About the same time that I proposed to use an Appreciative Inquiry approach for strategic planning with a new client, Chris Bourg wrote a piece about anti-harassment policies at conferences for her blog, Feral Librarian. Chris advised other libraries to join Stanford in encouraging staff members to look at whether a conference has an anti-harassment policy or not when making a decision to attend. These two events got me thinking about why I prefer to stand for than against.
For one thing, I think positive psychology is onto something–that positive imagery can create positive action. Conversely, I believe it is possible that focusing on negative imagery or undesirable behavior may create negative action or at least unintended consequences.
In The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond cites studies that indicate that sexual harassment complaints have increased over time, following the introduction of sexual harassment prevention training. She does not suggest that the training has caused inappropriate behavior to increase, but that the focus on inappropriate behavior in the training may cause people to find the behaviors they have learned about.
By contrast, Hammond suggests exploring what it’s like to be treated with dignity and respect. Then people can learn to connect with empathy rather than policing others in the organization (or at the conference) with a checklist of no-nos.
The other reason I prefer to emphasize the positive is because I think the list of what constitutes harassment is too narrow and as such does not necessarily promote dignity and respect for all. For example, one comment on Chris’ blog says, “I support this but nothing like this has happened to me in a long while. Not since my early ALA conferences. But that’s because I am in an age group where no one harasses me anymore.” This statement seems to make the assumption that harassment is only something that happens to young people–presumably women. However, I have witnessed behavior at conferences that might not be categorized as harassment, but is dismissive of older people.
While not engaging in this behavior herself, Chris was recently involved in a Twitter exchange about what ORWM means. Apparently one of Chris’ Twitter followers labeled something Chris had “snarked” about as an ORWM comment or action. Upon investigation, Chris determined that ORWM means Old Retired (or Rich) White Man. What does generating a label like that do to the open exchange of ideas? What about criticizing the substance of the action or the comment (ill informed, disrespectful) instead of labeling the actor?
Also, because libraries and librarianship are changing quickly, people may choose to attend conferences that are loosely organized or ad hoc. Start-up conferences of this type are unlikely to have a governance structure that is comprehensive enough to include policies that govern behavior at the conference. What about encouraging folks to raise awareness at all conferences they attend about what it looks like to treat everyone with dignity and respect? What about choosing conferences that have pro-civility policies instead of anti-harassment policies?