A Reflection on the Fear of Not Being Forgiven
Would Lake have been forgiven, if she chose admission over denial? If she pleaded guilty before the Twitter jury, what would have been her sentence? Would she be allowed the opportunity to re-write Hong-Fincher’s name into her acknowledgements section, commit to discussing Hong-Fincher’s work as she promoted her own, and perhaps even humbly thank Hong-Fincher and her fellow supporters for taking the time and emotional energy to explain to her just where she went so wrong?
In spring of 2018, a feminist book talk was held in Washington, D.C.’s freshly gentrified neighborhood, The Wharf. The featured author was Roseann Lake, a journalist who spent five years in Beijing documenting the lives and experiences of the Chinese equivalent of “spinsters,” known as “leftover women,” in this case unmarried women in their late twenties, perceived to have chosen pursuit of a career over marriage. Weeks before, Lake published a piece of investigative journalism titled “Leftover in China: The Women Shaping The World’s Next Superpower.” That evening at The Wharf, Lake discussed her research experience, and what she learned about the feminist struggle in China, and women’s agency in the patriarchal country. After about 45 minutes of an on-stage interview, the moderator turned to the audience to solicit their questions. A petite, mature woman in the front row stood up to ask the first question. She held her own copy of Lake’s book. She introduced herself as Beverly Hong-Fincher, a retired professor of linguistics at George Washington University. Her introduction was somewhat lengthy, visibly lengthier than the unspoken norm among the bookstore audience, observable when other audience members and Lake started to subtly fidget in their seats, uncertain where Ms. Hong-Fincher was going with her monologue.
After a few minutes of discussing her background, academic principles of research, and the subject of spinster women, the moderator interjected with a mixture of both agitation and embarrassment, to ask Ms. Hong-Fincher what exactly her question was.
Ms. Hong-Fincher, still standing, forged on with her discourse, barely disturbed by the moderator’s desperate interjection. Her voice started to carry throughout the bookstore, and it suddenly became decipherable that Ms. Hong-Fincher was taking great lengths to provide extensive context to her ultimate question:
“Throughout your research you conferred my daughter Leta Hong-Fincher and her work on leftover women in China. On not one single page in your book did you cite her. Why?”
Lake nodded curtly at Ms. Hong-Fincher before bringing the microphone up to her lips.
“I acknowledge that my work is journalistic and does not meet academic standards.”
Lake looked around at the rest of the audience, perhaps in search of rescue by an audience member with an easier question. Ms. Hong-Fincher wasted no time to respond.
“The back of your book contains lists of experts and other works you cited. Why wasn’t Leta Hong Hong-Fincher among them?”
Ms. Hong-Fincher continued to refute the validity of Lake’s response that her book was journalistic and thus not subject to academic scrutiny. According to Ms. Hong-Fincher, Lake interviewed her daughter, Leta Hong-Fincher, years ago while doing research for her book. In 2014, Hong-Fincher published a book whose thematic content eerily resembles Lake’s, titled “‘Leftover’ Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” Thus, Lake was well aware of Hong-Fincher’s work on the subject, so much that Hong-Fincher was one of the experts she consulted during her research.
As Ms. Hong-Fincher continued to list why Lake should have cited Leta Hong-Fincher, Lake’s tight professional smile dissolved as red patches crept up her neck, until her face turned entirely crimson. As Ms. Hong-Fincher continued on her monologue, seemingly isolated in the corner of the room where she stood, both the moderator and Lake start to “thank” Ms. Hong-Fincher into silence.
“Thank you for your question, we’re running out of time and need to give other audience members a chance to speak,” the moderator attempted to interject once again. Lake and the moderator continued to shower thank-you’s into the microphone, pronounced with the tone one uses to usher someone off the stage. It took a moment for Ms. Hong-Fincher to sit back down, though she did so, and remained quietly poised in her seat for the remainder of the book talk. The moderator and Lake looked out into the audience for a different question, a moment passed before some audience members shyly raised their hands. A man asked a question about the future of women in China, Lake’s face regained its normal color, the calm atmosphere of the book talk resumed, and Ms. Hong-Fincher’s blazing interrogation was quickly forgotten.
