In Vivo: Brownings and buried context

by Ian Tingen

I wanted to take a minute and pass on a sliver of experience I had today thanks to a months-old Breitbart article title: “When you hear a scientist talk about peer review you should reach for your Browning”.

Typical right-wing bluster, I thought, looking across the six posts of the content that littered my morning feed. A common sentiment congealed in the comments my academic friends and their networks posted: “I had to Google “Browning” to understand this.”

This aligned with my experience (aka bias) with most academics: predictably gun-illiterate, and hyper-reactive when guns are mentioned. If you’ve been following me for any period of time, you know that I’m particularly prickly when it comes to people getting riled up. This provocation is a common political and journalistic tactic: the more reaction you generate in your opposition, the less time they have to be proactive for their causes. Seeing an October article circulate in December, it felt like nothing more than trolls looking to poke at sensitive lefty targets for easy points.

I jumped in on a friend’s thread about the article. Taken verbatim, here’s the original comment and my response:

Person in Thread: Uh…I just had to Google Browning to make sense of this. Holy shit.

Ian Tingen: And there is the gulf in knowledge between most of us and them.

Pretty straightforward. We liked each other’s comments, and moved on. A few hours later, this comment happened:

Second Person: Also, some of us hoity toity elite ivory tower snob liberal PhDs who vote for Hillary and talk about peer review know what this means because we are also Jews and we recognize one of the most infamous Nazi propaganda lines when we see it.

Shortly followed by this one:

Thread Originator: Yes:

I’ll save you the clickthrough. In a 1933 pro-Nazi play called Schalgeter, Hanns Johst said (emphasis mine):

…the last thing I’ll stand for is ideas to get the better of me! I know that rubbish from ’18 …, fraternity, equality, …, freedom …, beauty and dignity! You gotta use the right bait to hook ’em. And then, you’re right in the middle of a parley and they say: Hands up! You’re disarmed…, you republican voting swine!—No, let ’em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish … I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture …, I release the safety on my Browning!

Wikipedia mentions a number of others referencing the line, Stephen Hawking and Jean-Luc Godard among them. This fact is mostly irrelevant in the face of today’s discussion, though. I only bring it up to mention that I clearly had a blind spot too: I’d never heard of Schlageter before today, and wasn’t familiar with any other use of it or reference to it.

All I had seen this morning was the expressed blindness of many people talking about what I saw as weaponized clickbait. Now, I knew it there to be at least two blind spots, and one to be particularly problematic in that it’s a direct reference to Nazi propaganda. 

Comment after comment unfurled in the thread, some even going so far as to call defenders of the quote Nazis themselves. My ignorance now clear, and aggravated from admonishment, I asked the thread what to do. Here’s what I was told, in two comments:

Thread Originator: Ian Tingen I’d suggest you revisit the idea that working toward understanding is always the best way to stand for something. Understanding is not a project we can work on without establishing more basic things like safety and respect for humanity. When those things are in jeopardy, you can recognize that and take a stand without saying that the people being threatened need to know more about the people making the threats.

Also: The headline is plainly a threat of violence. The historical context isn’t what makes it unacceptable; it takes it from unacceptable to utterly horrifying.

Second Person: Yeah, it honestly bothers me that someone might only see this as unacceptable once they know it comes from a Nazi play. Like. It was in the Nazi play because it’s a pretty horrid statement to begin with. I’ve dealt with some real shitty reviewers. Never once did I write a piece on the internet suggesting peer reviewers or people who bring up the importance of peer review be murdered.

And now, the question is: what’s next? Well, I’ve shared this piece because that is the next step – I’ve learned something, and I have a platform from which to educate others. Hopefully, you’ve learned something now, too. 

Now comes the hard work: consideration of what I’ve heard. Not confirmation biasing it, not dismissing it because I disagree with some of the sentiment – it is time for careful consideration. It’s not easy, nor fair, nor a dialogue – but it is necessary.

When systemically de-powered people speak up, it’s important to listen, period.



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