Friday, April 06, 2012

The Vicissitudes of Netiquette

In the last couple of days, I've received a lot of criticism about this post, in which I solicited Dr. Vincent Hendricks (and encouraged my readers to solicit Dr. Hendricks) to grant an interview with me, for the benefit of his English-speaking audience, about the recent kerfuffle surrounding his decision to post on his website-- then, subsequently, to remove and apologize for-- a series of controversial photos. The criticism focused, in part, on the less-than-optimally-nice "tone" of my posts regarding Dr. Hendricks' sexist photos, but more so on my decision to provide his email address to readers, in order for them to copy and send the prefabricated solicitation that I provided in that post. Although the exact wording that my detractors used to describe my offense varied, most of them seemed to concentrate on the charge that it amounted to what one might call "bad netiquette." Netiquette is, of course, shorthand for "internet etiquette," an unwritten set of social conventions and mores outlining what is and is not acceptable in our online behaviors. For the most part, general netiquette rules proscribe spamming, multi-posting, mis- or non-atrributions, hijacking of discussion threads and trolling, as well as other quasi-illegal activities like harassment, bullying, defamation and libel. The less generally-accepted rules of netiquette proscribe behaviors akin to unsportsmanlike conduct, which (in the arena of conversation) amount to things like being rude, dismissive, irrational, illogical or impolite... but also more concrete practices like mine, namely, publishing someone's (real or electronic) address.

In all fairness, I don't think that I could characterize my posts on the Hendricks affair as "nice," though I certainly wouldn't characterize them as rude, dismissive, irrational, illogical or even impolite. (In fact, I think they were, for the most part, exceedingly polite.) I fear that, for many, "disagreement" is by definition incompatible with "niceness"... an evaluation with which I profoundly disagree. The matter under dispute was a provocative one, and that some found the discussion surrounding it equally provocative is not surprising. However, because several of the people who criticized me for "bad netiquette" are people with whom I generally agree and for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, I want to address this charge head-on.

What follows is my defense:

First, it must be noted that Dr. Hendricks himself acknowledged the error of his decision to post the controversial photos, so the substantive content of my posts-- namely, that the photos were objectionable-- is no longer a matter of real dispute. Hendricks issued a public apology (which, it appears, has since been removed) on his publicly available website, an apology that Hendicks himself requested to be re-posted on professional Philosophy's most publicly accessed site (Leiter Reports), in reference to those photos. I think it's fair to assume that Dr. Hendricks understood that neither the photos nor the controversy surrounding the photos was ever NOT a public matter. (The story was covered by ABC News, for goodness sake!) In both of my posts regarding the Hendricks affair, I encouraged readers to contact Dr. Hendricks about his (in my view, sexist) photos. In the first of those posts, I did not provide Dr. Hendricks' email address, though I did in the second. So, the question is: was my decision to provide Hendricks' email address "bad netiquette"?

Obviously, I think not. This is chiefly because, in my view, the entire matter was always already, independent of any posts or decisions on my part, taking place in the custody of the public domain. Hendricks' email address was publicly available on the same site that the photos (and his now-deleted apology for the photos) was originally published. All I did was excise the one simple step between saying "please email Dr. Hendricks" and providing the means to do so. The generic netiquette rule that proscribes publishing people's personal/private information-- which I think is a good and important rule-- just doesn't apply here. I didn't *make public* anything that wasn't already public-- neither the person, the photos, nor the issue surrounding the person and the photos. I didn't employ any super-sleuth skills to position Hendricks as a target for anything for which he hadn't already (publicly) targeted himself. In fact, by the time of my second post, Hendricks had already granted an interview to the Copenhagen newspaper Universitetsavisen, which is evidence enough (for me, at least) that he wasn't operating under the presumption of privacy about this matter.

Could I have "hotlinked" to his webpage without actually providing his email address? Yes. Was it an incitement to harassment not to do so? Absolutely not. If you go back and read my solicitation, you will see that I encouraged my readers to send the following email to Prof. Hendricks:
Dear Professor Hendricks,

I am writing to encourage you to accept the interview request by Dr. Leigh Johnson, which you can read here. Your English-speaking audience is eager and willing to hear your response to the controversy surrounding the images associated with your Logic course. I hope you will make every effort to accommodate this request.

