Although slavery has existed since the “dawn of civilization,” Columbia University historian Eric Foner points out that the modern west was the first to abolish it. This was a result, Foner argues, of a unique blending of evangelical and Enlightenment thought that “placed a new emphasis on every person’s inherent dignity and natural rights….” Princeton historian Bernard Lewis notes that the west then effectively influenced the abolition of slavery in non-western societies as well, leading to the worldwide decline of the institution in the modern era. Similarly, as University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Kors has argued, it was in the west that capitalism (for all its warts and critics) emerged to produce “the greatest alleviation of suffering; the greatest liberation from want, ignorance, and superstition; and the greatest increase of bounty and opportunity in the history of all human life.” Moreover, in terms of women’s rights, no other society has been more open to the concepts of legal and political equality between men and women than the modern west, where women now hold unprecedented liberties and freedoms not found on the same scope or scale in any other past or current society. Indeed, former Clark University Philosophy Professor Christina Hoff Sommers has noted that American women “are among the most liberated and privileged — and safest — people on earth.”
One might think that, in light of such achievements, one would find greater value in the study of western civilization than expressed by many critics calling for its removal from college and university curriculums and general education requirements. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, no less, once joined students at Stanford in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
Many academics who do study western civilization tend to emphasize the worst aspects of it. It’s true, after all, that although slavery and overtly discriminatory laws have been overturned, that racism continues to have an impact on people’s lives and is a worthy subject of study. Similarly, while capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty than any other economic system, there are many who fail to thrive in a capitalist economy and so scholars and economists who seek ways to improve a capitalist society to insure its humanity (hopefully without destroying economic freedom and the potential for economic growth) do noble work. Similarly, while women hold unprecedented legal rights in the western world (the unique birthplace of modern feminism), it took considerable effort to get to this point and there are still many concerns about reaching full equality.
Consequently, feminist scholars tend to focus on lingering aspects of inequality in their public commentary or scholarship on the issue of women’s rights. Patriarchy is disdained, and calls for its overthrow are common. Moreover, they link the women’s rights movement with other movements of marginalized groups (intersectionality) to protest the normative legal and social power structures that have dominated the development of western civilization over its history. Thus, as a result, straight, “white,” men have become the target of much of their disdain. It can be heard in disparaging comments about “dead white European male” authors assigned in the classroom, arguing that they do little to speak to the circumstances of non-white, non-heterosexual, and female students. Thus, the canon of books traditionally assigned in western universities, they argue, can be offensive and needs to be changed to reflect a more diverse population. Indeed, in some cases, the very idea of “western civilization” itself is seen as an offense in its own right. Presumably this is because its critics see it as the product of the same straight white male patriarchy they decry, and so if the patriarchy needs to go, so does the civilization it created.
It’s on this last issue, concerning understandings of women’s rights in the western world, that University of Chicago historian Rachel Fulton Brown caused quite a stir recently.
Rachel may be a leading medievalist, but her life and interests extend well beyond academia. She is a devoted wife and mother, a dog lover, a fiddle player, and a competitive fencer. Images: Rachel and her Corgi, Joy (L), Rachel during a public performance (C), and Rachel competing in the finals bout of the USFA Summer Nationals in 2012 (R).
As a tenured and award winning medieval historian at the prestigious University of Chicago, Rachel is well regarded for her excellent scholarship on medieval Christianity, particularly her work on the Virgin Mary. Of all her scholarship, the work that most earned her a reputation as a leading medieval historian was her book From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). In addition to a number of highly enthusiastic reviews, it also won the 2006 John Nicholas Brown Prize by the Medieval Academy of America for “a first book or monograph on a medieval subject judged by the selection committee to be of outstanding quality”; the Journal of the History of Ideas Morris D. Forkosch Prize for “the best book in intellectual history published in 2002”; and a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title of the Year award.
Additionally, her research has been supported with fellowships from the National Humanities Center (1998-99), the American Council of Learned Societies (1998-99, 2008-09), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2008-09), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (1992-93, 2003-06), among others. Yet not only is Rachel an excellent scholar, but her teaching at the University of Chicago has been recognized with the Provost’s Teaching Award (2006) and the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2007).
Image: Rachel receiving the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2007).
In light of her extensive academic achievements, one would think that Rachel could occasionally get away with deviating from the standard narrative found in feminist circles when discussing the contributions of “white” men in the development of women’s rights in the western world. This is particularly the case when considering that she did so on her personal blog. Indeed, when Rachel published a blog post on June 5, 2015 titled Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men, few people seemed to take notice and there was no controversy.
