek studies. Those few Greeks who do know of Hesseling are unlikely to know that he was also a pioneer of creole linguistics, working on Negerhollands, the now extinct Dutch creole of the US Virgin Islands.

That means that Hesseling was an early inventor of hammers; and that motivated him to look for nails, not only in creole linguistics, but also in Greek linguistics. Accordingly, Hesseling suggested (one year after publishing his book on Negerhollands) that the morphological meltdown of Tsakonian might be explained—just as the meltdown in English has been explained—by Tsakonian having been a creole at some stage in its history. It would have to have been an early stage, and Hesseling looked at the history of the Peloponnese, and suggested the Avars as being involved.

  • Hesseling, D. C. 1906. De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland. (Comptes rendus de l’Academie d’Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, 4th series, part 8.) Amsterdam.

Now, there are several reasonable responses to Hesseling’s surmise.

  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is intriguing. Tsakonian does look oddly like English.
  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is unnecessary. People aren’t as enthusiastic about the Viking Creole origin hypothesis of Middle English as they used to be; and it’s not like you need a creole to explain changes as radical as Tsakonian’s. (I owe that argument to my old colleague Gabby Bodard, who is not a linguist or a neohellenist, but is pretty clueful.)
  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, which makes the hypothesis methodologically useless, as an instance of ignotum per ignotum—explaining an unknown with another unknown. We have no idea, after all, what language the Avars spoke, let alone whether they came to the Peloponnese in the requisite sort of numbers.

The following, I submit, is a non-reasonable response:

  • Taking offence on behalf of Tsakoniandom, as the resident not-very-good linguist (Michael Deffner).
  • Alerting the town fathers of Leonidio about the offensive speculations against the patrimony of the Tsakonians.
  • Getting the town fathers of Leonidio to pass a vote of condemnation against Hesseling’s paper.

I know of the incident from Hubert Pernot, Hesseling’s collaborator, arguably the best historical linguist of Modern Greek there has ever been, and without argument the best scholar of Tsakonian there has ever been. (Not enough Greeks know about him, either.) Pernot’s sad note about the town fathers incident, in his grammar of Tsakonian, was a laconic “that’s not how scholarship is done.”

There are reasons to fear that that is how scholarship is done now; at least by some. In the next post, I’m going to write about l’affaire Tuvel, which I consider a glaring example of this. In this post, I’m going to write about a less clearcut example: the article in the centre of the controversy was incendiary, and there are good arguments to be made that it was not scholarly. And yet petitions calling for it to be expunged are still, in my view, counterproductive.

The Case For Colonialism

Two petitions have recently circulated on change.org about The Case For Colonialism (Petition 1, Petition 2), published as a viewpoint essay in Third World Quarterly, calling for that essay to be withdrawn from the journal.

It is hard to defend that article. It seems to have been straightforwardly incendiary, as its abstract shows:

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it. Anti-colonial ideology imposed grave harms on subject peoples and continues to thwart sustained development and a fruitful encounter with modernity in many places. Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.

In addition, concerns have been raised about the editorial process having been bypassed; and the editorial board did in fact protest the publication, and mass resigned. The article has in fact been retracted, and it took me a fair while to find a copy elsewhere.

How does one address speech of this ilk?

The both liberal and libertarian answer is, with more speech: debate. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of persuasion, and dissuading their audience from harmful arguments by refuting them.

The both radical and reactionary answer is, with less speech: censorship. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of combat, and safeguarding their audience from harmful arguments by quashing them.

Censorship is on the ascendancy, after a few decades when it wasn’t; whether it’s in the academic domain, or the political, or the societal. Censorship still has a poor reputation in the West—which is why academic venues are quick to argue that what they do, in suppressing speech they disapprove of, is not censorship, and why petitions to withdraw articles focus on accusations of academic malpractice, rather than offence.

They do well to. Because suppressing an opinion on the grounds that you hold a contrary opinion is not how knowledge is furthered—nor how a society is furthered. There’s a reason censorship has a poor reputation.

Here, I suggest, are some valid responses to the paper:

Here, I suggest, are some less valid responses:

  • That the article is offensive.
    • Scholarship is not about making anyone feel good. Whether you’re oppressed or the oppressor. Both now get to use the tools of scholarship to their own ends; and both are meant to be subjected to the blind review of their peers still.
    • The outcome of scholarship is not meant to be the remediation of social ills. It is meant to be knowledge and understanding—which you can then, if you choose to, apply towards the remediation of social ills. And the unwelcome gadfly has a critical role in impelling understanding. (If they’ve making a cogent case, which hardly appears to have happened here. It’s more clearly the case in l’affaire Tuvel.)
  • That the article is damaging.
    • That’s giving academic editorials a power they simply do not have; and racists are not waiting for academic editorials to justify their beliefs: they already have plenty of commentators in the media or in their local pub, with far broader reach, to appeal to.
  • That the article should be subject to the judgement of a change.org petition, circulated to people unlikely to have read the paper to begin with.
    • That is no more how scholarship is supposed to be done, than town hall meetings in Leonidio is. That’s what editorial boards of journals and journal editors and publishers are for; and that’s the mechanism that got anything done.
    • Poorly, as it turned out:
  • Threatening the journal editor, and thereby allowing the retraction of the article to be couched in these terms:

    Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

    • The change.org petitions got the retraction they sought. I’m sure those aren’t the words they wanted it retracted under. Making a martyr of both the author and the editor is an own goal.

