On not being completely free to curate

I just attended Skepticon 6, and had a number of excellent and thought-provoking conversations with some people I’ve admired, some people I’ve long since befriended, and some people I’d never met before but am glad to have met now. It was a great experience, a few issues aside which I’ll, naturally, have to talk more about soon.

On Wednesday night, immediately after work, Stephanie, Brianne and I piled into the car and undertook a ten-hour car ride south. We arrived at 5 am, and promptly hit our beds and crashed. The first night we were in Springfield, Missouri, folks were still filtering into town, and as we skeptics are wont to do, we sought one another out for the first of what promised to be many of those thought-provoking conversations. This conversation became the genesis for this post, which will hopefully serve as a follow-up to my recent post about curating your internet experience.

I was on the periphery of a conversation wherein two tenured secular community activists discussed what to do about a particular third party, also well-known, whose participation in conversations around the internet had become relatively toxic. The first person — let’s call them Primo for simplicity (not least reason being I think it makes this read like a Greek tragedy and that mildly amuses me) — was trying to convince the other, whom we’ll call Secundo, that being Facebook or Twitter friends with this now-toxic community member Tertio would lend credibility to Tertio despite how poorly they were representing the community at large, how horribly they were treating Primo generally, and how little the values of the individuals in the conversation intersected generally.

The complication is that Secundo is fairly highly placed in an organization such that blocking or even unfollowing Tertio would almost certainly be noticed — if not by Tertio, who has a habit of monitoring their followers, then probably by others who would raise a stink. To complicate matters further, Tertio is actually themselves fairly well-placed in our communities. Fallout from something as inoccuous as unfollowing someone who’s become toxic but who is still involved in the community might complicate Secundo’s job, maybe even as far as threatening it entirely. Certainly unfollowing someone is not the sort of thing that should get a person fired, but we already know that certain folks in the community have such a tribal mindset that any such action would be an open declaration of war.

A sidebar: It goes without saying that since both of these people were open about having the discussion in my presence, no, I’m not talking about one of us terrible horrible feminazi FtBullies being the toxic entity. But surely, you could imagine it was someone trying to convince somene else about unfollowing PZ Myers, if you thought also that PZ or any of his fans might actually notice, or raise a stink, or do anything other than sigh a sigh of relief. I’d posit that you’re wrong about both of those assumptions, but go right ahead and imagine it for the sake of conversation if it facilitates my point at all. If you’re inclined to guess at all about any of these characters, I can further suggest that you’re almost certainly wrong. It’s probably not whomever you’re thinking of. No, really.

The conversation between Primo and Secundo was coming to an impasse, insofar as Primo was certainly directly affected by Tertio’s venom but Secundo was not directly pleading their case that it was unlikely they could take any actions without causing fallout. The route that Secundo chose to plead was that the action would cause them grief while not actually impacting Tertio at all.

I interjected to try to smooth things out, because Primo and Secundo have been close friends and allies for a long time, and I hated to see acrimony — I tried to draw a bit of the acrimony onto myself and suggest that there are other options available. I tried to abstract it to cover more situations than the immediate, in fact, and came up with this — albeit in significantly shorter form in conversation.

If you are in a position of power in an organization, especially in a relatively conservative organization where the fallout from standing up directly against this sort of toxic environment might be too much to handle, you have other options than taking that direct stand that can help you to limit the incidental “endorsement” of entities you don’t know or haven’t necessarily vetted. Since most of our activism takes place on the internet, so too do most of our interactions and organizing, and given that the specific situation at hand entirely involves the internet, it’s an inescapable conclusion that our meatspace interactions are mere extensions of how we treat one another on the internet, and that how we use the internet is going to have dire repercussions on our ability to manage our meatspace alliances. So, rather than giving ourselves only two polar-opposite options, each with unacceptable negative repercussions, some middle ground must be reachable here.

You might, for instance, have the option of reorganizing the entirety of your “friend” structure, especially if your social media accounts are hybrids of personal and professional. If this is the case, perhaps one could defriend all but the most important accounts of fellow organizational allies, and instead add the individuals to lists that are relevant but less of a “direct” endorsement.

You can avoid “liking” comments by other members in the community, in case you are seen as having endorsed, even incidentally or unintentionally, impolitic bridge-burning comments by other entities in the community. You can avoid any but the absolutely most politically safe social media actions, and in doing so be an absolute paragon of impartiality.

You might create a pseudonymous account so you can still have your voice, minus perhaps your clout, in order to endorse the things or people that you choose; this would circumvent the disenfranchisement of being unable to voice a public opinion altogether, though you’d give up any extra weight your public name carries. Some might say this is more democratic — you’re not implying that your organization also carries the same views, and this is more than fair, frankly, if your organization carries a large number of members or is not particulary super-liberal.

Or, you could also do what you can to change the culture of the organization you represent. If you DO need to take these stands on your principles, it’s vital to know that your organization will stand behind you. If you can clear such stands with your communications directors (you do have someone versed in communication… don’t you?), they might even be able to help you craft a rebuke that is not as likely to result in acrimony. If you’re a member of an org that has no compunctions against calling out bullshit when it sees it, then knowing this in advance is going to do wonders for your stress levels. As the perpetually-awesome Lauren Lane said on a similar topic coming up on the close of Skepticon, “whadda they gonna do [to punish me], not come to my free con!?”

