I am quite familiar with author, Naomi Wolf’s, work. I recently found her book, Outrage, in my local library. The book is about how mainstream society has suppressed sexual expression through its scientific, legal and cultural institutions.
Many months ago, I heard about how this book of hers is vehemently bashed by critics. I even heard that the book’s American publisher, Houghton Mufflin Harcourt, wanted to cancel the book. This was quite a surprise to me. I have read some of Naomi Wolf’s work, including Promiscuity and Vagina. Both books are well-written and well-researched. Some of her books have been on the New York Times bestseller list. So, I was taken aback by the furious attack on her last book. There are malicious talks about how she has “fallen from grace.” I can feel that some critics find pleasure in a major author’s downfall. A New York Times reviewer of the book, for example, referred to Ms. Wolf’s “career of blunder.” The blood thirst among the critics is unmistakable. The only question is why. Is it because of Ms. Wolf’s position as a feminist? Is it because Ms. Wolf’s progressive position ruffles the feathers of conservatives?
I did some research on what went wrong with Outrage. Apparently, the negativity started with an honest error she made in writing the book, due to a misunderstanding of the term “death recorded”. Naomi Wolf took it to mean that some gay men were executed for their homosexual activities. In fact, this term means, counter-intuitively, that the judge had recommended a pardon from the death sentence. Such an error was uncovered during her interview with the BBC. After that, all hell broke loose.
I find this incident extremely disheartening. Human beings, including scientists and scholars, make mistakes. Ms. Wolf’s PhD degree was in English literature, from Oxford University. Thus, this book of hers was a project of interdisciplinary study — since she does not have a background in criminal justice in general or in British legal history in particular. Given her lack of background in criminal justice, it is understandable that she may make a mistake in her research. The term “death recorded” is actually very misleading.
I never have a good impression of critics of any kind — book critics, film critics, etc. They seem too eager to criticize others to show their superiority. There is a distinctive mean spirit in this profession. I really think that errors should be generously forgiven if the researcher has demonstrated an honest effort researching the subject. None of us are superhumans who are flawless and know everything.
Yes, an error should be corrected and the one who made the error should graciously admit it and make the necessary correction. But there is a problem with stringent standards of perfectionism. It discourages people from stepping out of their comfort zones and trying something new. I am a teacher and have taught mathematics for over 15 years. I always encourage my students to try answering a question and be not afraid of being wrong. Making mistakes is how we learn, and this goes for everybody. In this day and age, I would think that no professionally-trained teacher would humiliate a student for making an honest mistake. If it were up to me, I would rather people be audacious and take the risk of being wrong, instead of being timid and do nothing. No progress can be made if we are too afraid to take risks. As it stands right now, our society’s incentive system is too punitive to encourage creative research. Such a punitive system creates an atmosphere of fear. Not only does it discourage people from trying taking new initiatives, it would encourage them to cover up their mistakes. Is this what we want? That people would try to cover up errors at all costs in order to avoid punishment and humiliation?