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Writing to Shift the Paradigm: Retraction is Not the New Rebuttal
I succumbed to the clickbait. An email from Inside Higher Ed asked is “Retraction the New Rebuttal?” and I pounced on the hyperlink. I was curious how anyone could purport that recanting a flawed published work could replace the creation of new scholarship. The link led me to the article “Controversy Over a Paper in Favor of Colonialism Sparks Calls for Retraction” by Colleen Flaherty. The gist of the article was that Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, wrote a paper called “The Case for Colonialism” in Third World Quarterly that was built upon the premise that “colonialism could be resurrected without the usual cries of oppression, occupation, and exploitation.” It states that countries in Africa and the Middle East “would benefit from living next to an economic dynamo and learning to emulate its success.” Gilley’s historically obtuse argument was justly met by a change.org petition that called for retraction, as colonialism often destroys the occupied country’s cultural heritage in favor subservience or forced assimilation. Despite being endorsed by peer reviewers, Gilley’s piece should not have made it into the annals of publication. Yet retraction must not become our definitive course of action. We writers have a much greater role to play, because we can use our keyboards to counter false narratives.
To be clear, justified calls for retraction are part of what makes civilized discourse remain, well, civilized. The misrepresentations some publications send into the world can sway beliefs, and there’s no better way for readers to accept the errors in reportage than to learn it from the publisher directly. In this case, the article was approved by peer reviewers and so the editor had little choice but to follow the journal’s own guidelines and run the piece. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the article is flawed, and those of us it infuriated knew asking for its removal was the necessary first step.
As many hoped, “The Case for Colonialism” was eventually retracted, but not for reasons anyone can applaud. A statement from the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, noted that along with peaceful cries asking for a recanting, Third World Quarterly’s editor “received serious and credible threats of personal violence…and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.” In short, people threated to inflict physical harm upon the editor of the journal in which the problematic article appeared.
The ends do not justify the means. Published works, including deeply flawed ones, are protected by the First Amendment. Ultimately, it’s up to the publisher if an article should be stricken from the record. Certainly petitions and individual appeals can help sway the powers that be, but if the publications stand behind their editorial process then, unlike those who threated to inflict bodily harm, we writers can take solace in knowing we’re not out of peaceful options. In fact, I personally believe we writers are the ones who should be on the front lines of the war of words—fighting with keystrokes, not violence. In these incidences, our words will speak louder than others’ actions.
The world is filled with propaganda and the advent of the Information Age has meant that anyone can post just about anything on the web regardless of its merits. Flawed writing can ferret its way into social media posts, search engine results, and, as you’ve just read, academic journals. We writers need to combat this misinformation through counterarguments that change the trajectory of the conversation.
My point is much bigger than just pointing out that Gilley’s proposition on colonialism is ridiculous. There are many widely accepted false narratives that distort the realities about America’s first nations. The gamut includes everything from stereotypes, to lumping all tribal cultures together, to the fact that many Americans’ knowledge of Native people and history is limited to inaccurate national remembrances about the first Thanksgiving. As students and faculty dedicated to the tribal college movement—an effort whose very foundation is built upon educating our communities by utilizing the culture of the Native nations we serve—we must combat the false narratives through discourse.
My fellow writers, I’m asking you to lend your talents to the cause of contesting fabrications about Native people. You can do this through your essays, blogs, reportage, creative works, and, on point, academic articles. There are many amazing stories to be shared about historical truths, the relevance of cultural practices, celebration of language, wisdom of elders, and the sacredness of life. Every time you read a negative, misleading, or false story about Native lives and lifeways I implore you to use your voice to counter it.
In a lecture at Harvard University, former editor of Time magazine Nancy Gibb reminded writers who focus on negative press in this era of “fake news” that “if we don’t write about what is working…then we are missing out on one of the greatest stories of our time.” She’s right, of course, and we writers would do well to celebrate successes we’ve encountered.
We need retraction and rebuttal. The former is the avenue for everyone to peaceably embrace, but the latter allows us writers to both counter false narratives and celebrate the truth. Not only do we have the power to add clarifying perspectives, we can create “clickbait” that lets myopic writers know their shortsighted work may not be rescinded but it will not stand unchallenged.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.