Leta Hong-Fincher’s mother is not the only person to have openly criticized Lake’s lack of citation of Hong-Fincher’s work in her book. In February, Lake addressed criticism of plagiarism in a short blog post on the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center. Lake mentions having cited Hong-Fincher in articles she wrote for Salon and Foreign Policy, though justifies her omission of Hong-Fincher’s work in her book because the women she interviewed for her ethnography, “led me to see things from a different perspective and I have relied on the work of other scholars, as referenced in my book, to relay their stories.” Earlier, she cites her work on the subject that predates the publication of Hong-Fincher’s book, such as a play called “The Leftover Monologues” that debuted the same year, and a cartoon series on the issue that ran in 2013. Lake writes that she “recognize[s] Leta’s important contributions to the topic and the awareness she has raised for it,” yet opted against reading Hong-Fincher’s book on leftover women in 2014, because she was “working on the manuscript for my [sic] book, and I chose to stay focused on the stories of the women whose lives I feature in it.”
A day later, Jon Sullivan, Director of University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute: China, writes in response on Twitter, “Something is not right here - how can you write a book called Leftover in China about Chinese women without citing @LetaHong’s Leftover Women, the book that broke this ground four years ago & has been on every reading list since?”
Maggie Lewis, professor at Seton Hall Law and scholar with the National Committee on U.S. China Relations echoes Sullivan’s appall, noting that Lake’s explanation for the omission is malpractice on academic grounds. Lake referenced Hong-Fincher during her research process (regardless of whether or not she read Hong-Fincher’s book), and even if Lake doesn’t fully agree with Hong-Fincher’s perspective, those aren’t grounds to make no mention of her work, especially when it was Hong-Fincher’s book that broke ground first. Lewis tweets, “why not address the reasons for the ‘different perspective?’ Scholars disagree all the time, but they recognize the work that came before them and explain why their research has led to alternative conclusions.”
Clearly, Lake committed a serious research faux-pas. It’s well known, in academia and journalism, that it’s important to cite any source one references, even if their work isn’t directly cited in their final text. Amidst the hundreds of pages Lake carefully wrote (as no one doubts the sweat she poured into her research), there was ample opportunity for Lake to reference Hong-Fincher’s seminal work. As Leta Hong-Fincher wonders herself on Twitter, “Why did Lake completely erase me from her book on ‘leftover’ women? She says...that she never read my 2014 book. But even if that’s true, she could have cited one of my op-eds, which impressed her so much that she kept emailing me to ‘exchange thoughts’...”
Throughout the spring of 2018, across the aptly titled Twitter-sphere, China scholars alike openly discussed their displeasure with Lake’s citation omission, implying that the omission goes against the principles of intellectual integrity. In the flurry of interviews and articles that emerged in the wake of the controversy and Lake’s publication, Lake maintained her stance that her book was journalistic, intended for a general audience, and thus not subject to criticism on academic grounds. In April, more than a month after the infamous book-talk face-off with Hong-Fincher’s mother, Lake sat down for an interview with TimeOut Beijing to discuss her book and the surrounding polemic. When asked about the critique that Lake did not duly cite Hong-Fincher, Lake response’s only made reference to an “unpublished paper” that Hong-Fincher shared with her about property markets, which Lake “cited generously” in an article she wrote for Foreign Policy magazine, but as her own research developed and her views on the issue diverged from Hong-Fincher’s arguments, Hong-Fincher’s work “was no longer relevant to what I was doing [sic].” When the interview followed up with the question on whether Lake could have made mention of Hong-Fincher’s work anyway, Lake pulled the journalists-are-not-academics card, saying, “If I were an academic, sure. If you’re an academic, you have to engage with everything ... Leta’s not the only one to have written about this. If I were an academic, I absolutely would have, but it’s a journalistic book for a general audience.”
