Category Archives: Political political

Digital Empathy, #ThinkTanks, and Grievances

We live in an unprecedented time. Our web connected lives let us go in and out of conversations, of our colleagues’ lives, and, on occasion, into the fray of online controversies. Such a controversy sprung up in our field over the last two weeks. Chris Bourg, Director of Libraries at MIT, was the target of sustained harassment by right wing trolls, pundits, commenters, and, in some cases, librarians. This harassment was prompted by snippets of Dr. Bourg’s keynote from Code4Lib 2018. You can watch Dr. Bourg’s keynote here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MF-B3uVZwkA&list=PLw-ls5JXzeNZc3FZMem-uLCPgiTM9IzKg&t=0s&index=6 You can read Dr. Bourg’s text here: https://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/for-the-love-of-baby-unicorns-my-code4lib-2018-keynote/

Dr. Bourg explores the problem of diversity in tech, specifically in a library context. She investigated similar ground that Junot Diaz, whom she references in the keynote, did at ALA Midwinter. Within a few weeks of Dr. Bourg’s keynote, conservative and anti-PC forces, sought out and harassed her online in many environments. Like most reactionary responses to anything happening in the field of higher education and “political correctness” the responses narrowed in on a specific grievance rather than deal with the entire keynote on diversity in tech. This narrowing focused on a citation Dr. Bourg used to talk about the way in which white guy nerd cultural artifacts discourage women and minorities from staying in tech jobs.

I will not link to these posts or these comments because they do not warrant being repeated.

It is not surprising at all that some who describes themselves as “butch, lesbian, and feminist” would be the target of sustained harassment. Our culture, especially in the right wing blogosphere and opinion engine, thrives on cutting queer folks down for speaking out against the dominant forces of oppression within our institutions. It also isn’t surprising that publications like The National Review who have found enemies in higher education wouldn’t decline an opportunity to attack the director of one of our best and brightest centers of critical thinking and education. Glancing at The National Review writer’s oeuvre we find all sorts of faults with feminism and gender inclusion in schools, universities, healthcare, yoga, Doritos, and dating apps.

What is surprising and disappointing, given the supposed political inclination of our field, is the response that the keynote saw in our online forums run by and contributed to by Librarians. While it is true that many organizations, Code4Lib and ARL included, came out in support of Dr. Bourg, underneath these organization lies a dark and toxic quagmire of reactionary attacks and harassment.

Many of these toxic social media collectives are well known to us, and the example of Dr. Bourg’s treatment made me think about libraries, social media, and attacks against social justice efforts.

The group formerly known as ALA Think Tank is one such example and the twitter bot LIS Grievances is another. On Think Tank, A user shared a conservative anti-higher education blog post from the College Fix about Dr. Bourg and commented that “This librarian claims to want to non-gender our workspaces but totally genders our likes and dislikes in the attempt!” Which led to dozens of shares and comments some in support, but most in the dog pile against Dr. Bourg. Important in this post by a fellow librarian, and the conservative blogger, is the fact that Dr. Bourg’s butch appearance is threatening to masculine and cis spaces in general, as if her appearance or her sexuality preclude her from discussions on gender in workplaces.

The problem here is not that anyone is not able to disagree about the gendered nature of Star Trek posters (Dr. Bourg is quick to point out that these are stereotypes of male dominated tech spaces), but that our supposedly inclusive profession, one where discussions about Nazis in libraries prompt long winded think pieces about neutrality and librarianship, attacks our own members with gendered, disgusting, and unthoughtful volleys.

Much like the attacks against feminists during #gamergate, reactionary forces use the shield of geek culture to allow themselves the room to attack women with impunity. This explosive reaction was from one line in a 45 minute keynote address, and yet dominated library discussions and led to threats against Bourg’s institution and herself.

On the other hand we have @LIS_Grievances. This is a bot programed to tweet “grievances” with the field with an appropriate profile image of George Constanza (although Frank was much more of the grievance type). When a disgruntled member of our field submits a “grievance” it comes out of the bot’s mouth. Recently these have been only slightly veiled attacks against prominent critical librarians on twitter. Commenting on “self-righteousness,” “blowhards,” and the long-time scourge of the academic library….critical theory.

LIS_Grievances Twitter
“I’ve got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it”

Groups like Think Tank  and @LIS_Grievances perpetuate the outrage machine that feeds many library focused online harassment moments. More specifically, these two social media engines work to undermine the work done by our colleagues who think critically or imagine the library role as a social justice issue. When they attack, they attack specifically those who are marginalized or work for the marginalized. The toxicity of these is an open secret amongst many librarians.