Image: A screenshot of the opening paragraphs of Rachel’s now controversial blog post.
To be clear, Rachel only uses the term “white men” ironically because of the derision with which some feminist academics or like minded college students refer to “Dead white European males” in discussions of canon or reading assignments in the classroom. It’s not that she assumes everyone in western civilization has been “white” according to modern definitions of race. She understands the complexity of how modern western society currently defines “race” (particularly the changing boundaries of “whiteness”), but she wanted to use the familiar terms that feminists often use in her now controversial essay that was really a defense of western civilization (rather than men of any particular race). Rachel hoped that using such language would catch peoples’ attention, who might then engage in substantive dialogue on the issue, yet it was not until mid-January of 2016 (six months later) that her academic peers took notice…and many expressed outrage when they did.
This initially took place on a lengthy post on the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship’s Facebook page. Rachel’s Three Cheers essay was the subject of the thread and the introductory comments provided by the original poster read “I believe that one should always support good feminist work in the world, however, I am not OK w/ supporting white feminist work. I am sorry, this is an example.” This was followed by well over 100 comments on the thread and more than sixty “Likes.” Comments expressed considerable scorn for the essay and Rachel as well, referring to the essay as “such bullshit” and expressed incredulity “that this person is in charge of teaching medieval history somewhere.” Part of the reason the essay was so extensively commented on was because Rachel joined the group willing to dialogue with the scholars there who objected to her essay. In most cases, after Rachel engaged on the thread, her detractors seemed to express further incredulity that she stood by her original comments. In one comment an academic expressed confusion that Rachel refused “to actually consider that in fact valorizing white men is problematic.”
This comment seems to get to the heart of the matter. Rachel’s primary offense was valorizing “white men.”
Indeed, Rachel’s post’s larger point was simply that “white” men deserve some credit for the unique advances the western world has seen in terms of women’s rights. Whereas her critic condemns “valorizing white men” Rachel argues, simply, that to only demonize “white” men produces a distorted and a-historical view of how western women came to have such rights in the first place.
Rachel did not argue “white” men were perfect or sinless, but instead pointed out the oddity of constantly condemning, for example, a “white” male dominated society in which “white” men held all the power, but yet provided a legal and moral framework in which the modern feminist movement could emerge and find great success, particularly in comparison to other societies. Indeed, as Rachel points out in one of her talking points, it was those same power holding “white” men that could eventually be persuaded to relinquish some of their power when they themselves voted to give women the right to vote (because only men could vote at the time). She is not trying to take away the agency of women who fought for these rights, and won them through argument and persuasion, but rather arguing that men who held all the power, after all, could be persuaded… and played a part in helping form a society that feminism could take hold and advance the rights of western women in a unique way.
It’s an interesting point. After all, what unique aspect of “white” male dominated western civilization made this possible? Not only the right to vote, but many other women’s rights have found support in the west that are not universally embraced in other cultures or societies. It’s not my area of study, but it certainly seems like a worthwhile question for scholars to consider.
Another of Rachel’s talking points (or “cheers”) for “white” men highlighted the fact that the willingness of medieval “white” men to embrace concepts of chivalry and courtly love reflected their willingness to elevate ideals of respect for women, thereby eventually making violence and rape generally unacceptable. In response to this argument, one of Rachel’s detractors mocked her, noting “Oh for God’s sake, this post is such incredible bullshit. Chivalry was ‘invented’ and no one raped anyone?” But Rachel, as she has made clear elsewhere, and as a charitable reading of her initial comments should show, did not claim this. Rachel has instead pointed out that some “white” men stood up to or disagreed with other “white” men on behalf of women, which made it possible for valuable ideals, even if not fully realized, to emerge. I did not read her to claim rape disappeared, or that all medieval men then respected women, but rather that some medieval men embraced and promoted idealized norms that condemned violence toward women.
This is true and Rachel is right to highlight it.
Consider such efforts during the First Crusade, an area on which I can speak with some authority. Rape may have happened during the First Crusade, but such an assumption cannot be based on the sources or any evidence, as none exists to establish it. Indeed, the sources, both friendly and hostile to the crusaders, are remarkable in their claims that it didn’t happen when otherwise it would be expected according to the norms of medieval warfare. Yet the First Crusade represented a unique development in the history of western warfare, with the participants required to act as penance seeking pilgrims rather than traditional warriors. Or consider later medieval legislation, particularly during the era of the Hundred Years War, which explicitly condemned and outlawed rape. This does not mean such abuse disappeared, but only that the culture and legal structures of the era (dominated by “white” men) turned against it.
