, ,

Thank you to all whose thoughts helped form this post. 

Coincidentally, this is the 1200th post to go live at the feminist librarian. I’ve learned a lot from this idiosyncratic labor of love. It’s been great to have y’all along for the ride.


So a thing happened last week on one of the professional listservs I subscribe to. While I’m relatively new to this listserv, having been subscribed for roughly a year, I’ve been around long enough to know this is not an isolated happening in this particular online community. Similar incidents, involving many of the same players, have happened before. More importantly for this blog post, this thing that happened follows a wider pattern, one that will be familiar to most folks guilty of “blogging while female” or “blogging while queer” or “blogging while [insert marginalized identity group here].” As a veteran of the feminist blogosphere (at seven years and counting the feminist librarian is firmly middle-aged in Internet time) I’ve seen it happen before in other forums, and will no doubt see it again. It’s a worrying pattern, a pattern of unethically leveraged power and privilege, and I believe strongly that it needs to be named as such.

Thus, this post.

I’m going to tell the story of what happened without naming names or linking to specific emails in the listserv archive. Those of you interested in reading all 91 emails in the thread can find the archive here. Scattered additional responses can also be found seeded through the listserv archive from May 19 through May 23. Many of you will have already followed the exchanges in real time. Even so, I have chosen to describe what happened in archetypal terms because my goal here is not to reopen/rehash the details of specific exchanges. Rather, I hope to point out how the dynamic at play is a familiar one to many of us, particularly those of us on the receiving end of its toxic effect, and to bear witness to the way its poisonous effect ripples out under the guise of “professional” interactions.

Simply put, regardless of specific individuals’ intent, the net effect of the interactions that took place has been to reinforce the status quo of social privilege for some and marginalization of others. Because that’s how structural prejudice works. The net effect of this particular incident (as in previous iterations of the same) has been to reinforce the status quo through a discouraging pattern of behavior, one that is identifiable to us in the “blogging while…” crowd. 

And it’s a pattern that, in this community, has been repeatedly denied, ignored, minimized, and obfuscated throughout the interaction, by multiple people who should know better (or should know enough to listen to those who do know better).

I write this post from my own relative position of privilege in the world of librarians and archivists. Although I am an early career professional I have a secure, full-time position. Many of the individuals I’ve interacted with via email in the past week have expressed legitimate fear of going “on record” about the situation due to the fact that they’re currently job seeking or otherwise job-insecure. I write this post on behalf of all of them (and with their anonymous editorial guidance) because I am in a position to do so while they are not.

That acknowledged, back to our story.

There’s a professional listserv. It’s a profession in which women are the majority, yet in this online forum, an “unmoderated” email list sponsored by the national professional organization, a single mid-career, male contributor — we’ll call him X — dominates. In a recent quantitative analysis of the top fifty contributors by volume to the listserv, over 45% of the emails are generated by X. The majority of his contributions are what’s known colloquially as “linkspam” — links to online content relevant to the field, offered up with little or no contextual explanation. 

(As someone who habitually tags, and religiously reads, “linkspam” lists made by my favorite bloggers, I recognize the value of curated links lists. However, there are legitimate views across the spectrum from “always love ‘em” to “always hate ‘em.” And content value can, and should, be separated here from the size and shape of one’s digital footprint.)

In addition, X also has a history of responding authoritatively and dismissively to the concerns of younger, primarily female, professionals who bring issues to the listserv for discussion. Time and time again, he positions himself as the arbiter of what is and is not accepted professional practice. So, as is often the case in online forums, this individual has become, over time, a sort of shorthand for those frustrated by both his specific behaviors and also what his continued presence exemplifies about the community in which he thrives.

Last week, as happens occasionally, a person spoke up, on the list, questioning this dynamic.

Does anyone else find the dominance of this one individual annoying? the Dissenter asks (the Dissenter happens to have male name, though his student status marks him as an individual in the early stages of his career). Perhaps we could manage this individual’s participation such that he did not dominate the list, leaving space for others to meaningfully participate?

This opening salvo prompts three groups of listserv participants to respond:

1. The Fixers. These individuals offer individualistic solutions to the Dissenter’s problem: “If you don’t like X’s contributions, the delete button is always an option!” Regardless of tone — condescending or supportive — the problem with this type of response is that it places the burden of managing what is a community-wide issue on the person who has identified it, not the community as a whole. Too often, the “fix” serves to further isolate the Dissenter, and others like them, from the community rather than providing a way to increase participation.

2. The Defenders. These individuals categorically deny that the Dissenter has a point, asserting that X’s contributions bring much value to the list; over time, these assertions grow ever more fulsome. X labors tirelessly on behalf of the profession yet gets only criticism in return! X is generous with his wisdom and you ungrateful children fail to recognize its worth! 

