Impact, Intent, HR and Intellectual Freedom at the ALA

The ALA sent around an email a few days ago in which it announced the publication of its new Online Code of Conduct, which is in effect as of August 1st. For the most part, it is a shockingly, refreshingly moderate and sensible document for the present historical moment. Click the link above and take a look.

The document is SO generally sensible, in fact, that I had to carefully read it a few times before I found the anti-expression loophole that I think is open to misinterpretation. Now, I know the code of conduct has stated rules about what sorts of things users can and can’t say, and those rules basically mean a form of open censorship, but those rules at least make an attempt at clarity and specificity and arguably make philosophical sense. It’s a professional forum, not a junior high locker room or nightclub parking lot.

But I found this bit of vagueness:

Take responsibility for the impact of communications. Impact matters more than intent, especially when the absence of nonverbal cues or voice tone means that statements (humor in particular) can easily be interpreted as aggressive or negative.

“Take responsibility.” ”Impact matters more than intent.” “Can easily be interpreted.”

Responsibility? For what? Impact. On whom? What IS impact, exactly? Easily interpreted. By whom?

Responsibility and Impact

Put simply, they’re saying that what a reader feels and what the reader interprets a writer’s meaning to be could be used by a labor attorney hired by an ALA employee to create a hostile workplace case and thus a reader’s feelings can be used to censor forum users. In the modern workplace, every conversation, real or virtual, is now a potential strict liability crime, both actually AND symbolically. That’s why I think this rule is rooted in the fact that the ALA is an employer. Imagine the exchange in ALA’s inner sanctae: “Look at this comment! What does she mean by ’orient ourselves’? I find the word ’orient’ triggering. Leaving it up makes me feel unsafe as an employee.” A smart boss will take that right down. I will choose to believe the rule is meant to avoid real legal problems moreso than to handle the non-actionable “social justice” cases where the fracture is simply of someone’s feelings, the injury is to their spirit and the victim is also the judge.

But don’t be naive enough to think that just the most obvious sort of “workplace hostilizing” language will be an issue on the forums. There will doubtless be the kinds of stupid, cringey exchanges that right-wing media loves to mock.

For example, under these rules, if a forum user writes something, like, say, ”Our organization has ‘analysis paralysis,’” and another forum user insists that the use of the word “paralysis” is ableist and hurtful, the writer could conceivably be asked to edit the message or be censured and see the message deleted. Perhaps an apology will be declared in order. Everyone involved will know which definition of “paralysis” the writer was actually using, but the rules say intent doesn’t really matter. The hypersensitive hallucinations of strangers will be the basis for correction, at least sometimes.

If one writes “It’s been a tough year with our budget, but we’ll walk it off,” and that same person on vigilant watch for ableism says that casual references to walking are othering to people who are in wheelchairs, it may not suffice to explain that it’s simply a figure of speech or an analogy and that taking offense is unreasonable. No! A reader took offense, and the writer will be expected to “take responsibility” for that reader’s emotional response first and probably THEN also for calling the person unreasonable. Impact, after all, matters more than intent.

I know these examples sound unthinkable, but I’ve already seen it. I recall being corrected after I said that the guitar—an instrument I play—wasn’t hard to learn. Someone in the group I was in responded that such a sentiment was insensitive to AMPUTEES or people missing fingers! No amputees were present and my corrector herself was not an amputee, just a librarian who was too young to see Tony Melendez play for the Pope.

I suspect that the drafters of this code are perfectly aware of the self-censorship-inspiring effect this approach will doubtless have on ”spirited debate” and that, to them, it’s a feature, not a bug. Those of us with admin-level jobs know that every sentence, every word choice, every spell-check failure is potential grounds for an HR investigation and/or lawsuit. The ALA, in this case, has to throttle down free expression. It has a payroll, after all.

Many of the poorly-conceived notions circulating among the membership of the ALA and threatening to corrode the organization’s long-term philosophical commitment to intellectual freedom have their origins in in the therapist’s office, the university campus…or both.

But in this case, the HR specialist’s desk is probably where the potential censorship originates.

Reading: The Perception of the “Injured Party”


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