Friday, February 19, 2016

A Spectrum Disorder, part 1

"He's got it all mapped out, and illustrated with cartoons." (Joe Jackson)

Studies of "workplace climate" in academia are often quite explicitly not attempts to understand the culture of science. The investigators are often quite adamant at the outset that they already understand the culture and what "the problem" with it is. Rather, these studies are attempts to change the culture of science, to solve a problem by imposing and enforcing new norms to govern the professional and interpersonal relationships of scientists to each other.

I was made acutely aware of this when Katie Hinde interjected herself into an exchange I was having with Michael Brown and Wicked Sepia on Twitter about the underreporting of physical harassment in the sciences. Michael had cited the SAFE13 study of the fieldwork climate in anthropology, conducted by Katie and others, to establish that the underreporting occurs. Unfortunately, the SAFE13 study's lead author is Kate Clancy, for whom I don't have a great deal of respect at the moment. This is the result of her involvement in the subsequent CSWA workplace climate survey, which explicitly applies the methods and insights from SAFE13 to the problem of harassment in astronomy. My response to Michael's use of a slide from SAFE13 was therefore just to say it doesn't impress me much, if you will.

As is my wont, I went on to explain myself a little more. I suggested that underreporting is not in and of itself a problem and is in fact very much to be expected, since people often find they can work things out among themselves, even in the case of violent behavior, or simply find the "physical contact" to be too minor to be worth worrying about at all. What matters is the actual degree of underreporting, and here SAFE13 can't help us because of its obvious (and declared) self-selection bias.

If Clancy and others had been willing to discuss their methodology with me, instead of ignoring my emails requesting more information, and covering their tracks when correcting errors I pointed out to them, I might take them more seriously, I said. But, at the moment, I take studies like SAFE13 to be mainly propaganda for a cause, not social science.

While Katie did initially defend the scientific integrity of her study, I appear to ultimately just have succeeded in exposing my "status quo bias" to her, which is presumably my resistance to getting on board with her preferred program of cultural change. She even recommended I read an essay of hers entitled "Work in Progress: Changing Academic Culture." (I'm not sure if the first half of that title is a description of the essay or the actual title. Both make sense.) I said I would and would get back to her in a post of my own with my thoughts. This is that post.

A quick aside. I find it distasteful that people who block me on Twitter also intervene in conversations I'm having there. Apparently this happened here, when Clancy took the time to inform Katie that I'm a "troll" (and a "dude" for that matter), leading Katie to suggest she perhaps shouldn't be "waiting with bated breath for [my] post". I guess this may explain why Katie stopped engaging. And that says something about what we're dealing with. [Update at 15:30: Not much of a surprise, but Katie Hinde has now also blocked me on Twitter, presumably because of this post. Update at 21:30: Katie has unblocked me, ostensibly so I would know why she blocked me. Update 21/02/16 at 11:00: Blocked again.]

In any case, I did read her essay with great interest and curiosity, and I am writing this post (and the next) to register what I think about it. This is not because I find her argument compelling, or her style of argument attractive, but because I recognize the very real power that stands behind her cause. As she herself points out, SAFE13 received a great deal of direct and indirect support, and resonates with initiatives at the highest levels of government. "The times are," indeed, "a-changing." I look at these developments with some worry. (More on this in part 2.)

My first source of concern is right on the surface of Katie's essay. Scroll down the page and you will immediately see a very definite aesthetic, established by pictures and animations, many of which are aggressively (and somewhat affectedly) emotive. There's a lot of glaring and eye-rolling and sighing and head-shaking and face-palming (I think it's called). She's got her program all mapped out, let's say, and illustrated with cartoons (and even tweets this way). This very affective style is also apparent in the writing itself, which is full of swearing and vitriol and pathos. And, of course, empathy, albeit empathy for a particular segment of the population, namely, the one that she cares about. (You'll notice that having empathy for people you care about is virtually a tautology. That's important, actually.)

I know, I know, I get lost in details and I always need to get things right and I point out people's mistakes all the time and I talk too much and don't listen and I make people upset. What's wrong with me?!?!? I sometimes wonder.

Well, I certainly don't feel very welcome in Katie Hinde's "community", the principles of which she discusses in section III, and which is what I now want to focus on. It's a somewhat painful section of the essay to read, even if we just skim it for the pictures. First Doctor Evil tells me to "zip it", then Blair Waldorf says there are not enough curses in the world for me, then Samuel L. Jackson is not impressed at me, and finally Tina Fey elaborately rolls her eyes at me. Once we read the text, we're really feeling put in our place by how Katie is feeling. She is, like I say, feeling it very aggressively at me. You can go read it yourself in the context of the gifs (and with links to extra bells and whistles), but here's what she says:

... assuming that most people do not want to hurt their colleagues and are motivated by principles and/or empathy to exceed the legally-mandated minimum, academics can embrace a “Dignity Harassment Concept.” Employing our kickass capacity for Theory of Mind we can contribute to a community of equal opportunity and inclusivity by pausing for one fucking second to think “does my joke or comment or invitation have the potential to deprive my colleague of their dignity based on their gender?”

And if the answer is more likely to be “yes” than “no,” then DON’T SAY THAT THING!

Where there is an imbalance of power, err in favor of affording even more dignity down the hierarchy because they are less likely to let you know you are making them uncomfortable or creating a hostile professional space. Same question applies not just to gender but all aspects of identity such as race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, faith, nationality, immigration status, alter-ability, body mass, mental health status, etc. (and the intersections among them).

And don’t fucking tell me “well it wouldn’t bother me,” or “I would take it as a compliment,” or “it’s just a joke.” Because guess what asshat- THAT AIN’T THEORY OF MIND- that is just you thinking about you- and people just thinking about themselves is the whole fucking problem. Just. Fucking. Stop.

Additional Pro-Tip: Don’t explain “intent,” start paying attention to impact. Words can marginalize, undermine, and demean colleagues whether a good person overtly means to or not. When a person invokes an “intent” argument they are basically saying “I want you to use your theory of mind to forgive me when I have refused to use my theory of mind to just be a decent person.”

And by the way, a person’s “intent” means fuck all when they have exerted zero effort to understand the impact of their words and actions. The internet is full of exceptional personal essays and the library is full of systematic research on the lived experiences of people who remain under-represented in academia in the year twenty-fucking-sixteen. Read some regularly. I am not even going to “here let me google that for you” because I am so effing fatigued at the willful naiveté of “good” colleagues.

This is all pretty exhausting, isn't it? And it got me thinking about whether I lack the requisite "theory of mind" to make sense of what Katie is thinking about. After all, my first thought was, Can "a joke or comment or invitation" ever deprive my highly educated, adult colleague of their dignity?

I can see how a stick or a stone can have this power. But words? And is the problem that I think about myself, or that I think for myself and out loud and sometimes don't think quite enough or carefully enough and that I get things wrong sometimes? And aren't my super-smart colleagues able to understand that, when I say something obviously thoughtless or otherwise stupid or just plain wrong or perhaps something they don't understand, it doesn't actually "deprive" them of anything, least of all their dignity, least of all on the basis of their gender?

Katie is obviously very intelligent and has thought (and felt) a great deal about this. And if I wasn't so fucking smart myself and didn't understand how ideology works this would be really confusing to me. I'll explain what I mean in part two but, to foreshadow a little, here's something I tweeted to Katie to telegraph my punches.

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