To publish or to perish? Thoughts on passionate reactions stirred by a recent book

by Alexandra Ion (alexandraion.archae@gmail.com)

In December last year, news broke of the publishing of a book on repatriation and history writing. The book in question: Repatriation and Erasing the Past by Elizabeth Weiss and James W. Springer (University Press of Florida, 2020). At first Twitter was taken by storm with complaints from bioarchaeologists and archaeologists which ranged from accusations of racism, antiquated and colonialist ideas, to “harmful ideas” or ideas which are a threat to the anthropological field in its entirety. Soon they spread to other social media and to mailing lists, eventually leading to the creation and sharing of an Open letter to the publishers (which had gained hundreds of signatories worldwide the last time I’ve checked) and to responses from several professional bodies, among them the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology- BABAO.

The bioarchaeologists and archaeologists involved in the discussion called for various measures, from radical ones such as purging the field from such ideas and authors, to expectations that the publishers ‘withdraw [the book] from sale and digital access’ (BABAO letter to UPF), to not making the book open access and “to work in partnership with Indigenous scholars and communities to ask what UPF/UFP can do to help counter the harm that has already been done in publishing this book” (Open Letter, https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScl44V3125po-vz9oX6wp5I8evKk0ECxTAKhJ2kvSBUpOhn9A/viewform).


Before proceeding further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not defending the author, nor criticizing the book, as I have not read it (therefore I do not have an informed opinion). My thoughts are just a matter of principle – I find the discussions of censoring a book troublesome (even more a colleague), as long as the content of the book abides by the law and does not promote/incite to violence or to other acts prohibited by the law. Furthermore, I am not questioning the right of colleagues to write or publicly criticise an academic text. Nevertheless, several things caught my attention in this case which I find important for the wider field of European archaeology.

First, this was a historical moment in the discipline: there have never been so many colleagues and organisations grouped around the same aim, in this case basically calling more or less for censoring of a book or/and its author. Second, this was not an isolated case. In various forms, there seems to be a growing number of situations which follow a pattern: a party (a researcher or student) feels harmed or wronged by another party (usually a colleague, sometimes an organisation), and they settle the matter in the public arena, calling for actions to be taken against the “harmful” or “offensive” party. Third, the language used in this case was interesting, as were the kinds of academic arguments put forward, or their lack thereof. Given that this was a recently published book and most people have not had time to read it, the case put forward seemed focused on some ideas taken from the book, and not an in-depth analysis of the content.

Ever since the incident broke, I have thought of the best way to frame this discussion so that it does not contribute even more to the polarising narratives that surround us. I respect and admire my colleagues, and I think we need strategies for finding more common ground, and less friction. We share the same passion for inquiring into humanity’s past, and each of us brings their own contribution to the field. From time to time we might disagree (I have done so in the past), but the field would be so much more boring without a diversity of opinions. For this reason, I have also decided against making this simply a text about free speech, because this concept has been so politicised lately, that it can obscure the message and automatically place you in a camp. Instead, the overarching point that stayed with me is about harmony and collegiality, and maybe most importantly, about history.

As an Eastern European, I grew up in a particular historical context, being born only a few years before the Iron Curtain fell. Other people were less lucky: my parents’ and grandparents’ generations spent their lives under communism (and spent is the appropriate word in more ways than one). They were not allowed to travel abroad, they had no access to most foreign books, movies, news etc. They could not speak their minds openly out of fear of persecution, and the regime heavily censored books and academic texts. Similar things happened to varying degrees in all communist countries. Millions of people (especially intellectuals) who disobeyed the official dogma died in prisons or in work camps. It is important to note that what the communists did was not something new: Girolamo Savonarola burnt books in 15th century Florence, for centuries the Catholics had to follow ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’, while Nazis banned books written by Jews. When you frame your enemy in political terms, this usually is followed by strong measures that begin with some form of censorship.

Thus, for me the fall of communism brought with it the freedom to express and debate ideas. Following this, my education was shaped by a long tradition of philosophical debates going back to Ancient Greece, where intellectual battles are won through a clash of arguments (a tradition culminating with continental philosophers). Separately, being born in a land at the crossroads between the West and East, language is something one plays with, never to be taken seriously. Instead, we value the power of metaphors – of words and phrases, which can mean many things at the same time in the game of life. Therefore, it is strange for me to see calls for censorship instead of debates in the form of book reviews or opinion pieces in academic journals. It is even stranger to hear of ideas that are a threat to an academic field in its entirety. “Words are just tools [..] I prefer to think of language as means of starting conversation. Words can inspire reflection and growth, instead of prompting attacks” to quote social psychologist Devon Price (https://humanparts.medium.com/we-can-abolish-language-policing-45ab2abf5688).

In contrast to my own experience, the case of the Repatriation book is framed in a specific cultural context: the American one (and more recently the British one as well), a world where the political scene has created a factionalist mindset (from the opposition between two main political forces), which became intertwined with issues of power, colonialism, indigenous/minority rights, and public discourse. More broadly, the critiques received by the book were shaped by the linguistic turn, a worldview in which language is seen as holding power, and it determines how we see the world around – hence people start talking about language which can do harm, which can be dangerous and which needs policing. The third influence is the world of social media, in particular Twitter (which is not very common in Eastern Europe), where we see a growing number of narratives which embrace social justice by employing virtue signalling tropes, such as those who defend the right way of thinking/acting in contrast to the way of being of the “oppressor”.

All this is not to say that some of the ideas and themes born out of the critical social justice sphere are not important and worthy of taking centre stage. I only hope that we will not let them divide us, as often times they appear non-compromising and pushing for a cancel culture agenda. I also hope that as these agendas make their way into Europe, they do not obscure specific local European issues and inequalities, which should be discussed more often: unequal access to big (European) grants for researchers coming from Eastern Europe (due to lack of adequate infrastructure and local funding of research), the precariousness of contract archaeologists around Europe or the unequal access to high impact publications, conferences or academic resources for various categories of people (students, researchers from poorer countries or less visible universities etc.).

I also hope that we will not abandon the values of our academic tradition of debate and of questioning assumptions and topics. In the words of Salman Rushdie: “The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible." (https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/salman-rushdie-do-we-have-to-fight-the-battle-for-the-enlightenment-all-over-again-487680.html; see also a great text by David Abulafia discussing some of the tropes we see around, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/no-racism-isn-t-a-creation-of-white-people-).

We should value more the power and tradition of academic debate and ‘fight’ our battles on ideas and not people. A way to move past factions is to make room for people to be heard – if we disagree with them, we should bring our well-contended arguments to the table. At the end of the day, we can all share the comforting thought that most of the humanities papers or books will never be cited – we can bear that in mind when we pour our energy in attacking them.

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Posted February 4, 2021 by Katerina Kleinova
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