Several times a week, I go to my taekwondo school, put on a helmet, a chest protector, shin guards and arm guards, yell loudly, and spar with people who are half my age and sometimes twice my size.
You don’t cry when you get hit; you just hit back.
We have plenty of ground rules to help make sparring effective and fun. You don’t kick below the belt, or punch to the face. If you’re sparring with someone less advanced that you are, you scale your fighting to challenge their skill but not humiliate them. You don’t cry when you get hit; you just hit back.
Above all, we remember that the people who are in the ring with us are our friends and our teammates – not our enemies. We fight hard, but we fight fair. And we always shake hands afterwards.
We spar to learn to get better. It looks like competition. It looks like a fight. But – at least in a class setting – it’s a cooperative effort to make each other better at something we love.
I’m not awful at sparring, but I do get hit a lot. We all do. Despite all the protective gear, sometimes it hurts. I suspect you never really get past that brief moment of surprise that another human has actually thwacked you in the chest or on the side of the head. That mental and emotional shock is, given the protective equipment, generally worse than the physical sensation of being kicked or punched.
Someone *hit* you. And you’re just supposed to keep going! It’s startling. It’s not how we generally move through the world.
Publishing any academic work is akin to strapping on the sparring gear and stepping into the ring. So when you first start sparring, it can be really scary. A lot of people hate it.
Some people quit taekwondo because sparring is too mentally or physically challenging. The rest of us keep coming in, day after day and class after class, because we feel like we’re learning something important.
But I’m not sure I realized how important sparring had become to the way I think about the world until the recent kerfuffle about Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, broke.
Throwing Down a Gauntlet
For those of you who have not been breathlessly following the many Facebook and Twitter discussions of the book and who have not read Jeffrey Tucker’s fine critique of one of MacLean’s errors here at FEE, I will briefly summarize the state of play: MacLean – a professor of history at Duke – wrote a book about the economist and Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan and his development of Public Choice Theory.
MacLean’s book claims, among other things, that Buchanan’s theory was developed in order to support and protect racist policies, to forward a far-right agenda in American politics, and to increase the influence of a stealthy network of Koch-funded professors and think tanks. I’m not going to address those claims. That has been ably done elsewhere.
People are not merely going to respond. They’re going to fight back. With vigor.
What I am going to say is that publishing any academic work is akin to strapping on the sparring gear and stepping into the ring. When an author salts that academic work with accusations about the personal character of a famous and beloved figure and about the probity of his work, that’s a lot like stepping into the ring and telling every black belt in the room that their master instructor moves like a pregnant yak. People are not merely going to respond. They’re going to fight back. With vigor.
Most academics, like most taekwondo students, understand that there’s a certain amount of verbal and intellectual sparring involved in putting one’s work out into the public eye. Not everyone will like or agree with everything you write. We learn and grow as scholars when we engage with that disagreement, respond to it intelligently, and work to get better next time. It’s the same way we learn and grow as taekwondo students.
Nancy MacLean, however, has – thus far – almost entirely declined to participate in the sparring match that she started. She stepped into the ring, called James Buchanan a pregnant yak, and is now trying to persuade the rest of the world that the academics who are stepping into the ring with her are picking on her.
Sparring Match Turned Street Fight
Like a new sparring student, she’s more than happy to kick and hit her sparring partner, but immediately cries foul when she gets hit in return.
She can hit us. We can’t hit her.
And MacLean stands right at the edge of the ring, laughing.
Worse than that, MacLean has also called on admirers of her work to rush the sparring ring and start a melee against the academics who are responding to MacLean’s initial entry into the ring.
If we try to hit her, we face a mob scene, not the civil academic debate we expected to enter.
And MacLean stands right at the edge of the sparring ring, laughing.
Violating the rules of civil behavior – whether in a taekwondo class or in an academic setting – isn’t just rude. It’s unproductive. It turns a sparring match into a street fight, and an academic debate into a screaming match.
The reason people engage in academic sparring is the same reason I lace up my chest protector and strap on my helmet every other day. We want to get better at something we love. I applaud my friends who have been willing to try to spar with MacLean. But it seems clear to me that she’s not interested in a fair fight.
Every sparring partner lands the occasional low blow. Mistakes happen. Tempers flare. But when lawless brawling becomes one partner’s primary fighting technique, no one is learning anything and no one is improving.