I don’t particularly want to talk about what’s been going on with Tressie and what feels like all of the rest of Twitter, but I feel there are things that need to be said.
I’ve been Twitter friends with a lot of people involved in this, on both sides, for some time. I’ve met Tressie. I’ve met Karnythia and wayoftheid. I haven’t met Arrianna, but I’ve made no secret of being a fan of her work. I like all of them. The point being, there’s no “side” for me to take in this conversation. Either way it’s shitty. I’d rather stay out of it entirely.
This situation isn’t about me. But talking to other folks who have been watching it unfold, it’s clear there are a lot of people who feel caught in the middle of this and not able to speak candidly about what they see going on. I think there’s a larger point than my individual feelings and response to be made there.
I was very briefly part of the conversation on Sunday afternoon that ended up turning into this fiasco. At the time, I didn’t know the conversation was going to be about Tressie. Once I did, I tried to give a noncommittal reply, which 1) was wrong and cowardly of me and 2) in retrospect, not nearly as noncommittal to an outside eye as it seemed in my head.
Sunday was the second time an issue some folks have with Tressie was raised in a conversation with friends that I was part of. The first time, I reacted similarly - I didn’t agree with what was said, but I didn’t disagree, either. Again, in retrospect, I’m not sure what I said was as noncommittal as I thought it was at the time.
I’ve been thinking about this, and realizing that in situations where I’m a situation where one friend of mine dislikes or has issues with another friend, I tend to try to keep everyone happy. Which often means not saying what I really think about what’s going on. That’s on me - my anxiety and immaturity. I own that.
What I really wanted in both of these conversations was to be left out of beef that wasn’t mine. And I could have said that – that I don’t know anything about that situation; I like Tressie, I’ve worked with her and have tons of respect for her mind and her work. I don’t want to be in the middle of other folks’ disputes.
I could have said that, but I didn’t. That is on me.
That said: it’s also the case that this was a poor response to being put in an unfair situation - untenable, really. I was being asked by friends to accept a bad report of another friend based on alleged misbehavior that wasn’t public to me. And this is the situation a lot of folks on Twitter have been put in this week. A lot of us follow or are friendly with people on both sides.
People are being asked to take on faith that Tressie is a horrible person who steals all the things behind the scenes, is evil, and a fraud. People are being asked to believe there’s proof of shady dealings on faith.
It’s inherent in such a set up that people in the middle are forced either to put folks’ character on trial (rather than judging behavior), or just stay out of it entirely (which makes everyone unhappy). This is an incredibly awkward and shitty position to be put in.
We can put faith in one side or the other - call one side liars or the other evil. Or we can put faith in (or choose to comment only on) our own direct experiences and observation of the people involved, and stay out of the parts that require speculation. None of these are good choices for any spectator, much less people who have relationships they value with people on both sides.
I guess the upshot of what I’m saying is if you want folks who know nothing about what you’re talking about to accept that someone is nasty deep down inside, you have to put up. Otherwise let people make up their own damn minds. Don’t put us in the middle of your beef.
As for the specific comments about Tressie’s academic career, two things:
1) There was no excuse whatsoever for trying to shame a woman of color for having had an encounter with the police. There are very few things I could think of that would justify such a thing, and neither being stopped for being a black person in a nice car nor allegedly being a plagiarist are on that list.
I’m astonished and disappointed that people who know quite well how racist the police are and how damaging classism and respectability politics are to black people could participate in or cosign such an attack, much less stoop to making a professional threat by referencing a mugshot (“tread lightly” because you have a mugshot is unquestionably a threat).
2) This is more than just Twitter beef. I have seen folks subtweeting about Arrianna. I don’t like it; it’s hurtful and it’s mean. But there’s subtweeting and there’s saying shit that can destroy someone’s career. These are not in the same ballpark. Similarly, if there was private cyberbullying going on as has been alleged, that’s wrong, but that doesn’t make what was said publicly less harassment and bullying.
Accusing anyone who makes their living/career on their words and ideas of plagiarism is a serious charge. For academics, it’s grounds for some pretty heavy consequences. Alleging that an academic hasn’t gotten proper IRB approval for research on human subjects is also a very serious charge.
These charges were made in a public and open forum that an increasing number of professors participate in. Arrianna and her colleague made these allegations against Tressie, using her full name, in spaces where they know their colleagues and Tressie’s are reading.
Now, folks might be 100% convinced that these allegations are true. Fine. The fact of the matter remains that with or without proof, Twitter was not the place to air them.
That people are upset that these threats were taken seriously and responded to with the same force and publicity that the accusations were leveled with strikes me as problematic. The high potential for major escalation was inherent in saying these things in such a public and open space.
Personally, my hope is that everyone can just get back to doing their work with no careers on either side negatively affected in the long run. I hope a lawsuit can be avoided. But based on what unfolded *publicly*? There’s really no question whose public actions are more in line with professional academic conduct.
A lawsuit in response to public accusations of academic fraud is within the boundaries of professional behavior for an academic. Indiscriminate airing of such accusations is not - it’s both unethical and unprofessional, especially without any accompanying evidence. Precisely because they are so serious, such accusations are appropriately addressed in private, by the scholar’s university community.
This is a sensible and ethical precaution not only for the careers of academics who might be falsely accused of plagiarism, but also for academics who bring charges of intellectual theft that could turn out to be wrong. The public nature of what Arrianna and her colleague said made it very difficult to take back and made a forceful response more likely. What was said and they way they went about saying it was career assassination whether they intended it that way or not, and if they didn’t intend it as such, I have to wonder how they thought this was all going to play out. Their conviction that their comments are true and deserved doesn’t make Twitter the place for sharing them.
And this isn’t about who is friends with whom - and to be completely honest, I’m not sure what friendships on either side will still be in place when all the dust from this settles. I would say the same about this behavior towards someone I despised. This was unprofessional and unethical behavior. I’ve already communicated much of this to Arrianna privately.
It feels like people are being pressured to pick a side, good people vs. bad people. Again, this isn’t something that it’s fair to expect people to do based on anything other than what they know and can see.
I don’t like this whole situation. I don’t like the way people I like have been behaving. I don’t like the escalation. I don’t have to accept either the proposition that Tressie is a plagiarist or that anyone’s career should necessarily be destroyed forever over making such allegations - and frankly the question of accepting one or the other shouldn’t even be in play, because this conversation shouldn’t have happened on Twitter in the first place. Twitter was a wildly inappropriate forum for this conversation.
I know I’m not the only one who has been feeling this this week. It’s fucked up that people were scared to disagree with or call out people who were going after Tressie because they were afraid the focus of animosity would be turned on them. That is toxic. It should be possible, in a community, to say you like someone but think something they did was fucked up and have a conversation about that. And we have to hold people we like and ourselves to the standards we expect of others.
Finally: I can’t and won’t speculate about anyone else’s experiences with Tressie. I’ve worked with Tressie on a few things. I’ve heard her give a talk. I’ve had many intellectual conversations with her both online and in person. If she’s an intellectual catfish then I clearly have no capacity for judging who a “real” intellectual is. I’ve met few people who can think so quickly and give such nuanced and informed responses on the spot. In my assessment as a fellow academic (to be clear: not in her field specifically) her work is both original and valuable. Of course, I would say much the same of many of the people on the other side of this situation, that they’re thoughtful and talented writers. But it’s not their capacity for creative and original thought that’s in question here.
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