This type of response works to turn a discussion that should be about how to share community space (recall our original request: “could we manage this person’s participation … leaving space for others to meaningfully participate?”) into a discussion about the value of X’s contributions (and, implicitly, X as an individual). This is a common dynamic in social justice circles, where raising questions about structural discrimination all too often results in defensive reactions by individuals and their protectors who make it personal (“But she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body!” “But he grew up poor!” “I couldn’t possibly be anti-gay, some of my best friends are lesbians!”).

This defense of the status quo, in turn, prompts…

3. …The Supporters of our original Dissenter to speak up, adding their voices and perspectives to the discussion. Yet they’ve already learned, by watching how the Fixers and Defenders responded, to speak up in careful and conciliatory terms: “Oh, no, we aren’t questioning the value of X’s participation — indeed, we find much of value in his perspective! We are only asking for a little more room at the table.” This apologetic approach, while (sometimes) effective in protecting the Supporter from accusations of unprofessionalism, of personal attacks, of mean-spirited snark, unfortunately also undermines the Dissenter/Supporter position by turning what should be non-negotiable expectation of respectful, welcoming behavior that is the responsibility of all community members into an “ask” which the powerful within the group can grant or deny.

Eventually, after a period of silence, X himself steps into the fray. Notably, he chooses to do so not in response to the (male) Dissenter but in specific response to a female Supporter, a young professional. This is a woman who has articulated clearly how his dominance on the list has the effect of silencing others, and who has offered several community solutions which could potentially meet the needs of both Defenders and Supporters. In mansplainy tones, X ignores her community-based solutions and goes full-on Fixer, suggesting the issue is her (and others’) ineptness with technology rather than his manner of participation in the shared space of the online forum.

If only these children would shut up and sit down until they learned the proper skills to participate on my terms. It’s simple, really.

Another key feature of these interactions is that X has a habit of responding to criticism “off list,” via direct email. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he may be unaware of how this action comes across to the (often young, female) recipients of his unsolicited emails. Rather than being some sort of polite follow-up, it’s a bright red flag for any woman with experience “blogging while female.”

Rule number one for many female bloggers is to never, ever let conversations move out of the public realm. For most of us, uninvited contact by men attempting to continue public debates (particularly disagreements) privately is a power play. In our experience, men who angle for private discussion are angling for the upper hand, in a space where we a) won’t be able to draw on others’ support for our position, and b) where the evidence of whatever harassment, manipulation, or abuse they engage in will be out of sight. For an older male colleague to take a disagreement with a young woman in the same field “off list” is an isolating maneuver, whether or not it’s intended as such. Most of us have learned the hard way not to engage, or to take our responses back to the public realm, rather than let backchannel condescension escalate into harassment, stalking, or worse.

(I drafted this post before the #YesAllWomen hashtag went viral on Twitter in response to the misogynist motivations of the Isla Vista shooter, but this safety-first approach to online communication with men we don’t know fits into the category of experience #YesAllWomen seeks to highlight: the ways in which we perceived-female persons negotiate the world ever-mindful of the potential of gender-motivated violence.)

Meanwhile, of course, the discussion around X and his place on the list continues. Even as the Fixer, Defender, and Supporter emails continue at a steady clip, The Feels reach new levels of intensity and spawn a second layer of response:

4. The Disaffected. The Disaffected contributors position themselves above The Feels, intermittently pointing out to the group as a whole how petty their concerns about community behavior are, suggesting that the dissenters/supporters are simply making a mountain out of a molehill.

Since some people on Twitter raised this concern, I want to explicitly acknowledge here  that walking away from a community debate/discussion/argument you are not able to participate in (for whatever reason) is a form of self care and never needs justification. You get to set boundaries for yourself, full stop.

The Disaffected, however, are not engaging in self care (or not only that). Instead, they are Making A Point by walking out in a huff. This trivializes the concerns of the Dissenter and Supporters by sending the message that their concerns are unworthy of serious consideration, or the labor (emotional or otherwise) that it will take to address them.

5. The Concern Trolls, meanwhile, similarly position themselves as the group with a more mature perspective, over and against those who are absorbed in petty or narcissistic concerns. “Why are you all wasting time on issue Y when WORLD HUNGER” goes the concern troll’s argument. “Why are you arguing amongst yourselves when federal funding for our profession is on the chopping block?!”

Such arguments will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed modern American feminist politics, where this gambit typically takes the form of “Why are American women complaining about [equal pay, sexualization, street harassment, reproductive rights] when women in [Sudan, Iraq, China, Ukraine, Indonesia, Cuba] don’t even have [clean water, voting rights, contraceptives, are dying of AIDS].” This is a false dichotomy in which situation B is thrown up as if in competition with situation A for attention. Both A and B can be (and usually are) important. In fact, they are often interconnected. Discussing or addressing one does not equate to ignoring the other.

