Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

(5,086 words, link to printable version.)

Robert Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It is the source book participants on a particular side of the debate over Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado would like everyone to read, even more than Tierney’s book itself. To anyone on the opposing side, however—and, one should hope, to those who have yet to take a side—there’s an unmissable element of farce running throughout Borofsky’s book, which ultimately amounts to little more than a transparent attempt at salvaging the campaign against anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. That campaign had initially received quite a boost from the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, but then support began to crumble as various researchers went about exposing Tierney as a fraud. With The Fierce Controversy, Borofsky and some of the key members of the anti-Chagnon campaign are doing their best to dissociate themselves and their agenda from Tierney, while at the same time taking advantage of the publicity he brought to their favorite talking points. 

The book is billed as an evenhanded back-and-forth between anthropologists on both sides of the debate. But, despite Borofsky’s pretentions to impartiality, The Fierce Controversy is about as fair and balanced as Fox News’s political coverage—there’s even a chapter titled “You Decide.” By giving the second half of the book over to an exchange of essays and responses by what he refers to as “partisans” for both sides, Borofsky makes himself out to be a disinterested mediator, and he wants us to see the book as an authoritative representation of some quasi-democratic collection of voices—think Occupy Wall Street’s human microphones, with all the repetition, incoherence, and implicit signaling of a lack of seriousness. “Objectivity does not lie in the assertions of authorities,” Borofsky insists in italics. “It lies in the open, public analysis of divergent perspectives” (18). In the first half of the book, however, Borofsky gives himself the opportunity to convey his own impressions of the controversy under the guise of providing necessary background. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as subtle in pushing his ideology as he’d like to be.
Robert Borofsky

Borofsky claims early on that his “book seeks, in empowering readers, to develop a new political constituency for transforming the discipline.” But is Borofsky empowering readers, or is he trying to foment a revolution? The only way the two goals could be aligned would be if readers already felt the need for the type of change Borofsky hopes to instigate. What does that change entail? He writes,

It is understandable that many anthropologists have had trouble addressing the controversy’s central issues because they are invested in the present system. These anthropologists worked their way through the discipline’s existing structures as they progressed from being graduate students to employed professionals. While they may acknowledge the limitations of the discipline, these structures represent the world they know, the world they feel comfortable with. One would not expect most of them to lead the charge for change. But introductory and advanced students are less invested in this system. If anything, they have a stake in changing it so as to create new spaces for themselves. (21)

In other words, Borofsky simultaneously wants his book to be open-ended—the outcome of the debate in the second half reflecting the merits of each side’s case, with the ultimate position taken by readers left to their own powers of critical thought—while at the same time inspiring those same readers to work for the goals he himself believes are important. He utterly neglects the possibility that anthropology students won’t share his markedly Marxist views. From this goal statement, you may expect the book to focus on the distribution of power and the channels for promotion in anthropology departments, but that’s not at all what Borofsky and his coauthors end up discussing. Even more problematically, though, Borofsky is taking for granted here the seriousness of “the controversy’s central issues,” the same issues whose validity is the very thing that’s supposed to be under debate in the second half of the book.  
Chagnon with Yanomamö man
The most serious charges in Tierney’s book were shown to be false almost as soon as it was published, and Tierney himself was thoroughly discredited when it was discovered that countless of his copious citations bore little or no relation to the claims they were supposed to support. A taskforce commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, for instance, found that Tierney spliced together parts of different recorded conversations to mislead his readers about the actions and intentions of James V. Neel, a geneticist he accuses of unethical conduct. Reasonably enough, many supporters of Chagnon, who Tierney likewise accuses of grave ethical breaches, found such deliberately misleading tactics sufficient cause to dismiss any other claims by the author. But Borofsky treats this argument as an effort on the part of anthropologists to dodge inconvenient questions:

Instead of confronting the breadth of issues raised by Tierney and the media, many anthropologists focused on Tierney’s accusations regarding Neel… As previously noted, focusing on Neel had a particular advantage for those who wanted to continue sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this. Neel was a geneticist, and soon after the book’s publication most experts realized that the accusation that Neel helped facilitate the spread of measles was false. Focusing on Neel allowed anthropologists to downplay the role of the discipline in the whole affair. (46)

