Thursday, October 24, 2019

Academic Freedom - redux.

David Robinson, Executive Director of CAUT, gave a plenary address at UBC's fall meeting of the faculty association.  I was able to catch most of it and the following Q&A squeezed in between one-on-one meetings with students from my Ethnographic Film Methods course.

The talk was informative in a number of ways. For one thing, there is a big legal difference between Academic Freedom (AF) in Canada vs the US. In the US  AF is protected under their First Amendment and thus is governed by notions of free expression. In Canada there is no equivalent constitutional protection. Instead, AF in Canada is governed by labour law and most of the legal presidents stem from Labour Relations Board decisions.  This means that freedom of expression issues (i.e. notions of unrestrained speech) do not apply in Canada for academics. However, there is a special protection that merits discussion.

Under labour law most every other group of employees can be fired for insubordination (criticizing one's boss or employer).  Faculty have a protected right to publicly criticize our employer (i.e. Heads, Deans, Administrators, etc.)  We can not be fired or disciplined for critiquing, or opposing the perspectives, positions, or directives of our leadership.  AF also protects "robust" debate and discussion even to the point of intemperate comments (though what was an acceptable intemperate comment was not discussed while I was at the meeting).

Robinson also noted that AF is constrained by law - i.e. faculty can't defend their expressions or actions if they involve harassment, hate speech (as legally defined),  or any other violation of provincial or federal law. This was an important point of Robinson's talk as he then turned to a discussion of respectful workplace policies which he described as attempts at legislating niceness.  If I followed his point correctly, becuase 'niceness' or civility is 'subjective' (as opposed to the 'objectivity' of law), it is an unreasonable limitation on AF.

A number of questions arose wherein speakers posed hypothetical scenarios in which they had critiqued power and then were tone policed.  Robinson responded by saying that not being nice wasn't grounds for having one's AF violated. To give him his due, he also stated several times that each situation is differnt and that generalizations don't speak to specific cases. But the gist was that civility and niceness are mechanisms of social control and therefore are insufficient as a grounds to impede or deny a faculty member's AF.

I asked a question about politics of disruption (citing the case of Alan Soroka at UBC).  An apartheid era government official had been invited to speak at UBC in the late 1970s. Soroko was part of a political demonstration that among other tactics attempted to disrupt the talk. I've written about that moment previously.  At the end of the day Soroka kept his job and UBC's senate enacted an academic policy.  Robinson's response was that the heckler's option (that's what he called it) was a violation of the speakers AF and essentially any faculty member who organizes a protest that shuts down a hate speaker would likely find themselves up the preverbal creek (my gloss).

The crux of the matter is that of civility. I would in general concur with Robinson's formulation. Yet, I have actually witnessed moments when individuals use ad hominem, disparaging, personal slights to 'critique' colleagues. Can one claim these are just cultural differences? Can one shrug it off as simply the thrust and parry of a fair fight? What are our thoughts on sexist behaviours? Is academic freedom properly deployed to justify a one person's constant interruption  of another speaker? Is a mocking tone or a clever insult acceptable? It would seem that according to some interpretations that is all acceptably protected by Academic Freedom.  Yet, I find it hard to accept that being a jerk should really be protected by academic freedom.

Each one of us, in the actually existing moments of our lives, have had moments of being angry, intemperate, uncivil, rude. Few of us do this as a regular course of events. No one should be penalized for those moments of lost composure. Perhaps our health was failing us, maybe our personal lives were in turmoil, or we were finding our workplace overly stressful. In these moments we can find ourselves in situations in which we might strike out in ways that are less than civil. There needs to be allowances for such moments. But how do we deal with those among us who use their positions, their sense of entitlement, to constantly push the boundaries of civility, to harangue, to speak disparaging, to snipe and snap, to foment rumour. Is one’s position as a faculty member sufficient to exempt one from a sense of decency in dealing with those around us? I think not.

It may be that Academic Freedom entitles jerks- I hope not. It seems to me that when one uses their academic freedom to launch barrages of personal snipes, cat calls, and disparaging critiques they may well be engaging in variant of what David Robinson called the hecklers option - and even for Robinson’s fairly liberal take on Academic Freedom the heckler’s option was not protected by Academic Freedom.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Housekeeping Notes.

I regularly (about every 4-6 months) go over older blog posts editing and deleting them.  Recently I removed about a dozen posts from several of my blogs. For reference I author about half a dozen+ blogs: a research blog , a local area politics blog   an anthropology teaching blog a blog about trees  .  Some are a bit out of date, like my in support of public education blog others are used more as a static page, like my recent book blog  I even have a somewhat out of date running blog for anthropology: (I very likely need to do some editing on that running blog).  