The interviewer then brings up claims that Lake “borrows heavily” for an article she wrote for Salon from an article Hong-Fincher wrote for Ms. Magazine. Lake’s response is almost a shrug: “There’s no evidence of plagiarism [in my book], so people are reverting back to a piece I wrote six years ago. Leta mentioned she didn’t raise any issues about the article at the time because she was scared and intimidated, but at that point she was on her way to getting a PhD and was married to a New York Times reporter. I was a 24-year-old writing for Salon.” In citing Hong-Fincher’s perceived higher status as a doctorate student married to an elite journalist, Lake poses herself to be in the disempowered position—at the time a young, amateur journalist, understandably prone to clumsy mistakes. Lake’s response implies: So what if she borrowed heavily from Hong-Fincher for her Salon article? That was six years ago, she was a meager 24 year old, just getting started in the journalism industry, leaning on the work of an already-established academic. Her use of the passage of time and comparison in age and status sought to dampen the relevance of the newly-emerged criticism.
Unsurprisingly, it is not Hong-Fincher’s ego that is injured by Lake’s omission, but rather a sense of betrayal and systemic erasure to which women of color are frequently subjected, their accomplishments undermined or experiences left out entirely of the dominant discourse.
Overall, because Lake took a different approach than Hong-Fincher to analyze the issue of leftover women in China (one of a journalist, not of an academic), and because Lake arrived at different analyses that didn’t support Hong-Fincher’s arguments, Lake was steadfast in her belief that referencing Hong-Fincher’s work, at least in passing, wasn’t necessary. Moreover, while Hong-Fincher’s book may have broke ground by being published first in 2014, Lake claims in the interview that her manuscript was finished that same year, and, as stated in her blog post, that her own work on the the issue started in 2010, perhaps to underscore that it wasn’t Hong-Fincher’s work that originally inspired her own.
Hong-Fincher’s accusations have seemed to display some variation, some of her tweets calling for a review of Lake’s book to investigate plagiarism, yet her most salient argument, one that she continues to stand by even after modifying her accusations of intellectual property theft, was Lake’s complicity in her erasure. In her own words, as cited by The Beijinger, Lake “eras[ed] my work by not citing me.”
It’s May 2020, and after the initial buzz online following Lake’s publication, there doesn’t seem to be any follow-up. On Hong-Fincher’s website, her most recent publication was her book, "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China," published in 2018, the same year of the controversy. Publicly, it’s likely that Lake and Hong-Fincher have yet to bury the hatchet (as Google results don’t always show conversations held behind closed doors). It seems as if Lake published her book on leftover women in February 2018, Hong-Fincher spoke out on Twitter against her omission, supported by dozens of academics and “China experts,” Lake responded to the controversy in a few short interviews and a blog post in the weeks thereafter, and withstood some flack in front of a live audience from Hong-Fincher’s mom at the start of her book tour. At the 2018 Bookworm Literary Festival, Lake addressed questions about erasing Hong-Fincher’s work, underlining her belief that Hong-Fincher was not erased by her citation omission, wielding the principal argument that because Hong-Fincher’s work wasn’t used to support the arguments in her research, she didn’t need to cite her.
Cancel culture, like retributive justice, may succeed at recognizing offenders as such, and at best, strip offenders of undeserved power and status. Yet cancel culture provides inadequate space for reflection, and offenders may resist “cancellation” by choosing denial and defensiveness over accountability and growth.
After having read and annotated both books side by side, journalist Erica Martin writes, “[Lake] could have theoretically written it without drawing upon Hong-Fincher’s work.” If, by random chance, and perhaps a faulty internet connection, Lake was unaware of Hong-Fincher’s existence, it is possible that she could have conducted the same research and come up with the same conclusions in her book. In this regard, it is widely accepted that Lake did not pawn off Hong-Fincher’s ideas as her own. However, as Martin continues, even if legally speaking, Lake didn’t have to cite Hong-Fincher, it doesn’t make sense for a journalist to “actively...avoid reading such a seminal body of work on the topic [of research].” As Grace Jackson noted in her Los Angeles Times book review, such evasion is simply “poor journalistic practice.” Journalists and academics alike amass credibility as they “get to the bottom” of an issue of research. To purposefully ignore a cardinal source on an issue goes against the basic principles of meaningful research — worse yet, the source Lake ignored was a source with whom Lake extensively conferred.
