we sink to new depths

I woke up this morning to an anonymous commenter sarcastically attacking me for writing that Stephen Abram should apologize for the “Jane, you ignorant slut!” debacle, and accusing me of failing to apologize for my own talk at Charleston. I’m not going to re-engage with that beyond saying that I did  apologize as publicly as I could for hurting domestic violence survivors, and here is the link.

But it started me thinking. Thinking, as I prepped for my day at work today, a day which includes the first meeting of this year’s campus Diversity in Action Coalition, in which we will talk about how we support and engage our minority communities on our traditionally very homogenous campus. Thinking, as I surfed the morning’s online content in my librarianship Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds, where there’s this whole #TeamHarpy thing going on. #TeamHarpy exists because, as they note on their website, “Joseph Murphy (aka Joe Murphy) has begun legal proceedings naming nina de jesus and Lisa Rabey as defendants in a defamation lawsuit, asking for a total of 1.25 million dollars in damages.” The defendants claim their comments on Mr. Murphy’s public persona are truthful, and they intend to spend a great deal of money as they are forced to defend themselves.

Barbara Fister has also written on Inside Higher Ed about this case, and brilliantly concludes with a paragraph I agree with on every single point:

I don’t know Joe Murphy and all I knew about him was his reputation, which the lawsuit claims has been damaged by Rabey and de jesus, even though that damage actually happened long before they put anything in writing. (And if you think we shouldn’t talk about this because he’s innocent until proven guilty, remember this is not a criminal case and he is not a defendant, as de jesus has so lucidly explained.) It could be that he has been unfairly maligned for the past few years. But in a profession that’s all about the value of sharing information and protecting access to multiple perspectives, this isn’t how you defend your reputation. You engage. You discuss. You listen. You try to figure stuff out. You don’t attempt to silence people with punitive legal actions. If you do, you are doing it wrong.

(Except, in the interests of full disclosure, I have met Joe, and have been “nice shirt”ed by him, and as a woman who is loosely in his same age-and-career-path cohort, I was warned by other women about being alone with him long before Rabey and de jesus started talking about it on the internet.)

So. Here’s what I think when I think about what I’ve done online so far this morning.

  • When you screw up you apologize for it.
  • When others screw up you demand they apologize for it.
  • When the disempowered and marginalized voices in our communities choose to speak, the majority needs to listen, and question, and debate, and learn.
  • When people say things they believe to be true based on their own experiences, you don’t sue them for $1.25 million, you open a dialogue instead.
  • When honest and open attempts at dialogue fail, then you make choices about when to take further more dramatic actions.

I guess your mileage may vary on those things, but they seem to me to be very fundamental to being good people who coexist with other good people in this world.

And I write all of this, this morning, knowing full well that we now live in a world of librarianship where I not only face an email inbox full of brightly vitriolic email for speaking my mind (a truth I’ve been living with for years), but also a world of librarianship in which I might be sued for more than a million dollars for writing something that someone else thinks is unfair to them. Well done, broader community of librarians. Well done.

13 comments

  1. I have no real opinion on Murphy, considering anything I could say about him is only hearsay, but I think there is a difference between “writing something unfair” and libel. Calling me a douche, for instance, is unfair. It may or may not be true, but it’s an opinion that I can do not much about. Falsely claiming I engaged in some behavior that is likely to damage my reputation to the extent that I can make a material claim of damages is something completely different. You might still hire the douche – you likely would not be able to risk hiring someone who is a bona fide sexual harasser/assaulter. Nor would you be likely to hire him/her on contract, or use his/her services as a consultant. It could affect his/her ability to find an apartment, engage with neighbors and so on. The degree that any of these damages are worth the million or so dollars will depend on the evidence of material damages and, in the U.S. the extent to which there is a case for punitive damages (which I think is a crazy way to run a court, but that’s another story).

    The limits of free speech are not really that difficult to navigate. In the end, you should not make claims about people if you cannot back it up with evidence. Relying on hearsay to make a blog post is generally unethical (although I suppose I can appreciate the idea of taking a risk if you think it’s a significant problem that you might be able to relieve in the world).

    That said, I think it’s good from time to time to look at one’s behavior in the midst of an apparent injustice, and consider the degree to which the word “quixotic” can be applied to it. Stopping a harasser is not quixotic, full stop. Using a blog post before applying some other likely more effective means (ie. police, harassment officer, complaints to supervisor etc.) might be. The authors of the blog post claim that what they said is truthful. Their call for people to come forth leaves me to suspect that they based their claims on hearsay, which is really not a good idea. If people have been harassed / assaulted by Murphy, I hope they come forth because it’s the right thing to do. But the habit of bloggers in general making claims based on sketchy evidence in order to ‘advance’ some social justice cause is something that’s going to be a problem in future. We all tend to think that our beliefs are the most important thing evar up until that point where we hit the windmill and our lance is left in pieces before our eyes. But in the end, I don’t think much has changed here in the library community. Libel claims have been made in the past and they will be made again.

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  2. You said:”When people say things they believe to be true based on their own experiences, you don’t sue them for $1.25 million, you open a dialogue instead.”
    My only comment is that they weren’t reporting their own experiences, they were reporting what the rumors were. I think there’s a difference there.

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  3. Well said, Jenica. Your bullet points nail these situations pretty well, and they’re simple enough that I’d think major figures in the profession would be able to follow them. If someone is not able to display civility, respect and openness in situations like these, then any damage to their reputation is their own fault.

