On the pendulum, the benefit of the doubt, and the role of public scholars.
There’s a school of revisionist historical scholarship that actively seeks to recover and portray the less attractive (or, to put it more bluntly, bad) sides of idealized public figures and events, to tear down (for example) some of the “great men” on whom historiography long depended. I think that kind of revisionism was never as widespread as its critics would argue, and is largely absent from contemporary work; but it certainly was a prominent part of the field in the 1970s/80s era, accompanying (if not necessarily caused by) the rise of multiculturalism. And while I find it too simplistic in its attitudes toward its subjects—mirroring, ironically, the mythologizing of the “great man” narrative and its ilk—I also understand and to an extent agree with the rationale behind such revision. After all, when the pendulum has been located so consistently on one side of its arc, it almost has to swing all the way to the other if a full trajectory is ever to be achieved.
But when the pendulum swings, it has effects in the present as well as on our sense of the past—contemporary impacts that are just as understandable but that also have the potential for more genuine damage. Exemplifying that possibility would be the infamous Duke lacrosse case, the 2006 incident in which three white members of that team were accused of rape by a young African American woman (a student at nearby North Central Carolina University) who had attended (and likely stripped at) a house party. In an earlier era, perhaps even a couple decades earlier, the privileged white male students would have been given the benefit of the doubt, and it would have been very difficult to charge them with assaulting an African American woman; in this case, thanks in part to that swinging pendulum and to other factors (including an overzealous and unethical prosecutor), it was the woman whose story received that benefit, despite substantial evidence in favor of the lacrosse players’ stories. More than a year later, long after the team’s 2006 season had been canceled, the coach forced to resign, and so on, the state’s Attorney General dropped all charges against the three players and the prosecutor was disbarred; the fallout from the case has continued in a variety of forms since.
One of the more controversial aspects of the case were the actions of the so-called Group of 88, a group of Duke faculty members who co-signed an advertisement (which appeared in the Duke Chronicle but is no longer available online) addressing both the case and broader issues of racism and sexism on campus. As a public scholar, one who works to address contemporary as well as historical issues and themes, I’d be a hypocrite to critique any other scholars for doing the same. On the other hand, by addressing an ongoing investigation and trial, and moreover one that involved students at their own institution, these faculty members did reflect, at least in part, one of the dangers as the pendulum swings—that too overt revisionism does not allow for the kinds of thoughtful and nuanced analyses that scholars would otherwise bring to their work. A statement addressing issues of sexism and racism in general, on the other other hand, would be a perfect example of how public scholars can engage with the broader issues at stake in any event, while reserving judgment on the specifics of a case and hopefully in the process contributing to communal and analytical narratives rather than divisive accusations.
Next case tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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