{Your name here}
For the record, that is the exact wording of the email that I myself sent to Hendricks. That is to say, I invited Hendricks (and invited others to invite Hendricks) to a conversation in which he might be given an opportunity to provide a fuller account of his actions/decisions to his English-speaking audience, an audience that he had neglected (and still has neglected) to address directly, despite the fact that the English-speaking world is the primary domain of the controversy surrounding his photos.

I want to be exceedingly clear on this point in particular: my primary (and explicitly stated) aim in soliciting a conversation with Dr. Hendricks was to give HIM the fairest hearing possible. I was soliciting, first of all, a philosopher-to-philosopher civil discourse about a matter of significant concern to our shared community and. second of all, a more complete picture of the decision-making process of someone who had positioned himself as a *very* public figure in the professional Philosophical community as a consequence of his decisions.

So, in sum, I stand by my choice to publish Hendricks' email in my second post. I don't think it was improper, impolite or aggressive... nor do I think it violates reasonably-interpreted standards of netiquette.

In my view, the negative reaction to my decision may very well be indicative of a kind of two-tiered (read: gender-imbalanced) standard for judging what is proper or improper netiquette. I am, quite frankly, shocked that my decision to provide Hendricks' publicly-available email address in the course of soliciting him for an interview was taken to be more objectionable than his decision to post the photos under dispute. If anything, those photos constitute a direct affront to me personally-- and to every other female student of philosophy or professional female philosopher. My request to have a conversation about those photos, even if pre-framed as a conversation that takes them to be already sexist, also could be taken as an affront, I suppose, by Dr. Hendricks. But my request could hardly be taken as an affront of the same kind as his. As I think Shiloh Whitney articulated quite well (and convincingly) in her post, in which she questions the insistence that women be held to a higher standard of not only proof, but also "niceness":
You should know that these responses fit troublingly snugly within another set of sexist practices: the sort that patronize women interlocutors, that demand or simply presume our humility, and that reproach and punish women who are proud, confrontational, challenging, demanding, feminist, or who fail to make others' comfort a priority. Not only photographs, but also discussion and debate can be occasions to participate in sexist practices, and occasions to call them out. Some of the people in this debate are not only lacking background knowledge. They are also lacking a self-awareness of their own implication in sexist practices. If you want to be part of the solution to philosophy's problem with sexism, you should start by reflecting on the demands you place on your feminist and women colleagues in the way that you speak to them. Do you demand their humility? Do you make your discomfort and hurt pride their problem?
Whitney has hit the nail on the head here, I think, and she captures something that I suspect every female philosopher regularly confronts, but that few (including me) feel comfortable voicing in her own defense. The question for female philosophers is not "why do we have to be polite?" or "why do we have to be nice?" but rather, as Whitney claims, why is it such a monumentally objectionable offense when we're not? There are very few philosophers I've ever met-- the almost-pathologically "nice" Michael Naas being the only exception that comes to mind-- who have never been non-optimally considerate in their expressions of disagreement. (I say that with relative confidence after over 15 years of attending the APA.) However, save the most egregiously inconsiderate of them, NONE are sanctioned as universally and unreflectively as the least egregious female offenders. And I would speculate-- though, of course, I cannot know the minds of my male colleagues-- that very few of them spend as much time or effort self-editing in the service of avoiding a charge of poor conversational etiquette as I, or my female colleagues, do.

Netiquette, like etiquette, is a system of unofficial, unwritten, socially-regulated and -enforced norms. As such, the rules that it justifies, governs, polices and enforces mimic the norms of the larger society that those rules also justify, govern, police and enforce. All of us, myself included, try our best to abide by these norms for reasons that are both virtuous and necessary, not the least of which is maintaining a space of discussion that is safe for questioning and reforming our shared norms. When conscience disallows that kind of acquiescence, we depart from them. I may have departed from the norms of netiquette in my decision to publish Dr. Hendricks' email address, though I am not convinced that I did. I can see how reasonable people might disagree.

