I recently read Charlotte Higgins‘s long form essay at The Guardian on Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, public intellectual, and blogger. The piece is worth your time. Beard is a model of a publicly-engaged scholar.
Here is a small taste of the piece:
One reason Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life – whether one agrees with her or not – offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue. Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” Few would think it worth arguing with Arron Banks, the Ukip donor, when he said the Roman empire had collapsed because of immigration. Beard pulled him up on Twitter, suggesting he might like to read a bit more classical history – and then went out to lunch with him.
Trying to calm the fury and aggression of public speech is, quite possibly, a futile endeavour. Friends worry about the toll such a publicly exposed existence takes on her. The time she devotes to email alone is daunting; she tries to respond to everything. Withstanding appalling online abuse is draining. Still she keeps going. She abhors a comfortable consensus. “She is very suspicious of received wisdoms, conventional views,” said Peter Stothard. “If everyone is saying X is Y, her instinct is to say, are we sure it isn’t P?” For Beard, the very point of being an academic in the public sphere is the ability to be a kind of intellectual awkward squad – unlike elected politicians, who inevitably seek popularity. “The right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about,” she said.
Read the entire piece here.