Archive for December, 2013

Yesterday a significant chunk of the librarian Twitterverse Twittersphere Twhatever-it’s-called lost its collective cardigans over a critique of the newly implemented ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences. Will Manley, author of the critique in question, argues that the code of conduct is a substantially flawed document and, in support of that conclusion, he raises four concerns: (1) that the group statuses singled out for protection from harassment are undefined and vague, (2) that the policy will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, (3) that much of the code’s language is ambiguous, and (4) that the code does not provide due process for alleged violators. To be honest, I find nothing particularly shocking or offensive about Manley’s criticisms. I also don’t happen to think they are convincing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Where the real drama unfolds is in the comments to Will’s post, which quickly descended into a mess of identity politics, tone-deafness, ad hominem arguments, and general foolishness.

You can read Manley’s post and subsequent comments in their entirety by clicking the word trainwreck.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point analysis of Manley’s concerns: Matthew Ciszek already has a good refutation of Manley’s critique, as does Nina de Jesus. Instead, I want to look more broadly at the issue of anti-harassment policies. Believe it or not, but there are substantive reasons to reject anti-harassment policies. There are also substantive reasons to endorse said policies. Let’s look at each in turn. (And I apologize in advance for the very rough treatment of each position; I don’t want to take too long a lunch break #newyearsevelibrarian)


The libertarian* argument

Those who reject anti-harassment policies typically make the argument that (1) most harassment is already covered by existing policy and (2) anti-harassment policies stifle otherwise protected speech (or, intellectual freedom). Manley invokes this argument (poorly I might add). On the first part, Eugene Volokh explains that most harassment occurs “one-to-one”, that is, when a speaker is saying things to one listener that the listener clearly doesn’t want to hear. This type of harassment is clearly restrictable on the grounds that restricting it does not infringe upon the speaker’s ability to spread a message or make a public expression of a belief. One-to-one harassment annoys and offends (rather than persuades or convinces) and can therefore be dealt with without violating freedom of speech. Likewise, unwanted physical contact is not speech and, therefore, not at an intellectual freedom issue. If anything, that’s sexual battery, which is wrong in its own rights. However, the free speech libertarian argues that public speech not aimed at an individual is protected no matter how offensive. The libertarian will advocate for the “marketplace of ideas” where there should be no restrictions on the content of public speech. For example, a speaker at ALA Midwinter may want to present arguments against book-challenges raised by fundamentalist Christians. No matter how offended fundamentalist Christians in the audience feel about the presentation (and the ALA code mentions religion), the free speech libertarian would argue that the presentation must be allowed on the “marketplace of ideas” doctrine. Likewise, if speakers wanted to criticize affirmative action, advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment, discuss millennials unfavorably, or otherwise express a contested view, anti-harassment policies could have a chilling effect. Restricting public speech on the basis of its content, no matter how offensive, is antithetical to democratic values, so the argument goes. Think of it this way: while an anti-harassment policy may allow a lesbian or gay audience member some redress against a speaker who argues that homosexuality is immoral, it would also allow a fundamentalist Christian redress against a lesbian or gay speaker who argues that traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality are immoral. The best response is to avoid content-based restrictions all together and allow the truth to emerge on its own. Again, so the argument goes.

Whatever you think of the free-speech libertarian position, you should at least know that it is the dominant view in the United States. You know the whole “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” doctrine? That’s what I’m talking about. This is why the ACLU (in?)famously defended the right of Nazis to assemble in Skokie and the right of Fred Phelps to spout hate. This is why the Supreme Court ruled that both burning a flag as well as burning a cross are protected speech (though illegal on other grounds). The list goes on and the point is clear: offensiveness and emotional outrage do not trump freedom of expression. Like it or not, that’s the status quo. (If you’re interested, Anthony Lewis wrote a history of the libertarian view in his recent book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.)