Where reasonable disagreement exists, there also exists the opportunity for growth and learning. I hope my defense above contributes to those opportunities.

**NOTE: Comments to this post will be subject to moderation, as outlined in the "Comments Policy" for this blog.**


Tracy said...

Leigh, I never said that your posting of Hendricks' email address was worse than his posting of the photos, nor did the other commenters whose remarks I read on facebook say what you did was *worse.* Thus, I think you need to specify a bit more here. Also, to say that those who have critiqued you for bad netiquette are sexist is, well, just plain wrong in some cases (i.e. mine). For those who don't know me: I am, in fact, a lesbian with a Ph.D. who regularly publishes on gender issues. Honestly, I think the sexism defense is a cheap way to exculpate yourself here. Were some of those who commented sexist? Sure seems like it. Was the critique of your posting of Hendricks' email address based in a sexist double standard? NO.

DOCTOR J said...

@Tracy: I agree that no one in my Facebook feed said (at least, explicitly) that my publishing of Hendricks' email address was "worse" than his publishing of the photos... though the objection to my action *was* (by FAR) the dominant complaint in that exchange. I disagree that my claim that there may be (unacknowledged, unreflective and sexist) double-standards at play in that complaint is "plain wrong," and (as a rule) I don't think that claiming one is a member of the offended group-- or educated about issues surrounding members of the offended group-- serves as a prima facie case for dismissing claims that the offense is, in fact, an offensive.

I'm not sure what more I can provide as an explanation for my judgment that my actions did not constitute "bad netiquette" other than what I have provided in this post. The person and the matter were already in the custody of the public domain, as a consequence of Hendricks' own decisions. As I said herein, I think reasonable people can disagree on this point.

Tracy said...

I said "just plain wrong in some cases." I cannot claim to know if unacknowledged sexism is behind other people's critiquing of you. I only know it was not behind my critique. Sure, the fact that I am a woman who writes on gender all the time would not make it impossible that I have unconscious double standards. It does, however, make it less likely--particularly since I am a very vocal, combative type of woman, as you know. It also makes it more likely that I would take umbrage at reading that you think my critique came out of sexism, unconscious or otherwise. But really, my behavior is not what is at issue here. The thing with etiquette is that it derives from social consensus. The only thing you could do to demonstrate that your actions were not bad etiquette would be to poll 100 random poll to see what they think. No argument you can make about it could in fact demonstrate that it is not bad etiquette, because standards of behavior are based on cultural norms, not arguments.

DOCTOR J said...

Ack!!! I agree that your behavior is not what is at issue here, and neither is mine. Unfortunately, Tracy, yours seems like a *terrible* argument in your defense. (Your defense being something that I am otherwise inclined to endorse!) To claim, as you do, that "no argument [I could] make about it could in fact demonstrate that it is not bad etiquette, because standards of behavior are based on cultural norms, not arguments" is simply to grant that any system of rules is self-justifying... a claim with which I don't disagree (on fundamentally logical grounds). OF COURSE, no one can justify a transgression of the rules on the basis of the system of rules the s/he is transgressing!

My defense in this post was, in part, that I was NOT transgressing the system of rules to which we are both appealing. I suppose I would say, in that regard, you haven't really addressed my defense-- namely, that I *didn't* transgress the *normally understood* rules of netiquette. (My claim being, in sum, that my publication of Hendricks' email address didn't *make public* anything that wasn't already in the custody of the public domain.) But even if I *did* violate the rules of "netiquette," I have provided (I think) a good case for determining that those rules might be disproportionately applied, in accordance with larger, structural gender biases.

In an effort to be (overly-) polite, I'll just say again that I'd be interested to hear an account of how my publishing of Hendricks' email address *exactly* violated the norms of "netiquette."

Tracy said...

I'm pretty sure other people have already addressed why it violated the norms of etiquette, so I'm not going to go there again.

