Where Do We Draw the Line? Addressing Eminent Scholars’ Imperfect Pasts

November 18, 2021   •   By Nandini Pandey

Header Image: Attic red-figure lekythos with a detail of a Muse reading a scroll dated to ca. 435–425 BCE, from Boeotia, now at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France (Image via Wikimedia).

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PASTS IMPERFECT IS a new column that explores the impact of ancient pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen, and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space for addressing forgotten, manipulated, or misunderstood histories of the ancient world from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We will also highlight how narratives about the past influence the world we live in today, from books and movies to executive orders.

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Can we still enjoy Woody Allen’s movies or Michael Jackson’s music in light of their alleged sexual predation? Should we read Harry Potter or watch Chappelle’s Show after their creators’ transphobic remarks? Whether we can or should separate the art from the artist remains an open question. It affects all of us who study ancient cultures that normalized slavery, assault, and other practices we find reprehensible. What do we do, though, when the reprehensible actors include living Goliaths in our own fields?

Erich Hatala Matthes’s engaging new book, Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies, walks us through an all-too-familiar dilemma. Outside museums and movies, though, many academics face similar questions in our professional lives. Few workplaces do a better job than universities of enabling serial harassers while grooming and silencing their victims. My home field of “Classics” has provided misogynists, sexual predators, and white supremacists with legitimizing content, and cover, for years. It continues to shelter a number of them in its halls, even honor them with named chairs and incomes for life, while those of us lower down the pecking order feel powerless to speak or act. As the watchman in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon said of his masters’ palace secrets: “A great ox stands upon my tongue; but this house, if it could speak, might tell some stories.”

Clearly, institutions bear primary responsibility for holding abusive employees accountable — a responsibility they regularly fail by protecting or “passing the harasser.” What are our individual and community obligations toward these scholars’ victims, not to mention our own sense of what is right? Can a book like Drawing the Line, or the examples provided by the Greeks and Romans — no angels themselves, or strangers to powerful men behaving badly — guide us through this ethical minefield?

Figure 1: A Latin inscription from the province of Arabia dated to the early Tetrarchy (297–303 CE) has Maximians name erased following his conflict with Constantine (Image via Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Matthes, a Wellesley philosopher, offers no easy answers. However, he delivers what he promises: a toolkit of “arguments and reflections that I hope will allow you to arrive at your own conclusions about immoral artists and the role they play in our lives.” In his approachable integration of aesthetic and ethical principles with real-world examples, Matthes feels like a friend talking you through different angles on a problem that’s been bothering you for years.

Full disclosure: Matthes is a friend of friends from the University of California, Berkeley, where we both worked toward our PhDs without knowing one another. I’m also using Drawing the Line off-label, in order to think through questions it’s not designed to address given its concern for creative art in various media rather than academic scholarship. Helpfully, though, Matthes is less focused on specific products or allegations than on widely applicable lines of ethical reasoning.

Matthes differentiates famous artists from other privileged people on the grounds that we form independent relationships with their creations, characterized by emotions like love, trust, intimacy, and the possibility of betrayal. This description strikes me as broadly applicable to academics’ relationship with big-name scholars in our fields. Yet these scholars are not morally interchangeable with celebrity artists, I suggest, for reasons I explore below. This is not a review of Matthes’s book so much as an attempt to apply its ethical guidance to problems that almost every academic will confront at some point in her career, yet too few of us discuss — a consideration of the imperfect people and power structures implicating all of us who study the imperfect past.

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Let’s start with a hypothetical. You’re a scholar who’s underrepresented in your field, along the axes of race, gender, or both. You have plenty of rungs left to climb on the professional ladder. You get asked to give a named lecture, contribute to an honorary volume, or otherwise donate your academic labor toward honoring an Eminent Scholar. Say you’ve used or admired that scholar’s work, even if you don’t know him personally (in 2021, it’s still almost always a “him”). It’s a no-brainer to say “yes.” This is how the academic game works; this is how you earn tenure, promotion, scholarly capital in your field.

Now imagine this task gets postponed and rescheduled. In the meantime, Confederate statues are pulled down. Buildings are renamed. #MeToo gains momentum. Women you know — women sexually hounded for years, driven from their life’s work, by Eminent Scholars — start telling their stories. And you start hearing stories, too, about the Eminent Scholar you’ve agreed to help celebrate.

Your discipline has no equivalent to the “Shitty Media Men” list, just rumor networks that operate over second glasses of wine at (now cancelled) conferences. Nobody warned you about Eminent Scholar when you were at your most vulnerable. But there are people who still remember his glory days. And the way they tell it, there was nothing glorious about them.

None of what you hear is particularly lurid or sensational. Nor does it cross the line from personal testimony to legal proof. But you believe the people who warn you that Eminent Scholar has gone out of his way to harm identity groups like yours and set back causes you work to advance. You corroborate their evidence with old lawsuits, third-party testimony, graffiti on a ladies’-room stall. People judging your tenure case signal they’d be disappointed if you don’t back out of your plan. Others warn that you’ll face consequences if you do.

