There’s no escaping the Twitter inquisition

Earlier, Ben Newmark, a history teacher from the UK, tweeted details of a lesson he was planning. I hesitate to describe what this lesson was about because any words I use could potentially cause offense. Newmark’s post on the lesson is titled, “Why did the Sioux come into conflict with settlers on the Great Plains?” but he then goes on to clarify that he will actually use the word ‘Dakota’ rather than ‘Sioux’.

Newmark should not have shared this lesson. As a result, he has been subjected to criticism, a small proportion of which is fair and reasonable and much which is plain abusive. One warrior against privilege who teaches at an eye-wateringly expensive international school in Brussels, pointed Newmark’s post out to his followers from the U.S. Which is when the witch-hunt really took off.

The pillorying followed a well-worn path. Rather than provide Newmark with the constructive feedback he sought, the Twitter mob shouted past him to their own followers, eager to demonstrate how offended they were. When Newmark took issue with some of the inaccurate inferences people were drawing about him and his teaching, he was accused of making it about him. Which it already was. To the mob, all that it is appropriate for someone with his privilege to do when placed in this position is listen, repent and ask for forgiveness.

One person who joined the discussion to try to defend Newmark even found himself being reported to his employer via Twitter. It got that crazy.

The way we teach the history of North America is rightly contentious. Newmark may have got it wrong. He may even have got it way wrong. In this case, he needs feedback which, at least initially, he was keen to receive. But nobody wants to be monstered even if Newmark has held up better than most while having bricks thrown at him.

So I have to ask what calling people out in this way is intended to achieve? What do Newmark’s critics want?

Well, one objective may be to influence the way history is taught in British schools so that North American history is taught in a way that better aligns with their insights. That would be a rational objective.

Yet this objective clearly has little chance of being achieved. The internet has provided a great opportunity for teachers to share the way they teach and gain feedback from across the globe. Potentially, this could disrupt parochial views of history. And the way that history is taught in Britain can be pretty parochial – lots of World War II and not much British Empire. But what history teacher in their right mind would share the way they intend to teach a contentious topic when they know that a monstering is the likely reaction? Better to just teach your lessons quietly and eschew the potential for feedback.

If influence is the objective then the method achieves the precise opposite.

So why are people doing it? Well, I guess people are not always rational and do a number of self-defeating things. Perhaps it is performative. Perhaps it arises from fear – by loudly denouncing the witches we hope to avoid being denounced as a witch ourselves.

If it is the latter then I fear it is misguided. If history has taught us anything about revolutions then it is that the chattering classes of the kind you find on Twitter who are the ones they come for first. It does not matter how much you decry privilege or genuflect before the revolution’s ideology.

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7 thoughts on “There’s no escaping the Twitter inquisition

  1. Mike says:

    So why are people doing it?

    For exactly the same reason that peers of mine joined in a crude chant against another, much-bullied kid on a crowded bus when I was in Year 3, even though many of them didn’t even know him.

    Which tells you all you need to know about the mental age of the people who joined in this particular pile-on.

  2. David F says:

    Also lost in all of that is that Ben, from my understanding, was trying to develop a lesson from the planned curriculum. In doing that, he should be lauded for trying to teach something which hist UK students likely have never been exposed to.

    In a lesson like this, which is limited in time and scope, of course nuance is lost. Stuff like the use the term Sioux is messy–just look up the controversy about the University of North Dakota’s use of the “Fighting Sioux” logo–one of the tribes wanted to keep the logo in 2009. The use of the term “genocide” for what happened to the Native Americans is also complicated–a recent article in the American Historical Review found that there is no consensus among historians on this point. Some were complaining that he was painting too broad a picture about agricultural practices–something I’m sure UK students really needed to know in a condensed lesson. Finally, the issue on whom to focus on in these circumstances–the perpetrators, the victims, or the bystanders (to borrow from Raul Hilberg’s book on the Holocaust) depends on the context. Ben’s lesson did address the victims but was mostly focused (it seemed to me) on looking at why the perpetrators did what they did–and that makes sense, as it has for a lot of Holocaust studies too.

    I teach at a private school without a set curriculum, so I have the freedom to get into these nuances (I’m doing so with my Holocaust unit). But in a school trying to meet the national curriculum’s standards? Not going to happen. So, criticizing him for stuff that even today there is controversy over among professional historians and even tribe members is just really absurd.

  3. kesheck says:

    My completely amateur psychological analysis: Twitter amplifies, or at least greatly facilitates, our embracing of social hierarchies, our desire for status, and our predilection for forming in-goups and out-groups.

    The latter are easy to see in Twitter’s ability to allow us to choose who we “follow,” and in how we’re able to ostracize others through “muting” or “blocking.” Tweets become permanent signals of our support for our desired in-group and condemnation of out-groups,

    Status is made incredibly easy to ascertain by way of number of followers and number of “likes” and “retweets” of comments.

    And of course, we all know there is a Twitter hierarchy – Edu-celebrities with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers. The hierarchy is also easily visible in threads of “Who to follow.”

    I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. It’s as if we walked around in real life with placards hanging around our necks that had an accounting of how many friends and acquaintances we had, or signs that had our own quotes written on them with the number of people who approved of our words.

    It just occurred to me – Twitter might be able to generate revenue by having us create avatars we can use Twitter $ to dress in virtual clothes, and by selling us virtual cars in which we can drive around Twitter. Two more ways we could signal status and our place in the hierarchy.

  4. Tempe says:

    I completely sympathise with this teacher. Who would know all the terms, once freely used, that are now deemed offensive today. When indigenous people themselves can’t even agree on the terms they would prefer what hope do the rest of us have?

    I tried to sell an Indian, Native American etc child’s costume online and someone came on and called me a racist, cultural appropriator. I did hesitate when I listed it, not knowing what was considered appropriate these days as it’s every-changing. I think I used the word Indian. Curious as to what word I should have used I found that in fact there is no agreement on which word is the least offensive (some actually preferred Indian) amongst the communities themselves. So, frankly, I give up.

    Sadly, in the world of academia, there seems to be people who take it upon themselves to find “racism” where ever they look. Perhaps they have too much time on their hands. If someone needs to be corrected for using a term that is now considered disrespectful surely it can be done in a respectful way. I wish this teacher all the best with his unit and hope he ignores this nasty spectacle. He’s not the bad guy here.

  5. Pingback: Anatomy of the last days of a witch-hunt – Filling the pail

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