Two years ago, I started this blog to comment on an SCS statement about social media and anonymity. In that post, I pointed out how it seemed to be a reaction to a blog post critical of Mary Beard. To be clear, Beard is not to blame if I say that the SCS appeared to be censuring criticism of her. Even if it is not true, the timing was a bad look. I thought about this episode when the SCS released another vague statement about online civility. Will members ever know what impelled the SCS to issue these statements? Who knows? But since the SCS is planning, it seems, to publish “guidelines for social media and other online communications,” I want to help by encouraging them to either (1) reconsider the wisdom of this step or (2) tread carefully lest they provide tools that can be used against members.
The most obvious question: Are Twitter, Facebook, vel sim. professional spaces that come under the purview of the SCS? There is no obvious answer here. At the very least, they are hybridized professional/non-professional spaces. But what would it mean if the SCS decided that they are professional spaces, where they have some authority? I encourage Professional Matters to read what I wrote about my decision to be pseudonymous online and to think about how their guidelines deal with the problems surrounding the Real Name internet. If the SCS decides that that professionals should use their real names online, am I then supposed only to post classics content in an account under my real name and non-classics stuff in this space?
What about classics memes? Are these professional or not? Should we worry about Classical Studies memes for Hellenistic teens? Are sententiae antiquae’s cat pictures out? If Housman were alive today, tweeting his opinions on the textual choices made by his colleagues, would they be “unprofessional?” It can get bizarre quickly, of course, when a professional society weighs in on how members behave in spaces that are not obviously professional. But even vague guidelines such as “respect the dignity of one another in professional and private communications (um? private communications???)” might lend themselves to misuse.
On March 2, 2021 (today), Neera Tanden had to withdraw as Nominee from Biden’s team because of her social media posts that were “mean” to members of congress. She tweeted that Susan Collins was “the worst” and said that “Vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz.” These seem just “mean tweets.” I am not saying that she should have gotten the position, but it hard not to see that a woman of color is being held to a standard of “online civility” that other colleagues often are not. And do we seriously believe that her Tweets are not just a politically convienent excuse? Members of the SCS have been around long enough to know that “civility” often simply covers other dynamics.
Professional Matters should also consider the currently evolving story of L.D. Burnett. Burnett is a public scholar, active on Twitter. Recently, her college president censured her for tweeting that “the moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” To me, this is quality tweeting. But many thought otherwise, and she received death threats (Some of the story). She informed her college, so they could be ready, but the adminstration attacked her instead. She also later criticized online her college president’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Her contract was not renewed for insubordination, not “maintaining a disruptive-free working environment,” and not conforming to the college standards of behavior. Here too we find “mean tweets” weaponized for reasons that have little to do with “professional behavior.” Here too it is a woman.
When Professional Matters meets to discuss the guidelines, I hope they consider how professional behavior standards are often unequally applied to women and people of color. I hope they also consider power dynamics. Is the professional society standing up for members who are being bullied and harassed by online crowds or by senior members with influence in the society? Or is it exerting its influence against an individual who made a mean tweet? What if a graduate student SCS member tweeted “Hubbard is the worst.” Or a contingent member tweeted “Joshua Katz, gross”? Should the SCS take a stand against such Tweets when they involve members? Should the tweeters be censured? Personally, I think the SCS would want to stay very far away from this stuff, lest they are seen to censure a member for a mean tweet. That would be a terrible look, una bruttissima figura.
The current SCS statement on Professional Ethics contains the following:
No one should under any circumstance engage in harassment, bullying or intimidation either in person or online, nor in differential treatment of anyone based on gender or sexuality, age, disability, religion, race, ethnicity, or marital or faculty status
Is this insufficient? What will the new guidelines add? Sure, it is a judgment call whether a social media post is harassment or bullying, but it is hard to imagine a single Tweet would be. In any case, I think the SCS is pretty well covered for social media as it is. It is by no means clear that the SCS should weigh in on how members behave online beyond what they have here, and if they insist on it, I pray that they do so with care for all the members, not just the most secure.