For One Scholar, an Online Stoning Tests the Limits of Public Scholarship

Updated (6/17/2017, 9:25 a.m.) with a response from Campus Reform.

Courtesy of Sarah Bond

Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the U. of Iowa, drew threats in response to an essay noting that Greek and Roman statues — originally painted in colors but now just white marbles — had been used to aid white-supremacist causes.

Sarah E. Bond wanted to explain to students and other readers why the classical statuary of ancient Greece and Rome wasn’t all white.

On some college campuses, members of a white-nationalist group, Identity Evropa, had used images of those famous statues to promote their cause and to recruit new members.

Ms. Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa who was well aware that few minority students choose to study her field, wanted to push back against that all-white characterization.

“I’m really sick of alt-right groups appropriating classical antiquities for nefarious reasons,” she told The Chronicle on Friday. “And I was like, OK, it’s time to just take it back and say classical antiquities belong to everybody, not just Western civilization.”

“I’m really sick of alt-right groups appropriating classical antiquities for nefarious reasons.”

So she wrote an essay entitled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color” on Hyperallergic, an online forum focused on the arts. Many statues used to be painted in full color, Ms. Bond wrote.

It wasn’t until much later, she wrote, that white marble became the norm.

“Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white-supremacist ideas today are often ignored,” she wrote.

Shortly after the essay was published, Ms. Bond got an email from a reporter at the website Campus Reform.

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“Recently, you had written an article with ‘Hyperallergic,’” wrote Dan Jackson Jr., the reporter, “where you stated, ‘The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it’s a dangerous construct that continues to influence white-supremacist ideas today.’ Would you like to comment further or clarify this statement?”

Ms. Bond, a proponent of public outreach, had no objection to doing so. She wrote back within five minutes.

“The point is simply that Greeks and Romans actually added color to their art, and thus white marble was often the canvas rather than the finished product,” she wrote to Mr. Jackson. “The exalting of white (and unpainted) marble was then an 18th-century construct of beauty rather than representative of the classical view. In any case, let me know if you would like to discuss this issue further. Could I get a bit more info about the piece you are writing?”

She never heard back from the reporter, and soon after she found his story on the website.

Her Thoughts ‘Remixed’

The headline was “Prof: ‘White Marble’ in Artwork Contributes to White Supremacy.” The article quoted from Ms. Bond’s essay and her email, but she said she felt her thoughts had been “remixed” to say that “white statues are racist.”

Hate mail and threats soon followed, in the form of Twitter messages, emails, and comments on Ms. Bond’s blog.

Meanwhile, as often happens, the story spread to other conservative websites, such as The Blaze and National Review. People called her a female dog in vulgar language. One writer wished for her death, while others called for her to be fired.

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Sterling Beard, editor in chief of Campus Reform, told The Chronicle by email that he was struggling to understand Ms. Bond’s objections and that his website backed Mr. Jackson’s reporting.

“I have no doubt that certain irresponsible actors masquerading as journalists were content to reduce the narrative to the ‘white statues are racist’ misrepresentation,” he wrote, acknowledging that Ms. Bond was “justifiably exercised.”

“But any such misrepresentations,” he continued, “could only have been accomplished by ignoring and/or misstating” the language of Mr. Jackson’s article.

“I am not saying all white statues are bad. I just think they’re getting manipulated for bad reasons, and I wanted to point that out.”

On Friday, more than a week after her column originally appeared, Ms. Bond said she was still confused and exasperated about the response. She said she expected some people to complain, but she thought they would be confined to the comments section.

“I am not saying all white statues are bad. I just think they’re getting manipulated for bad reasons, and I wanted to point that out,” she said. “This is honestly the first time that it crossed the line into something different. I honestly just thought I will not read the comments section.”

Instead, Ms. Bond experienced a crash course in how internet subcultures can craft earnest intentions into a dry straw man and then invite others to torch it.

In the days after the Campus Reform article appeared, Ms. Bond sought to clarify her stance. She posted a Twitter message imploring critics to read her whole article:

She even briefly considered going on the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight to make her point, but after soliciting input from her friends and family, she ultimately scrapped the idea.

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(Recently, Bret Weinstein, a professor at Evergreen State College, did appear on the show to vent his frustration with the campus administration. That move heightened acrimony on the campus, though Heather Heying, Mr. Weinstein’s wife, told The Chronicle that appearing on the program was beneficial.)

Her university, Ms. Bond said, has been supportive. She also said she has long been an ardent proponent of trying to engage the public with her academic work.

She writes a weekly column for Forbes and runs a blog where she shares her musings on topics including ancient falconry, alchemy, and Westworld.

But the episode has left Ms. Bond pensive. Mainly, she wonders if she can still be unequivocal in her support of bringing scholarly work to the public. “So I think that my spiel about public scholarship has always been extremely positive and extremely encouraging,” she said. “But perhaps I have to add a few more caveats going forward about the risk of doing so in today’s political climate.”

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at [email protected]