Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Respect, Niceness, and Generosity

According to these reviews from a popular apartment-sharing site, I am someone who is "nice" and "respectful" in person.  Perhaps a more substantive question -- for my future as an academic and scholar -- might be what kind of a person I appear to be online.  "Respectful" and "nice" can actually be contentious terms, I am going to argue, if they become valued by institutions and professional associations, so it may perhaps be better to aim to be "generous" instead.

Discussions about online speech and civility have decades of history in digital rights discourses.  This month many academics -- some of whom might be new to this conversation -- have been challenged to take unpopular (or popular) positions in the name of academic freedom and to explore their suppositions about how networked computational media function (or don't function) as a form of public sphere.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has finally offered a public explanation of their decision to retract a job offer made to Professor Steven Salaita, who was apparently punished for making comments on Twitter that were perceived of as anti-Israeli and allegedly antisemitic.  (See my first round of analysis of the Salaita story here.)

In a blog posting called "The Principles on Which We Stand" Chancellor Phyllis Wise has now broken her silence to purportedly defend academic freedom at her institution, which is now being boycotted by many faculty, but she also insists that respectful conduct is a fundamental precept as well.  According to Wise, participants in the university are supposed to be "learning from each other in a respectful way," to refuse to tolerate "disrespectful words or actions," and to conduct their debates in a "civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner."  (Wise had previously editorialized about abusive racist and sexist comments directed at her by disgruntled Twitter users in response to refusing a snow day for the campus.)

The Board of Trustees echoed Wise's emphasis on respect in a supporting statement that lauded "scholarship framed in respect and courtesy,"  wished to ensure that "students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views," and prohibited "disrespectful and demeaning speech."

Emails from students, parents, alumni, and even fund-raisers released in response to a freedom of information request reveal that respect was also a theme in these lobbying missives.  One student wrote, "If I happen to register for Mr. Salaita's course, how could I respectfully engage in conversation and learn material?"   As the reporter noted, many of these emails used the same language and may have followed a shared template.

On the blog of the American Association of University Professors, John K. Wilson mocked this sanctifying of respect at UIUC:

Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.

Although I would avoid citing Hitler in any online argument, I would tend to support Wilson's position for two basic reasons.  First of all, respect doesn't necessarily support a good education.  Having watched virtuoso teaching in the University of California for decades, I know that a willingness to overstep bounds of comfort and propriety often distinguishes a memorable pedagogical performance from a forgettable class session.  Second, institutionalizing respect makes all forms of protest impossible.  At my 1987 Harvard graduation I joined other advocates for divestiture from apartheid South Africa by carrying distinctive red balloons and wearing large lapel pins in solidarity.  My parents were horrified at the disrespect students were showing for the occasion, but I certainly don't regret my participation.  How many activists groups have been charged with disrespect in my lifetime?  The Guerrilla Girls?  Act Up?  Protestors in Ferguson have also been chastised for their supposed "disrespect for police."

Of course, Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer has also been an important site of debate about the activist political stands that people take online.  The show of force by a militarized police force armed with anti-terrorism weaponry, the arrests of journalists and elected representatives, and blame-the-victim press releases and reporting has only stoked anger.  Among black Twitter users, the ability to control self-presentation and counter stereotypes of criminality has been just one of the issues playing out in the #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag.  Other hashtags emphasize proper names as a point of reference (#Ferguson, #MikeBrown) or the body at risk (#HandsUp, #HandsUpDontShoot).  The metadata matters, as Zeynep Tufekci points out in a posting on "Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson," especially when the code running on social media shields users from material that doesn't sell products or pander to personalization.

Just this week MIT Professor Noel Jackson staged what many saw as an over-the-top online rant about the absence of material about Ferguson on the Twitter feeds of prominent digital humanities faculty and about the supposed lack of concern among DHers about politics or race more generally.  (Although Jackson seems to feel that he is breaking new ground, this is actually not that new an argument. In Debates in the Digital Humanities Tara McPherson makes it in "Why are the Digital Humanities So White?" and I make it in "Hacktivism and the Humanities.")  In a  Storify created by Adeline Koh about "The Digital Humanities, Race & Politics (or the Lack Thereof)" Jackson's wrath about digital humanities "bullies" reaches bombastic proportions, as does his vitriol about his fellow white, tenured faculty.  He calls out people by name for unfollowing him and even reposts threatening-sounding text messages.

"Niceness" might seem to be an even more compliant, feminized, and passive stance in academia than "respect," but it does have its defenders.  For example, in "Why Digital Humanities is Nice," Tom Scheinfeldt claims that DH is concerned with method rather than theory and therefore is naturally less contentious in its interpersonal relations.  Recently -- in an article for Differences -- Koh has challenged this convention of niceness as a coercive social contract intended to police behavior.  (See resources at DHPoCo for more about the work of Koh and her collaborators.)

So what do we have left if we shouldn't settle for just being "nice" or "respectful"? In Designing Culture, FemTechNet co-founder Anne Balsamo lists the principle of "intellectual generosity" first among feminist virtues that include "confidence," "humility," "flexibility," and "integrity."  As Balsamo writes, intellectual generosity includes "the sincere acknowledgement of the work of others" that fosters "intellectual risk-taking and courageous acts of creativity."

As all this boils around the Internet, I've been watching the work of the other FemTechNet co-founder, Alexandra Juhasz, as a model for how to put the intellectualism and activism of that kind of generosity into practice.  For example, Juhasz has been sharing Palestine Docs and other resources for teaching.  I see this spirit of sharing among other FemTechNet participants, who are circulating different versions of the so-called Ferguson Syllabus, which began as #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter.    You can check out a Google docs version of the syllabus, as well as a version posted on About.com.

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