Here are counterarguments I would expect, and am not compelled by:

  • That I am speaking from a position of privilege, and I do not appreciate the pain the editorial has caused.
    • I’ll admit that the essay’s contention that underdeveloped countries should pay the West to colonise them got an arched eyebrow out of me instead of tears. But education has a better long-term prospect of reducing the amount of hateful speech in the world than quashing it. And it has done so already. Repeatedly.
  • That the underprivileged should not have to eternally explain the obvious, and prove (as the Greek saying goes) that they are not an elephant: that this amounts to yet another microaggression. In fact, one of the comments about Third World Quarterly said that the contention of whether colonialism was a good thing should be considered an “asked and answered” question for that journal—that the journal’s founding premise, after all, was that it wasn’t.
    • Not every brown person in the West should eternally have to play the role of Explainer In Chief to clueless white people. I can even concede that Third World Quarterly might not have been the right venue for the article.
    • It is good and meet that people do step up to that role, though. Because that repairs the world. And because the alternative to such education is a separatism that simply can’t be enforced any more. (And that education should be part of people’s Bildung and upbringing; it shouldn’t be primarily the responsibility of visible minorities to begin with.)
  • That the article is violence, and violence must be met with violence. Hate speech is now suppressed by society, and it should be.
    • Suppressing hate speech is now the Zeitgeist. The thing is that hate speech doesn’t end that way, and an over-eagerness to label speech hate speech is infantilising rather than salutary. If the article was indeed, as has been speculated, the work of a Milo Yannopoulos-style provocateur, then elevating it to hate speech is the last thing that should be done with it: it’d be the reaction the provocateur was hoping for.
    • As for violence (even if I do concede that hyperbolic usage of the term): if it isn’t coming from the State, with its monopoly of violence, the exercise of violence is a risky game. Usually the guys on the reactionary side of the street have more crowbars than you do, and the crowbar count shouldn’t be how pressing moral issues of the day are decided. (Crowbar count differential is why social justice has not prevailed historically, after all.) And involving the State is something the petitioners have been very, very careful to avoid: they know the State has no great affection for progressive activists either.
    • The State doesn’t get to get involved in the US anyway, because of the First Amendment. Journals and fora are quite happy to point out that the First Amendment does not obligate them to provide a forum for those they disapprove of. That of course also makes them powerless to prevent their adversaries from setting up their own journals and fora elsewhere. And blocking out the speech of those you don’t want to engage with may give you repose; but it doesn’t give you outreach. It doesn’t redress the problem; it merely pushes it out of sight.

That aside, I found this response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians speaks for me. As a group that identifies both as libertarian and as committed to social justice, I suspect they might speak for me in a few more facets, too.

That an article upsets people is no grounds for its withdrawal. […] It might be argued that Gilley’s paper should be retracted because his arguments do not support his conclusion, and so these are undermined “as a result of… [argumentative] error”. But to argue in this way would require that one first demonstrate where Gilley is mistaken–one would have to engage with his work, not simply call for its retraction. And even if one could show that his arguments were flawed this should not be used to support a call for retraction, for this would justify the retraction of any paper whose conclusions have been arrived at through erroneous argumentation. And this is not how academic debates are conducted—and nor should it be. Instead, persons present their conclusions supported by the best arguments and evidence that they can muster. These are then subject to critical scrutiny with the aim of identifying and correcting errors in the arguments. If the arguments are found not to support the conclusion then the original paper should be rebutted—not retracted.

But there’s more to be said in this case. The petitions demanding the retraction of this article secured over 15,000 signatures. I very much doubt that everyone who signed these petitions actually read the paper. Demanding that a paper be retracted because you don’t like its arguments is bad enough. Demanding that it be retracted because you don’t like what you think its conclusion is without having even read it is despicable. Moreover, if you’re an academic, a demand for retraction on either of these grounds would be a clear abdication of your professional responsibility.

And if that’s too libertarian for you, well, this from Current Affairs is more mainstream liberal, and more pragmatic than principled in rejecting retraction. And I’m ok with its take too:

And so I’m worried about how the response to this article may play out. I am not signing the petition to have it retracted, because I believe that the journal shouldn’t retract it simply because there was public pressure. I am also very concerned that this could be a PR coup for the right, as so many of these things are. It’s tough, of course, because for the reasons I’ve outlined above, the article shouldn’t have been published. Gilley did not meet the standards that should be expected of an academic. He falsified history. When evaluated by a fair standard, he has not upheld the honesty and rigor that should be expected of someone in his position, and the article is a factual disgrace as well as a moral one. But it would be very easy to fall into a certain predictable trap, where the left calls Bruce Gilley a racist, and Gilley declares that they simply can’t handle the truth. And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should avoid that by Not Even Addressing Such Rubbish, bad arguments fester when they go unaddressed. (This is why I put myself through the ordeal of reading The Bell Curve.)

I think, then, that all responses to this article should be rigorous and careful. I think everyone should try to read the full thing, to know what Gilley argues and what he doesn’t argue. And we must repeatedly emphasize that the reason Gilley’s piece is so wretched is not just because it advocates something that contradicts our sense of justice, but because he has deliberately produced a false version of history. I am sick and tired of people on the right saying those of us on the left simply Can’t Respond To Their Arguments. I’ve read their arguments, and they’re bad.

This was difficult to write. I think the next post will be easier, in that the calls for retraction were more clearly unjustified. It will also be harder, because the article in the centre of the controversy is thornier, and warrants very close study.


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