When Borofsky accuses some commenters of “sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this,” we’re left wondering, all what? The Fierce Controversy is supposed to be about assessing the charges Tierney made in his book, but again the book’s editor and main contributor is assuming that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It’s also important to note that the nature of the charges against Chagnon make them much more difficult to prove or disprove. A call to a couple of epidemiologists and vaccination experts established that what Tierney accused Neel of was simply impossible. It’s hardly sidestepping the issue to ask why anyone would trust Tierney’s reporting on more complicated matters.

Anyone familiar with the debates over postmodernism taking place among anthropologists over the past three decades will see at a glance that The Fierce Controversy is disingenuous in its very conception. Borofsky and the other postmodernist contributors desperately want to have a conversation about how Napoleon Chagnon’s approach to fieldwork, and even his conception of anthropology as a discipline are no longer aligned with how most anthropologists conceive of and go about their work. Borofsky is explicit about this, writing in one of the chapters that’s supposed to merely provide background for readers new to the debate,

Chagnon writes against the grain of accepted ethical practice in the discipline. What he describes in detail to millions of readers are just the sorts of practices anthropologists claim they do not practice. (39)   

This comes in a section titled “A Painful Contradiction,” which consists of Borofsky straightforwardly arguing that Chagnon, whose first book on the Yanomamö is perhaps the most widely read ethnography in history, disregarded the principles of the American Anthropological Association by actively harming the people he studied and by violating their privacy (though most of Chagnon’s time in the field predated the AAA’s statements of the principles in question). In Borofsky’s opinion, these ethical breaches are attested to in Chagnon’s own works and hence beyond dispute. In reality, though, whether Chagnon’s techniques amount to ethical violations (by any day’s standards) is very much in dispute, as we see clearly in the second half of the book. (Yanomamö was Chagnon’s original spelling, but his detractors can’t bring themselves to spell it the same way—hence Yanomami.)

Borofsky is of course free to write about his issues with Chagnon’s methods, but inserting his own argument into a book he’s promoting as an open and fair exchange between experts on both sides of the debate, especially when he’s responding to the others’ contributions after the fact, is a dubious sort of bait and switch. The second half of the book is already lopsided, with Bruce Albert, Leda Martins, and Terence Turner attacking Neel’s and Chagnon’s reputations, while Raymond Hames and Kim Hill argue for the defense. (The sixth contributor, John Peters, doesn’t come down clearly on either side.) When you factor in Borofsky’s own arguments, you’ve got four against two—and if you go by page count the imbalance is quite a bit worse; indeed, the inclusion of the two Chagnon defenders in the forum starts to look more like a ploy to gain a modicum of credibility for what’s best characterized as just another anti-Chagnon screed by a few of his most outspoken detractors.

Notably absent from the list of contributors is Chagnon himself, who probably reasoned that lending his name to the title page would give the book an undeserved air of legitimacy. Given the unmasked contempt that Albert, Martins, and Turner evince toward him in their essays, Chagnon was wise not to go anywhere near the project. It’s also far from irrelevant—though it goes unmentioned by Borofsky—that Martins and Tierney were friends at the time he was writing his book; on his acknowledgements page, Tierney writes,

I am especially indebted to Leda Martins, who is finishing her Ph.D. at Cornell University, for her support throughout this long project and for her and her family’s hospitality in Boa Vista, Brazil. Leda’s dossier on Napoleon Chagnon was an important resource for my research. (XVII)

(Martins later denied, in an interview given to ethicist and science historian Alice Dreger, that she was the source of the dossier Tierney mentions.) Equally relevant is that one of the professors at Cornell where Martins was finishing her Ph.D. was none other than Terence Turner, whom Tierney also thanks in his acknowledgements. To be fair, Hames is a former student of Chagnon’s, and Hill also knows Chagnon well. But the earlier collaboration with Tierney of at least two contributors to Borofsky’s book is suspicious to say the least.   

