Engaging with Trolls in Donna Zuckerberg’s “Not All (Dead) White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Modern World”
In 2018, The American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG) released a statement affirming that the concept of “racial purity” is scientifically meaningless. This statement came after reports surfaced of white supremacists becoming increasingly interested in genetic studies. Sociologists who track conversations in white supremacist Reddit communities and on websites such as Stormfront pointed to a new trend: Instead of trading memes and conspiracy theories, white supremacists were trading genetics papers and personal DNA tests. White supremacists were actively reading, analyzing, and debating the most recent genetic research, and what they found seemed to give cohesion to the reinvigorated movement.
Previously, this group relied on phenotypic features (the ‘mirror test’) and family history to decide who was Aryan enough. Now, they suggested taking a DNA test or chugging milk, the latter a performance based on the genetic research showing that those of European descent have a genetic marker making it possible to digest dairy as adults. If DNA tests showed uncomfortable results, the discussion boards lit up with technical conversations about “statistical noise” and the fallibility of the test’s construction, but not the idea that DNA is a valid form of racial cohesion.
I couldn’t help but think of these interactions while reading Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age published by Harvard University Press in 2018. Zuckerberg’s book is an intervention in the use of classics by Men’s Right Activists, akin to the AJHG’s statement on genetic science. Zuckerberg, a PhD in Classics from Princeton and editor-in-chief of Eidolon, rewrites the script on how to respond to misuse of classics by white supremacists in a way that might offer a lesson to those geneticists: Instead of hiding behind the idea that racism is merely a misinterpretation of science, it is time to actively admit that genetic research both consciously and unconsciously reifies racism.
In the book, Zuckerberg examines the way that the various Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) communities utilize classical literature to claim that the morality of misogyny and men’s rights extends from the Greek and Roman traditions. This community’s fascination with classical texts is more than a passing fancy, so analyzing the way that these men utilize this literature to validate misogyny is important — classicists must be aware of these uses in order to combat them in their writing, the classroom, and in the public sphere.
The first chapter introduces and defines the “manosphere” or “red pill” community that Zuckerberg says has a fascination with classics. She identifies three separate groups of MRAs. The first, the Men’s Human Rights Activists, believes that women’s rights are privileged over men’s. Of concern to this group are child custody cases and false rape allegations –– two instances where they believe the justice system privileges women. The second group, the pickup artists (PUA), views women as important for only the function of sexual release, and they teach men how to “get game” so that they can “pick up” as many women as possible and sleep with them. The third faction is Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), a community that “advocates for living entirely separate from women and engaging in ‘marriage strikes.’” The goal of this community is to rid their personal lives of the stress of dealing with women, who they see as subhuman teases, polluting the world of masculinity. These three groups share a common belief that we currently live in a gynocentric society that actively seeks to emasculate good men simply trying to live a fulfilling masculine lifestyle.
The second and third chapters look at ways that the “manosphere” uses ancient texts to validate their worldview. The second chapter looks at the use of Stoic philosophy on Red Pill websites. According to Zuckerberg, meninists seek to trace the history of their masculine philosophy to the ancient world, which is meant to show the ancient and venerable history of a certain type of masculinity. The thinking goes that if the world looks to the Ancient Greeks as great philosophers, the builders of democracy, and the developers of civilization, then it is meaningful that the manosphere also espoused philosophies. The Stoics espoused emotional control and MRAs link this to current ideas that women are overly emotional and that men, who control their emotions, are inheritors of this ancient tradition.
The third chapter looks at the way that the PUA community uses Ovid’s Metamorphosis to identify the origins of their community. It isn’t surprising that a book about how to seduce an off-limits courtesan into a long-term sexual relationship has made it onto PUA reading lists like “The History of Pickup and Seduction Part 1” and “Recommended Great Books for Aspiring Womanizers.” One PUA writer stated in 2015 that female promiscuity is ingrained in that “female nature does not change according to the country or the age. Women of two thousand years ago and from very conservative cultures had the same vices that women of today have.” This chapter is the most convincingly researched and argued; Zuckerberg’s analysis of Ovid alongside the quotes from PUA websites clearly shows the way the manosphere has integrated this source into their community identity.
In the final chapter, Zuckerberg writes about the history of false rape allegations using the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus. Hippolytus hated women and prefered abstinence. This angered Aphrodite, who cursed Phaedra to desire her step-son. Fearing this attraction, Phaedra isolated herself, but her servant propositioned Hippolytus in her stead. When he rebuffed her advances, she hanged herself, but not before falsely accusing him of raping her. Theseus, Phaedra’s husband, cursed Hippolytus, who suffered a horrible chariot accident. Zuckerberg argues that this myth tells us much about how women were perceived in Ancient Greece, and in turn, shows why MRAs love these tales so much. For MRAs, the myth confirms their beliefs about the nature of women as scheming liars, and that men have always been at the mercy of misandrist societies.
Although it is ironic for MRAs to both long for the ‘good old (ancient) days’ and use them as an example of how things have always been the same, Zuckerberg’s larger message is that MRAs choose to read and use ancient texts not because they are misinterpreting them, but because they provide solid ground upon which one could fashion a misogynistic worldview. Zuckerberg admits that she hasn’t found quotes in MRA discussions taken directly to the myth of Phaedra, but claims instead that this story is a synecdoche for all the Greek tales used throughout the MRA community.
Zuckerberg’s last chapter examines narratives of gender relations in Ancient Greece and finds, that sources abound with rape scenes and the idea of coverture –– that a woman is unable to make her own decisions, either because she is seen as property or because she is too flighty to do so, and she should be guided by her father and then her husband. Coverture is an idea that is written into Western law and that women are still fighting against. Zuckerberg wrestles with the idea that she, a feminist, has spent her life writing about and venerating a set of works that portray women as secondary actors incapable of caring for themselves. What does our love of the ‘classics’ say about the values we hold and the ones we both consciously and unconsciously pass to undergraduates in the classroom?
Not All Dead White Men serves up an important lesson both for classicists and those embattled geneticists: Not everyone who uses your field to prop up racist/misogynist/homophobic views is grossly misinterpreting the data. Geneticists have fought against “misuses” of their work by claiming that any uses of work to prop up gender and race inequality is a misinterpretation. But instead, they might try Zuckerberg’s approach and really examine both the history and current assumptions of the genetics field that white supremacists are picking up on. If geneticists want to intervene against white supremacists and misogynists using their work to uphold racist ideologies, they should start by thinking about how they are rubber stamping these values through tacit acceptance in their teaching and research.