Rachel’s final point, was to highlight the oddity of celibate medieval “white” men, canon lawyers and theologians of the twelfth-century, using their authority to promote the notion that the sacrament of marriage was only valid if both the man AND the woman consented. In modern western society this is taken for granted, but it was not always the case and those medieval clergymen, so often derided, played an important role in establishing this new norm in which women had a say in who they married. In some modern non-western societies women still have little choice in whom they marry, so this seems like a significant point to highlight.
From my perspective, all of Rachel’s points seem perfectly reasonable, and I was not alone in thinking so. Indeed, in coming to know Rachel since then, after reaching out to her while witnessing the above controversy unfold, I found out that a number of other scholars did so as well, expressing the same sentiments. I was heartened to hear it. Rachel has also expressed her happiness at making new connections and even friendships as a result, as well as receiving encouragement from old friends as well. So if her goal was to get people talking about these issues, she was successful.
Rachel has kindly agreed to address the following questions.
Question 1: What value do you see, in terms of scholarship, in making the three points you highlighted in your Three Cheers essay? What does feminist scholarship lose by not typically highlighting these kinds of points? What does it gain by taking your arguments more seriously?
My first concern in making my three points was not so much for our scholarship as for our conversation about our culture more generally. I have been concerned for some time that our focus in the academy has been more on pointing out all of the failures of our tradition than it has been on understanding the standards by which we judge these failures, standards which, as I tried to suggest in my Three Cheers post, are themselves products of the very tradition we seem to have such a need to condemn. Every time we talk about “rape culture” as endemic or advert to arguments about how marriage should be about a loving relationship between consenting adults or argue about how women should have a larger role in the public sphere, we are appealing to the standards developed within the Western tradition, particularly, as we can see in de Tocqueville’s description of American women, the American version of that tradition.
To the extent that feminist scholarship concerns itself with exposing the ways in which historically and at present our own culture has failed to live up to these ideals, it depends on the tradition even as it critiques it. At the very least, I would hope that by taking my arguments seriously, feminist scholars might become more aware of the foundations in the long history of the tradition of the arguments that they are making, even as they critique this tradition for not living up to its own ideals. More ambitiously, I would hope that in realizing how much their own convictions about the way in which women and men should behave towards each other depend upon this tradition, they might be able to see themselves as part of an on-going conversation within the tradition, which would go a long way towards healing many of the divisions that we are experiencing in the public sphere over the value that we place on men’s and women’s particular abilities and roles in our cultural and national life.
Question 2: The historical arguments you made seem to have been interpreted by some of your critics as unhelpful to modern “social justice” concerns and feminist scholars in particular seem devoted to such causes. To what degree do you think this provoked some of the backlash against your original blog post?
I have been wrestling for some time with the problem of how to explain the kinds of divisions that have arisen in our academic conversation. While the particular categories of grievance often feel immediate, the dynamics of the criticism are in fact quite old. I sometimes joke that in these debates, we are reliving the late eleventh-early twelfth century debate over universals: whether such categories as “genus,” “species,” “race,” “class,” or “gender” actually exist as substances or whether they are only names of shared qualities which we apply to individuals.
In more modern parlance, as Roger Scruton shows, we tend to speak rather in terms of the Other against which we define ourselves, which Others have over the last two centuries or so acquired what medieval scholastics would recognize as an almost realist existence. Taken up by those who learned from Alexandre Kojève’s lectures at the École pratique des hautes études during the 1930s to think of the Other as the source of everything wrong with the world, this realist mode of discourse has since become normative in the post-1960s American academy (Scruton traces the transmission through Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, and Deleuze). What matters is how you define your Other. For those who argue in terms of “social justice,” the Other is most easily defined as everything which has come before and failed to live up to the tradition’s own utopian ideals. In this context, “white” is simply the most recent instantiation of “bourgeois,” with all the entailments of the critique borne against the bourgeoisie since the mid-nineteenth century.
This tradition of critique is what I think is ultimately behind the kind of backlash that my original blog post excited, although I doubt very much whether my colleagues would put it in quite these terms, one of the features of this critical tradition being constantly to shift its terms so as to maintain the need for the critique. The point in this critical tradition is always to be “on the left” of whatever mediating institutions might arise, thus its necessarily negative definitions of its Other(s). As Scruton puts it: “It is as though the abstract ideal has been chosen [here, ‘social justice’] precisely so that nothing actual could embody it.”