In terms of "systems of rules" being self-justifying--well, yes, cultures are circular and self-justifying. Also, we are talking about norms and customs, NOT rules. Rules are something else. Seeing cultural norms as a "system of rules" is in itself wrongheaded, because it implies consistency and logic, which is not the way cultures work. I could offer a long explication of all of this, but Bourdieu and Catherine Bell have already done so far better than I could.

DOCTOR J said...

@Tracy: No, in fact, others *havent* addressed how my actions violated norms of netiquette, other than asserting that they did so.

If you're appealing to those norms *as if* their violation were tantamount to a violation of "rules" (as you have), then the onus of justification falls on you. Make your case. I'm more than willing to engage it.

David Chiles said...

It's good netiquette to stand up for a cause. It's bad netiquette to share anothers email address without permission. If you disagree with someone you are aloud to voice your opinion. I commend you on standing up for yourself and your opinion.

Caj said...

You quote Shiloh, who said,
"You should know that these responses fit troublingly snugly within another set of sexist practices: the sort that patronize women interlocutors, that demand or simply presume our humility, and that reproach and punish women who are proud, confrontational, challenging, demanding, feminist, or who fail to make others' comfort a priority."

Along similar lines,
1) people of color working in professional surroundings have traditionally been held to higher standards of character and propriety than their white counterparts.
2)a white person calling for a community of readers to assist in bringing about the compliance of a person of color brings to mind racially troubling associations and imagery for anyone sensitive to the subject [not just of the history of the United States, but of every non-European history influenced by European imperialism].

And I'll add,
3) critiques of the kind found in (1) and (2) are either not responded to (Shiloh) or are summarily dismissed (fred). Perhaps Shiloh stopped reading the posts because of her schedule. I'm sure sure she is busy. But I'm certainly not alone in thinking that those who voice concerns about race are ignored or dismissed by the larger white feminist community.

And, there is one final aspect of Shiloh's claim which makes it somewhat hard to swallow: if Dr. Hendricks were to have a concern over (1) and (2), it is not obvious how he would communicate this concern and yet still avoid an act of sexism. It puts him (..and everyone?) in a lose-lose scenario. Arguably, when extended across race (and caste), Shiloh's kind of analysis makes a racist-patriarchy a perpetual-motion machine and our critical efforts self-defeating. I don't disagree that a lot of 'mansplaining' occurs when women assert themselves, and that this is a serious form of sexism. My concern is that Shiloh's framework also silences legitimate, deeply disenfranchised voices in a dialogue.

steventhomas said...

There's netiquette and there's rhetoric. I totally agree with you that women philosophers are held to a double standard and expected to be polite. When men put on the suits and trappings of the philosopher, society expects them to be provocative, critical, engaging, etc. It's what society wants philosophers to be. It's why we need them.

That said, rhetorically (and of course I'm making shifting the conversation to rhetoric, since I'm not a philosopher, but a literary critic), your post and Shiloh's were, one might say, preaching to the choir. In a sense, your argument and Shiloh's seemed to suggest that the sexism of Hendricks's picture was self-evident, and in fact, if I remember correctly (and I'm not sure I can remember much right now, since I'm on my second martini), but I seem to recall the phrase "self evident" or something like it being used somewhere. But of course the job of the philosopher is to assume that nothing is ever self evident, and everything needs to be explained. Part of the rhetorical problem is that of audience. Your usual audience for your blog is people like me, and we'd say "yes, obviously sexist, wtf." I wouldn't expect you to dwell on an explanation of things that are self-evident to me as well, and I'd assume you'd want to quickly move on to the next point. Blog posts are supposed to be short, after all, so why dwell on obvious stuff? But it seems your blog caught the attention of a different audience for whom it isn't self evident. It's like talking to someone who isn't aware of Gallileo's astronomical science and still thinks the earth is flat, but of course, common sense will tell you the earth is flat, just look outside your window. And part of the rhetorical situation here is the context of an utterance, and the indeterminacy of its meaning. As a Derridean, I think you can agree with that.

