Professionalism, fragmentation, moral minimalism and personal drama

As some are aware—and a few more than others—I have been seriously stressed by some self-inflicted personal/professional drama lately.

I tried to say something that I feel very strongly about. I took my time and re-read and revised over an eight day period. Shortly after it was released into the wild one of my friends, who was doing the right thing by me, let me know that it might not be perceived as I meant it to be. I had to agree that they were right and I pulled it. Of course, anyone who is subscribed to my blog got a chance to see it via RSS, but at least the live link just 404s.

It is, of course, thanks to search engine technology, still available for those who know how. And it turns out that it sits quite high in a very basic, current affairs-type, search. <sigh> Another lesson learned, perhaps. Although, since the initial intent was to put it out there, I am unsure what lesson I was supposed to learn. [Thankfully, a day later it is quickly sliding down.]

I am currently in the process of rewriting that post with the help of a few wonderful people. Why? Well, I was just going to let it go. I figured I had had my say, even if few actually saw it. I decided to wait and see what happened after pulling it. A few days later someone responded to me that it was “a great critique!” I then wrote a semi-veiled post to explain what happened.

At that point, I began to get some wonderful feedback, much of which came by personal email. I also had a few direct conversations with physically local people. It turns out more people than I imagined have serious issues with what passes for professionalism in our field, and more generally. Of course, the reasons for this vary, and few are for the reasons I espouse. But the feeling is there nonetheless. Something needs to be said.

Thus, I must say something. My hope is to start a conversation. Here. There. Everywhere. Privately. Publicly. In blogs. In professional journals. Wherever. Whenever. I do not want to be the moderator. I only want to be a spark. And a participant.

Just what is “professionalism,” particularly in the context of libraries? What is it as a concept and ideal? And what is it as it is embodied in practice? The second is the most important, by far. And they most certainly are not the same thing. Embodied practice rarely reaches to the level of principle or ideal, even though we ought to try.

There has been a lot of conversation in the biblioblogosphere lately about several topics that are highly related to this subject. Group think, over-niceness of librarians, who you represent when you write, personal behavior/bullying, encouraging participation/conversation and so on. There has also been much discussion of “professional experience” on the AUTOCAT discussion list lately, particularly in the area of job descriptions and also “professional” vs. paraprofessional.

One of the participants in the Five Weeks To A Social Library project wrote about separating the personal from the professional within social software. This is definitely something that belongs in the discussion of professionalism. T. Scott Plutchak responded with a lovely post at his own blog about fragmentation, something I have written about extensively here. It is also one of my main reasons for what I do here. Fragmentation accounts for why I mix so much personal and professional, for why I only have one blog vs. two, and for the name of my first blog, “…the thoughts are broken….”

Before you read any further, I highly encourage you to read T. Scott’s post. “Trying To Be Complete.” I hope to someday meet this gentleman whose writing I so admire, but whom I admire (and did long before he wrote this) more for his wholeness and honesty.

The challenge, with all of these audiences, is to not let myself be stifled in what I have to say. There’s a simple rule of thumb — can I stand behind every word I write, no matter who might come across it?

I’m no longer looking for “balance” because that still seems to imply managing two poles. I don’t have a “personal” or “professional” side. I strive to be complete.

I do not have the time or energy to do a lot of synthesis of my previous writings right now. This is due both to illness and also to the volume of my previous writings on this subject. Thus, I am going list some links where I wrote about some of the topics listed in the title of this post, all of which have to do with professionalism in my mind. Maybe some of this will resonate with you, maybe not.

Either way, whether I am involved or not, my hope in exposing all of this (again) and in a concentrated form is to start some conversations. It is not that I don’t understand what constitutes professionalism in our field. It is that I disagree with it and find it highly dangerous, precisely because it is so fragmenting, amongst other things.

I have already asked you to read T. Scott Plutchak’s post, “Trying To Be Complete.”

I have also linked above to my most current statement on some of these issues, “if i had sense, i guess i’d fear this” from 1 Feb 2007.

I want to start with my first two blog posts from my 1st blog (now moved here) as they hint at some of this:

So, what is this about, and for?” 29 Jan 2005

Putting oneself into one’s writing” 29 Jan 2005

I think I will continue in a chronological vein. Please feel free to comment on any of these posts; I do not believe I have turned off commenting on any of my posts. I will try to add some comments to cue you in as to why I chose these posts, as some of the titles and main topics may seem like odd places to find what I’m going on about. That is because I tend to make what might be to some people odd connections. So, let me connect away for you….