So what do you do?

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Your first instinct might be to try to separate the scholar’s research from his character. But Drawing the Line points out problems — noted also by Classicist Joel Christensen — with the old New Critical attempt to judge art on its formal properties alone. Ancient writers from Herodotus to Suetonius believed that people’s works, deeds, and biographies should be judged together as parts of a whole. Even Roman imperial poets maintained a critical perspective on their all-powerful patrons’ ethics.

Why are we so reluctant to apply these same principles to our senior colleagues? Sarah Scullin is one of the few Classicists to address the sexual predation that happens in our (and many other) fields, in a 2016 Eidolon article entitled “Making a Monster.” It says something about our disciplinary code of silence that Scullin felt she was giving up her career to write that piece, even though it responded to national news of Classics professor Holt Parker’s arrest on charges of child pornography.

It says even more that, in the half-decade since, very few have answered Scullin’s plea to talk publicly about the monsters in our midst — though some of us have begun problematizing their work, quietly, in our classrooms. In Parker’s case, the charges were intimately related with his work on Greco-Roman sexuality (invoking Matthes’s qualms about art that seems to vindicate its creator’s morally dubious actions). Perhaps it’s less obvious how to connect a scholar’s work on autocratic men, say, with his patronizing attitude toward women he considers his inferiors. Or is it?

Figure 2: Roman sarcophagus relief depicting Hades’ rape of Persephone, 2nd century CE, National Archaeological Museum, Venice, Italy (Image via Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The sad truth is that we’re afraid of what we’d find out, of the powerful enemies we’d make, and of the legal and professional consequences we’d face if we asked too many questions. Our silence is the price of admission into the old-boys’-club of academia; to break it is to prove we don’t belong. It would also force an uncomfortable and deeply resisted reckoning with the attraction of a field that continues to center elite male slave-owning perspectives among our ancient sources, to reward modern scholarship that codes white, and to dismiss minorities’ attempts to widen the epistemic playing-field as barbarianism at the gates. Meanwhile, every lecture or Festschrift in honor of an Eminent Scholar recollapses the boundaries by asking us to celebrate the man and his works together.

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In thinking through these issues, I also found useful Matthes’s distinction between normative and descriptive responses to flawed artists. To oversimplify, the normative approach “concerns how we ought to take moral features into account when responding to an artwork.” A descriptive approach shifts the focus to how audiences do respond once they learn of an artist’s misdeeds and whether this response affects the art’s success in its goals. Both approaches raise questions about who knows what, when, and how universal our bases and standards for judgment can be.

Academia often splits us between the responses we should adopt, as ethical individuals, and the ones we see modeled by leaders in our field. Catullus’s poem “odi et amo encapsulates the resultant internal division: “I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask? I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I am crucified.” You might personally condemn a scholar whom you know to make inappropriate demands of students, or to favor one group over others in hiring and promotion. But you might nevertheless feel intense social pressure to join the admiring hordes who laud his books and throng his lectures, some in total ignorance of what he’s done and others in full awareness. This duality can be psychologically damaging; I know people it’s driven out of academia. But for those of us who stay, participating in a system that exalts bad people over good principles is a hazing ritual that proves our commitment to the field while rendering us all complicit.

This points to one crucial difference between academics and the artists who are Matthes’s primary concern. We feel betrayed when celebrities like Roman Polanski and R. Kelly do bad things, Matthes observes, because we trust and make ourselves vulnerable to them via their art in ways we don’t, say, trust politicians. But this sense of intimacy doesn’t go both ways. Famous writers or directors don’t care if you personally condone or condemn them; they won’t miss the few cents your purchase would add to their millions. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your boycott will make a difference to them, Matthes advises; do it if it makes a difference to you whether you keep consuming their work, or give it up in solidarity with their victims.

Love and vulnerability are, I would argue, equally at play in academia. We may not have hung Eminent Scholars’ posters on our childhood walls, but we’ve had their books on our shelves and bibliographies as we matured into members of our profession. We’ve learned to look up to them from people we admire; they shape our outlooks and intellectual paths through the field.

Figure 3: Detail of a Roman funerary relief found in Neumagen of a teacher with three students, around 180–185 CE, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, Germany (Image by Carole Raddato under a CC-BY-SA 2.0).

We, our professors, and our peers are much more tightly bound up with Eminent Scholars than average fans in their six degrees of separation from celebrity. We have complex, multidirectional, consequential relationships even with academics we’ve never met. We’re often their intellectual “grandchildren,” enmeshed in intergenerational networks of mentorship and patronage that render us dependent on them, explicitly or indirectly, for jobs, funding, and professional success.

