‘It is no use historians talking only to other historians while the intellectual traffic of the rest of the world passes us by’
Last summer, as the media followed farright rallies and their political fallout in the US, medieval studies had its own white supremacy scandal. In a blog post, Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, urged fellow medievalists (particularly white academics) to make a clear stand against such viewpoints. In response, Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, responded with a blog post of her own, in which she denied that medieval studies had a race problem and denigrated Kim’s scholarship.
Both posts would probably have been read and discussed only by the small number of scholars who are both medievalists and regular users of social media if Brown had not tagged alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopoulos in one of her Facebook posts, resulting in his website publishing an article that lambasted Kim and praised Brown. As Yiannopoulos has 2.3 million Facebook followers, this unsurprisingly resulted in a storm of online attention – much of it virulent – for Kim, and for the scholars who supported her.
Many historians have remained blithely unaware of this incident, and a number of those who have belatedly learned about it have been dismissive of its significance, discounting it as a “Twitter drama”. Even leaving aside the fact that alt-right trolls are well known for posting private and identifying information about the targets of their fury, making their threats potentially a lot more than mere words, this episode signals the key role that social media are going to have in shaping the future of history as a discipline.
Yiannopoulos’ website praised Brown for providing her readers with “facts” and called Kim a “fake scholar”. As the journalist Oliver Burkeman recently argued, online discourse is increasingly polarised: people who are “otherwise sane…adopt, then feel obliged to fight for, the sort of black-and-white, nuance-free stances they’d never defend in calm conversation over cups of tea offline”. Partly this is caused by what psychologists call “in-group bias”, a theory that long predates the internet and refers to humans’ innate tendency to bond within groups and then respond to people outside the group with hostility. However, this age-old problem is intensified online because of social media’s widely discussed “filter bubble” effect, where users end up in intellectual culs-de-sac produced by search engine algorithms.
Academics, of course, often live in their own version of the filter bubble. While the senior common room can be a place of lively intellectual discourse, it can be easy for us to ignore the world outside it. For many historians, social media channels seem like terrible places to attempt to have the kind of nuanced, reflective discussions that our discipline requires. It is becoming increasingly urgent for us to make that attempt, however, and the Kim-Brown clash is a perfect illustration of why.
At a time when white supremacy is making a political comeback, medieval historians cannot ignore the clear evidence that modern fascists – as they did in the 1930s – are co-opting medieval history (particularly of the Vikings and the Crusades) to propagate racist discourse of a glorious white European past.
With far greater social reach than at any previous time, historians can now connect with this wider public and demonstrate the ways in which our past is more complicated, and more rich, than they might think
While these extremists currently remain fringe groups, the mainstream perception of the Middle Ages remains one of a white, Christian world: a Game of Thrones universe without dragons but with just as much rape. With far greater social reach than at any previous time, historians now have an opportunity to connect with this wider public and demonstrate the ways in which our past is more complicated, and more rich, than they might think.
Our ability as historians to rebut simplistic misconceptions depends on the availability of both information and personnel. Open-access scholarship is vital to combat “fake news”, not merely in the formal sense of articles being freely available online but also in the form of scholars disseminating their learning outside journals.
Unfortunately, many of the academics most interested in connecting with the public and in producing the kind of history that combats stereotypes are also the scholars most vulnerable to being cut off from the resources that will allow them to publish that research. As an early career scholar on a fixed-term contract, the irony of this strikes me quite keenly. It is my book, published by a reputable academic press four years ago, that got me my current job. But my blog is read by thousands more people than have ever read that book, and it is via online connections over the past few years – meeting potential research partners on Twitter, planning conferences via Skype – that I have made my most dynamic developments as a historian.
It may well be impossible to change the minds of racist zealots, whose commitment to their cause means that they can dismiss the work of scholars such as Kim as “fake news”. But if racist misinterpretations of history are left unchallenged, the mainstream public may find that the search results for terms such as “Vikings” and “the Crusades” will be dominated by alt-right websites. Filter bubbles, after all, expand to incorporate new members, and white supremacists have a vested interest in changing the terms of broader public conversation about the past.
It is no use historians talking only to other historians while the intellectual traffic of the rest of the world passes us by; that risks our becoming history at a time when our understanding of the past has never been needed more.