Blogging as Metaphor” 9 May 05

While it may not have been my explicit intention when I started this blog back in January, it is now one of my primary intentions, which I am now stating publicly, to use this blog as a means to stitch my life together into a coherent whole—past, present, future, academic interests, hobbies, family, friends, enemies, loves, hates, desires, fears, hopes, thoughts, wishes.

Please click through to the above post and follow the link to post that triggered it; far more eloquent than I can ever be.

Baumgartner on moral minimalism” 9 May 05

This entry is part of my final exam for a grad sociology class on “lived morality” and “Discuss(es) moral minimalism as Baumgartner describes it as a kind of ordinary vice.” I have stated that I feel that moral minimalism is rampant in our profession. This might be a good place to start. Better yet would be to read Baumgartner’s amazing book which is cited at the end of the post.

Moral minimalism, and the fragmentation and depersonalization that feed and are fed by it lead to moral indifference. This, coupled with the belief that moral responsibility reside with the state and its’ institutions lead to the lack of moral judgment on the part of the individual. If one will or can not exercise moral judgment, they can not act morally. Thus, moral minimalism is an ordinary vice.

Can we do away with subject headings? Only if we keep ‘Moral minimalism and libraries’” 29 May 05

Truth be told, this rant was my first take on this article, which is sort of a shame because it is one of my favorite articles. It is certainly my favorite from any ACRL publication. This is an article that is firmly in my toolkit and I will pull it out faster than you can ask, “Can we…?” I have given a full-scale class presentation on this article alone, and have used it in several other presentations and a paper or two. You also can’t begin to imagine how utterly furious I was when Karen Calhoun completely misrepresented this article’s conclusions to her own end in the Calhoun Report. But it is one of my finest expositions of moral minimalism in our profession, and as much as I wish I had done better by this article at some point on my blog, I stand by it.

Please do not misunderstand me! I am most definitely not arguing for violence and rancor among library staff, or suburbanites. Neither was Baumgartner. And yes, civility and forbearance can be virtues. But they are not always so. There are other socio-historical methods of resolving conflict besides aggression or avoidance. Read Baumgartner and see if some of what she says doesn’t apply to libraries. I admit my view is colored by my time in a highly dysfunctional library. It can’t help but be. I am also aware that there are libraries that are not as dysfunctional. But I would submit that they are so because they are not engaged in the avoidance behavior elicited by moral minimalism, while still remaining civil and forbearant.

That is why I believe the person making the suggestion should be identified. Not for the purpose of public ridicule, bu to foster discussion rather than avoidance. And yes, you might argue the topic hasn’t been avoided—it was brought out in a major professional publication. And you would be correct. But I would still maintain that this sort of behavior is a form of avoidance, and as such is a form of professional moral minimalism.

Todorov on Totalitarianism” 16 Aug 05

Another question from the same grad sociology final. Here is the assignment statement: Discuss Todorov’s theory of totalitarianism and how it accounts for the widespread use of concentration camps and for related crimes in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Interpret this statement of Todorov’s: “Totalitarianism reveals what democracy leaves in the shadows – that at the end of the path of indifference and conformity lies the concentration camp.” Distinguish between moralism and the moral judgment that is a component of moral virtue. Discuss the lessons to be learned from the concentration camps about moral values.

Now, “What,” you might ask “do concentration camps and totalitarianism have to do with libraries?” While I admit that it seems a bit extreme, let me pull out a few lines and see if they don’t fit some things in our profession and, in particular, life in the academy (for anyone without tenure).

This evil was banal in that it was committed by people who were “terrifyingly normal.”

The first of these traits is that of the internal enemy. If the individual is not with the state, then he is against it. This leads to dividing humanity into two groups of unequal worth.

This leads the individual to the feeling of relief from personal responsibility for decisions. The state restricts its subjects to instrumental thinking and the treating of all actions as means. This is precisely how such “ordinary people” are capable of such evil. The state accomplishes its goals without disturbing the individual’s moral conscience; it is simply replaced with a new one.

The state controls who works, where they work, what kind of job they get, if they can travel, where they can travel, whether they can own property, whether they can live, and so on. Almost all aspects of life are under the control of the totalitarian state. This leads to social schizophrenia. The individual must exhibit public docility at least. This social schizophrenia is a weapon in the hands of the state though. “[I]t lulls to sleep the conscience of the totalitarian subject, reassures him, and lets him underestimate the seriousness of his public deeds. Master of his heart of hearts, the subject no longer pays much attention to what he does in the world.” (Todorov, 129)

Thus, what Todorov is saying is that the resignation, deliberate blindness, and fatalism that is present in today’s technological democracies can easily lead a society down “the path of indifference and conformity” to the concentration camp.