dignityaintcheapThe dignity argument

So, what’s the alternative? What arguments can be raised in defense of an anti-harassment policy? I think a good counter to the libertarian position is the dignity argument raised by Jeremy Waldron in his monograph The Harm in Hate Speech (though, each chapter was previously published elsewhere and easily Googled). Though Waldron argues in favor of hate-speech legislation rather than anti-harassment policies, the issues are similar enough that Waldron’s arguments apply in both cases. Adapting Waldron, we can make the following argument:First, anti-harassment policies are not directed at thought, they are directed at harm. Specifically, these policies address the harm that harassment causes to the dignity of targeted persons or groups–where a person’s dignity is “a matter of status–one’s status as a member of society in good standing–and it generates demands for recognition and for treatment that accords with that status” (Waldron, p. 60). In the context of the ALA, a librarian’s dignity (or, arguably, any conference attendee) is the assurance of equal standing within the library community. Harassment and intimidation are, by their very nature, demeaning of the dignity of the person or group being targeted, thus depriving them of the “assurance . . . that they can count on being treated justly” (Ibid., p. 85). Note that this has nothing to do with a person’s being offended or made uncomfortable. Offense is subjective; dignity is objective. A frank discussion of sexuality or race might be incredibly uncomfortable for some listeners, but it only becomes harassment if the discussion is calculated to undermine dignity or demean those listeners.

Second, though isolated instances of one-to-one harassment should be able to be handled by existing policy (a concession to the libertarians), many isolated instances of harassment have the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere in which the dignity (i.e., the equal standing) of an entire group is undermined. When left unchecked, harassment can harm this “dignitary order” of the community (ibid., p. 92). Whereas we want conferences to be inclusive of many viewpoints (a concession to the marketplace of ideas doctrine), harassment compounds as an environmental toxin that undermines group dignity and, hence, undermines inclusiveness. A fair marketplace requires that all agents involved are assured equal standing but, to take just one example, harassment on the grounds of sexual identity serves to undermine that assurance among the LGBT community, thus removing them from the marketplace. This winds up not just harming the LGBT community but also harming the entire community who would otherwise benefit from the additional perspectives. Put another way, if we really want a marketplace of ideas, we have to assure all community members that their ideas will be heard.

Third, although regulating to prevent this dignitary harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the adoption of anti-harassment policies. Yes, we want a marketplace of ideas but, just as there are regulations over economic markets, there ought to be regulations curtailing abuse of the intellectual market. Think of the ALA Code of Conference Conduct as a sort of intellectual Glass-Steagall Act maybe. Given that the most frequent types of harassment are based on “race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status” it only makes sense to expressly prohibit those types of harassment in order to improve the intellectual market (there’s a long conversation we could have here about identifying “vulnerable groups” but we can save that for later). I don’t really know if this is even making sense, but in a nutshell, we need the ALA Code of Conference Conduct because it is our best way of assuring librarians of all backgrounds that the library community respects their basic dignity. And we need to provide this assurance because without dignitary order we lose out on the public good of inclusiveness. This isn’t about restricting intellectual freedom, it’s about restricting all and only those actions and words that undermine dignity. So Manley’s fear that Richard Pryor wouldn’t be allowed at an ALA conference is completely unfounded: Pryor may have been offensive, but he didn’t undermine people’s dignity.  Anyway, that’s the quick version of the dignity argument.


I’m just putting these theories out there for people to think about. While I do tend to lean towards the dignity argument, I do have some purely philosophical concerns about it. Likewise, while I’m not convinced of the libertarian argument, I’m not going to think poorly of those who invoke it. Whatever the case, I’m glad that the ALA has a Code of Conference Conduct and I hope that the discussions at Midwinter (in particular Andromeda’s panel on gender issues, which will probably touch on the code of conduct) are more thoughtful than what happened yesterday.


* that’s ‘libertarian’ in the philosophical sense, not the “your crazy 9/11 truther uncle who reads Ayn Rand” sense

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Hey gang. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while; I’ll tell you, it’s been a heck of a busy semester. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of ending the year with my last post all the way back in September. So, let’s end the year with everyone’s favorite kind of post: cis-hetero white guy writes some stuff about feminism. There’s no way this can go bad, right?

