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Of information sharing and of peril

CC-BY-ND by ABitMadInTheHead

CC-BY-ND by ABitMadInTheHead

It’s been an emotionally tumultuous month in my professional life. My profession is all about making information accessible and about encouraging the responsible use of that information. Most of the time this feels like an uncomplicated position to take. Some of the time, it feels impossible or even dangerous. Here are three vignettes that come to mind.

Libraryland is currently wrestling with news of Joe Murphy’s 1.25 million dollar defamation lawsuit against two librarians who spoke publicly about his (long-standing) reputation as a womanizer. Barbara FisterMeredith Farkas, and Laura Crossett have all written excellent, thoughtful pieces about this issue, so I won’t even try to recreate that here. What I will point out is that they make it clear that sharing information about sexual harassment seems to be off limits in our society. If nobody can speak out, it’s no wonder that harassment continues to run rampant through our society, but speaking out is hard. And right now we’re coming to grips with exactly how hard it can be.

Yesterday I was pointed to a change.org petition from one of my institution’s now-former students. Her claim is that she is being punished with expulsion as an indirect result of calling for help and thus sharing the information of her roommate’s drug overdose. I don’t know any of the students involved, or any information beyond what’s in the petition and in this morning’s student newspaper report, but it’s clear that this incident is sitting right in the center of issues about the relative social benefits and perils of sharing compromising information.

Finally, and on a much less dire scale, my own blog is a continuous example of decisions to share and not to share. I write less often than I once did in a large part because I’m in many more leadership positions than I was before, leaving me feeling uncomfortable sharing some kinds of information for fear of losing the trust of people I work with, not because I have bad things to say but simply because I don’t own these groups’ ideas so they may not be mine to share, and people may not share ideas with me if they feel like I might report things prematurely.

Responsible transparency is hard. It has always been hard. And while the three examples that are bouncing around in my head right now have very little else in common, they’re reminding me pretty forcefully of how unendingly difficult it is to manage appropriate balances of transparency and secrecy. There are very real dangers associated with NOT speaking out. (Well, there’s nothing life-threatening about me deciding not to blog about some committee I’m running, but it might be a slight disadvantage to other people who will then reinvent the same wheels.) I only wish there weren’t also real dangers associated with speaking out. I wish our professional mantra about information wanting to be free weren’t so fraught in real life. Give me a straight up copyright or licensing conundrum any day. This other stuff is far more society-shaping, and there is so much at stake.

28 thoughts on “Of information sharing and of peril

  1. They lied on purpose, and tried to fight against redeeming a 100% innocent man, then when caught in their insane lies, had to make total apologies. I hope you get sued, lose your job and don’t qualify for benefits as a jobless loser. How does that feel? Unfair and alarming? Good, now grow up and stop being a mental mashed potato-head with no care for rule of law and defamation.

  2. I’m not sure calling the author names on an entry that was posted a full six months before details on the case in question changed is really the way to go about championing your cause. I realize calendars are hard to figure out, what with all their numbers and days and month names that repeat year after year, but here’s a tip: if you’re going to don those fancy Social Justice Crusader tights, at least look for blog entries that occurred AFTER the accusers retracted their statements. (pssst, that would be anything posted after March 25th, 2015) Otherwise you just kind of end up looking like a stupid troll.

    P.S. Mashed potatoes are delicious.

  3. No, lying about sexual harassment is not allowed in our society. Although I’m not sure these individuals understand the difference.
    Perhaps you should update this post to include the retraction, as many of the people you linked to had the decency to do?

  4. Lying in general is not allowed, “Eggo.”

    You and Rule O Law seem to feel that I have acted with impropriety or even as a bully by posting the paragraphs above. I urge you both, if you are in fact different people, to read my post carefully.

    In the mean time, I am happy to update my post via this comment.
    On March 25th, 2015, nina de jesus and Lisa Rabley posted remarkably similar retractions on their blog https://teamharpy.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/apologies-and-retractions/ . I am sure that these retractions where the result of some legal proceedings, but of course I cannot speculate on the nature of those proceedings as I have no knowledge, direct or otherwise, of what precipitated the retractions. I can only imagine, from the timing and similarity of the texts, that the retractions were outlined for the authors in some legal settlement.

    Here is what I do know for sure and certain: Joseph Murphy made me uncomfortable by look and innuendo at a hotel during ALA Chicago 2009 (thankfully it did not progress past “uncomfortable”). Other male stars of the library conference keynote speaking circuit have done the same in much more public ways: http://pegasuslibrarian.com/2014/10/why-yes-i-am-hopping-mad-heres-why-teamharpy.html

    Here’s what else I know from research. False reporting of sexual assault sits at less than 6% of all reports (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/lasr.12060/full found 4.5%, http://paladinservice.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/gap-or-chasm-rape-report.pdf adds comparison from the UK, http://www.icdv.idaho.gov/conference/handouts/False-Allegations.pdf takes it to a campus context) while false reports of car theft are at about 10% (http://www.ncsl.org/print/cj/autotheftreport.pdf).

