I recently learned the term “microaggression”, used to describe small incidents of thoughtless prejudice or unintended discrimination that together can add up to a miserable catalog for those who experience it. Wikipedia tells us that the phrase was coined by a Harvard psychiatrist in 1970 in the context of racism, but was soon expanded to sexism and thence to “the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as poor people, disabled people and sexual minorities.” The discussion I listened to, between free speech champion Tom Slater and comedian Ava Vidal, touched on several such examples. My initial reaction was eye-rolling despair for our modern times — such as that I typically reserve for, say, “all must have prizes”. Many examples of “microaggression” seemed born of curiosity, an interest in (but lack of fluency in the language of) otherness, naïvety rather than bigotry. I nodded vigorously along with Tom when he suggested that “overreacting” runs the risk of choosing division over unity.
I was pulled up short when Ava pointed out the irony of “a white male telling us what to be offended by, telling us to brush it under the carpet – when it’s not affecting your life.” Touché.
I have been reminded of the discussion in several other contexts since – for example, the UK government’s commitment to “name blind” recruitment and university application processes, and less positively, the ongoing examples shared to #everydaysexism and #womeninSTEM, and the microaggressive stance taken by clickbait news outlets to stories such as “women don’t understand fracking“. And, closer to home, in the context of discussing “codes of conduct” for conferences. I was surprised to learn that it is now commonplace for conference organizers to publish such documents (e.g. SLA, LIBER, InfoToday, O’Reilly, ALA) — not least because they all seem pretty much to boil down to obvious good manners and non-discriminatory behavior. Surely none of us really need a code of conduct to stop us engaging in intimidation or indecent assault? Surely it’s not necessary for organizations (such as Stanford University Libraries) to suggest that employees should not attend conferences that have not codified acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in this way? Again with the eye-rolling — I mean, what’s the most inappropriate thing that’s ever happened to you, or that you’ve ever done, at a conference? How risky is the conference environment to your emotional wellbeing? I imagine something quite anodyne, and not very much.
And again with being pulled up short. Taking the time to read a few codes of conduct reminds me of several examples from our own little world, where Twitter backchannels have got out of hand or misjudged jokes have caused unhappiness — and it turns out many people I know have been on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, from hurtful comments to uninvited attention. I was even reminded that scantily clad “booth babes” used to roam the halls with giveaways at London’s “Online Information” exhibition (and no doubt elsewhere, astonishing though it seems from today’s vantage point); a Library Journal posting shares more examples. This is where the microaggression theory comes in. Of course we don’t need to be told how to behave at the macro level. But we can probably all think of examples where we’ve witnessed, been subject to, or even perpetrated some behavior that makes us uncomfortable at the micro level. I think there are a number of reasons why conference organizers are starting to take this issue seriously:
- Livestreaming / videoing of conferences. You may judge a comment to be appropriate for those you see around you — but what about the sensitivities of those you can’t see, both in realtime, and for posterity?
- Tweeting and other social media coverage of conferences. Perhaps it’s the relative anonymity of channelling our commentary through an inanimate object, or the challenges of compacting our thoughts into a character limit, or the haste with which livetweeting happens, but not all participants in social media discussion are on the same etiquette spectrum.
- Lower tolerance for perceived discrimination. I don’t mean “people are too sensitive these days”; I mean we recognize that microaggression can open a door to (or be a window onto) aggression that is not so micro.
- Culture of accountability. Conference organizers clearly see that what happens during their event not only reflects on them but may be blamed on them if it is considered that efforts to prevent or address discrimination have been insufficient.
A code of conduct could be perceived as heavy-handed, a blunt tool, casting a negative light on the event. Or it can be perceived as a thoughtful reminder of the breadth of sensitivities we should be alert to in our own behavior, and a framework for giving us the confidence to step in if we have concerns for others. I for one would feel more able to defuse a situation with a gentle, broad “I think you might be straying into Code of Conduct territory” than having to define and call out a specific transgression in the moment.
This then gets to the heart of the matter: what to do about transgressions. Event organizers encourage those who have witnessed, or feel they’ve been subjected to, inappropriate behavior to report it to the conference team, with the assurance that it will be dealt with confidentially, anonymously and comprehensively (e.g. offending parties being immediately removed from the event). This seems strong and supportive and reasonable until we consider that it is judgement without trial, with the transgressor unaware of precisely what they have done to upset whom, and therefore unable either to defend themselves or to learn from the experience. The phrase “at the discretion of the conference organizers” again seems reasonable, but thinking it through from my own perspective as a volunteer for several organizations that run conferences, I’d rather have a clearer course of action set out than run the risk of getting it wrong in the moment. That phrase almost feels like shorthand for, “we’re pretty sure this isn’t going to happen so we don’t really need to go to the lengths of figuring out what we’d do if it does.” And what if a member of the conference organizing committee is involved in the transgression (on either side)? Could we be certain of an unbiased analysis of the facts? Some codes of conduct therefore are accompanied by incident handling guidelines, while others propose adapting anti-bullying protocols that involve open and / or mediated discussion.
I know several readers of The Scholarly Kitchen are volunteers for or employees of organizations that run events. Please share your comments if you have been involved in discussions about Codes of Conduct and are happy to expand on these thoughts with your own experiences, ideas and examples — I think this is an important topic for us to explore, and a good example of where we can benefit from collaboration. For those seeking to explore Codes of Conduct in more depth, there are more examples of transgressions, template documents and links to other blog postings here.