Unsurprisingly, it is not Hong-Fincher’s ego that is injured by Lake’s omission, but a sense of betrayal and systemic erasure to which women of color are frequently subjected, their accomplishments undermined or experiences left out entirely of the dominant discourse. Quoted in Jackson’s review, Hong-Fincher explains that Lake “continued to mislead me for many years by promising to cite me and praising my research and making me think she was some kind of admirer and friend...This deliberate erasure of my work and my crucial help with her work — which she deliberately sought out — made it appear that she was the pioneering author on this topic.”
As outlined by numerous journalists and academics, Lake’s misconduct is unmistakable. But why does the ending of this media storm dissolve into oblivion, shooed off stage as quickly as it appeared, like Ms. Hong-Fincher’s poignant interrogation at the fateful March 2018 booktalk? This situation was catastrophic for both parties. From her “poor journalistic practice,” Lake received a sentence of tainted credibility in many academic and journalistic circles. Most importantly, this neglect succeeded in the erasure of Hong-Fincher’s work, a demonstration of oppression against women and people of color that is as infuriating as it is painful.
But what did this controversy bring us, aside from perhaps another anecdote of daily systematic oppression? And why did Lake, a self-proclaimed feminist, relentlessly refuse to acknowledge the possibility of her mistake, and the collateral harm it caused?
Perhaps her denial is nourished by a fear of not being forgiven.
What if, in an alternative outcome, after waking up to an angry Twitter storm the day after her book hit the market, Lake issued an apology — and a reprint of the book with an amended bibliography? What if, through embodiment of the feminist principle to support other women, she acknowledged the validity of the argument that she was accomplice to Hong-Fincher’s erasure?
We get it — erasing Hong-Fincher was never Lake’s intention, and yet here we are, two years and at least one Twitter storm later, the wound appears to remain open, like scorched earth with no signs of regrowth. As far as the Internet can tell, Lake remains stubborn in her denial of there ever having been a mistake; and in her denial, her name and her work remain tainted in the eyes of scholars who stood up for Hong-Fincher, who sustains the traumatic injury of erasure.
Yet would Lake have been forgiven, if she chose admission over denial? If she pleaded guilty before the Twitter jury, what would have been her sentence? Would she be allowed the opportunity to re-write Hong-Fincher’s name into her acknowledgements section, commit to discussing Hong-Fincher’s work as she promoted her own, and perhaps even humbly thank Hong-Fincher and her fellow supporters for taking the time and emotional energy to explain to her just where she went so wrong?
Lake’s grave mistake of erasing Hong-Fincher’s work was revealed by a scandalized mass of scholars, who rallied support for Hong-Fincher and brought awareness to the injustice through a public Twitter call-out. In this regard, Twitter and the Internet are powerful tools to prevent ignorance of injustice. But while journalists and academics were quick to speak out about the injustice and criticize Lake, there was no invitation for Lake to become a part of the solution. In the heat of cancel culture, where the offender is called out and then socially exiled from the community, there is a strong chance that Lake would not have been afforded the chance to repent. In a panel discussion, abolitionist scholar Dr. Antonio Tomás De La Garza describes cancel culture as a form of retributive justice parallel to the punitive United States criminal justice system, whose dissolution has been the central demand of the abolitionist movement (Zoom conference: “What Does Abolition Look Like? Climate Justice Perspectives for a Free World” hosted by Uplift Climate on July 4, 2020).
“Cancel culture is about labeling people as irredeemable, and that’s how our justice system works,” Tomás De La Garza explains. In the pursuit of transformative justice, he continues, structures are created that allow people to reflect on, learn from, and grow beyond their worst mistake. Tomás De La Garza underlines that, of course, it’s not up to victims of violence to do the work to create space for their perpetrator to grow beyond their harmful behavior. As any fifteen-second Google search on the U.S. criminal justice system will reveal, retributive justice, more often than not, falls miserably short of providing space of healing for victims, and does little to prevent violence from happening again. Cancel culture, like retributive justice, may succeed at recognizing offenders as such, and at best, strip offenders of undeserved power and status. Yet cancel culture provides inadequate space for reflection, and offenders may resist “cancellation” by choosing denial and defensiveness over accountability and growth.