And ultimately, if you’ve at one point endorsed people for things that they said or did that are positive, but they’ve since turned negative and toxic to the community, you can in fact quietly continue to endorse people who are positive, especially if these people are this original person’s (e.g. Tertio’s) present targets, and especially if you do so in a timely fashion after learning of the problematic behaviour. It signals in an inescapable way that you support the people being harassed, even where you once supported the people doing the harassing.

I didn’t come to the immediate conclusion that Secundo was in a particularly bad situation along the lines of the ones that I’d discussed above, until some time after Primo and Secundo had parted ways and the conversation between myself and Secundo continued. I’d like to think I helped defuse a situation where they were generally heading toward mutual hurt feelings, though I believe also that they’re mature enough to have managed to come to a mutually acceptable agreement of the best course of action given enough time. But I did have a longer conversation with Secundo where I fleshed out their concerns, and they’ve helped shape how I wrote this post.

Anyone in a position like the ones I’ve described, who’ve already found themselves in the unenviable situation where they can’t take actions to limit potential ongoing damage without taking a significant chunk of splash damage, would be well advised to at least start following these best-practices of professionalism . This is fairly important in a movement comprised of so many interlocking and overlapping communities, some of whom are diametrically opposed on a number of topics. (Harassment and feminism spring to mind immediately.) This should be a cautionary tale.

If you end up in one of these situations, you could find yourself facing down a lot of potential and completely avoidable acrimony. It should be simple to do, if you have an understanding of the nature of these communities and how “the movement” is not a single coherent thing. That’s, after all, why I keep drumming on this point.

On not being completely free to curate

6 thoughts on “On not being completely free to curate

  1. 3

    Naming the characters “Primo”, “Secundo”, and “Tertio” does not make this read like a Greek tragedy. It makes it read like a Latin tragedy.

    If you wanted it to read like a Greek tragedy you should have called them Protos, Deuteros, and Tritos.

    Substantively, I don’t have a lot to say, except that if something as small as unfollowing Tertio could get Secundo fired, then Secundo is surely teetering on the verge of being fired already*, and it’s likely that at some point he or she will teeter right on over the edge regardless of whether he or she unfollows Tertio or not.

    * Exception: if Tertio is actually Secundo’s boss, then the situation changes, of course.

  2. 4

    Sigh. I suppose I should have unpacked the thought a little further, but naming Latin names and making it feel to myself a Greek tragedy was part of my mild amusement.

    I can say that, no, I don’t think anyone’s jobs are threatened under ordinary circumstances, only that there is enough bad blood and enough pull that Secundo’s job being threatened by a backlash is completely reasonable. I wouldn’t read more into the situation than I’ve said, mostly because I have to anonymize for obvious reasons.

  3. 5

    chigau: I think all of this also applies to people who blog, or anyone who has any sort of online presence. Otherwise, it’s all Game of Thrones cloak and dagger politics, in meatspace, separate from the online stuff altogether.

  4. 6

    Agency is always constrained by context, both material and social. Here we have a situation where a combination of material context (need to buy things to survive means a need for a job, and uncertain employment and especially uncertain employment sufficient to meet material needs means a need for *this* job) and social context (relational factors that make the job-keeping potentially contingent upon maintenance of a formal relationship through a given digital social platform) constrain behavior quite a bit. However, as Jason demonstrates with his various alternatives, agency is often constrained quite a lot by presupposition and the normative force of familiarity/convention, by learned cognitive patterns that restrict our conception of the possible. (We, ‘we’ being postmodern social theorists, call these “discursive constraints” – the constraints on the exercise of agency created by the boundaries of a discourse, “discourse” broadly being the set of systems of meaning in operation in a given context, which is a development of the modernist concept of “culture”.)

    As such, one strategy for overcoming unwanted constraints on our agency is to attempt to deconstruct the discursive constraints (this is the primary mode of operation of Queer Theory, for example, and all anti-hegemonic activism to some extent) inflecting the particular situation in question to determine if there aren’t perhaps behavioral options unconstrained (or less constrained) by material or social relationships beyond one’s control. While we can’t control material reality or others’ actions, we do have a certain amount of control over how we perceive ourselves, our context, and the relationship between them. Most people don’t consciously, self-reflexively construct their systems of meaning (far more common is to essentialize the norms to which one is subject), but it is possible to do so, and it’s actually relatively simple to do so in limited, strategic ways (if you’ve even wondered why pink is for girls and blue is for boys, for example – feel free to substitute literally any symbol that encodes meaning that you may have questioned – you’ve engaged in deconstruction simply by recognizing that there must be an actual reason, implicitly acknowledging that the gendered meaning is not intrinsic to the existence – or more technically, the perception – of the colors).

    Why am I restating the thesis of Jason’s post in a jargon-laden form? Because the situation in question, even pseudonymized and abstracted, is still a specific case of a more general concept, and Jason’s excellent analysis can be even more broadly applied than he suggests – it’s relevant beyond social media presence and its intersection(s) with meatspace. If you feel constrained in your behavior in a way that you find problematic – or even if you don’t – maybe especially when you don’t – try questioning the assumptions and presuppositions that are informing what you perceive to be the range of options available to you. Sometimes questioning given discursive boundaries or normalized systems of meaning can be problematic and lead to marginalization – look at atheism, for example – but it’s always good to consider as many options as one can to pick the best, and questioning the normalized discourse governing whatever one’s situation may be can provide alternative options that might be preferable to the obvious.

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