Confronted with the book’s inquisitorial layout and tone, I believe undecided readers are going to wonder whether it’s fair to focus a whole book on the charges laid out in another book that’s been so thoroughly discredited. Borofsky does provide an answer of sorts to this objection: The Fierce Controversy is not about Tierney’s book; it’s about anthropology as a discipline. He writes that
beyond the accusations surrounding Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, there are critical—indeed, from my perspective, far more critical—issues that need to be addressed in the controversy: those involving relations with informants as well as professional integrity and competence. Given how central these issues are to anthropology, readers can understand, perhaps, why many in the discipline have sought to sidestep the controversy. (17)

With that rhetorical flourish, Borofsky makes any concern about Tierney’s credibility, along with any concern for treating the accused fairly, seem like an unwillingness to answer difficult questions. But, in reality, the stated goals of the book raise yet another important ethical question: is it right for a group of scholars to savage their colleagues’ reputations in furtherance of their reform agenda for the discipline? How do they justify their complete disregard for the principle of presumed innocence?   
Terence Turner
What’s going on here is that Borofsky and his fellow postmodernists really needed The Fierce Controversy to be about the dramatis personae featured in Tierney’s book, because Tierney’s book is what got the whole discipline’s attention, along with the attention of countless people outside of anthropology. The postmodernists, in other words, are riding the scandal’s coattails. Turner had been making many of the allegations that later ended up in Tierney’s book for years, but he couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. Now that headlines about anthropologists colluding in eugenic experiments were showing up in newspapers around the world, Turner and the other members of the anti-Chagnon campaign finally got their chance to be heard. Naturally enough, even after Tierney’s book was exposed as mostly a work of fiction, they still really wanted to discuss how terribly Chagnon and other anthropologists of his ilk behaved in the field so they could take control of the larger debate over what anthropology is and what anthropological fieldwork should consist of. This is why even as Borofsky insists the debate isn’t about the people at the center of the controversy, he has no qualms about arranging his book as a trial:

We can address this problem within the discipline by applying the model of a jury trial. In such a trial, jury members—like many readers—do not know all the ins and outs of a case. But by listening to people who do know these details argue back and forth, they are able to form a reasonable judgment regarding the case. (73)

But, if the book isn’t about Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, then who exactly is being tried? Borofsky is essentially saying, we’re going to try these men in abstentia (Neel died before Darkness in El Dorado was published) with no regard whatsoever for the effect repeating the likely bogus charges against them ad nauseam will have on their reputations, because it’s politically convenient for us to do so, since we hope it will help us achieve our agenda of discipline-wide reform, for which there’s currently either too little interest or too much resistance.

As misbegotten, duplicitous, and morally dubious as its goals and premises are, there’s a still more fatal shortcoming to The Fierce Controversy, and that’s the stance its editor, moderator, and chief contributor takes toward the role of evidence. Here again, it’s important to bear in mind the context out of which the scandal surrounding Darkness in El Dorado erupted. The reason so many of Chagnon’s colleagues responded somewhat gleefully to the lurid and appalling charges leveled against him by Tierney is that Chagnon stands as a prominent figure in the debate over whether anthropology should rightly be conceived of and conducted as a science. The rival view is that science is an arbitrary label used to give the appearance of authority. As Borofsky argues,

the issue is not whether a particular anthropologist’s work is scientific. It is whether that anthropologist’s work is credible. Calling particular research scientific in anthropology is often an attempt to establish credibility by name-dropping. (96)

What he’s referring to here as name-dropping the scientific anthropologists would probably describe as attempts at tying their observations to existing theories, as when Chagnon interprets aspects of Yanomamö culture in light of inclusive fitness theory, with reference to works by evolutionary biologists like W.D. Hamilton and G.C. Williams. But Borofsky’s characterization of how an anthropologist might collect and present data is even more cynical than his attitude toward citations of other scientists’ work. He writes of Chagnon’s descriptions of his field methods,  

