If you’re here from Library Journal, welcome!
For regular readers, I have an article in today’s Library Journal about ALA’s new statement of appropriate conduct for conferences. It covers the history and context behind this sort of statement as well as why it’s valuable. Go have a read.
Now that you’re back: I get a lot of questions about the statement. I’d like to answer some of them here, and invite you to ask other questions you might have in the comments. A disclaimer first, though — here are some things I am not:
- ALA’s lawyer
- a lawyer at all
- an ALA staffer
- an HR expert
- possessed of the sole or definitive interpretation of the statement
Just so we’re clear on that. I was involved with drafting the statement and I am somewhat familiar with other conferences’ policies and some of the incidents that have motivated or been addressed by them, but I am not the final word on this, and I encourage you to do your own research and analysis. I think the statement is most valuable when it serves as a beginning – a point of departure for us to have conversations about who does and doesn’t feel included in ALA and why and what we can do about that, how our backgrounds and experiences differ and what we can learn from that. How to, in the statement’s words, exercise our “shared responsibility to create and hold [the conference] environment” we want to have. So let’s talk.
And now, some questions!
What happened to impel people to adopt this statement?
The statement was not prompted by any incident of harassment at an ALA conference.
There have been a lot of incidents of harassment in the worlds of technology, science fiction, open culture, gaming, etc., and in response to those, conferences in those worlds have increasingly been adopting statements of this type (usually called codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies). Quite a few librarians who are also involved in those worlds have asked me and others over the past year whether ALA has such a policy; the statement is in response to this interest, and in advance of future need (though of course I hope it will never be needed!).
This does not mean that there has never been harassment at ALA or other library conferences. I had heard of some incidents of sexual harassment in the past (although Sarah Houghton is the only person I know of who has blogged about them). (Edit: I’m wrong; Lisa Rabey has blogged about this, too. Which I knew and should have remembered; I apologize for the oversight.) In the course of drafting this policy, I have heard about more incidents, rooted in race and gender identity/expression as well as sex. (Please note that the language of the statement, following existing ALA language on anti-discrimination, is not just about sexual harassment but specifically names a variety of groups which might be targets of hate speech or discrimination.) Some of these incidents were addressed quietly by conference services; some of these were unaddressed and unreported.
This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of the statement. If people are being harassed, let’s make sure they know they have recourse. And let’s talk about it. Let’s not quietly assume that conferences are good places for everyone when they’re not.
Isn’t this an attack on free speech?
I have lots of feelings on this, but the short version is, “no; the opposite, actually”.
One: I do think there are valid intellectual freedom concerns, particularly since it’s impossible for a statement of this type to delineate permitted and forbidden conduct with absolute clarity. (I invite you to try sometime; it’s hard! We argued a lot about this in the drafting. Any bright-line rule you state will have situations where it is unambiguously wrong, and any attempt to be comprehensive will fail. A policy can do no more than state principles and provide guidance. That said, I do wish the statement had clearer language on the process of investigation and resolution, how far the discretion of conference services goes; I think due process safeguards are especially important when you can’t state absolute rules.)
Two: The statement is fundamentally about being a socially competent human being. There are lots of things that you and I think but don’t say, all the time, because we recognize that they would be inappropriate for the context we’re in. This isn’t an imposition on free speech; it’s a recognition that we live in contexts with other people, that our words affect them, and that it’s incumbent upon us to speak in ways that treat others with dignity and promote the kind of world we’d like to live in.
Three: I believe a statement of this type, on balance, promotes free speech.
Yes, it may discourage some people from saying some things of particular types.
But it also articulates, to everyone who might have felt marginalized or disenfranchised in this context, that their perspectives are welcome. It encourages whole classes of people to attend and to participate.
I had been active in code4lib for perhaps a year before they adopted their anti-harassment policy. And I did not realize until that point that I had spent the whole time looking over my shoulder waiting for the attack to come. Being a woman in tech is sufficiently dangerous that mere consistent decent behavior by the overwhelming majority of my colleagues was not enough to dispel the feelings of threat; I needed to actually see these values articulated and see prominent members of the community (including men) rise in defense of them. Now I feel like I’m not just someone who hangs out in code4lib – I’m a code4libber, and my voice matters as much as anyone’s.
I’ve never feel threatened at ALA, but I know that not all my colleagues feel comfortable there. And I am guessing there are many more people whose voices we never even hear. They matter to me, and I’d like to hear them.
Four: If you’ve never had a problem at a conference and you’ve never heard of people having a problem, I imagine this feels like it makes things worse: everything was fine, and now there are limits that there weren’t formerly.
But that is a big if. If you’ve previously experienced conferences as unsafe or unwelcoming — if your starting point is not “everything’s okay” — then an explicit statement that you are welcome and that you have recourse if threatened makes things better.
If you are feeling like the only implications of this are negative, I encourage you to seek out people who feel differently, and to listen generously to their experiences.
Does this mean ALA is now a nanny state?
ALA has neither the staffing nor the inclination to run around policing everything you say.
Does the statement allow for [action]?
Remember, I am not the definitive interpreter of ALA policy. I think if you’re wondering if [action] is legitimate, you should talk to the actual audience for that action. How do they react? Are they laughing at your funny joke, or laughing in that nervous way that people do when they don’t want to admit they’re uncomfortable? Do they say go for it, or call you out for proposing something dumb or tone-deaf? Do they seem okay with it except then you realize over time your audience has become more and more homogeneous because everyone unlike you is drifting away? Do they say, ohmygosh that rad, or, you know, I’m not okay with this because…
Me personally, I’ve rolled with it as a Battledecks speaker when an underwear slide came up (and I was damn funny, too). And I’ve been at a dinner with remarkably copious bourbon flights where one of my companions had to leave early to go to a burlesque show featuring bedazzled junk. And while I’m at it I can’t make social plans locally in late August because all my friends are at Burning Man. So me, personally? I am probably okay with anything you want to do, as long as the people with you are okay with it too.
So talk to them. Ask. And if you’re in public space and just anyone might wander by and so you can’t ask? Well. Think.
The statement has [problem].
It may well! I don’t think it’s perfect, and I doubt anyone involved in drafting or adopting it does, either.
I’m a startup technologist. I believe in getting the minimum viable product out there quickly. You can spend all the time you want adding and polishing bells and whistles, but fundamentally you don’t know what’s going to work until you put it out there in front of people and see how they react. So you make your MVP. And you see how it goes, and you iterate.
Here you go. That’s the google doc that was used to draft this thing; you can see the entire process. Anyone with the link (that means you!) can comment.
There are also traditional venues available to you, like ALA Council, or its executive board or conference services committee. (Remember, all ALA meetings are open.) So talk! (And don’t forget that ALA staff have to be able to actually implement the policy.)