In this instance, how we behave toward one another as colleagues within a given professional community is intimately entangled with how we engage in growing and advocating for the profession as a whole, how effectively we are able to do our jobs, and how we mentor those who will be future leaders in the field. How we treat one another speaks volumes about how we treat those we serve professionally (or, you know, ask for funding from). It’s not a distraction from substance; it’s substantially about who and what we are as practitioners of our craft.

6. The Drama Queen. You know that guy (and yes, it’s pretty much always a guy) who stands ready to cry “censorship!” or “It’s a free country!” in any Internet context in which requests for comment moderation or policies regarding participation are under discussion? Yeah. We had that guy.

7. The Equal Opportunity Shamers. Late in the game come the Shamers, who take it upon themselves to blame and shame all participants in the debate for behaving badly. As is typical, the Shamers wait until enough mud has been slung and hurtful words exchanged that they can point to “bad” behavior on both sides and ignore the substantive issues even as they ask (or require, if they have the power) that everyone be civil.  In this instance, they invoked “professionalism” and the listserv Terms of Participation to issue general slaps on the wrist for those who, in their estimation, were contravening both.

This post facto moderation tactic does a couple of tricksy things in aid of perpetuating the status quo.

First, Shaming blurs the distinction between the Dissenter and their Supporters and the individual(s) whose behavior was initially being questioned. The Shamer slaps them collectively on the wrist for uncivil behavior, acts as the tone police, or uses a variety of other tactics to imply or even outright assert that naming the offense is as bad as — if not worse than! — the offense itself.

Such an approach is one I’m very familiar with engaging with anti-marriage-equality folks in the blogosphere, where identifying anti-gay speech or actions as, well, anti-gay will bring out cries of intolerance when comments calling queer folk child abusers are overlooked as normal or negligible (#YesAllQueers).

Second, this false equivalence of behavior has the effect of ensuring that the individual(s) whose actions have been questioned continue to believe in their rightness, while the individual(s) who have raised the questions are quashed. This is because, in the type of scenario I’m talking about here, X  began the day in a position of social privilege, and X’s challengers began the day in a position of relative vulnerability. Professionally vulnerable people who find their professional behavior under question will, quite sensibly, withdraw from the discussion. Professionally secure people will shrug because, I was only defending myself from my accusers, after all, and everyone knows how much value I bring to the table.

While seemingly neutral, treating all people the “same” with their admonishments, the Shamers’  tone policing that fails to engage with the dynamics of privilege and power is anything but neutral. Instead, it ends up serving the already powerful and doing nothing to protect the already vulnerable.

To put it another way, what we saw last week was a highly influential man who had his position at the center of a specific social group challenged by younger, less-influential (and mostly female) individuals who are also part of the same group. He, and perhaps more importantly his supporters, dismissed their concerns. They used the discourse of professionalism and the rules for participation in the forum to enforce the status quo rather than to address structural inequality.

An opportunity was lost, and we are all the poorer for it.

I’m telling this story because this pattern will be repeated, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, as a professional community, we could decide that it matters to us that all of our colleagues — no matter how young, structurally powerless, or socially vulnerable they are — feel welcomed to participate in the listserv of our profession.

We could decide it matters to us that a single individual, no matter how well-respected and valued by members of the community, takes up as much (virtual) space as he does, and we could ask him to take a step back and listen for awhile, instead of perpetually dominating the conversation. (I offer this as a voluble talker and writer who is no stranger to being asked to step back and let others’ speak.)

We could decide to value, encourage, even demand, broad-based participation and open-ended conversation rather than instructional, condescending responses. 

We could decide to cultivate playfulness, humor, nerdiness, cooperation, encouragement, and speaking truth to power in ways that “punch up” rather than “punch down.” And we could decide that these things were not incompatible with being professionals.

Yet for now, we appear to have decided that not hurting a single, powerful professional’s feelings and/or not asking him to modify his participation within the community is a more valuable goal than the goals above.

We’ve decided that giving one person a national, sponsored platform on which to disseminate his opinions in an endless stream, and in a manner that drives some of our fellow practitioners away, is more important than fostering meaningful conversation and networking for all who serve our professional goals.

On the afternoon of the day I began drafting this post, X made a contribution to the ongoing debate that I believe brings the arc of this particular story to an all-too-familiar close. Following the intervention of the Shamers, which effectively shut down the possibility of challenges by the less powerful, X saw fit to suggest that more profoundly alienating, more profoundly “abusive,” than his own behavior, is the behavior of those who post to the listserv with too little or too much of the previous messages in the thread left at the end of their emails.

Because at the end of the day, who’s the real victim here? One way or another, apparently, it’s got to be him.

Lesson learned, I guess.

I hope, in future, we revise the curriculum.