I’ve been paying close attention to a lot of discussions that have popped-up on the tubes over the past several months, and one that I’ve found particularly interesting involves the intersection of three ideas: librarianship, objectivity, and feminism. Way back in August, Chris Bourg wrote about a queer/feminist agenda in librarianship and then argued that all librarians have implicit agendas. A week later, Barbara Fister wrote about the librarian’s agenda to promote “certain ways of seeking and using evidence.” In October Annie Pho tipped me off to a great little book on feminist theory in library instruction. In November, Andromeda Yelton wrote an excellent piece on the phenomenology of gender, to which Chris Bourg responded with some reservations. Throughout all of this, everyone’s favorite ornery ornis meditated on gender and silencing. And then, on the closely related issue of gender and technology, there were hundreds of tweets and several posts, such as those by Lisa Rabey, Nicholas Schiller, Kate Kosturski, and others. For the best summary of what’s been going on, I recommend checking out the libtechgender project–it’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I know I’m leaving out lots of other stuff, but you get the idea: librarians are concerned about gender and sexuality. And that includes me.

This is the part where I explain that, yes, I do identify as a feminist. Yes, straight white guys are playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. And non-straight and/or non-white and/or non-guys are systematically mistreated/disrespected/ignored/silenced/etc.. No way am I going to dispute that. In fact, I take the systematic discrimination to be so blatantly obvious that there’s no need to argue that it exists: society is set up in such a way as to favor straight white guys to the detriment of everyone else. Question: does that include libraries? Do libraries favor straight white guys? Does librarianship? Does library science? Well, there is that thing about male library directors being disproportionately overrepresented. And LC subject headings can be pretty sexist at times. And for a profession overwhelmingly female, there sure are an awful lot of dudes giving keynotes. And don’t even get me started on the rampant, abject sexism facing tech-leaning library ladies. It’s depressing, to say the least.


Now, an interesting question is whether the sexism facing librarians is (1) a product of more general, societal issues related to sex and gender, or (2) inherent in librarianship itself. Or, more likely, a little of both. So, are male library directors better paid because of pay disparity in employment in general, or because something about librarianship itself creates pay disparity. Is librarianship fundamentally sexist, or does it merely inherit the more general social trends towards discrimination? Likewise, are sexist subject headings (or under-representation of women’s studies concepts) a signal of bias seeping into cataloging from the broader culture, or are the very concepts of cataloging and classification necessarily sexist? Here’s a brain teaser: are women programmers and coders at a disadvantage because of tech culture, or because programming languages are themselves gendered? I could keep raising these sorts of questions, but I think these are sufficient to illustrate a bit of an important divide. When we advocate for a feminist agenda in libraries, we need to be clear as to which feminist agenda we’re rooting for.

First, let’s establish a working definition of feminism: feminism “refers to any theory which sees the relationship between the sexes as one of inequality, subordination, or oppression, and which aims to identify and remedy the sources of that oppression” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition). Of course, “inequality,” “subordination,” and “oppression” have contested meanings. Likewise, the sources of oppression and acceptable remedies are polarizing issues. If you’re going to advocate for feminism in libraries, you’d best figure out what these terms and concepts mean. Of course, there are hundreds (thousands?) of variations on feminist theory, and I have no desire to cover every one (because I can’t). But, there is a natural dividing line between the predominant theories. On one side we have the critical feminists; on the other the analytic feminists. Each side has lots of variations and it may be best to think in terms of a spectrum of feminist theories. I’ll just discuss the poles.

Critical feminists (CFs) trace their lineage to four important 20th Century ideas: psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, phenomenology, and pluralism (alliteration win!). From psychoanalysis, CFs adopt the position that our attitudes towards the world are necessarily shaped by unconscious motivations that are immune to rational reflection. From post-structuralism, CFs adopt the position that all thought and belief is constructed within a language, all languages are shaped by cultural and historical processes, and that, hence, you cannot understand any phenomenon independent of contingent human interests. The idea is that our basic epistemological categories (truth, reason, objectivity, knowledge, etc.) and moral categories (justice, equality, fairness, etc.) can only be understood in context and there are no transcendent, universal concepts or values. From phenomenology, CFs adopt the position that we cannot understand the world independently of the subjective, lived experience. From pluralism, CFs adopt the position that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world. Put it all together, and you get something like this:

  1. Concepts considered fundamental in Western conceptions of philosophy, morality, and politics–like truth, science, objectivity, justice, etc.–were primarily developed by wealthy white guys in the context of a patriarchal society (think of the Enlightenment).
  2. Because of their provenance, these Western “values” only reflect the thinking of the dominant male culture and do not address women’s (or others’) perspectives.
  3. So, things we are told are universal (like truth or justice) are really filled with hidden biases, they aren’t universal, they don’t capture subjective experiences, and they only represent one of many ways of knowing the world.

