We needed to watch our own behavior before social media, too


We still have generations of academics who are still in denial about how social media has changed how we are accountable for our actions. These folks think that it’s improper to go public with overtly harmful actions by bad actors. That if accountability is not accessible in a hush-huh manner, that it’s simply not the right moment for accountability.

Meanwhile, kids growing up nowadays are fully aware that at any public moment, if they do something outrageously horrible (or funny, or talented, or heartwarming, or whatnot), their deeds can become The News. And they also might be prepared to share evidence of an injustice done to themselves or to others.

A lot of professors don’t seem to get this. Even if they received their PhD as late as 2011. Exhibit A:

The upshot is: the director of the biostatistics program at Duke emailed all of the first-year and second-year students in the program with a message of overt intolerance — telling them that they could not privately speak to one another in a language other than English. Within a day of the tweet of the email that sparked the furor, this happened:

I suppose that’s one way to get featured in the Washington Post.

There are always going to be some people who will want to argue that Dr. Neely got a raw deal, that since her email was directed to people at Duke, it’s unfair to her that it get broadcasted to the world at large. And will say that others who have committed equivalently monumental errors have not received this kind of treatment, so it’s unfair. (But I imagine the people who think she got a raw deal also think she did nothing wrong, so there’s that.)

What we have seen is a (slight) shift in the distribution of power. Individuals can try to create transparency and public awareness about harmful acts without having to get past an institutional filter. Some folks who are disempowered have a mechanism to increase their power (even though this mechanism rarely to that effect). Perhaps those that don’t like public sharing of misdeeds in the academic workplace are bothered that people who once held little power now have a little more power.

It can be a lot easier to do the professoring thing if you don’t have to worry about stepping in a deep pile of doo doo by insulting people or doing something unfair.

But that’s just the world needs – people in power worrying about doing the wrong thing.

We’ve been absolving people in power of doing the wrong thing for how long now? That hasn’t worked out so well for the people not in power.

I don’t apparently have massive ethical qualms with sharing the story of Dr. Neely’s racism against Chinese students at Duke, otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen this as the example for this post. I thought it was a good example to bring up because, as it’s already in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and the Washington Post, I don’t think bringing it up here constitutes a pile-on.

I remember the saying, “Dance like nobody is watching, email like it’s being read out loud in a deposition.” It’s a funny thing that our most public moments are the ones where we are at best and/or at our worst. Nobody is that interested in what happens in the middle. This is just the way things are now. People are responding to the power of social media by keeping much of their private lives away from the digital sphere. It’s no surprise that social media used to be a venue where a lot of people shared themselves more openly than they do now. (For example, I’m very frank about some some aspects of myself and my career on social media, but I am intentionally excluding 98.3% of my life because that’s not what I want to be public about, and to protect the privacy of people who I interact with offline.)

Okay, it’s not fair in the sense that many bad actors don’t get what’s coming to them. The distribution of these major comeuppances is sporadic. But in the case of the Duke racist, the consequence (immediately removing from the professor from the directorship of graduate students, and conducting a full review) is a necessary action that presumably would not have happened if it hadn’t gone public. (I surmise this because the professor did a similar thing a year ago, and it didn’t go public, and they still were in authority. And because you know as well as I do that institutions often protect harmful faculty long after students complain and provide solid evidence.)

What’s the problem about bad actions getting aired in public? In the past, people thought that these kinds of things going public was just uncouth or not the way things should be done. Nowadays, perhaps the problem is that not enough bad actions get enough public attention? For every one of the harmful actions that gets amplified in a cycle of online outrage, there are so many that don’t get posted or don’t circulate. The accountability of public awareness doesn’t work for everybody who needs it.

Even without social media, our actions affect one another in distant places, by shaping the world that we live in. This has always been true. Fifty years ago, a person demonstrating racial intolerance in a university was indirectly impacting students at universities elsewhere, as their actions normalized and perpetuated racism. Now that social media is a part of daily life, the broad communities that are harmed by bad actors now have a voice to demand accountability for those who are putting bad actors in power. One person’s “twitter mob” is another person’s mechanism of accountability.

I’m not arguing that the ability to take private misconduct into public space is a good thing or a bad thing or a thing that we must try to quash or try to promote. Because this is just the way things are now, and I’m just recognizing this. And I wanted to mention that I’m surprised at how so many people can’t seem to understand or accept this reality.

Yes, we have to police our own behavior, because if we do the wrong thing, it can make headlines. Someone might be recording us, people might save emails, a tweet can get screencapped and shared forever, an inappropriate photo might bite us in the ass. I think most people realize this. But for those who complain about the novelty of having to police one’s behavior, I have some news: we always needed to police our behavior in the time before social media too, because misconduct and harmful behavior has always been the wrong thing. Now that people can use social media to announce to the world that someone has done something wrong, that doesn’t mean that we’re living in a police state. We merely have new extrinsic motivator for treating others with respect, and not an effective one at that. Perhaps it’s not even making a dent.

One thought on “We needed to watch our own behavior before social media, too

  1. Completely agree one must consider his or her email public and the obvious issues here of free speech and discrimination. But, beyond those, I think what rubs a lot of folks the wrong way about this case is that this department has >20 faculty at the associate/full professor level, why are they giving such important service duties to an assistant prof? Why are they submitting these discriminatory complaints to her?

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