[For an important piece on the harm of denouncing other women within the feminist movement, see “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” by Joreen Freeman in Ms. Magazine, April 1976.]
It is likely that regardless of Lake’s response to her 2018 Twitter cancellation by China scholars — stubborn denial or apologetic admission — critique of Lake and her work would have continued beyond the possibility of reconciliation. Perhaps, in rejecting the possibility that she enacted Hong-Fincher’s erasure, Lake sought to save enough face that she could continue her career in journalism. Marked, for the moment, but salvageable. Perhaps opening herself up to criticism and embarking on a journey to rectification would have simply led to widespread rejection and a forced career change. If there was no chance at forgiveness, and no opportunity to make amends, arguably Lake’s only solution was to maintain a straight face and argue a different truth.
What is the utility of a criticism that doesn’t invite the involved parties to heal? In the eagerness of Hong-Fincher supporters to outline the injustice — as they succinctly did on a limited character count — there lacked a call to action for Lake to remedy the situation. Arguably, it is Lake’s responsibility to set aside any fears of not being forgiven and muster the courage to recognize her mistake and seek healing for Hong-Fincher (and herself) on her own dime. And I could end my article here right there, adding my own drop of criticism to the lake in which she swam (pun carefully chosen). But to criticize Lake without mention of a path to collective healing is unproductive at best, and at worst, reinforces the cycle of pain and scorn that is the basis of our oppressive criminal justice system.
The harm has been recognized, but not mitigated. Furthermore, the “marking” of an individual who has committed a social infraction is reminiscent of purity culture in which individuals are permanently condemned for having transgressed what their community defines as taboo. Not only do folks who take the liberty to “cancel” others imply that they have never committed a regrettable mistake for which they sought forgiveness, but to call someone out and cancel is a tool of marginalization. Indeed, it is desired by our society to marginalize individuals who intentionally commit horrible crimes, and certainly those who seem to show no remorse for their actions. But do we seek to marginalize anyone who has ever been responsible for (unintentional) harm? As the current criminal justice system shows, it is not hard to guess who the ruling class chooses to marginalize for actions deemed “irredeemable.”
Cancel culture is a form of purity culture that has proven to be both an effective tool of anti-oppression and as a tool of oppression itself. If we are stifled by a fear of not being forgiven, because the criticism, although valid, has succeeded to marginalize the offender beyond a point of return, how can we ever hope to break the cycle of pain and create transformative spaces of healing?
Roseann Lake veritably erased the work of Hong-Fincher through intentional neglect to cite her seminal work in Lake’s book on the same subject. The subsequent denunciation on Twitter showed no sign of potential forgiveness, and within the context of cancel culture, it is questionable whether any attempt by Lake to remedy her serious mistake would have been accepted by her critics. Two years later, in the midst of internet silence on the subject since the initial outbreak of the controversy, Lake has yet to acknowledge the validity of her critics and apologize to Hong-Fincher. The trauma is twofold: trauma from experiencing the pain of the harm itself, and trauma from being the source of someone’s pain, and publicly recognized as such. Perhaps there is still room for Lake to apologize and be an actor to the healing process, that can assist in the remediation of painful divisions within feminist movements at large. Not only would remediation be an opportunity for journalists and scholars to learn more about how to properly recognize and support each other (even those we may intellectually disagree with), but remediation would also be an opportunity to reconstruct call-out practices to become fundamentally educational and healing, rather than complicit in cycles of psychological violence. This remediation could serve as an exemplary building block in the construction of transformative justice.
The healing, however, cannot start, until the fear of not being forgiven is lifted.
Miranda Dotson is a fourth-year Anthopolgy major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is a guest columnist for the Agora.
Article image "Slow Bird Fight" courtesy Mia Singson, Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0