The Places We’ve Been: Diversity Disquisition - and Dunnett
Updated: May 15
Highlights from the Understanding Diversity in the 15th and 16th Century conference, Edinburgh, Scotland April 2023
The title of this presentation was conceived in a moment of wine induced affection for alliteration. The word ‘diversity’ seemed a requirement. I tripped over the word disquisition quite by accident - a word that was more popular in the 15th and 16th century than the 21st. One current dictionary definition with the helpful ‘as used in a sentence’ is a bit disparaging. "Nothing can kill a radio show quicker than a disquisition on intertextual analysis.”
BUT nothing gets an academic’s juices running quite like a disquisition as the word was used in the early modern period: discourse on an investigation. Throw in some intertextual and para-textual analysis and we get entranced by the possibilities.
I want to commend the conference organizers for the topic choice. Drawing our attention to the history of diversity and inviting investigation could not be more timely. As universities come to grips with our own assumptions and blind spots, and education becomes a battle ground for culture wars - in late April, the governor of Florida pushed through a ban on discussing gender identity and all LGBTQ+ issues in K - 12 education throughout the state - it can only help to draw our attention to the long history of diversity and the, shall we say ‘spirited’, debate it arouses. It is especially relevant in a time of rising nationalism which depends on promoting a selective version of history, a version that lacks diversity.
In the United States, the culture war over Critical Race Theory, CRT, has become a flat conversation unsullied by comprehension of the term CRT. Some school teachers when confronted by parents who are familiar with the term but not the concept, have taken to responding ‘If you can tell me what CRT is, I’ll tell you if it’s being taught.’ It is an incendiary issue precisely because those protesting it do not know what it is. Instead there is a preference to accept a ‘bandwagoning’ style of propaganda that paints CRT as making white 6 year old boys feel bad about themselves because they are white boys. The chilling interference by state governments, not just Florida, in the curriculum from the early years through higher education does not speak well for my birth country. But the U.S. is not alone.
Diversity is such a divisive subject that when scholars work with the subject, they are met with skepticism at best and death threats at worst. So my personal thanks to the scholars presenting at this conference who are investigating the issue of diversity in so many contexts and sharing that research through discourse here.
In 2017, the eminent Cambridge Classics scholar, Mary Beard, defended a BBC schools video that included the image above, featuring a high-ranking black Roman soldier as the father of a British family, prompting a wave of online abuse. First the producers of the video were slammed for being ‘woke’ by including diverse imagery when, critics claimed, none existed. The traditional view is that Roman Britain was British and therefore white. This was a schools video about a young boy and his family that ends happily. But the notion that Roman Britain was anything less than homogenous and white, seemed to trigger several.
One of Beard’s most vociferous critics was an American male academic Nassim Nicholas Taleb who accused Beard of ‘literally rewriting history’ and who in the media coverage of the debate was consistently referred to as Professor or Dr. while Beard’s academic credentials were overlooked and minimized by referring to her as Ms. Beard. A frequent occurrence for women in higher academia.
“It feels very sad to me that we cannot have a reasonable discussion on such a topic as the cultural, ethnic composition of Roman Britain without resorting to unnecessary insult, abuse, misogyny and language of war, not debate.”
In this one instance, we have examples of resistance against racial diversity in the original depiction in the schools video and then resistance to gender diversity in the response and coverage of the response. Clearly, as a society, our understanding of the value of diversity is skewed. Brexit may be seen as indicating a rise of nationalism, but this is a wide spread problem.
The image below one of the January 6 protestors who believed that Trump won the 2020 U.S. election. You may recognize some of the tattoos on his chest as Viking symbols including the Tree of Yggdrasil and out of frame is a tattoo of Thor’s hammer. This is cultural appropriation of ‘Nordic’ culture, code for Viking, which in turn is being used as a code for white supremacy. To assert a single racial identity in any political context is distressing.
Racists want to believe in a pure-white, hermetically sealed Roman Britain as well as European Dark Ages. Today, anti-refugee protesters dress up as Vikings and Crusaders. North American hate groups invoke the Norse god Odin and Vinland. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights organization in the U.S. reported on the rise of Odinism in 2009, including the founding of the Vinland Folk Resistance movement. These groups then became affiliated with fringe elements of ‘Make America Great Again’ and the 'Proud Boys’ and these groups, believing the misinformation delivered up as fuel, stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 causing material destruction and death in an assault on democratic ideals.
The claim of history, especially misunderstood or ignored history, as justification for contemporary actions is in evidence in Russia’s aggression against Crimea and the Ukraine. The mythology that Putin is advocating is based partly on the conversion of a 10th century slave trading Viking, also conveniently named Vladimir in transliteration, who came from a group of slave traders called the Rus. Their trade route ran through Kiev which later became their capitol. This Vladimir had an unruly and large family that prevented a blood less succession with lots of relatives killing each other in the quest for control.
This co-opting of a migration based on the economic opportunity of slave trading, the opposite of a hermetically sealed dark world, has morphed into a claim of ‘ancestral’ lands and justification for reclaiming those ancestral lands despite the fact that the history is much more diverse and complex, as we heard yesterday, today the land is segmented into different countries and recognized as such by the majority of the world
There is growing research across all time periods that cultures are not and never were hermetically sealed. There were Black Roman Britains. Yet some popular history texts leave the impression that the average person did not travel more than a couple miles from their home. That they would in fact, be lost if they traveled farther.
So is history a game we play with the past? Have we imagined a past that suits rising nationalism?