To name two examples, the post-Enlightenment beliefs that science is the best means of accessing the truth and that democratic systems are the most just, are not reflective of the perspectives of the marginalized and oppressed social groups that played no role in the creation of science and democracy. The task then for the critical feminist is to (1) lay bare the inherent bias and subjectivity in our most basic beliefs about the world and (2) remove those universal claims from their place of privilege by cultivating equal respect for alternative, non-(white/masculine/wealthy/etc.) ways of knowing. Western society was born in patriarchy and dominates the world through its insistence that Western values are superior. But, since “Western” is just a code for “wealthy white men,” we need to reject Western, post-Enlightenment hegemony and look at the world as it actually is: a multifaceted place of innumerable conceptions of reality, with none deserving any place of privilege or dominance. I’ll grant that this only scratches the surface of critical feminist theory. Poke around the critical feminist theory literature and you’ll quickly bump into Marxism, postmodernism, social constructionism, post-colonialism, literary theory, deconstructionism and a wide range of influential theorists including Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and more. But, alas, this is a blog and not an encyclopedia. If you want to read more, Josephine Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions is probably the best general overview. You need this book. You might also want to get your hands on the Continental Feminism Reader. If you just want something online, try Jennifer Hansen’s SEP entry on ‘Continental Feminism‘. (And to the six people who will read this, please share books in the comments if you’d like.)


Okay, so, that’s a very rough sketch of critical feminism and it tends to dominate a lot of contemporary feminist discourse. Yes, different theorists may reject one or two of the four P’s, or disagree about interpretations, but it’s close enough. In contrast, analytic feminism (AF) rejects all of the P’s, more or less. On most interpretations of AF, we can explore unconscious biases rationally, we can assert universal or transcendent truths, we can come to at least a partial understanding of the world outside of subjective experience, and there are some ways of knowing that are superior to others. While the critical feminist argues that things like objectivity are inherently subjective and biased towards patriarchal interests, the analytic feminist would say that objectivity really is possible and, indeed, vital. Importantly, the analytic feminist respects subjective experience, social context, implicit biases and all the things the critical feminist wants to highlight. The distinction is over what we do with objectivity, science, and similar claims to universal, transcendent truths. I think the idea is that systematic oppression of women is not evidence that our values are wrong, but evidence that we haven’t lived up to our values. Generally, AF is cool with science, truth, justice, equality, universal values, and so on, but social and cultural biases have prevented society from living up to those ideals. For the analytic feminist, the goal of feminism is to identify the biases and cultural conditions that have shaped how we use science, what we accept as true, how we set up democracy, and so on. Key analytic feminists include Martha Nussbaum, Ann Cudd, Elizabeth Anderson, Sandra Harding, Susan Haack, and others. The journal Hypatia  is a good source for analytic feminist scholarship. Personally, Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice  is the analytic text that probably most influenced my thinking on feminism. I’ll also confess that my thesis adviser was the thoroughly analytic “Gay Moralist,” John Corvino. Seriously, go watch his videos.

Here’s a good example of the difference: an analytic feminist might say that women are underrepresented in science because society has unfairly discouraged women from pursuing scientific studies (the whole “girls can’t do math” thing or the “men are rational, women are irrational” stereotype…that kind of stuff). The solution is to get society to realize that girls can do math, women are just as rational as men, and good science has nothing to do with what’s between your legs. In contrast, the critical feminist might say that women are underrepresented because scientific inquiry is itself inherently sexist. For example, (in?)famously, Luce Irigaray argued that E = mc^2 is “a sexed equation” which “privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, and which therefore belongs to a “masculine physics” [quoted everywhere]. Irigaray thought that fluid mechanics is systematically ignored in physics because masculinist physics has difficulty coping with fluidity, which is a feminine attribute. You can probably see where this is going.

