Claiming that arguments cause harm will make learning impossible

The reaction to James Sweet’s article about presentism – including his own – compromises genuine scholarly debate, says Jonathan Zimmerman

September 1, 2022
Source: Getty

I’m sorry.

I know that some readers will be harmed by this article. So please allow me to apologise in advance, for any damage that I cause.

Just kidding.

People might well be offended by what I write. Annoyed, perhaps. But they will not be harmed or damaged. Moreover, once we start to use those words to describe what we say or write, we won’t be able to communicate at all.

Witness the recent kerfuffle over an essay by University of Wisconsin historian James Sweet, the current president of the American Historical Association. Writing in the AHA’s monthly magazine, Perspectives on History, Sweet worried that the profession was being infected by “presentism” – that is, by the tendency to interpret and evaluate the past through the lens of the present.

The Twitterverse exploded, condemning Sweet as an out-of-touch white guy who had lost the real plot of history: the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors. Critics especially disliked his jab at “identity politics”, which they took to mean that Sweet was denigrating or ignoring racial minorities. Never mind that Sweet has spent his career studying Africa and the Black diaspora. He used the wrong words, his foes said, and he must be punished for them. Some called on the AHA to retract the essay; others said that Sweet should be relieved of his presidency.

I was hoping that Sweet would reply to the critics, refining his argument and inviting more retorts to it. That’s the way academia works, or so I thought. You make a claim. I critique it. You respond. And so on, until we all come to a deeper understanding of what we mean.

No such luck. Many of the social media posts impugned Sweet’s character, not his argument; one commenter even likened him to the Ku Klux Klan (yes, you can look it up). And instead of engaging with the complicated questions raised by his essay, Sweet issued an abject apology for it.

“I had hoped to open a conversation on how we ‘do’ history in our politically charged environment,” Sweet wrote, in an author’s note that the AHA appended to his original essay. “Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.” He concluded by apologising again for the “damage” he had inflicted on other historians and the profession writ large. “I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all,” Sweet wrote. “I’m listening and learning.”

Don’t hold your breath for that dialogue. The very terms of Sweet’s apology make real conversation – and real learning – almost impossible. Who wants to harm or damage a colleague or a student? I certainly don’t. But once you imagine disagreement as a form of harm, there’s nothing left to do but plead guilty, beg for forgiveness and keep your big mouth shut in the future to protect everyone – not least yourself.

In his apology, Sweet said the attacks on his piece showed that “the AHA membership is as vocal and robust as ever”. Actually, it proved the opposite. For the most part, the only people who spoke up about Sweet’s column condemned it (and him). Almost everyone else went silent.

Full disclosure: although I’ve never met Sweet, I admire his scholarship. That said, I think his essay had some glaring weaknesses and ambiguities. Nodding to Lynn Hunt’s attack on presentism 20 years ago, in her own AHA presidential column, Sweet did not explore how the profession has changed over time (a telling omission for a historian). He alluded to his forthcoming critique of The New York Times1619 Project (which aims to "place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative") but he did not explain how he thought presentism had marred it. And he linked bad historical reasoning in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on abortion and gun rights to distortions of African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, which ignored the very different actors (with very different levels of power) in the two instances.

But that doesn’t mean Sweet is a racist and an imperialist, as his Twitter assailants charged. It is fine – indeed, necessary – to critique what he writes about presentism, and everything else. But it is despicable to label him a bigot simply because you disagree with him.

I don’t believe he was harmed by that, any more than he harmed his readers. But substituting name-calling for argument makes real disagreement and discussion impossible, just as the metaphors of harm and damage do.

If you dislike this article, don’t call me names or claim I harmed you; critique my claim, instead. I’m listening, and learning.

Jonathan Zimmerman is Judy and Howard Berkowitz professor in education and professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Reader's comments (5)

Thank you for an excellent article. It is revealing that some of the offended feel free to offend those who with whom they do not agree.
Sweet's mea culpa sounds like the scripted self-criticisms in Stalin's Russia and during the Chinese Revolution and later the Cultural Revolution.
A thoughtful piece. Yet too late to dissipate the negative situation. Whoever is at fault, the current situation is a shambles. Zimmerman points out that there was no dissent in the voices that spoke up about Sweet's article. Is this because there wasn't time for support? It was 2 days between publishing and apology. Would there have been any point in defending or supporting? The current climate indicates that supporters and defenders would have both been called down with the same language used by the loud and angry. The part that struck me most, though is that we need to change the way we think about opposing views. Disagreement. Argument. Debate. These do not cause harm. They do not hurt. I reach for a metaphor and find exercise. So disagreement/argument/debate, these are like exercise. Some enjoy it, some find it difficult. Some hate it. And while the effects may, at times, be hard to bear, we are better off for it. Because it doesn't harm us. It doesn't hurt us. It is actually good for us. Just, sometimes, it is unpleasant and the after effects are miserable. Yet, it is undeniably important that we keep doing it. And the more we do it, the less we'll feel those miserable after effects. Somewhere along the line we stopped treating argument, disagreement and debate as a healthy thing, and started believing it was bad. If I reach for the same metaphor again, I find that exercise, when done wrong, can actually harm, it can hurt. And that's where we currently are. We are doing it wrong, and need to relearn how to do it right. Ad hominem is not disagreement, it is not debate, it is not argument. What it is, is wrong. People use it, I suspect, because they have been taught it. "You don't understand what I'm saying, that's why you disagree. Because, ultimately, this boils down to your intellectual capacity and how much less it is than mine". It doesn't matter if that's the message anyone intended to teach others, but that is the message I've seen spread throughout the world. On all side of all arguments. I'm not saying we should validate poor reasoning (or the complete lack there of). But we need to make sure that the intended message is understood. If that means taking a bit more time to explain, do it.
It is called bullying. And Sweet appeased it.
It is called bullying. And Sweet appeased it.