Question 3: Related to the question above, do you think your historical arguments work against the promotion of modern social justice causes? If so, as a modern western woman and historian, do you then have a responsibility to adjust your historical interpretation of the past so that it aligns better with modern social justice concerns? Or is your greater responsibility to the accuracy (so far as you see it) of your historical narrative? I recall one of your critics effectively asking you “which side” you were on. How might you answer that question?
On my blog, I describe myself as an “Entish Presbyterian medievalist” precisely so as to signal that I do not see myself as taking any clear “side,” at least not one that I think most Americans would immediately recognize as a side. (As the Ent Treebeard tells the hobbits, “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me.”) More to the point, side-taking in the way in which I think my critics were thinking about it is a particular feature of the critical tradition highlighted by Scruton, such that not to be With-Us (those concerned about “social justice”) is to be Against-Us. The problems with this Manichaean understanding of social interaction are as pernicious as they are durable, once they get “baked in” (as David Blankenhorn has recently put it) to our political conversations. Basically, as soon as we start taking sides in this way, the conversation is over.
As historians, we are well-positioned to be able to document the ways in which these types of conversations have developed over time, as well as to point out the parallels between the binaries that our contemporaries use and those of previous generations (bourgeois vs. proletarian, feudal vs. revolutionary, Protestant vs. Catholic, orthodox vs. Manichaean, barbarian vs. civilized, slave vs. free, Jew vs. Greek). As historians, however, we will also be called upon to make some judgments about the debates of our own time, whether we see ourselves engaging with such questions directly or not.
My critics asked me what “side” I am on. I am on the “side” that Our Lord Jesus Christ said I should be: on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the outcast, the tax collectors and the prostitutes and all those whom Jesus’s own critics wanted to shame him for associating with. Confusingly, of course, my colleagues who see themselves on the “side” of “social justice” also see themselves as siding with these same outcasts, those who might otherwise be excluded from the wedding banquet because they have no wedding garment (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). It makes no sense to ask which of us is on the right or wrong side; we are on the same side insofar as we participate in the tradition of criticism of self and society going back to the Scriptures on which our culture was built.
And yet, of course, we are on very different sides with respect to the role that we acknowledge this tradition has had in shaping the conversations that we are caught up in today, never mind the role that we would now give to the institutions through which this tradition has come to us.
Question 4: Why do you seem to have such a different framework for viewing the historic western world in relation to women’s rights than your critics? What in your personal background, identity, or research, might explain that difference?
I have often wondered about this difference myself. When I was in college in the early 1980s, I was just as caught up in the romanticism about the 1960s as every other wannabe-hippie. (We had come too late, the Baby Boomers had already seized the stage for the rest of the century.) There was an “alternative” bookshop just off campus that I haunted for years. I still have my deck of Motherpeace Tarot Cards and my copy of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979). Although I never actually attempted any of the rituals she describes, I most definitely attempted to devise my own. I spent years hoping to have visions of the Goddess. I have chanted prayers in Sanskrit to Durga and Adi Parashakti, and of course, I have dedicated my life to the study of the Christian devotion to the Virgin Mary. I ought to see the world in the way in which my critics do– and yet I don’t.
I think there are two main reasons for this difference, although I am not sure in fact how separable they are. One is the difference between what the modern feminist scholars (Mary Daly, Marina Warner, Rosemary Radford Ruether) whom I first encountered in my studies of Mary said about the Virgin and what I found in the medieval texts. As an historian, the more I read, the more I realized their critiques had almost nothing to do with the long tradition they were arguing against, except as a particular moment in the development of that tradition since the mid-nineteenth century. The other is the model that I have of the women in my own family on both my mother’s and my father’s sides, which, again, looked nothing like what my critics say they should, based on their assumptions about my mother’s or grandmothers’ generations. I wrote about this in my blog post about de Tocqueville (see above), but it might bear repeating here.