To the critical feminist, the analytic feminist is committed to perpetuating patriarchal notions of objectivity, truth, and justice. What’s more, in favoring traditionally masculine ideals like science and logical reasoning, analytic feminists are tacitly dismissing more feminine ways of knowing like listening, intuition, subjectivity, and emotion (I’ll assume you’re familiar with Women’s Ways of Knowing. It was required reading in my library science program, and this idea is right at the beginning, pp. 5-7). To the analytic feminist, the critical feminist is a relativist who pushes stereotypes of feminine thinking (intuition, empathy, emotion, nurturing, etc.) and who won’t acknowledge any facts that don’t fit a certain political agenda. Analytic feminists point to the successes of science for all humans and the slow but certain improvement in women’s lives compared to previous generations as evidence that it’s the will to live by our ideals that is the problem, not the ideals themselves. Sure, the analytic feminist will say, men have frequently attempted to use science and objectivity to back-up their sexism, racism, classism, etc. But, that’s because those men were assholes, not because science is sexist. To which the critical feminist will respond with something about how the very categories by which we judge “improvement” in women’s lives or “success” in science are affected by biases. “You’re a relativist! You’re supporting the patriarchy!” And around and around it goes.


Now, if you’re a librarian, this all may seem like academic quibbling. And a lot of it is. But, whether you align with more critical or more analytic feminists will affect how you approach issues of diversity, harassment, equality, etc.. While both analytic and critical feminists agree in the pursuit of social justice, diversity, empowering women, and eliminating biases from, they might take different routes to achieve those ends.
For example…

Information Literacy

  • CF rejects ACRL standards and things like the Project SAILS standardized test because they reinforce patriarchal power (Accardi, pp. 76-77) and fail to “provide space for student voice or experiential knowledge” (Ibid., p. 84). Information literacy is better measured through qualitative methods like reflective journals and interviews. In contrast, AF can accept ACRL standards and quantitative assessment tools, though it would seek to eliminate bias from said tools. Both men and women can be information literate in the same way, we just need to remove the obstacles to women’s achievement.

Collection Development

  • A CF might seek to establish a stand-alone women’s studies collection in a library, based on the premises that current classification standards are biased and that a separate collection would unite women scholars on campus. An AF might reject a stand-alone women’s studies collection and favor strengthening existing disciplinary collections through the addition of material about women, sexism, class, etc. (This was a real debate. See Lee, 2003. A great case study, though I don’t like her sweeping use of the term “non-feminist.” “Different-feminist” might be better.)


  • Males and females are frequently ascribed different management traits: analytical vs. intuitive, assertive vs. democratic, goal-oriented vs. people-oriented, tough vs. understanding, and so on. Should we encourage the same traits in both men and women (whatever those traits may be)? Or do men and women necessarily manage differently? Do these traits have any connection to the overrepresentation of male library directors? See Voelck, 2003 for more on this.

I could go on with examples, but this is already a pretty long post.

Basically, what we have, is a methodological distinction between two somewhat over-lapping takes on feminism, and the distinction can be distinguished in how you answer a simple question:

Are women oppressed because our societal ideals of justice and knowledge are flawed, or because as a society we aren’t living up to those ideals?

Maybe you favor the former. Maybe the latter. Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. But, the important thing to understand is that “feminism” is not a monolithic theory. Where feminists agree is that women are treated differently than men in society and that treatment is overwhelmingly oppressive and unjust. But, not all feminists are concerned with the same issues. Not all feminists are postmodernists. Not all feminists have the same attitudes towards justice, equality, and so on. Seriously, go read Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum back-to-back. Better yet, read Nussbaum’s brutal takedown of Butler and ask how feminism can admit of such divergent methods. Importantly, we should all realize that not every criticism of a feminist project is anti-feminist silencing. Sometimes feminists disagree. Going back to the discussion of feminist agendas in librarianship, we can ask whether our agenda should “debunk the myth of scientific objectivity and value-neutrality” (Bourg), or whether our agenda should adopt the implicitly scientific stance of helping patrons “form opinions based on the [objective] evidence” (Fister). So long as we can all agree that the current state of the world is less than ideal for women and that something needs to be changed, I think that’s a good start.


One last thing, you may have noticed in this post a conspicuous absence of class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, and other topics commonly discussed by feminists. There are two reasons. First, 2500 words is long enough. Second, the same distinction between more critical and more analytic approaches applies. Also, I just want to reiterate that there is a ton of stuff left unsaid. I’d be happy to delve into more technical points in the comments.

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