To make sure readers understand that he was seriously at work during this time—because he could conceivably have spent much of his time lounging around taking in the sights—he reinforces his expertise with personal anecdotes, statistics, and photos. In Studying the Yanomamö, Chagnon presents interviews, detailed genealogies, computer printouts, photographs, and tables. All these data convey an important message: Chagnon knows what he’s talking about. (57-8)

Borofsky is either confused about or skeptical of the role evidence plays in science—or, more likely, a little of both. Anthropologists in the field could relay any number of vague impressions in their writings, as most of them do. Or those same anthropologists could measure and record details uncovered through systematic investigation. Analyzing the data collected in all those tables and graphs of demographic information could lead to the discovery of facts, trends, and correlations no amount of casual observation would reveal. Borofsky himself drops the names of some postmodern theorists in support of his cynical stance toward science—but it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps his dismissal of even the possibility of data leading to new discoveries has as much to do with him simply not liking the discoveries Chagnon actually made.

            One of the central tenets of postmodernism is that any cultural artifact, including any scientific text, is less a reflection of facts about the real world than a product of, and an attempt to perpetuate, power disparities in the political environment which produces it. From the postmodern perspective, in other words, science is nothing but disguised political rhetoric—and its message is always reactionary. This is why Borofsky is so eager to open the debate to more voices; he believes scientific credentials are really just markers of hegemonic authority, and he further believes that creating a more just society would demand a commitment that no one be excluded from the debate for a lack of expertise.

As immediately apparent as the problems with this perspective are, the really scary thing is that The Fierce Controversy applies this conception of evidence not only to Chagnon’s anthropological field work, but to his and Neel’s culpability as well. And this is where it’s easiest to see how disastrous postmodern ideas would be if they were used as legal or governing principles. Borofsky writes,

in the jury trial model followed in part 2, it is not necessary to recognize (or remember) each and every citation, each and every detail, but rather to note how participants reply to one another’s criticisms [sic]. The six participants, as noted, must respond to critiques of their positions. Readers may not be able to assess—simply by reading certain statements—which assertions are closer to what we might term “the truth.” But readers can evaluate how well a particular participant responds to another’s criticisms as a way of assessing the credibility of that person’s argument. (110)

These instructions betray a frightening obliviousness of the dangers of moral panics and witch hunts. It’s all well and good to put the truth in scare quotes—until you stand falsely accused of some horrible offense and the exculpatory evidence is deemed inadmissible. Imagine if our legal system were set up this way; if you wanted to have someone convicted of a crime, all you’d have to do is stage a successful campaign against this person. Imagine if other prominent social issues were handled this way: climate change, early childhood vaccination, genetically modified foods.
Kim Hill

            By essentially coaching readers to attend only to the contributors’ rhetoric and not to worry about the evidence they cite, Borofsky could reasonably be understood as conceding that the evidence simply doesn’t support the case he’s trying to make with the book. But the members of the anti-Chagnon camp seem to believe that the “issues” they want to discuss are completely separable from the question of whether the accusations against Chagnon are true. Kim Hill does a good job of highlighting just how insane this position is, writing,

Turner further observes that some people seem to feel that “if the critical allegations against Neel and Chagnon can be refuted on scientific grounds, then the ethical questions raised…about the effects of their actions on the Yanomami can be made to go away.” In fact, those of us who have criticized Tierney have refuted his allegations on factual and scientific grounds, and those allegations refuted are specifically about the actions of the two accused and their effects. There are no ethical issues to “dismiss” when the actions presented never took place and the effects on the Yanomamö were never experienced as described. Thus, the facts of the book are indeed central to some ethical discussions, and factual findings can indeed “obviate ethical issues” by rendering the discussions moot. But the discussion of facts reported by Tierney have been placed outside this forum of debate (we are to consider only ethical issues raised by the book, not evaluate each factual claim in the book). (180)

One wonders whether Hill knew that evaluations of factual claims would be out of bounds when he agreed to participate in the exchange. Turner, it should be noted, violates this proscription in the final round of the exchange when he takes advantage of his essays’ privileged place as the last contribution by listing the accusations in Tierney’s book he feels are independently supported. Reading this final essay, it’s hard not to think the debate is ending just where it ought to have begun. 