Sam Popowich wrote a year ago on his github about the LIS_Grievance call out of the “crit lib tribe” http://redlibrarian.github.io/article/2017/03/10/critlib-and-code4lib.html 

Andy Woodworth, on his blog Agnostic, Maybe?, wrote that “In the past, I was someone who said that they would never hire someone who posted in the ALA Think Tank. That’s only a partial truth; it would really depend on what they had to say. It would have to be something so detrimental, so completely outrageous that I would have to question the inherent character of the poster.” https://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/reconsidering-the-think-tank/

This prompted Hiring Librarians forum on whether or not librarians would hire someone who posted on Think Tank https://hiringlibrarians.com/2014/01/03/further-questions-does-participation-in-the-alathink-tank-facebook-group-hurt-a-candidates-chances/. Should involvement in ALA Think Tank hurt someone’s chances at getting a job? Not automatically, but after these repeated attacks against minorities it should make us all think about what a membership to such a community might be like.

Woodworth challenges the notion that its open format is truly open. Not only does this include time to be involved, the controversies and the fights, even when tame, exclude many members of our library world. This is not a welcoming environment. The example of Dr. Bourg’s harassment is just one, of many, examples. (Here is a Library Microaggressions post referencing the not-too-uncommon Think Tank http://lismicroaggressions.tumblr.com/post/98411107398/from-an-ala-think-tank-thread-on-racism). Woodworth does not go as far as to throw ALA Think Tank out completely because of its problems, but maybe it is time.

The attacks from Think Tank or @LIS_Grievances are not the community at its most rabid, but it is the tip of a larger toxic iceberg. These call out social medias thrive on the dog pile. They thrive on not being kind to others in our profession and we as a profession need to seriously think about how we support our fellow librarians, even if we disagree with them.

As librarians take the lead on neutrality and freedom of speech, we should also take a leading role in the development of digital empathy, especially for those who practice social justice. Psychologists have called society’s uncontrollable rage toward one another online as a symptom of “online disinhibition.” (Konrath, O’Brien, Hsing 2011) The mediated, online, and asynchronous environment does not discourage verbal abuse levied at other “faceless” folks online.

Fostering digital empathy could be a step forward in troubled times. Christopher Terry and Jeff Cain wrote in “The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy” that digital empathy shows “a targeted awareness that digital communication is powerful and can often have unintended effects on others.” (Terry and Cain, 2016) While this idea could be ripe for academic librarian instruction, especially for younger students, it will be essential that we instill these beliefs in our own interactions online.

While it is easier to paint conservative bloggers with broad brush strokes about their anti-PC fights, it is more difficult to understand the dog pile when it comes from librarians. We should be aware that all of our spaces online are not inclusive or even safe. We are a social justice field, we should fight against those who would malign our “woke” colleagues.

Digging for Gratitude

A little over a year ago, I took a flight to Los Angeles to interview for my job at UCLA – it was the night before the election. At the time, natives and their allies were fighting to re-route Dakota Access Pipeline. I found out towards the end of my flight to LA, that the gentlemen in the aisle seat of my row was from North Dakota and thought natives were “making a big deal” out of it. I woke up the next morning to learn that my less preferred candidate won the election, and I cried in disbelief. I had no idea how I was going to get through my interview.

A year later, I am in my position at UCLA, and recent news of the Keystone Pipeline 210,000 gallon oil spill has come to light days before Thanksgiving, a holiday based upon the false notion of unity between natives and colonizers. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I just wanted to place this article in it’s appropriate historical context of my life as a first-year librarian. While I am beyond grateful for my job, my amazing colleagues, and the sunny skies around me, I started in this profession during, what I believe is, a grave time in global history.

I approached librarianship as a career because I loved being able to provide individuals information. However, as I mentioned in my first post, I also embraced the critical possibilities within the profession. I would be lying if I said I have been able to sustain the enthusiasm for deneutralizing the library because between moving across the country, starting a new job, and the current political climate, I am emotionally exhausted.

The good news is I have still found outlets that affirm my place in this field. So here is a list of what has kept me going. I want to share this for anyone else feeling a lack of hope and/or motivation to keep sticking with the fight:

  • Multiple students have approached me with a research question that focuses upon a marginalized population.
  • The UCLA Medical Education Committee held a retreat to discuss diversity, inclusion and equity in medical education. This included speakers that used words such as “racism”, “oppression”, and “microaggressions”.
  • I have been able to collaborate with amazing South Asian women librarians for an upcoming chapter in Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS. On top of it, my co-authors and I were able to share our experiences about being South Asian women in librarianship in a panel at a symposium at UCLA. And even better, I was able to meet and listen to the other incredible authors that will be included in this book!
  • My colleagues and I were able to create an in-person and virtual exhibit to highlight Immigrants in the Sciences in response to the DACA reversal and the White nationalist march in Charlottesville.
  • UCLA’s Powell Library held a successful Conversation Cafe for International Education Week.
  • I attended a fulfilling professional development opportunity about systematic reviews.
  • I have shared tears and memories with several other LIS students through the ARL IRDW and Spectrum Scholar program.
  • I was able to visit Seattle for the first time and attend my first (of many) Medical Library Association conference.
  • I gained a mentor and friend.
  • Every time I teach, I learn something new about active learning, teaching methodology, and how to teach to specific audiences. Most importantly, I feel like I am truly in my element.
  • I met the Librarian of Congress! #swoon
  • I inherited two precious cats (librarian status achieved).
  • I’m way less clueless about being a librarian than I was when I started in April!
  • And now I am able to share my first-year experiences through ACRLog!