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  4. Ryan and Christina, you’re not the only ones saying these same things, and I don’t fundamentally disagree. I have significant concerns about the viability of the #TeamHarpy defense; I would much prefer to know for certain that their writing came from a place of first- or second-hand experience, and not just rumor. I don’t know that. It makes me very uncomfortable as someone who cares about seeing that our professional spaces are safe ones, and that victims of harassment and assault are free and encouraged to speak. Based on what I’ve seen and heard so far about the legal position they find themselves in, and from what I know of the relevant Canadian laws, I am afraid that this is a case that will, in the end, undermine rather strengthen a cause I believe in.

    However, given my own experiences and observations, as relate to this case, to library discourse, and to being verbally undermined in public spaces… I still don’t think that a million dollar defamation suit is the best way to deal with the issue. I think the repercussions of these sorts of silencing tactics are damaging and dangerous.

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    • Let me elaborate on “nice shirt.”

      Joe Murphy has a standard conversational opener of “nice shirt.” As in, “Hi, I’m Joe. Nice shirt.” He says it consistently enough that I’ve heard people remark upon it and joke about it, as they have heard him do it over and over. Technically, it’s a compliment. In practice, in my experience, it’s… creepy.

      I don’t believe that, in my case and personal experience, someone being creepy is actionable, nor do I believe that, again in my case and experience, being told by others who I couldn’t identify now, five years later, that someone is problematic is actionable. It simply informs my experiences with and opinion of someone. So, no, unless the defendants reach out to me to suggest that such information is useful to them, I do not plan to offer to serve as a witness unless asked to do so, at which point I will consider my options and make the decision that makes the most sense for me.

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  5. Good points, these:

    “When you screw up you apologize for it.
    When others screw up you demand [ed: I’d change to “ask,” but whatevs”] they apologize for it.
    When the disempowered and marginalized voices in our communities choose to speak, the majority needs to listen, and question, and debate, and learn.”

    Except, look at the timestamp on your apology. It comes in February, four months after your absurdly inflammatory remarks in Charleston. When people demanded (Christ, they didn’t even demand, they just pointed out that you were out of line) that you reflect on the harm your statements might have made, you lashed out on both Twitter and here, before commenters talked you off that cliff. (I was one of them, but that was before I got sick of the hypocrisy here.)

    Now you’re asking other people to be held to a standard that you refuse to hold yourself to.

    Domestic abuse survivors are more marginalized than women as a whole. There’s a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram, but your vociferous defense of your horribly inapt analogy last year, and the vitriol with which you made it, makes it seem like your primary concern isn’t, in fact, afflicting the powerful and empowering the afflicted, but listening to the sound of your own voice. If you were truly interested in advocacy on behalf of marginalized voices, you would have shut up and listened when people told you that, “Hey, I’m a domestic abuse survivor, too, and you were a bit out of line with that plenary, amirite?”

    But whatever. You’re boring. If you’re going to have a moral code, at least try to make it consistent. Otherwise, let your blog cheerleaders continue to ring the bells in the echo chamber here. And, oh, don’t bother to link to the thing that inspired your blog post. It’s the Internet Age, and linking is forbidden nowadays. Plus, it might make you look bad.

    And we wouldn’t want that.

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    • I would engage substantively if I thought you were in any way interested in a discussion. I don’t believe you are. I think you just want to publicly attack me.

      I hope it’s having whatever end result you were seeking.

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      • Go ahead and engage substantively, then. I’m happy to have a discussion minus the snark. I just don’t think you have the courage to do it.

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      • Until and unless you choose to be someone other than “Random Internet Commenter”, I will simply say you know nothing about my well of courage, or my motivations.

        I would argue that I’m not “refusing to hold myself to that standard”, but that I *did* hold myself to that standard. I waited before writing another apology for at least two reasons which I’m comfortable articulating in public.

        One, I needed time to talk myself down from my own frustration and anger. I was very frustrated, and very angry, and thus defensive, and needed time to deal with my own reactions to the hostility I was getting back from people. I took that time, to think, to talk to people offline, and to reflect on what i was learning and hearing, and to try to understand. When I had my own emotions under control and had reached my own conclusions about how I felt about my behavior, the reactions of others, and where I was wrong, then I was willing to speak.

        Two, I think that the bulk of my Charleston speech is good, and worth people’s time. I didn’t, and don’t, believe that 30 seconds of bad choices undoes the value of the rest of the hour. And I was, initially, very reluctant to focus only on those 30 seconds. I would prefer that the good and bad of what I said were both considered, rather than just the bad. Perhaps I don’t get to have that, but it’s what I wanted. And so I wanted to wait to continue the discussion until the whole thing could be heard by those who would judge me — up until that point, it was simply reports of what I said, but without the entire document available.

        “If you were truly interested in advocacy on behalf of marginalized voices, you would have shut up and listened”

        I did. I didn’t, it seems, do it fast enough for you. Okay, I’ll own that. As I noted above, I was frustrated, and angry, and defensive. And I was also wrong. Which I realized when I listened. And then I apologized.

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      • Big ups to you, Ms. Rogers for this: “I did. I didn’t, it seems, do it fast enough for you. Okay, I’ll own that. As I noted above, I was frustrated, and angry, and defensive. And I was also wrong. Which I realized when I listened. And then I apologized.”

        Fact remains, that you went through a process to arrive where you are and did not sue people for millions of dollars for their statements, whether or not you believed it to be true.

        I appreciate your vulnerability and your humanity.

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  6. “When honest and open attempts at dialogue fail, then you make choices about when to take further more dramatic actions.”

    Maybe “Team Harpy” should have tried that first? They deserved this, and you need to do some reflection.

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