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Personal Narrative at the Expense of Fact: Ariel Saramandi’s Essay on the Alt Right

An earnest and moving essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the alt right in Mauritius is sadly plagued by lazy factual errors that undermine its intellectual integrity, and irresponsibly attempts to mar the reputation of former Evergreen professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying.

In an essay entitled “There Is Too Much Feminism: On the Rise of the Mauritian Alt-Right”—Ariel Saramandi argues that the Mauritian men with whom she grew up were “mostly … retrograde, patriarchal,” unaware that “progress was coming whether they liked it or not and that soon, in a decade or so, they’d be embarrassed by their youthful rancor.” Saramandi continues,

I grew up with stories of men murdering their female partners with crossbows and other implements, dismembering the women in their lives with grinder machines, raping their step-daughters, tossing female bodies into forests. I saw school friends married off at 15 to men twice their age. Saw bruises on the bodies of the women who cared for me. Women with nerves so frayed they’d break whatever it was they were holding—glasses, plates, cups would just fall out of their shaking hands even when they were well away from their husbands. I know what it’s like to feel unsafe walking on the street in the late afternoon, or walking alone at any time of day.

It is with much sympathy and admiration that I read the well-written essay by this “Mauritian writer and essayist … the editor-in-chief of Transect Mag and a non-fiction editor of The Bare Life Review.” Her prose is lucid and defiant: she is determined to speak her truth with the gloves off and without apology. The personal narrative is impressive, and one cannot help but be moved.

Unfortunately, however, Saramandi’s essay prioritizes personal narrative over rigorous analysis. The essay begins with a first-person retrospective about someone to whom she was not “close,” but whom she knew “pretty well,” an interlocutor who “likes to write” on his social media platform of choice, Facebook and who had a “gift” for irony that came with a “signature smirk” that “would give way … to genuine feeling” when he launched into his “diatribes … on everything from poverty to politicians.” It was, Saramandi writes, a “technique [that] made him seem like a generally good dude, caught in the Mauritian system like everyone else but with the audacity and wit to write about it.” Things went awry, however, when he ventured into commentary on feminism, instigated by alt right infiltration into Mauritius, a development that both surprised and worried her: “I knew about the alt-right, but thought the word stood for ‘white supremacist’ and little else; 99 percent of our population isn’t white; I hadn’t even entertained the notion that this European–American export had found a following here.”

When he “started writing posts on feminism, the kind that elicited LMAOs and general approval sans sincere twist,” she grew irritated. She “shared two pieces on the ties between domestic abuse and the alt-right.” According to Saramandi, her interlocutor went off the rails:

“What is toxic masculinity?” he commented. “Is simply being a man who stands up for his opinions considered toxic? … Is it reasonable to impliedly dismiss the fact that a substantial amount of women are radicalising, too?” He carried on, effervescent, using diction I’d never heard before: “Cultural Marxism,” “Regressive Leftists,” “Red Pill.” He assured me he’d read feminist theory, cited Katherine K. Young’s Sanctifying Misandry: Goddess Ideology and the Fall of Man. Young is a disgraced academic; she doesn’t appear when you Google “feminist theory.” He could only have heard of her in the undergrowth of the internet.

Saramandi does not provide us with links to the pieces that draw “ties between domestic abuse and the alt right.” Without citations, we cannot evaluate the articles for ourselves—leaving me wondering how her interlocutor would explain his side of the story. Saramandi writes: “On March 8, International Women’s Day, a piece in a supposedly prestigious local paper made the rounds on social media. ‘Overcoming Feminist Ideology for Equality’ by Yasheel Awootar contains all the necessary references to Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia.” What does “all the necessary references to Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia mean? She provides a sampling of the article, which can certainly be interpreted as controversial, even hyperbolic. But, as someone who has read Peterson and Paglia, I see a transparent disconnect between Saramandi’s sampling of the contents of Awootar’s article and the seriousness, care and erudition with which those two scholars are capable of discussing controversial ideas.

The narrative was compelling, but something was off. Then I googled Katherine K. Young, the supposedly “disgraced academic” who “doesn’t appear when you Google ‘feminist theory’” and discovered that she co-authored Sanctifying Misandry: Goddess Ideology and the Fall of Man with Paul Nathanson. I also discovered that she is James McGill Professor of Religious Studies (in “post-retirement”) at McGill University, and specializes in “Hinduism; Religions of Tamil Nadu; Hindu Ethics; Gender and Religion”—which perhaps explains why she doesn’t appear when you google feminist theory.

I also discovered a 2014 article about how “the 70-year-old Hinduism specialist didn’t like what she witnessed in the 1990s when a hard-edged stream of feminist scholarship started gaining traction as conventional thinking in higher education and popular culture.” She was, at that time, “associated with the University of Victoria after a distinguished career at McGill University in Montreal,” and had “engaged in her own feminist research while studying at the University of Chicago and Harvard.”

