BMCR 2006.08.36

Response: Olson on Nardelli on Olson on Bernabe

Response to 2006.07.36

Response by

Several weeks ago, Jean-Fabrice Nardelli published in this journal ( 2006.07.36) a supposed response to my review of A. Bernabé’s Poetae Epici Graeci II.1 ( 2006.07.27) which was in fact an extended, vicious personal attack on me and my academic work. Nardelli accuses me, inter alia, of “ranting” and “fuming;” describes me as chalcenteric, arrogant, patronizing and gratuitously reckless; characterizes my reviews as reeking of venom and as universally “bitter in the extreme;” denounces my commentaries as second-rate; and so on and so forth. What he signally fails to do is engage with, much less offer any substantial, thoughtful reply to my detailed criticisms of Bernabé’s edition of the Orphic fragments, beyond insisting that authors of scholarly works containing large numbers of primary and secondary references are under only a limited obligation to ensure that those references are correct. On this matter, I refer him to the APA’s Statement on Professional Ethics, which notes specifically (Section III, first paragraph) that classicists are ethically obliged to offer “accurate citations to help readers assess evidence.” It would serve no purpose for me to respond to Nardelli’s other remarks, except to say that I imagine he now regrets them — and the alacrity with which they were published in BMCR. Instead, I would like to reflect briefly on why we as scholars disown ad hominem argumentation, and on the obligation of editors to refuse to publish such material when it is presented to them.

I have no quarrel with Bernabé, whose work I greatly admire (as my review made clear), and I doubt he believes that he now has a quarrel with me. All the same, arguments — even heated arguments — on matters of intellectual substance are well within the recognized rules of the academic game. Scholars disagree, often at length and sometimes repeatedly over many years; and this is generally best interpreted as an index of our commitment to our common subject and of our shared belief that dialogue and debate advance understanding. Ad hominem argumentation, on the other hand, is a diversionary tactic, designed to distract from the weakness of one’s own case by focussing on the supposed moral or personal failings of the opponent. It does not advance discussion of the point at hand; has a poisonous effect on academic discourse generally (particularly when sanctioned, explicitly or implicitly, by individuals in authority); and in the long run makes those who engage in or encourage it look foolish, vicious, or both. Ad hominem argumentation is accordingly regarded as an intellectual embarrassment: we as a community of scholars do not behave this way, and we discourage others in the larger world from doing so as well.

The larger question here thus has to do with editorial responsibility. Even in an age of electronic publication — perhaps more so now — editors exercise a vital gate-keeping function, and the responsibilities of the office include an obligation to decline to publish ugly and irrelevant personal assaults masquerading as academic discussion. One might have expected the corrosive effects of allowing this sort of thing to go on to be particularly apparent to the editors of a review journal. In the last analysis, the book review process depends on a willingness to tell what one takes to be the truth. But what sensible individual would say anything negative about a book, if he or she had reason to expect that the result might be a long, vituperative attack on his or her character and accomplishments — published, to make matters even more unfortunate and absurd, by a third party, and in the same journal? Permitting, and thus encouraging, such behavior, including in the name of “open discussion” and the like, does a substantial disservice to the field and marks an embarrassing failure of editorial judgment.

That Nardelli felt the need to inject himself into a non-existent quarrel between Bernabé and myself, and to attack me and my work in a nasty and misleading fashion, was unfortunate. That the editors of BMCR opted to publish his “response,” on the other hand, represents something far worse: a serious abdication of their professional responsibility, which deserves to be publicly described as such.