|Audre Lorde (1934-1992)|
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson (on working with the incarcerated), Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Fast and furious reactions to Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s essay belie the silences stirring just beneath our moral sonars. For wherever one stands on the issues here, I urge every reader to recognize the voices thus far disproportionately missing from this chorus of commentary: our junior colleagues and students, fearing the professional repercussions of speaking out on public forums; our colleagues of color, trying to sidestep precarious stereotypes of the always-pleading and never-appeasable minority; our colleagues with disabilities, who may not have the resources or energies to respond as swiftly as many others have done; and our colleagues who are so overworked and underpaid by multiple adjunct positions that they haven’t even had the time to check their Facebook feeds or to notice this commotion at all. In short, even if we’d like to think we’ve heard every possible stance on this controversy by now (via hundreds of replies), let’s err on the side of humility and assume we haven’t. As I read the visible responses to Prof. Polzonetti’s post, I continually attempt—and yes, continually fail—to remind myself of this fact: plenty more voices, still unsung.
Defenders and detractors alike have homed in on questions of Prof. Polzonetti’s language: how we should say what we say, and how words matter, good intentions and noble actions notwithstanding. Let’s also remember, however, to take a step back and ask ourselves: in this situation, who feels comfortable or capable of saying anything to begin with?
First, in the spirit of transparency, I offer a few disclosures. Due to health challenges, I hadn’t planned to write anything on this matter, although I have followed its conversations and offshoots (see here, here, here, and here). On Thursday night, I did write privately to Prof. Polzonetti (whom I’ve never met) to inform him that while I take issue with what he wrote and how he wrote it, I imagine he must be going through an extraordinarily difficult time, and I hope that some hint of good comes out of this storm. On Friday, Drew Massey, editor of Musicology Now and former grad school colleague, emailed me asking whether I would be interested in penning a brief post. I was grateful to receive his request and now acknowledge the privilege of addressing my peers publicly. Yet this privilege is not without peril: I do not have tenure, I do not possess a fully able body (meaning I cannot always defend myself reliably and rhetorically if the need arises), and I do not presume to speak adequately on others’ behalf.
In my view, aesthetic autonomy and academic freedom are a pair of specters looming over our debate on Musicology Now. Aesthetic autonomy: its connotative stains of paternalism, insularity, and colonialism have seeped into the fabric of our disciplinary conscience. Academic freedom: an ideal that many of us applaud and champion. But to my ears, aesthetic autonomy can actually sometimes bring echoes of academic freedom. It’s not that they’re identical in sense or syntax, but that recommendations of Let music be music bear injunctive similarities to Let scholars be scholars, the notion that academics have a de facto right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination. Such freedom can nurture creative, progressive thought. But how can one ethically claim this extreme immunity without simultaneously attending to others’ extreme vulnerabilities? How can one feel entitled to speak with full exemptions without paying dues to the systemic silences that make selective free speech audible in the first place?
For scholars fortunate enough to land on tenure tracks or obtain positions of influence, the tasks of caring and outreach become that much more pressing. Cynthia Wu declares that we shouldn’t “forget about the original purpose of tenure—to protect academic freedom.” Yet Wu also implores us not to forget one of the duties of academic freedom—namely, to advocate for people who do not possess such privileges. If reparative work is a privilege, then its exigencies should weigh that much more heavily on the shoulders of those who are in the most secure positions to undertake the deeds.
Even scholars with tenure, to be sure, don’t get a free pass. Even if they face relatively little risk of losing their jobs or income, the weight of social retribution can be tremendous nonetheless. Public shaming has reached fever pitch in the age of online media. We shackle people to the worst things they’ve ever said. We tie them down to their most offensive phrases and tweets. And we keep them pinned down on the basis of Better safe than sorry! and Us versus them! Our conversation here has been as much about prisons—their cultural stigma, institutional violences, structural prejudices, symbolic thresholds—as about freedom. Not just the freedom to speak, but also freedom from the traps of antipathy, and freedom from playing into the very tendencies we excoriate.
One might argue that Internet exchanges are fortuitous in how they afford anonymity to those who seek it. A black, queer, crip, junior, outraged scholar can comment with impunity on this website, so long as they redact their identity. Yet this hardly poses a consolation prize, especially given how some of the commenters so far have been senior scholars whose real names do appear in plain view—names that, by virtue of status, lend authority to the statements delivered. Despite seductive illusions to the contrary, the Internet is not a democratizing agent. Not everyone gets an equal say.
To reprise Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I would add that each of us is potentially more than the worst things we’ve ever said. It’s hard to live by such a beautiful mantra when cuts get ugly, when anger runs high. Because anger is necessary, after all. Anger, as Audre Lorde proclaimed during a 1981 keynote, has its uses.
So if you have colleagues who are expressing anger toward Prof. Polzonetti’s article, do not ask them to calm down, to adopt more constructive feelings, to move forward, or to stop overreacting. Ask them why they feel the way they do; then, listen, converse, and learn together.
As this debate proceeds, let’s not instantly assume the worst about voices with which we disagree. But let’s also not assume we’ve sufficiently accommodated all of the heretofore muted voices yet to be fairly heard. By freeing ourselves from such presumptions, some good may come to pass.