Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Grab Your Balls and The Problem with Blind Peer Review

Men's Rights Activists are a particular strain of misogynist who couch their hatred of women in appropriating a language of victimhood. As an avowed feminist, I have encountered them many times, including when I put a defense of feminism on a website haunted by MRAs, and hung around in the comments for a few days learning about their discourse.

My general summary is this - to the extent MRAs have identified real problems with the treatment of men in western society, the answer is always (as Amanda Marcotte says), more feminism. Patriarchy does oppress men, if not in the same way as it does women, and the only way out of that is through taking apart the patriarchy, feminism's avowed goal. I'm glad that's settled.

Last week, a medievalist went to Allen Frantzen's website to check some references and discovered a section called "New! Writing on Men and Masculinity!" Frantzen is now retired from a long career at Loyola University - Chicago, but remains an extremely important scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. He is a pioneer of queer and gender studies of Beowulf and has strongly influenced how scholars engage this most critical text in the history of the English language.

His writing on Men and Masculinity is full-blown MRA misogynistic hate, combining the absurd and the vile. This is a donotlink to a page on "how to fight your way out of the Feminist Fog. Step one - Grab Your Balls! (GYB)" No, that's really the quote. Hashtags have included #GYB and #FemFog

Everything on the site is standard MRA material, quoting the red pill/blue pill of  MRA discourse, which is almost disappointing. I'd actually be interested, in a horror-show sort of way, to see what a brilliant theorist could do with MRA ideology. But since there's no meat to the ideology, even this great mind is reduced to nonsense.

Here are four several pieces that have covered it well. After that, I'll argue that blind peer review has to go. It's a vehicle for bias-replication, and always has been.

[Update: I have been criticized, appropriately, for not quoting any Anglo-Saxonist female scholars. I am adding content. PLEASE let me know what else I'm missing. I so appreciate criticism.]

Peter Buchanan sums up the stakes for Anglo-Saxon scholars:
It is distressing for young, theory-savvy Anglo-Saxonists to see Allen Frantzen behaving like a reactionary crank because we are conscious of the fact that our field has room for us because Frantzen was one of the people who fought for our place in the field in the 90s. We’ve read his Desire for Origins and Before the Closet, and assigned chapters from them to our students. For that matter, my theory class this semester is reading a chapter from Desire for Origins. It is doubly distressing because while Frantzen has a big name in Anglo-Saxon studies, he is not necessarily well-known outside of it (unless you study same-sex desire), and so we see our late-medieval colleagues dismissing his toxicity without any awareness of how important he was/is to the field. Frantzen has also been one of the most influential trainers of Anglo-Saxonists, people who are doing/have done exciting work on gender (Mary Dockray-Miller), digital humanities (Martin Foys), and ethnicity (Stephen Harris).
Of course, this trajectory didn’t come out of nowhere, and if it has become especially toxic in recent years, there were hints of it much earlier.
[Updated material. 11 AM 1/20)] On Facebook, and quoted with permission, Eileen Joy has offered many important comments on her experience with Frantzen in particular and with misogyny and sexism in her field in particular. She writes:
I have written so many op-eds, so many manifestos, and so many essays envisioning these different universities, and I now realize that they were all drafted in the furnace of my rage and despair over how the field of Anglo-Saxon studies has been content to construct itself: scornful of other medievalists who aren't "them," scornful and dismissive of junior scholars who are not yet established or did not go to the right schools or study with the right persons, misogynist and homophobic (while also worshipping masculinity), elitist, conservative, and just plan mean.
From there she talks about persistent sexual predation and abuse within the field.[/update]

Over at The Syllabub, we get much needed laughter, where the author is just "dipping into the #femfog tweets and laughing." She then explains why mockery matters to her as much as cogent debate:
Academia is part of society, and society is structurally sexist. Which means most of us are going to come up against the misogyny in our careers in lots of horrible and awful ways. I don't have enough resources (emotional or mental) to engage with every incident of misogyny with the same vehement refusal, argument and debate.
So, alongside debate, we have mockery. And each person who contributes to the #femfog (whether with a joke, a meme, or with condemnation) is signalling that Frantzen's rhetoric is not part of the future of the academy.
Lavinia Collins writes about the underlying issue in both the FemFog post and much MRA rhetoric:
The crux of my objection to this post is that, despite claiming to be about equality, politics and freedom, it’s actually about sex. How do you get women to have sex with you without having to go to the trouble of pretending you view them as equals? Franzten suggests it is by grabbing your balls and using data.
Jeffrey J. Cohen talks about shaming:
We should be cautious about public shaming and bandwagonning, of course, but if you as a senior and respected member of my field of study are going to fill a website with hatred against women and inveigh against feminism -- the very movement that has made the field as I know and love it possible -- and if you are going to directly link your website full of verbal violence against women to a list of your scholarship that makes it clear that these are not two separate things, but that you are relying on the cachet of the latter to make the former seem learned or compelling, well then you deserve to be shamed publicly, because you are an embarrassment to the field.
There are three posts at In the Middle. Cohen on calling out misogyny. Karl Steel on medieval "whiteness." Dorothy Kim on "Antifeminism, Whiteness, and Medieval Studies." Jonathan Hsy wrote a pragmatic, and much needed, post about "lessons learned" from the #femfog episode.

Please add additional links in the comments.

[update 11:00 AM 1/20]
A number of people have linked to this statement by a group of senior Anglo-Saxonists. I'd like more information on its origins and whether any names have been made public.
Old English Literature and Anglo-Saxon Studies: By far the majority of contemporary scholars in the field of Anglo-Saxon Studies and especially Old English strive to be professional, respectful, generous, equitable and welcoming to all others, irrespective of identity, including but not limited to, gender, sexuality, race, or age. The field does not belong to any one scholar, or to any one approach, or to any single authority. It is the duty of every generation of scholars in Old English to promote our subject and make the field a better, kinder and more desirable place in which to work for all succeeding generations. [/update]

To me, revelations like this need not be surprising. We know that bigots of all sorts permeate academia, because bigots permeate society. Academia runs into trouble when it constructs itself as better than society. If the #femfog helps medievalists believe their colleagues when they discuss misogyny, homophobia, classism, ableism, and so much more, instead of dismissing such concerns as overblown, I'll be pleased.

Here's one question among many:

How many times has Frantzten, a giant in his field, been asked to review feminist readings of Anglo-Saxon literature, and been given power over the career of someone whose views he deeply hates? What do we do about it? When think about Frantzen as an outlier only because he made his bigotry public, doesn't that push us to rethink systems of peer review that conceal the reviewer's identity?

We need to re-invent our prestige systems from so many directions. Re-imagining peer review in order to protect against bias needs to be part of that process. Personally, I like removing the anonymity. Yes, sometimes that will mean people will be too nice, but I'd rather err in that direction.

Your thoughts?



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