    Does this mean ANYTHING about whether Joseph Murphy was in the right or in the wrong in the defamation lawsuit he brought in Canadian civil court? No. However, it also has no bearing on the point I was making above about how sometimes information sharing is fraught, and when the information has do to with socially frowned-up activities, fraughtness can be elevated to danger, no matter what side of the “truth” you occupy.

    As for this particular post, I’m happy to host the post and any civil comments. However, I give warning here and now that I’ve seen lashing out on both sides of the Murphy issue in these comments, and if I get a whiff of such lashing-out in future comments I will simply delete those comments and close commenting on this post. I am not interested in litigating any reputations here. Keep your comments (and the email address you leave for only me to see) civil and unchildish — you have been warned.

    [edited to correct “sexual harassment” to “sexual assault” and to add two additional studies]

  5. No, you’ve made your position clear for everyone to see, and there’s no need to discuss it.
    You’ve judged someone, and now you will be judged in turn.

  6. That wiley.com link is to one report about sexual assault, not sexual harassment. Best to be clear. I’ve (briefly) tried to find some stats on harassment and they’re not jumping out of Google at me. Perhaps you’ll be more successful in hunting them down but you may wish to correct your statement above.

    It hardly matters,, though, because in this case we have the accusers’ own admissions that they lied.

  7. David, you are right. The reports that I’ve found have all been on sexual assault, which was not at issue in the Murphy lawsuit. What I think is at issue in my blog post above is a culture in which my being made uncomfortable and others I know who have been made more than uncomfortable, in various professional contexts by various men, is construed so easily as my fault. More than that, if I share information about experiences such as these, somehow I’m the one who is being cruel. And all of this in spite of the fact that statistically speaking I’m more likely to lie about having my car stolen than I am to lie about sexual aggression.

    I also find it interesting that because nina and Lisa published retractions, my own experiences and observations about the culture in our profession are somehow now thought to be contrary to fact even though my own experiences and the things I’ve written about on my blog are only tangentially related to that lawsuit.

    I remind everyone that in my blog post that we’re commenting on right now, I was talking about the tension between being in a profession where we believe in broad access to information and being in a culture where some kinds of useful information can only be shared at great personal risk. I had to reread the post just to make sure, because it was starting to sound like I had come out and levied accusations or something. But really, what I said was that the talk of the profession at the time was about how “sharing information about sexual harassment seems to be off limits in our society. If nobody can speak out, it’s no wonder that harassment continues to run rampant through our society, but speaking out is hard.” I stand by this observation, which was sparked by far more than just the Murphy lawsuit. A close family member is currently speaking out for the first time 40 years after having been sexually assaulted. Speaking out responsibly is hard and sometimes downright dangerous.

  8. Iris, I take your points – and many, many similar ones made by others (mainly women, unfortunately…it’s as if men didn’t care, eh?) but I must say that these sorts of debacles are just as damaging to fixing the problems as have been the previous years of whispering and cover-ups. Every single mess like this – teamharpy, RollingStone, and so on, is a hostage to fortune. As the problem is so prevalent and pervasive and rampant it shouldn’t be difficult to find real, unequivocal instances to champion. I’d also be wary of the sort of people who’ve been riding these particular hobby horses, and the language they use. Do they really represent the best, or even the average?

  9. I completely agree with the possible exception of the part about “the sort of people who’ve been riding these particular hobby horses.” I’m not quite sure to whom you’re referring and I’m wary about characterizing the taking up of a fraught cause as riding a hobby horse. However, I totally agree that some people are going about this is damaging ways. I’m just wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Just because Rolling Stone got things very wrong does not mean that the rest of us should shut up.

  10. “… nina de jesus and Lisa Rabley posted remarkably similar retractions on their blog … I am sure that these retractions [were] the result of some legal proceedings, but of course I cannot speculate on the nature of those proceedings as I have no knowledge, direct or otherwise, of what precipitated the retractions …”

    Well, I *can* speculate that:

    1) The obvious similarity in the retractions is probably due to nothing more sinister than advice by shared legal counsel on how to write such things, and

    2) The best explanation for their publication is that they are true.

    In other words, if we take these retractions at their face value, the atmosphere of mystery you seem to want to preserve dissipates.

  11. A pattern seems to have developed where activists gravitate to only on the most unlikely and lurid cases, which inevitably backfire and create a publicity nightmare. They’re forced to either retract their claims, or double down and take refuge in audacity, as some supporters of the harpies are still doing.

    Perhaps this is a direct result of the “we must always believe accusations” narrative? If activists gain a reputation for purity by believing regardless of evidence, the most powerful in the activist clique will deliberately promote the cases least likely to be true in order to demonstrate the purity of… well, their credulity.

    Remember how powerful it made people feel to say “I believe Jackie”, or “I side with Team Harpy”, simply because it was a bold statement that proved one’s dedication to The Cause? When it’s taken for granted that only reactionary bigots demand evidence, promoting a case without regards to the truth becomes the most progressive thing to do. After all, “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake”.