Raymond Hames
            Hill’s and Hames’s contributions in each round are sandwiched in between those of the three anti-Chagnon campaigners, but whatever value the book has as anything other than an illustration of how paranoid and bizarre postmodern rhetoric can be is to be found in their essays. These sections are like little pockets of sanity in a maelstrom of deranged moralizing. In scoring the back-and-forth, most readers will inevitably favor the side most closely aligned with their own convictions, but two moments really stand out as particularly embarrassing for the prosecution. One of them has Hames catching Martins doing some pretty egregious cherry-picking to give a misleading impression. He explains,

Martins in her second-round contribution cites a specific example of a highly visible and allegedly unflattering image of the Yanomamö created by Chagnon. In the much-discussed Veja interview (entitled “Indians Are Also People”), she notes that “When asked in Veja to define the ‘real Indians,’ Chagnon said, ‘The real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war.’” This quote is accurate. However, in the next sentence after that quote she cites, Chagnon states: “They are normal human beings. And that is sufficient reason for them to merit care and attention.” This tactic of partial quotation mirrors a technique used by Tierney. The context of the statement and most of the interview was Chagnon’s observation that some NGOs and missionaries characterized the Yanomamö as “angelic beings without faults.” His goal was to simply state that the Yanomamö and other native peoples are human beings and deserve our support and sympathy. He was concerned that false portrayals could harm native peoples when later they were discovered to be just like us. (236)

Such deliberate misrepresentations raise the question of whether postmodern thinking justifies, and even encourages, playing fast and loose with the truth—since all writing is just political rhetoric without any basis in reality anyway. What’s clear either way is that an ideology that scants the importance of evidence simply can’t support a moral framework that recognizes individual human rights, because it makes every individual vulnerable to being falsely maligned for the sake of some political cause.   

Leda Martins
            The other supremely embarrassing moment for the anti-Chagnon crowd comes in an exchange between Hill and Turner. Hill insists in his first essay that Tierney’s book and the ensuing controversy were borne of ideological opposition to sociobiology, the theoretical framework Chagnon uses to interpret his data on the Yanomamö. On first encountering phrases like “ideological terrorism” (127) and “holy war of ideology” (135), you can’t help thinking that Hill has succumbed to hyperbole, but Turner’s response lends a great deal of credence to Hill’s characterization. Turner’s defense is the logical equivalent of a dangerously underweight teenager saying, “I’m not anorexic—I just need to lose about fifteen pounds.” He first claims his campaign against Chagnon has nothing to do with sociobiology, but then he tries to explain sociobiology as an outgrowth of eugenics, even going so far as to suggest that the theoretical framework somehow inspires adherents to undermine indigenous activists. Even Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomamö as warlike, which the activists trying to paint a less unsavory picture of them take such issue with, is, according to Turner, more a requirement of sociobiological thinking than an observed reality. He writes,

“Fierceness” and the high level of violent conflict with which it is putatively associated are for Chagnon and like-minded sociobiologists the primary indexes of the evolutionary priority of the Yanomami as an earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society. Most of the critics of Chagnon’s fixation on “fierceness” have had little idea of this integral connection of “fierceness” as a Yanomami trait and the deep structure of sociobiological-selectionist theory. (202)
Turner isn’t by any stretch making a good faith effort to explain the theory and its origins according to how it’s explicitly discussed in the relevant literature. He’s reading between the lines in precisely the way prescribed by his postmodernism, treating the theory as a covert effort at justifying the lower status of indigenous peoples. But his analysis is so far off-base that it not only casts doubt on his credibility on the topic of sociobiology; it calls into question his credibility as a scholarly researcher in general. As Hames points out,

Anyone who has basic knowledge of the origins of sociobiology in anthropology will quickly realize that Turner’s attempt to show a connection between Neel’s allegedly eugenic ideas and Chagnon’s analysis of the Yanomamö to be far-fetched. (238)