Moralism is the invoking of a set of principles without acting on them, or without placing oneself at risk. It makes one feel superior, “I’m good, you’re evil.” According to Jacques Ellul, it is “one of the worst scourges of human existence.”

Another lesson I believe that was at least confirmed by the horrors of the camps is that: “All, or almost all, of us prefer comfort to truth.” (Todorov, 156)

There is so much more in this essay, including issues of gender that touch on other issues of note in the biblioblogosphere lately, and that also should be wrapped into professionalism.

Librarianship as Penance?” 15 Oct 05

For some explanation as to why I now take an engaged morality as so important.

Don’t You Think?” 23 Oct 05

Finding one’s voice. Liminality. Intention. One reason why I must speak up.

Designing Jakob Nielsen” 23 Oct 05

This is mostly a rant about Jakob Nielsen’s pathetic attempt at defining weblog usability. Many of us in the biblioblogosphere, much less the wider blogosphere, had a harsh reaction to his ideas on the design of blogs. My post includes links to some of them, even some not so harsh reactions.

Nielsen’s first mistake is his unspoken assumption that all blogs except those that “are really just private diaries” are actively trying to “reach new readers who aren’t your mother.” Underlying this assumption though is a far more insidious one; that we are all just selling a product, a corporate identity. Along with that assumption is one of extreme danger to human beings; that we must separate the personal from the public, “corporate” identity.

I was almost destroyed by following this path. I am still trying to recover from it, and many days I am not convinced that I will succeed due to the extreme opposite pressure my society exerts on me, and everyone else. [See my “Librarianship as Penance?” post for more info on my personal battles.]

I will not succumb to this path again. I am one person; not multiple persons. My life must remain coherent and integrated. This is not to imply that everyone who only blogs about professional library issues is highly fragmented, just that I do not choose it as a path for me.

Two blogs or not two blog? That is my question.” 3 Nov 05

My 1st discussion of the possibility of having a 2nd blog, complete with great feedback. I know I’ve had at least one more of these conversations more recently but I can’t find it.

Interesting days here lately” 10 May 06

More on moral minimalism and more.

Collegiality and professionalism are perfectly fine qualities. But they also often stand in the way of real dialogue and progress. That does not mean that they can be completely tossed aside. That is not what I am advocating. I am striving to find a way to be critical, as in offering critique, while remaining collegial and professional. That is a difficult balancing act, and no matter how well one succeeds many will consider any attempt to do so an abject failure. Mind you, I am not even claiming that I am succeeding, only that I am striving to get there.

Everything above is from my 1st blog, …the thoughts are broken… and was migrated here in July of 1996.

Shutting down conversations … and starting them” 18 Oct 06

Many of the important ideas have been around for a very long time. They are all critical today. They are being used; by people who can afford to pay. We finally have the computational ability (affordability, primarily) to do things thought of at least as far back as 1867. Cutter and multiple class numbers, anyone? Many other wonderful ideas arose in the intervening decades. But for a long time, computing “power” was non-existent and expensive. Now that we can finally do many of the things dreamed of for 130 years, some of “our leaders” want to dismantle the whole structure. [Why do I pick so many darn underdogs? Something about being a small kid….]

As a reminder to myself as I rewrite my critique of an article that I think does much to shut down conversation. Many will think my critique is doing the same thing. Maybe. But what it (and this) is really doing is trying to start a new conversation.

And, of course (again):

if i had sense, i guess i’d fear this” 1 Feb 07

“Professionalism.” Often, use of that term is simply Orwellian so that it can be used to rein in others.

As long as it is “professional” to label a completely unnamed group as “fervent believers” with all the “elements of a religious argument” with a “plethora of unexamined assumptions” but it is unprofessional to actually name your opponents and point out their unexamined assumptions … well, simply count me out.

I was very sad when I wrote that. But, if you know me in the slightest, you knew you couldn’t count me out.

And believe me, this trigger, if you will, is only the tip of the iceberg for me as you will have realized if you read any of the above.

But due to it I have come to realize that there are others who feel much the same as me about what “professionalism” is and is not, and the manner in which the term is used within our profession. With that in mind, I would like to start a conversation; actually I want to start lots of conversations.

Postscript: The article critique I have been hinting at will reappear in no more than a few days hopefully.