This is not an exhaustive list, however, it proves that in less than 8 months of working in my position, I have been blessed to create, pursue, attend, and feel a part of unique opportunities within my profession, especially at my institution. So while I might feel disillusioned and hopeless because of the world and its inequities, I have to admit that there have been several upsides.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you too can discover these golden nuggets amongst the rubble around us.

On Critical Habits of Mind

This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.

How does your company treat its employees?

Oh you know, good. They say they value them.

But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?

The list goes on and on.

I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.

So we practiced.

We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:

How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?

We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating  company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.

These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?

Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.

Another Meaning of “Access”

Pardon me while my head explodes.

The word “access” is one with generally good connotations among librarians. It’s in a lot of mission statements. It takes on a more mercenary meaning when it refers to the relationship between the press and power. And The New York Times has a very scary story about it today. Forgive me if what follows seems a little politicized, but hey – I take this personally.

Those retired generals who go on television to give their expert analysis? Many of them were briefed by the Pentagon. And given contracts for reconstruction and whatnot. That’s another definition of access. It’s no wonder that people have a lack of trust in the press. As the number of newsroom employees shrinks, these hacks pick up the slack.

An example: During the “Revolt of the Generals” – ones who were not paid by Fox or CNN to be experts, but ex-military officers who criticized the conduct of the war – two of the shills put their talking heads together to write a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, got stuck, and contacted the Pentagon, which quickly forwarded talking points and statistics. You could say they were simply going to the source, or you could call it ghostwriting. War room, meet news room.

news room

In a class I teach, we just talked about how anxiety is used to form and shape social issues. Fear is a potent lever for influencing public opinion, and here’s how it works:

First, you define an issue by naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values (in this case “the war on terror,” a phrase that predates 9/11, just as warrantless wiretapping did, but the phrase became viscerally meaningful thereafter.)

Claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. (That wall we’re building between us and Mexico? That’s to keep our borders secure from terrorists. Right.)

The domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Don’t just be afraid. Be very afraid.

Issues are typified through dramatic story-telling (like telling us a handful of delusional nutcases in Miami were a credible threat to the Sears Tower a few months before the 2006 election when they were, in fact, a handful of delusional nutcases given an action movie script by a federal informant).

As James Kincaid has said, “Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them.” And of course when you provide hydra-headed demons, somebody has to give you lots of money to keep lopping their heads off.

Communication studies scholar Joel Best says there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts who want their work to have influence. In this case, the Pentagon pretty much has it all wrapped up. The experts are ex-generals paid by the media for their access to the Pentagon; the Pentagon pays the ex-generals for their access to the airwaves and writes their copy. The solutions that are promoted put money into their pockets. It’s all pretty well summed up in this snip from the NY Times:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent [my emphasis].

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

Forget “authoritative and independent.” “Perceived” is the operative word, here.

The news is never objective. It’s influenced by claims-makers and by audiences that ask the media to tell compelling stories. But clearly, the line between “expert” and “shill” has blurred here, and the shills are getting government contracts. The pentagon has cynically controlled the manufacture of crisis.

Sorry, Ike. We didn’t take you seriously enough. It’s now the military industrial and information complex.

(This is largely cross-posted from my blog; the image is courtesy of Eric Olson.)

Selective Dissemination of Information

A researcher recently discovered something odd: she couldn’t use “abortion” in a keyword search Popline, a standard database on reproductive health hosted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. What the–?

Turns out, it’s now a stop word. Like “a” and “the.” Something you want excluded from a search. What the–?

Turns out, federal funding can’t go to anything that supports abortion, and the database gets funding from USAID, so to keep the database from being stopped itself …

There are workarounds to find the 25,000 or so records in the database that deal with the topic, but … shhhh! We can’t talk about it.

I waited a bit before posting this, thinking it had to be a … I don’t know, a late and not very funny April Fool’s joke. But the joke’s on us.

More at Wired. With an update here.

UPDATE: the other shoe has dropped. Here’s a press release from the Dean of the JH School of Public Health:

Statement Regarding POPLINE Database

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Okaaaaay….. that’s good, but it does seem a not unreasonable response to being told certain information does not belong in a database on reproductive health because it’s against the party line. So – will any more shoes drop? Or should I say sabots…?