Friday, March 27, 2015

as usual, i have a lot to say about a thing...

I feel like the library world needs its own rally to restore sanity right now. There are some loud voices on extreme ends of certain issues, but I think the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, like with US politics. There are some people from outside the field saying some pretty nasty things and I honestly feel like the vitriol has pushed some major issues to the side.

What the hell am I talking about? I'm talking about Lisa Rabey getting sued by Joe Murphy. I'm talking about the reductionist nature of the where the rhetoric has ended up. People who don't work in the field, who've never met any of the people involved, have turned this case into a lot of things it was not. As someone who was close to the case for several reasons, I feel obliged to speak on a few things. 

First, I've met Joe Murphy and worked with him on several projects, one being a special issue of a journal he was editing and I wrote an article for, and the other being a talk series at Yale that he invited me to speak at. He never sexually harassed me, nor did he sexually harass anyone in my presence. 

Second, I know Lisa Rabey personally, and quite well. I don't believe she ever lied. I know she went to a conference, and was told stories about Joe by others, and decided to tweet about what she heard. 

You don't care about my personal opinion, but I'm going to give it to you anyway. I've been a librarian for over 10 years now, and I feel I have a bit of insight into the profession that some outsiders are missing when they look at this case. 

First, I do worry about people's reputation being ruined based on lies. That's wrong. But I worry that people can get sued for tweeting a completely genuine opinion about someone. Maybe Lisa did not use the right words. I personally would not have used the phrasing she used, because I am a far more timid person than she is. But I think it's telling that she could be sued over her words, while there are men on Twitter right now saying vile things to her and others involved in the case, and even threatening violence, but they will not get sued. There's a power dynamic at play here and to pretend there's not is disingenuous. 

I also think that we're in a murky area when we talk about sexual harassment and even sexual assault. A lot of women, myself included, are only just now being exposed to new rhetoric and the stories of others that are causing us to look back at our own life experiences and re-evaluate them. For years we were told that we were being treated in ways deemed acceptable by society, that it's now clear were not, in fact, acceptable. Many of us are horrified to realize that things that happened to us in the past crossed lines and we can finally talk about that out loud, and the effect it had on us. But that doesn't by any means that there's a clear standard for what is sexual harassment or sexual assault. We're all still working this shit out, and it's icky, and it's difficult, and it's not fun for anyone. 

So here's the thing. Having met Joe Murphy, having dealt with him professionally, I did not speak out on his behalf when accusations were made against him, because the truth of the matter was that I honestly couldn't in good conscience do so. Knowing that Lisa was basing her comments on things people had said to her, and having had similar experiences at conferences myself (though NOT involving Joe, let's be clear about that) I felt I had no right to question these women's accounts. To me, there were enough creepy dudes in the field who acted in this way, that it all seemed very plausible. 

So where are these women now? They have chosen not to be a part of this. That's their decision. You can judge them however you want, but I mentioned before that I'm a timid person, so I wonder if I would have had the courage to come forward. As I said  before, sexual harassment is a murky thing. Let's not pretend it's as easy as just saying "I was assaulted." Because it's not. We have our own guilt. Did I get too drunk? Did I flirt? Was I showing too much cleavage? Society has trained us to blame ourselves and we do. So it gets really hard to step forward and point a finger at someone in public when we bear so much of the weight of our own degradation. Margaret H. Willison posted a link to this article, which I think really speaks to the insidiousness of harassment:

I also think there's another reason that more people didn't speak out on Joe's behalf, besides themselves having seen this kind of behavior by other library dudes at conferences. There had been, and may well still be, that whole library rock star trend thing happening. While I feel like the profession does in fact benefit by having dynamic, passionate people speaking on its behalf, I think there began to be a disconnect between the people in the trenches, working actual library jobs, and the people speaking on their behalf at big conferences and venues. Increasingly these people were leaving full-time librarianship to go into consulting or professional speaking, and those of us still working full time in the field didn't feel like these people represented us. We didn't like them getting all the attention or winning all the awards, while we felt like we did all the work. For more on that see Julie Jurgens's excellent post ego, thy name is librarianship, or my article on the topic in The Journal of Creative Library Practice.

Thankfully, I honestly do think I've seen this trend dying down, but I think there was a lot of resentment happening for awhile there towards people who seemed to be more passionate about their personal brand than they were about libraries. I'm more than certain that this resentment led me, and others, to judge some people harshly and perhaps unfairly (and in other cases, entirely fairly.) But I don't doubt some good people got grouped in with the bad. I will not give my opinion of Joe Murphy and where he falls on that spectrum. It's not for me to say. I'm trying really hard to balance being honest with being fair, because I do think we could use a little frank discussion here, but I don't think we should vilify anyone in the process.

The point I mean to make with those last 2 paragraphs is just a long-winded way of saying it's possible Joe was not very liked by some people in library-land, and while I'm certain those people weren't plotting his doom, they also weren't going to be bothered to speak up on his behalf.

Now I want to make it very clear that these are just my impressions of the situation. I could be very wrong. Sometimes I'm bad at gauging a situation, and I think I'm speaking on behalf of people other than myself, and I'm waaaaaaaay off base. To me it just feels like maybe some of us are thinking some of these things, but we're dancing around them. If I'm right, then hopefully the sunshine will act as a disinfectant for some of the toxic stuff going on right now in our field. If I'm wrong, then please know that I'm just trying to work though some of these issues and push the conversation in a productive direction, and forgive me for speaking out of turn. I care so deeply about this profession and this community, I don't want us to waste any more of our energy than is completely necessary on in-fighting, when we should be directing that energy towards fighting for libraries.

Going forward, I want us to be able to speak openly without fear of lawsuit, and I want us to be able to go to conferences without worrying about getting harassed OR getting our reputations ruined. It's gonna be tricky for awhile. I don't have a prescription here. Conferences are fun, and you are grown adults who should be able to have fun and flirt and hook up if you want. But please remember to treat your colleagues as colleagues, and not potential hookups. Don't go out of your way to make someone feel self-conscious about their appearance or their gender or whatever. The discussion surrounding codes of conduct are a very good start. Also, don't use the profession as your personal dating service or as a vehicle to advance your personal brand. People might not tell you to your face, but it generally rubs them the wrong way. Or me anyway. There I go again speaking on behalf of everyone.

I'm going to shut the comments off on my blog for a bit, because honestly I'm afraid of trolls. This may sound counter-intuitive when this post is calling for discourse and discussion, but I think Twitter is a more public forum to have those discussions than here. Also, I'm not a brave soul and I'm afraid of people saying mean things to me in my personal space.

Again, I'm sorry if this missive is way off-base. I love this profession. I love the people in it. I feel extremely protective of the profession AND of the community, and I had to get some of this stuff out of my system so I could move forward in peace.