“My mother’s brother told me this past Christmas that his grandmother on his mother’s side (I think this is right) was the first woman to graduate from college in Arkansas. This would be in the late nineteenth century. All four of her daughters, my grandmother included, went to college after growing up in Arkansas. On my mother’s father’s side, the family came from a small town in the Panhandle of Texas, where my great-grandmother had moved with her family at the end of the century. Her husband was the town doctor. My grandfather and his three sisters were also all college educated–he met my grandmother through one of his sisters at college in Missouri. One of my grandfather’s sisters became a librarian and trained at Columbia University, where I two generations later would earn my Ph.D. One became an orthodontist, married an orthodontist, and lived in South Bend. And one became a radiologist (she took her M.D. in 1936, two years before my mother was born), married a Sherman, and lived on the Upper East Side in New York, where my mother spent a summer when she was growing up and was inspired to become a radiologist herself. On my father’s side, my grandmother was the first in her high school class in Alton, Illinois, and first in her college class in Classics, although she was not allowed to accept the honor because they gave it to a man. She became a high school English teacher, and taught both my father and his sisters, if I have the story right. My parents met in college in Houston, where my mother graduated at the top of her class, and my father went to medical school so as to be with my mother (he actually wanted to be an engineer, but he chose her career so they could go to school together). I was their first child, born in early 1965 while my mother was doing her internship in pediatrics. Oh, and she took her M.D. the previous year as the ninth in a class of 100. My father was number ten. So, no, I don’t really think of myself as a feminist. I think of myself as an American woman, fully equal to any American man.”
None of the women in my family ever seems to have worried about whether she was intelligent enough or strong enough to compete with the men, and the men in my family (my great-grandfathers, my grandfathers, my great-uncles, my uncles, father, brother, husband, and son) have all always been utterly supportive of the women in my family as professionals as well as mothers, daughters, and sisters. My mother’s mother chafed at having to live in the small town where my mother and her brothers grew up; in response, my grandmother (and namesake) founded the first daycare center for the town, Rachel’s Little House, so as to enable the other mothers in the community to work. Nothing that I have read in feminist critiques of our culture ever quite made sense in this context, including criticisms about our culture’s purported claims to exclusivity for being “white.” My mother’s mother’s aunt, Edna Biller, founded the Episcopal Campus Ministry at Brent House in the early twentieth century and was particularly active in enabling students to come to the University of Chicago from Korea as part of the diocese’s mission. Thanks in part to my great-great-aunt, we still have a large number of students who come to UofC from Korea whose family ties go back to the university for generations.
Question 5: Rachel, I recall one of your early critics claiming that in expressing yourself as you did on these issues that you were somehow abusing your “privilege” and enjoying a “hierarchical advantage” (presumably as a senior scholar and tenured professor at an elite institution). In other words, some of your critics seemed to think that someone in your elevated position should not make such statements (for reasons of fairness, apparently, that are still not entirely clear to me). I suppose if your critics were correct then (oddly enough) only junior and less knowledgeable scholars would be able to make statements that buck against the conventional academic wisdom. In contrast, senior scholars (like yourself), although they are the most knowledgeable and experienced, should keep silent for fear of abusing their “privilege.” This rationale makes no sense to me, of course, and you seem not to have been too impressed with this argument either (based on your continued willingness to speak out on the issue). Could you explain how you understand this argument (perhaps I misunderstand it) and why you reject it?
“Privilege” is a complicated and highly-charged concept. Etymologically, it means “private law,” that is, a law applicable only to certain individuals or institutions, typically giving an exemption or immunity from taxes or other burdens. Famously, on the night of August 4th, 1789, the nobility of France renounced all their privileges, thus abolishing what they called the “feudal system” of the ancien régime. Although I doubt very much that most of our contemporaries are thinking of privilege in quite these technical terms, they are right to suggest that tenure conveys a certain privilege, that is, an exemption, here the exemption from the need continually to prove oneself to one’s employer as worthy of employment.
Of course, at a certain point, one has had to prove oneself worthy of employment to begin with, and, as everyone familiar with the academic job market knows, this is hardly an idle competition. There are typically dozens if not hundreds of formally qualified applicants for any particular academic position, so anyone who is hired at all is already in a privileged position relative to those who are not. (Adam Smith has some interesting comments on this imbalance between the supply of labor for those who want to work in the liberal arts and the demand that it serves; basically, there never has been a job market for the liberal professions in which supply did not outweigh demand, not that this is necessarily any comfort to those seeking jobs now.) Under such circumstances, it is more or less inevitable, given human nature, that the competition for jobs will seem in some way rigged, thus “privileged” for those who are hired, whatever the criteria–ideally, the quality of their academic work–by which they were chosen. (My University of Chicago colleague Luigi Zingales has some interesting things to say about how America compares with Italy in its openness to academic merit as the primary criterion for hiring.)