If anything, top professors’ oversized sway over the tight-knit environments where we live and work should enhance their moral accountability. But it also creates perfect conditions for apex predators to thrive. It also explains why even good actors — people who steer students away from abusive advisors, who stick around until last call to keep an eye on lecherous colleagues, who quietly warn you about Eminent Scholars — haven’t been able to act more effectively against the bad apples. They know too well the consequences for themselves and their dependents. The longer we stay in the system, the more we wrap ourselves, like flies, in the spiderweb of patronage and politics that makes emperors of problematic scholars. We live in a world that they control, a world that makes it awfully hard to do the right thing.

Figure 4: Bronze statue of the emperor Augustus, ca. 12–10 BCE, found in the Aegean Sea. Now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece (Image via Flickr and in the Public Domain).

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After the 2016 US election, Donna Zuckerberg famously pondered “how to be a good Classicist under a bad emperor.” As that particular crisis fades, we need to ask ourselves how to be good Classicists under a bad system — particularly those of us who’ve managed not only to survive but to thrive in it. The field has come a long way, thanks to collective labor by some of its most historically vulnerable members, from the explicitly racist, sexist, classist, antisemitic, homophobic place that it was just decades ago. This sometimes entailed overlooking bad behavior by perceived allies in the fight for justice. Indeed, very few of us have made no comment, decision, or friendship we don’t regret; we’re all imperfect people, swimming in murky waters.

Yet conversations I’ve had with fellow Classicists, including senior white faculty who are as sick as Sandra Oh’s character in The Chair of picking up problematic colleagues’ messes, give me reasons for hope. Matthes observes that the flip side of feeling complicit with bad artists is acting in solidarity with their victims, even if “it’s a morally good way of making no difference, rather than a bad one.” We academics have strength in numbers that we have yet to fully leverage. We collectively control what Eminent Scholars crave most: power, satisfaction of ego and appetite, fame beyond death. This is why “cancel culture” frightens them; it reminds them that their kleos, no less than that of Achilles, depends on vessels they don’t own.

The ancient world also teaches us that simple damnatio memoriae, “cancelling” famous individuals’ memory, doesn’t work. It would be impractical and academically dishonest to cease citing research we’ve used by scholars we condemn. Our eyes are also naturally drawn to scratched-out names and toppled statues. Tacitus writes that images of Brutus and Cassius, precisely because they were left out of one noblewoman’s funeral, outshone all the others that were present. It’s equally important to avoid the opposite temptation of “moral grandstanding” (an argument Matthes develops from Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke). Performatively calling out abusive people often serves our egos more than their actual victims. It can also backfire; note the boom in J. K. Rowling’s UK sales in the wake of her transphobic comments.

Let’s not give Eminent Scholars what they crave by dramatically “canceling” them — or ourselves, from their honorary lectures. After all, we’re eminently replaceable; for every one of us who backs out, there’s someone else more willing to play by their rules. Instead, let’s put slow, steady, public pressure on departments to talk about the abuses they’ve permitted — but also to make amends and do better.

Those of us with relative status and job security need to use it to hold institutions accountable for their failures to hear and protect more vulnerable scholars. We might even learn something from the ancient strategy of conspicuous conversion. Augustus melted down silver statues in his honor and used the proceeds to dedicate gold tripods to Apollo. To mark their start of a new era at Rome, the Flavian emperors repurposed Nero’s luxurious Golden Palace into an entertainment complex for the people: the Colosseum. We too have the power to transform.

Minority scholars, beware: your invitation to honor Eminent Scholar may be a form of reputational money-laundering, of cleansing his image for posterity. But two can play at that game. Can you reinvest any of Eminent Scholar’s social capital to spotlight or empower the scholars he’s attacked? Donate your honorarium to support people who’ve suffered academic abuse or prejudice. Put pressure on departments to address the harm Eminent Scholar has caused, institute meaningful guards against future abuses, and call your field to action.

Let’s not let ego or lack of imagination tempt us to follow the footsteps of Petronius’s Trimalchio, a former slave who used his newfound wealth to lord over slaves of his own. We all know senior scholars of one marginalized group or another who shrug off younger minorities’ troubles because they feel they once had it worse. We can do better than remake the academic pyramid with ourselves on top. We can exert our collective power over the systems that continue to yield glory and profit to bad actors — systems in which we each play small but vital roles.

It’s not just the past that’s imperfect, in both the ethical and grammatical senses. We’re co-authors of an ongoing story that itself authors us. I wish our chosen professions were less compromising. I’d love simpler answers than Matthes can give. But we can’t dodge our responsibility for how this story turns out. And we owe it to the future of our imperfect past to draw firmer lines.

Figure 5: Marble bust of the emperor Claudius, reworked from an earlier portrait of Caligula, subject of memory sanctions termed “damnatio memoriae” by modern scholars. Originally from Acerra, Italy, and dated to 37–54 CE; now at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany (Image by Anagoria via Wikimedia).

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Nandini Pandey works on Roman culture, its representation in contemporary media, and its potential to inform our modern lives. Author of The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome: Latin Poetic Responses to Early Imperial Iconography (Cambridge, 2018) and numerous scholarly and public-facing articles, she is currently writing a book on Roman race and diversity for Princeton University Press.