The Cult of Mary Beard

Picked-up the Guardian long-read on “The Cult of Mary Beard” last night. As a clearly sympathetic biographical piece I found the use of “cult” in the title a little odd.

I presumed some irony, but never found that to be resolved, not even in the conclusion that her star having been in the ascendancy as a British national treasure, she knew she would inevitably fall out of the limelight at some point. I don’t see temporary popularity as necessarily cultish. The style and content of her messages fit a time and need but context-fugit and we either learn from them or not as we all move on. That’s as true of messages that are geuninely valuable as they are of a misguided cult.

I find Mary Beard genuinely valuable. And the long-read is valuable too; providing a great sense of the person you wouldn’t get from the surface of her public writings and broadcasts. Recommeneded.

One reason she has been in the spotlight recently was the spat between her and her legions of social-history supporters on the one hand and a band of scientistic detractors – amongst whom Nassim Taleb was prominent – criticising the appearance of an “African” Roman (ie non-slave) in an educational British-Roman historical piece as a PC fiction. Though the parties are un-named the events get a mention in the long-read:

Beard radiates authority and expertise, but she does not hesitate to get mixed up in messy public arguments, which often puts her on the frontline of the culture wars. Last year, when a far-right conspiracy theorist attacked a BBC cartoon that showed a man of sub-Saharan appearance as a Roman in Britain ” political correctness gone mad! ” Beard calmly stepped in to explain there was in fact “plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain”. Her expert intervention was met with a what she later described as a “torrent of aggressive insults, on everything from my historical competence and elitist ivory tower viewpoint to my age, shape and gender”.

For most people, this would be a cautionary tale; for Beard, it was evidence that such battles cannot be shirked. Embedded in her refusal to be silenced, in her endless online engagement, is a kind of optimism: the idealistic, perhaps totally unrealistic, notion that if only we listened to each other, if only we argued more cogently, more tolerantly and with better grace, then we could make public discourse something better than it is.

I agree with the sentiment and admire that position. A major part of my own agenda is that without “proper dialogue” no argument leads anywhere constructive. Unfortunately the mention as quoted perpetuates a myth that was left in the wake of the original spat. Any disagreement involving social media ends up with a sexist, ageist, racist stink as the trolls pile in, the after-taste can scarcely be anything but bitter, and subtle flavours are inevitable lost.

No one was arguing against “plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain“. That’s a given and that was not the root of the spat.

The political correctness accusations were about proportionality of representation in selecting a single (cartoonishly black-skinned) sub-Saharan / central-African individual as representative of the complex statistics of many haplo-groups that could and would have been amongst the Britannica Romana population over time. Skin colour and appearance varies across these many groups, and exactly which groups matter a great deal to today’s descendents of those populations whose routes took them from (say) North-Africa to the Middle-East and Europe or later from Central Africa to the Caribbean and America and any number of variations on those heritages.

As any historian surely knows, time and context matter. When it comes to identity politics, we do need to care about the political correctness of messages communicated. Of course simplifying decisions need to be made when representing a – model of a – whole complex ecology in a few cartoon examples, and creative fiction is essential to filling gaps in the social-historical record. It necessarily requires careful dialogue when a scientists talks to a social-historian, honesty and care on both sides. Social history is not “BS” (to quote Taleb) simply because it cannot all be evidenced objectively, directly and individually in every chosen detail. That would be scientism (*).

Once the trolls have piled in to defend their chosen party – talking past each other on both sides – dialogue becomes attack and defence. That’s a war between cults – even if it’s a phoney war to promote book sales – on both sides. Battles should not be shirked, but the point should be to turn them into constructive dialogue, not a fight to the death.

That aside, Charlotte Higgins’ piece is a recommended read. You will certainly learn a good deal about Mary Beard.


[Post Note: (*) In fact one of my pet hates is overly creative scientific representation – sexy CGI videos of scientific happenings – of unobserved detail at cosmic and quantum scales, merely inferred from theory and indirect evidence. Obviously they help communication – and sell clicks and eyeballs – of the otherwise invisible processes and objects at issue, but their visualised “reality” overly reifies what is really informed speculation and generally misleads on the actual uncertainty and lack of detail in a way that a sketch or an “understood to be metaphorical” rubber-sheet (say) cannot. Again, you can forgive the creative “artistic licence” but it cuts both ways and requires balance of intentions. Dramatisation of both social-reality and science necessarily involve creative fiction.]

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