This sense of privilege is only further exacerbated, I would argue, by the nature of the work. From the outside (and here I am extrapolating from my own reactions to colleagues whom I have at one time or another seen as “privileged”), what privilege looks like is ease: you have made it, there is nothing further that you have to do to maintain your status, and everybody is falling over themselves to offer you book contracts and speaking gigs. Even more important–because this is academics we are talking about–they are listening to you. They are reading your books, assigning them to their students, changing the conversation. (Like I said, I am extrapolating from my own reactions here; YMMV.) In other words, one gets envious, imagining all of the ways in which some other academic gets more attention. (Some of the colleagues who responded in the Facebook thread made comments about how I was paid more than they are–which may or may not be true, I don’t even know how much my own colleagues are paid since I teach at a private institution and our salaries are not made public–but academics are not typically motivated by salary, otherwise we would take Adam Smith’s advice and go into some other profession. Rather, we are made most envious by the thought that other people get more of an audience because this is what we actually value–being heard.)
So how do those colleagues whom we envy get so much attention? Ah. This is one of the greatest ironies for me of the way in which my colleagues went after my post on my blog. If they had been following my blog over the past seven or eight years, which some of them had but not the colleague who started the thread, they would know that the last thing I was doing was claiming any sort of exemption for myself from anything by virtue of the position that I hold. Rather, much to the chagrin of some of those closest to me but including at least one of my readers, I was exposing myself for all the world to see! More particularly, although the blog did not start out that way but thanks to the Augustinian banner I gave it about the soul as a sword “wielded by God” rapidly became so, I was exposing myself as a sinner, subject to every one of the Seven Deadly Sins, above all, Envy. So, basically, I know what it feels like to look at another scholar and say, “I wish that was me.” (Grammatically, “I wish that were I.” But we’re blogging here.)
But is this actually what I wish? No, I don’t want to be she (well, maybe I would like to be skinny like her–I’ve blogged about this, too). What I actually want is to be able to write–which is the only way that academics can satisfy the need for greater attention. I don’t know whether this is what our fellow Americans see when they look at our privilege–my guess is that they see us in one of the most rewarding and comfortable professions on the face of the earth, teaching in an educational system which is the envy of the world–but I know it is what I see whenever I am afflicted by writer’s block (been there, done that, blogged about it). How is it, after all, that some of our colleagues get more attention than others of us do? Because they write things that other people want to read, on the basis of which those other people are willing to hire them to teach at their institutions. Seeing other people being able to write things that other people want to read and wishing that it were you whom they were reading hurts. It is much easier under the circumstances to imagine that those whom your colleagues find interesting have been given some unfair advantage (“privilege”) than it is to get back to your desk and write (which is always hard, no matter what anybody says, but for which Prof. Robert Boice gives some excellent strategies for coping with.)
“But,” I imagine our colleagues who participated in the thread saying, “I don’t just want to write for the sake of attention. I care, and I want to use my writing to make the world a better, more just, more merciful place.” Well, as I said in my post on Blogging with Tenure, so do I, which is precisely why I feel called upon to make the arguments that I have about the good that the Western tradition has done for the world, including drawing attention to the way in which it has critiqued itself. Ultimately, for me, this is what “privilege” means: not license or ease, but responsibility. Yes, I have tenure at one of the top universities in the world, which means my responsibility as I see it is all the greater and is one of the reasons, once I realized where God was taking me on my blog, I kept going. Because if I have these troubles with writing, with making the arguments that I feel like I need to for the sake of our culture and in defense of our tradition, it is likely, no, guaranteed that others will, too, and from my position of privilege, it was my role to model what it looks like to crash and burn–and (by the grace of God) recover.
What is privilege? When I was finishing my first book, for which I was awarded tenure, I had on my desk a photograph taken from a production of Hamlet that was to open that winter at our neighborhood theater. In the photograph, there was only the actor playing Hamlet on stage. He was crouched down, his face contorted with the anguish of his soliloquy, his hands reaching forward across the stage to drag him who knows where? And he was naked. Naked. Nothing to hide behind, nothing to protect him other than his ability to speak. This is what (academic) privilege means: to be able to stand naked on the stage of the world and speak because it is you who have been given the responsibility of bearing its (intellectual) burdens, because other people are depending upon you to protect them and guide them and teach them. And you will be called to account if you fail.
In March of 2016, while attending a conference in Chicago, I had the chance to meet and talk with Rachel over dinner, who is just as engaging and interesting in person as her written work. My apologies for the poor quality of the picture.