In 2014, she had recently completed, with co-author Paul Nathanson, her fourth book on misandry. Replacing Misandry: A Revolutionary History “explains how technological advances have harmed men and boys, reducing the value of physicality.” Her book Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture was published in March 2006 by McGill–Queen’s University Press. The article asks why “a respected Hinduism scholar—who travelled to India almost every year of her four-decade career while collaborating with major figures such as Mircea Eliade, Harold Coward and Arvind Sharma—[took] on the cause of countering the negative stereotyping of men and boys.”

This was enough to indicate that something in Saramandi’s essay was definitely amiss. She had been sufficiently energized to google feminist theory to see if Young’s name came up, but apparently was not careful enough to verify her claim that Young was a “disgraced academic.” I was still willing to give Saramandi the benefit of the doubt, but I am aware that the personalities we present on social media do not often accurately, or fully, represent our more nuanced and authentic personalities as they come across in real life. This is one pernicious aspect of social media—in which hyperbole and indiscretion often snowball until we become caricatures of who we are in the flesh—a phenomenon which can poison interactions between otherwise reasonable people.

Often, people block provocateurs. Not always without reason, given the viciousness and ubiquity of social media trolls. But not always with good reason. In this case, Saramandi blocked her provocateur, which led to retaliation—he “posted screenshots of our conversations, said he thought I was ‘open to dialogue’ and that he would definitely talk to me about toxic masculinity when we next saw each other.” I cannot pass judgment on whether she was right to block him. It was her choice to make. But when she writes wearily that “[i]t seemed natural to him that he should impose his presence on me, ask for free emotional and intellectual labor, take up my time under the guise of ‘debate,’” I once again felt something was off.

It is one thing to disregard trolls or not want to get sucked into an endless and unproductive debate, quite another to effectively refuse to listen to a provocateur by blocking him. Admittedly, when his friends weighed in with such comments as “What of toxic femininity?;” “holy crap that mindset reached Mauritius;” “that reads like foreplay;” etc. I assumed she had good reason to do so.

After writing earnestly about growing up as a woman in Mauritius, she transitions to a general discussion of the “Mauritian alt-right”: “together with a small group of academics, writers, and translators, I have been compiling a quasi-historiography of the local alt-right. We have over 300 screenshots of their conversations, and have tracked what they say, share.” Apparently, “[t]he Mauritian alt-right is formulaic to a fault. Virulently transphobic … homophobic, misogynistic, and, at times, racist.” Saramandi supports her case with a selection of comments that are presented as representative of the “Mauritian alt-right.”

These comments are combative, often inexcusably so. She writes, “the Mauritian alt-right is multicultural. They tell you they’re not alt-right but intellectual renegades … [they] don’t want to be associated with white supremacists, but they share pieces from Breitbart and Quillette.” Moreover, “they claim they cannot possibly be racist, but their opinions are, at best, white supremacist lite.” She then cites a “man [who] was kicked out of a group called ‘Decolonizing and Understanding Cultural Appropriation’” and informs us that he “posts things on Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, disgraced evolutionary biologists who left their posts speaking against anti-racist protests on campus.”

By this point, it is clear that her personal narrative plays fast and loose with facts. The conflation of Breitbart and Quillette is lazy and easily refuted. Of course, alt right trolls in the social media netherworld may conflate—and share articles from—the two papers and may egregiously distort and embellish the role played by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein in the events that unfolded at Evergreen College. But responsible research and reporting dispel any belief that Breitbart and Quillette are indistinguishable. As Arc Digital editor-in-chief Berny Belvedere writes: “There is a visceral animus extended to Quillette that even Breitbart and other unserious sites are spared from receiving. (This likely speaks to Quillette’s quality: no one thinks anything of Breitbart, but Quillette’s higher standards attract greater scrutiny).”

A minimal amount of research (see e.g. here, here, here, herehere, here) into what happened at Evergreen should be sufficient to make one realize that Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein—like Katherine Young—are anything but “disgraced” academics, and that they were not “speaking against anti-racist protests.” The claim is inaccurate and lazy—both on the author’s part and on the part of the editors at the Los Angeles Review of Books, both of whom initially overlooked the fact that Heying and Weinstein were not “fired,” but voluntarily left their posts.

Saramandi writes that she blocked her nemesis because she was not willing to be imposed upon, or forced to provide him with “free emotional and intellectual labor … [that would] take up my time under the guise of ‘debate.’” I can appreciate the decision to refrain from debate with rabble-rousers. One must judge for oneself whether it is worth engaging with an interlocutor who does not act in good faith, does not argue on merit, is obsessed with non sequiturs and red herrings, or otherwise reveals himself to be unworthy of engagement.

But when you write an essay for public consumption, on a serious topic like the alt right, and conflate Breitbart with Quillette, allude to Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia as if they were vacuous mouthpieces for crude alt-right polemics, and blithely dismiss reputable academics as “disgraced,” you have an obligation to correct the record. Saramandi’s response, however, was to block Heying after she made a polite request for conversation.

Which raises the question: why should anyone take her seriously?

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