    Of course, feel free to ignore this. But if it happens again (and again, and again), perhaps it might be time to examine modern social activism for fundamental flaws.

  12. Ah, what a surprise. Mention a man’s crappy behavior and a bunch of crappy men show up in the comments to try and bully you into taking it down. Thus proving the original point that speaking up is fraught and potentially dangerous. “Eggo” and “Rule O. Law” obviously know this, as they have chosen to conceal their identities.

    Iris says Joe Murphy has a “(long-standing) reputation as a womanizer.” This is TRUE and no retraction from the teamharpy women will make it untrue. Many women of my acquaintance have complained about repeated unwelcome attention from Murphy. The fact that Murphy was able to settle a lawsuit with teamharpy that resulted in their recanting their accusations does not invalidate these women’s stories.

  13. I don’t see anyone trying to bully anyone to take anything down. I do see some fairly obnoxious name-calling (“potato-head”, “crappy men”), but this seems to be done more with a goal of keeping a heated argument going and gaining support than with shutting it down.

    P.S. – You might want to be sparing in your use of the “anonymity equals cowardice” move. A great many people post under pseudonyms for very good reasons, as current affairs might illustrate. Your inclination to use your real name doesn’t really add much weight to your point.

  14. Subjectively, I do feel a little bit bullied. That may not be anyone’s intention, but I’ve been called names and been told quite a few times in this thread that my experiences and observations are wrong. I also note that women I know are messaging me behind the scenes after reading this thread, so clearly there’s something going on here that makes them feel unsafe posting publicly. That is absolutely their prerogative and I don’t mean to say that they should be posting here more publicly. I certainly don’t feel very safe doing it, and if I come off sounding harsh it’s more than likely because I’m compensating for feeling scared. Scared, and angry that I feel scared. This has not been a fun little blog comment conversation for me at all.

  15. Ironically, I feel distinctly unsafe posting these thoughts myself, since it feels dangerously close to inviting attack for being a “troll” who makes women afraid to speak. I do not like how dangerous the Internet is either.

  16. As a side note, Mark, I initially thought you were doing what most of the other people in this thread did and using a bogus email address phrased to further emphasized your displeasure because of what looked like a repeated synonym for gagging.

  17. Oh, yikes. Well, no, that isn’t what it means.

    By the way, Iris, I liked your statement of how you intended to moderate any comments, quoted below. I accepted it as a constraint on my own behavior as well as that of anyone who might reply. Some people are pretty nuts about free-speech, but I personally welcome the safety this does, I think, provide. I’m going a little bit out on a limb giving you my email address, even privately, but there is NFW I would risk that getting out in a venue like Twitter.

    ——–

    “As for this particular post, I’m happy to host the post and any civil comments. However, I give warning here and now that I’ve seen lashing out on both sides of the Murphy issue in these comments, and if I get a whiff of such lashing-out in future comments I will simply delete those comments and close commenting on this post. I am not interested in litigating any reputations here. Keep your comments (and the email address you leave for only me to see) civil and unchildish — you have been warned.”

  18. I certainly won’t share your email address. No worries there. I tried to make sure that my comment above wouldn’t give anything too private away, but I’ll edit it if you like.

  19. My point was not that “anonymity equals cowardice.” My point was that all you guys who choose not to reveal your full names for “very good reasons” are just underlining Iris’s original point, that it can be dangerous to be outspoken.

  20. Or perhaps they just enjoy exercising their freedom to self-identify with goofy handles. Either way, I don’t think anyone’s denying that it can be dangerous to be outspoken. The question is, who gets to shut who down?

  21. (Yeah, I regretted that snappy closing line as soon as I’d posted it. I set myself up for this. Gak…)

    You and Iris are both implying the retractions were due to some legal bullying, thereby entitling you to dismiss them as coerced.

    But again, it’s worth pointing out the possibility that the “best lawyer” here was the one one advising libelous clients on how to avoid financial penalty by appropriate retraction.

  22. That’s possible. I’m skeptical for a few reasons, but it’s possible. I wish I knew more about why there was such a massive lawsuit over a tweet that probably most of us would never have seen without the lawsuit, because honestly that felt to me like a bit of a heavy-handed move right off the bat, no matter the outcome.

    Regardless the issues that I discussed in my blog post and that I’ve tried to discuss in the comments are still important issues. What I think of the retractions doesn’t change any of that. Unfortunately, these issues are probably also unsolvable. Certainly this comment thread won’t fix anything anywhere — all it’s doing is making all of us unhappy. I don’t know why it’s so important that I turn my back on my own lived experience just so everyone feels more comfortable about the state of the world or about some black vs white definition of each of the three characters involved in the lawsuit.

  23. “I don’t know why it’s so important that I turn my back on my own lived experience just so everyone feels more comfortable about the state of the world”

    ???

    It’s not. But I won’t contribute further to your own discomfort. Silencing out …

  24. I’m with Steve. I find it puzzling and disturbing that a woman can’t even talk about talking about sexual harassment or violence without several men showing up to object and go on the offensive.

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