20 January 2014

The Content of One's Characters

This miniessay is going to seem a little bit off-topic at first, and it may well come off as a rant. That rant, however, is not actually what it seems to be: I'm ranting against a peculiar, disreputable, and inappropriate attempt to impose ex post cost/benefit analysis of consequences upon ex ante statements of ethics and behavior.

On 10 January — in one of the badly-structured-and-clearly-misedited pieces for which PW isn't just famous, but notorious — Michael Kelley demonstrated that he is not a journalist.1 Kelley's piece starts off with a badly-worded, intellectually dishonest "question for discussion":

Does the American Library Association have an issue with harassment at its conferences?

Michael Kelley, "Check it Out with Michael Kelley: ALA's Code of Conduct," Publisher's Weekly (posted 10 Jan 2014). The article goes rapidly downhill from there; opening with one of these questions of fact "even though, Ghikas acknowledged, there have been incidents" is at best disingenuous and cutesy, and probably worse.

The underlying problem with the piece is that it fails to state its premise, and in fact does its very best to avoid acknowledging that premise. It's a pretty easy to recognize problem. The ALA calls its policy a "Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences" — that is, it is a statement of standards. The majority of Kelley's piece, though, refers to this set of standards with the inappropriate shorthand "code"; indeed, much of the implied criticism of the policy is that it's not specific enough concerning the consequences for violating the policy, and it extends that criticism to other conventions.

Well, duuuuh.

That is the primary danger of both nebulous policies2 and overspecific codes — especially "zero-tolerance" codes that take away discretion from decisionmakers who are actually applying judgment (however imperfectly, on however imperfect an understanding of facts). On the one hand, those who are primarily motivated by avoiding punishment want to know the limits of what they can be punished for. Sometimes those limits really do need to be defined with some degree of precision... and there will nonetheless be exceptions; as an example, a wide-ranging discussion of Leni Reifenstahl and D.W. Griffith would in all probability result in conduct breaching the first and third of the ALA's prohibited behaviors, however laudable the intellectual and scholarly agenda intended for that discussion.3 The simultaneous strength and weakness of the ALA policy is that it neither draws an unmistakeable line around what precise behaviors violate the aspirational behavioral standards, nor define what constitutes an "eye" that can be forfeited for gouging out someone else's.

None of this is to say that guarantees of due process should be entirely absent. Indeed, guarantees of due process are the best protection against abuse of policies that go farther than the law does in restricting behavior. Mr Kelley's implicit objection might bear more weight if the policy itself (or, if a seasoned policy, the history of its application) demonstrated some real chance of overzealous "enforcement" or of a zero-tolerance core combined with draconian consequences. However, it does not, and the structure and rhetoric of his piece focus on those perceived process defects (and the perceived/implied process defects in how the policy was adopted in the first place) instead of the policy itself. Mr Kelley's implicit criticism is that the policy is not in the form to which career criminals have become accustomed — "burglary (2d degree) = 18-24 months, and an additional 6 months if at night of an occupied dwelling" — and is therefore a failure. One must wonder how well such policies seem to work for white-collar crime... and whether anyone interested in committing white-collar crime either (a) sees it as crime in the first place or (b) is actually deterred solely by the consequences. The ethics of personal respect are not the proper subject of a cost/benefit (or risk/reward) analysis.

The saddest part of Mr Kelley's piece is that it entirely neglects the ethnic and gender demographics of the audience/membership of the ALA and its convention. Perhaps — just perhaps — Mr Kelley should have given some thought to the increasingly overt virulence of attacks on historically disproportionately-female organizations like the ALA (or, more to the point, RWA) and asked whether personal experiences in areas otherwise regarded as "safe" might be overinfluential, parallel to the mugging in a "safe" suburban environment that gets treated as substantially more threatening/newsworthy than the same event in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. That the shock value of a demonstration that "it can happen here" is often what it takes to goad even moderate changes in the standards of personal respect and behavior has some considerable resonance on this Martin Luther King Day. Unfortunately, resonances of this nature are typically ignored by two groups: Those overcomfortable in their entrenched privileged status, and those interested in exploiting others for less-than-honorable purposes while constructing complex self-serving justifications for that exploitation. Resemblance of the structures and people entrenched in commercial publishing is not merely coincidental, but being too specific would simultaneously take away from the point of this miniessay and needlessly tar those in publishing who do not behave that way with the same brush. Which is precisely the point of wanting to be judged on the content of one's character and not the color of one's skin, or the color of the skin of fictional characters depicted on the cover of one's book... or on one's potential or actual value as the not-entirely-willing target of a one-night stand.

The point of the ALA policy is to state expectations of behavior. It is not to state consequences for misbehavior; that's a different (related, but different) matter. After all, one cannot effectively define appropriate consequences until the expectations of propriety are reasonably well accepted.

  1. That said, when I say "Michael Kelley" here I mean "Michael Kelley's article as edited and posted at PW." I don't know Mr Kelley, and for all I know his article was mangled and rewritten beyond recognition... which would not be the first time at that publication. The irony of that sort of thing happening at a purported news outlet engaging in that sort of shenanigans and slapping someone else's byline on a piece that misrepresents the actual work by that individual is a bit much to accept in any context, let alone this one.
  2. I don't find the ALA's policy adequate, but that's largely because I think it is overfocused on sex/gender-based harassment among a relatively privileged subset of the population. I do think it a decent start to build upon as experience dictates.
  3. More to the point, so would discussions of books concerning teen sex and teen pregnancy; of much protest literature of the fifties through seventies; and so on. An awful lot of politically-edgy topics are also harassment-edgy... and/or bring out the nutcases, like those who would censor Fahrenheit 451 because it encourages disrespect for authority and advocates adultery. I only wish that last example was entirely hypothetical — I lived through it in high school.