Character judgments of scholars matter (opinion)

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Earlier this spring, Antigone, an online classics journal for the general public, earned the ire of many a classicist by publishing a piece by a prominent scholar. There was nothing wrong with the essay, which followed all professional standards and was quite thoughtful. But the scholar who wrote it has been in the news a great deal over the past couple of years over allegations of sexually harassing students. Those aware wondered, is it appropriate to give him a platform just because he also happens to be an exceptional scholar? In other words, should our awareness of the character of the person saying things impact how we perceive the things that the person actually said?

Since then, the scholar in question, Joshua Katz, has been dismissed from Princeton University for, among other charges, allegedly misrepresenting facts during a 2018 misconduct investigation into a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student under his academic supervision—a controversial firing that some media (and Katz himself) have been trying to spin as a violation of his right to free speech, retribution for comments he made taking on what he called “woke lunacy” on a different occasion. The argument goes: he is being canceled because of unpopular comments about issues of race. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. The issue is one that ultimately transcends this little corner of the academic world, and Katz is only one tiny part of this larger story.

Also this spring, David Swartz, a historian of American religion, wrote a piece on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Politics of Jesus reflecting on how a lifelong legacy of abuse completely dismantled the formidable intellectual labor of the text’s author, prominent theologian John Howard Yoder. As Swartz poignantly notes, “It’s a terrible irony that the author of a book that propounded peace could be so violent.” Additionally, in light of the recent release of the report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, the historian Beth Allison Barr asked why anyone should trust the scholarship of implicated leaders, some of whom have previously been considered to be leading intellectual voices.

Our outrage in response to these mournful events is right, but it also reveals a surprising divide in our society. Much as modern American society does not seem outwardly to function according to virtue ethics, the discomfort that some have expressed with these abuses of power and outright violations of human dignity shows that some of us still do make character-based judgments. And it is these character-based judgments that ultimately condemn individuals like Joshua Katz, or John Howard Yoder, or SBC’s former president Paige Patterson, one of the archvillains in the SBC report.

For those who make these character judgments, they extend beyond the person to the person’s scholarship and raise a question: Can we trust the brainchild of someone so morally flawed? But what is surprising here is that it is not the conservatives who have been making character judgments in these situations. It is, rather, the liberals.

Conservative media and academic institutions have wholeheartedly embraced Katz’s cause. The surprising and gut-wrenching reality that emerges is that many social conservatives—people who claim to care deeply about virtue ethics in society—simply do not care about the character of individuals.

The unfortunate result of this lack of concern about character is that unethical behavior remains remarkably common (and remarkably often ignored) in a variety of settings, including secular academia. The 2019 Society for Classical Studies report on sexual harassment in the field showed how commonplace such misbehavior is in academic organizations and settings. Alarmingly, only 3 percent of transgressors ever faced consequences. For all its recent revelations of wrongdoing, the Southern Baptist Convention, it turns out, does not hold the monopoly on concealing outrageous abuses of power.

So why is it that the conservatives who claim to take virtue and character seriously are still willing to platform known abusers or harassers and advance their academic careers? And why is it, by contrast, that it is the social liberals who are willing to have these difficult conversations about character and its impact on individuals’ scholarship, a subject Sarah Scullin discussed a few years ago in an essay about a trader in child pornography who was once a leading scholar in the field of classics?

It is time for us to unite in thinking as a democracy about character and recognize that such abuses of power affect more than just the immediate victims. A parallel case that comes to mind is that of arguably the most famous thinker of the classical Athenian democracy—Socrates. Socrates’s flawed character, despite his superb teaching and scholarship, was ultimately his undoing in the Athenian context. How?

For decades, Socrates was the leading public intellectual in Athens, grooming students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. In the process, he was also grooming them in other ways, sleeping with at least one of them—Alcibiades. Ultimately, the results of Socrates’s teaching were decidedly problematic. His students went on to overthrow the Athenian democracy twice in the final decade of the Peloponnesian War.

And so, when the Athenians put Socrates on trial in 399 B.C.E. on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, it seems that they were judging, more than anything, his character. Specifically, seeing the fruits of his teaching in his students, the Athenians saw his character as dangerous to the democracy. Socrates’s defense in the process, about the high quality of his scholarship as the “gadfly” stinging Athenians into thinking more deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to those Athenians who voted to condemn him as Katz’s own words ring now to some. Cancellations of public intellectuals are never random. They represent a character judgment that should unite the left and the right, so-called liberals and conservatives, those who espouse a faith and those who live with a secular compass.

In the case of Katz, the impact of his character on many students’ lives and educational journeys is undeniable. Furthermore, some comments he has made even in the recent weeks show that he is unable to understand and repent of these very issues of character that so many now find reprehensible. In particular, in a recent piece he wrote for First Things, Katz remarked how much he used to enjoy “late-night conversations” with students. Intended as a brag point about his own Socrates-like nature, the remark has an ominous undertone.

Katz’s remark reminded me of a conversation with one of my undergraduate professors over 20 years ago, when I was applying to Ph.D. programs in classics. My professor looked over the list of programs to which I was planning to apply and crossed off those that had on their faculty “someone who likes to read Ovid late at night” with female students. At the time, Princeton had an excellent reputation, and I received a truly wonderful education there as a graduate student. All professors with whom I studied were amazing (and highly ethical!) scholars and mentors. And yet, open secrets about the existence of abusers in the field have been bubbling under the surface now for years. Is a reckoning coming now?

In the Athenian democracy, Socrates was able to get away with unethical behavior for decades, until the Athenians just could not take it anymore. Some leading thinkers in many areas today, whether the SBC or American academe, have also gotten away for too long with abuse—of students, of colleagues, of family members, of members of their community. But theirs is not the only story, thankfully. These same organizations also include, albeit sometimes less comfortably and certainly more quietly, thinkers and professors who care deeply for their students and communities and who produce scholarship that reflects their virtue. As the calls to cancel known abusers and harassers increase, it is time to make character judgments openly and celebrate decency of character.



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