Those are just some of blogs I run. I cycle through them from time to time deleting, pruning, tending and editing on an irregular cycle (every four to six months as it suits me). Links get lost, posts lose relevance, etc.. I had one post on digital privacy (from about 2014)  that was clearly linked somewhere and all the hits to my site were focussed on that post and seemed to be coming from Russia. So I removed that post for several weeks and then, recently, reposted it as new to get away from the strange hits swamping the site . 

I appreciate that when people look at things in isolation, and do not understand the bigger picture, it makes it hard to appreciate that there is no particular reason why I recently removed a dozen items or so from my blogs (from minor complaints to commentaries on museum displays to notes on a UNA director meeting form 6 years ago and a range of other little posts) – they simply struck me as no longer relevant.  And those were simply the most recent batch from a month or two ago.  

There is a fair use issue if my work is reproduced in full without my prior informed consent. I do not consent to my work being published without my express approval. If you are intersted in publishing any of my work on these various blogs please ensure that you have my agreement. I usually agree, but sometimes I might not, and I often wish to modify an item for print publication.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Digital Privacy

In the post-Snowden world is there any sort of real expectation of digital privacy? We can – and should- rail against such intrusive acts of government into communications that we have been told are private.  The surveillance of the state into the private affairs of individuals is an insidious form of violation. However, what does one make of the growing trend of digital citizens to self reveal in places that are for all intents and purposes the digital equivalent of highway billboards?  Here the individual can’t blame an intrusive outside agency.  Rather, the individual puts the disclosures and publicity out there themselves.

Politicians tend to get stuck more frequently than the rest of us.  Witness the feckless Irish politician forced to resign after sending ‘spanking’ messages to women while in the Irish parliament.   Or Raymand Lam, a young NDP candidate, who with drew from the election after facebook photos of him circulated. Both of these politicians found themselves in the public eye for behaviours that flouted public sensibilities. 

Politicians, however, are not alone: the list of folks like, teachers, lawyers, or doctors, who interact with the public in the course of their normal work, who have been outed via social media for violating social sensibilities is growing.  To a certain extent this is a category of people who are held to higher social standards.  They should know better.  Court decisions have consistently held teachers to a higher standard of behaviour, even when not at work!  This has extended into social media where teachers, in particular given the special trust society has placed in them (loco parentis) to care for legal minors, find a particular needto create privacy firewalls. 

However, there is the grand ocean of most other people who perplexingly place all kinds of information out there into cyberspace.  I sometimes wonder if they know what they are doing.  Is this deliberate?  Or, did they misunderstand the privacy controls on the social medium they are posting to.

In my role as a university professor I know that just about everything that I say might be blogged, tweeted, or posted somewhere – quite likely not in a way that I might like.  There might even be videos There is even that special place of shame –ratemyprof- that gives students license to say the damnedest things about their faculty.  I might not like this but it is part of the practical reality of the social world within which I work and teach. 

I do try and pay attention to what I actually control online.  I think about emails that I send (even so I am like most other people and there are emails that I might rather wish I hadn’t sent).  I carefully edit and reedit my blog posts (but still typos creep in).  I focus upon commenting on information that is in the public domain.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the borders of public, quasi-public, and private online.

I consider any information a person has posted online that is available to anyone with a browser (and is not hidden behind a privacy wall or password) material in the public domain.  I presume that if an author doesn’t want me to read something they won’t post it online or, at the very least, will post it into a closed forum or other controlled space.  However, it seems that more and people are posting things online that they consider to be quasi-private or safe places that no one they know knows about.  While I find that a strange conception, it is important for one to consider this on two levels.

First this seems to indicates changing ideas of privacy and divergent perceptions of public/private divides.  Second, and more practically, authors who post in this fashion need to consider the fact that people they don’t think will see what they post will in fact see it.  I’m not sure what to make of the first point.  If someone posts comments on a blog that they think isn’t findable but I have found it am I supposed to ‘know’ that it is really private and advert my eyes?  I’m left wondering how am I supposed to really know.  That brings me to the second point, which I find easier to make sense of.  If you don’t want someone to read what you are posting don’t put it out there.  At the very least place it behind a password or make it totally anonymous.

At the core of things we can all take a step forward and consider our digital citizenship.  We should, I think, start from the perspective that anything we put online might be seen by anyone.  If we want a limited circle of folks to see our posts then we need to take a little bit of initiative to place our work into a quasi or totally private space.  Put a header somewhere saying "read but don't repost." Or, better yet  use an old fashioned paper diary.

Ultimately the best approach is to be aware.  Everyone from acquaintances to potential employers check people out online.   Our governments and large corporations do it industrial scale, but we are all out there in cyberspace.  The best approach is to make an informed decision each time we consider posting, texting, blogging, or emailing something.   If it's about someone, ask yourself if you would say it to them face-to-face.  If its a rant consider calling up a good friend first.