Now, let's look at the image, which might seem to be sexist because it suggests that men become intellectual only to get sexually alluring, younger women, and it repeats one of the most boring plot lines of millions of pornographic movies in which a brainless girl must prostitute herself before the authoritative male teacher. It's not only insulting to the women, it's also insulting to the man, as if his ego needs that. However, there is also a degree of irony to the picture. So, again, context. What if it's a joke? For instance, it would be absurd for me to write a blog post angrily accusing Jonathan Swift of insensitivity to homeless women when he suggested that we eat their babies. The context might be that philosophers are often assumed to be dull, unattractive, old white men, and so the over-the-top image plays with several stereotypes at the same time. The meaning of the image is slippery, because it takes an image somewhat common in popular culture (e.g., hip hop, rock and roll, Hollywood movies, etc.), and puts it in a different context (the academy.) In a sense, by replicating an image in a different context, the image makes fun of itself -- the object of mockery is Hendricks. For instance, I enjoy listening to AC/DC and I get pleasure from Hollywood movies, even though much of rock and roll and Hollywood is also sexist, so what's wrong with Hendricks doing what Snoop Dog does all the time? And perhaps Hendricks is making fun of a philosopher for acting like an adolescent rock n roller? Who knows? What Hendricks did wrong as a professional philosopher is that he didn't do his job -- he didn't contextualize his own image. What if he had put that same image up surrounded by philosophical questions about the nature of patriarchy or the complexity of signification? We would be having a very different conversation right now, I think, or possibly we wouldn't be having a conversation at all, as ABC would not have bothered to report it.

steventhomas said...

Sorry, I wasn't able to finish my last blathering comment because of a most sensible restriction to lenght. Anyways, to continue, the fact that ABC did bother to report it puts another context on the netiquette question. As you say, his e-mail address is publicly available, so what's the big deal? I'm totally with you on that score. But on the other hand, let's put ourselves in the position of a college professor who is suddenly the subject of a scandal on a network television station owned by Disney. Did you really expect him to take you up on your offer? I suspect that Hendricks received so many e-mails that his department had to hire someone to sift through all of them to separate the ones from his colleagues and students out from the ones responding to that picture. If that were me (and I say a lot of controversial crap, so I suppose it potentially could be), I'd feel somewhat distressed.

Anyway, I'm the last person who should be talking about another's rhetoric, since I am famous for my rhetorical blunders and general asshole behavior. Today, I'm mostly just jealous that your blog got so much attention. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

steven, when you ask what would have happened if Hendricks had put the same image up in the context of asking philosophical questions about patriarchy, etc., you're asking us to imagine an alternate reality that has no meaning in this present. Sure, that "could" have happened, and everything would have been different, but it didn't. I could make a sexist joke in class and then stop to explain that I did it on purpose in order to illustrate the harmful effects of sexism; or I could just make a sexist joke, full stop.

I've been in too many classes, including logic classes, where I was treated by the men present as if I were roughly equivalent to the women in those pictures. As a result, I have no time or inclination to hold the hands of the feeble-minded and explain to them why these images are sexist and deliver much more harm than levity. Sometimes people have a moral responsibility to figure this stuff out for themselves. In short, yes, the sexism is self-evident. Failure to see this is an ailment that others are not obligated to remedy. I'm too busy focusing on this problem, the solution of which will have a much greater impact than anything one says about Hendricks:

James said...

Anon, that's going to be a difficult problem to solve if you can't get others to "see" the self-evident sexism. It's hard to stop the harmful effects of sexism if you can't get other people to recognize when they or others are being sexist.

I mean, here, it does seem so self-evident, I'm not too sure what to say beyond pointing out the complete lack of any context to suggest any contra-sexist intent or message to the photos, beyond just having to say to skeptics "look, you are just going to have to trust the rest of us, and hopefully you'll start to be able to make these judgments about when something is sexist yourself, even if you don't see or can't grasp the explanatory why that applies specifically to X."

But, surely, you can see how that's somewhat problematic/unsatisfying to effectively combating sexism. I mean, in theory, it could work (get people to accept the proof surrogate or just build their intuition with enough examples that they become fairly accurate at figuring stuff out even if they can't explain it), but recognition of sexism alone with little to no communicable explanation for why it's sexist hardly seems satisfying or likely to work.