            Turner’s method of uncovering secret threads supposedly connecting scientific theories to abhorrent political philosophies is closer to the practices of internet conspiracy theorists than to those of academic researchers. He constructs a scary story with some prominent villains, and then he retrofits the facts to support it. The only problem is that anyone familiar with the theories and the people in the story he tells will recognize it as pure fantasy. As Hames attests,

I don’t know of any “sociobiologists” who regard the Yanomamö as any more or less representative of an “earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society” than any other relatively isolated indigenous society. Some sociobiologists are interested in indigenous populations because they live under social and technological conditions that more closely resemble humanity for most of its history as a species than conditions found in urban population centers. (238)

And Hill, after pointing out how Turner rejects the claim that his campaign against Chagnon is motivated by his paranoid opposition to sociobiology only to turn around and try to explain why attacking the reputations of sociobiologists is justified, takes on the charge that sociobiology somehow prohibits working with indigenous activists, writing,

Indeed he concludes by suggesting that sociobiological theory leads its adherents to reject legitimate modern indigenous leaders. This suggestion is malicious slander that has no basis in reality (where most sociobiologists not only accept modern indigenous leaders but work together with them to help solve modern indigenous problems). (250)

These are people Hill happens to work with and know personally. Unfortunately, Turner himself has yet to be put on trial for these arrant misrepresentations the way he and Borofsky put Chagnon on trial for the charges they’ve so clearly played a role in trumping up.

Alice Dreger
            In explaining why a book like The Fierce Controversy is necessary, Borofsky repeatedly accuses the American Anthropological Association of using a few examples of sloppy reporting on Tierney’s part as an excuse to “sidestep” the ethical issues raised by Darkness in El Dorado. As we’ve seen, however, Tierney’s misrepresentations are far too extensive, and far too conveniently selective, to have resulted from anything but an intentional effort to deceive readers. In Borofsky’s telling, the issues Tierney raises were so important that pressure from several AAA members, along with hundreds of students who commented on the organization’s website, forced the leadership to commission the El Dorado Task Force to investigate. It turns out, though, that on this critical element of the story too Borofsky is completely mistaken. The Task Force wasn’t responding to pressure from inside its own ranks; its members were instead concerned about the reputation of American anthropologists, whose ability to do future work in Latin American was threatened by the scandal. In a 2002 email uncovered by Alice Dreger, the Chair of the Task Force, former AAA President Jane Hill, wrote of Darkness in El Dorado,

Burn this message. The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America—with a high potential to do good—was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.

Far from the overdue examination of anthropological ethics he wants his book to be seen as, all Borofsky has offered us with The Fierce Controversy is another piece of sleaze, a sequel of sorts meant to rescue the original from its fatal, and highly unethical, distortions and wholesale fabrications. What Borofsky’s book is more than anything else, though, is a portrait of postmodernism’s powers of moral perversion. As such, and only as such, it is of some historical value.

            In a debate over teaching intelligent design in public schools, Richard Dawkins once called attention to what should have been an obvious truth. “When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity,” he said, “the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.” This line came to mind again and again as I read The Fierce Controversy. If we take presumption of innocence at all seriously, we can’t avoid concluding that the case brought by the anti-Chagnon crowd is simply wrong. The entire scandal began with a campaign of character assassination, which then blew up into a media frenzy, which subsequently induced a moral panic. It seems even some of Chagnon’s old enemies were taken aback by the mushrooming scale of the allegations. And yet many of the participants whose unscrupulous or outright dishonest scholarship and reporting originally caused the hysteria saw fit years later to continue stoking the controversy. Since they don’t appear to feel any shame, all we can do is agree that they’ve forfeited any right to be heard on the topic of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamö. 

            Still, the inquisitorial zealotry of the anti-Chagnon contributors notwithstanding, the most repugnant thing about Borofsky’s book is how the proclamations of concern first and foremost for the Yanomamö begin to seem pro forma through repetition, as each side tries to paint itself as more focused on the well-being of indigenous peoples than the other. You know a book that’s supposed to address ethical issues has gone terribly awry when references to an endangered people start to seem like mere rhetorical maneuvers. 

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You can also watch "Secrets of the Tribe," Jose Padiha's documentary about the controversy, online.