Being Nice Is Not Enough.

Conferences need to take codes of conduct seriously—not gloss over anti-harassment and diversity policies with a “Be Nice” rule of thumb.

Last week, I participated in the FORCE11 Scholarly Communications Institute (FSCI), a week-long training on the evolving landscape of #scholcomm. The institute functioned much like a conference, with daily plenaries and panel discussions. Like most conferences, there was an announcement around FSCI’s code of conduct at the start of the week. The usual anti-harassment policy and a request for people to avoid discriminatory behaviour was announced (and is published on the website)—but somewhat to my surprise, quickly glossed over in the announcement. One organizer followed up by suggesting that cases like sexual harassment and racism aren’t usually the problems that end up arising at meetings, and that the best rule of thumb would be for participants to “Be Nice” to other people and for everyone to do their best to make sure other participants are comfortable.

I’ve seen other events and conferences take a similar approach, and I see the appeal: it’s a rule of thumb that feels warm and fuzzy, is easy to understand, requests that people be thoughtful, and is something that almost everyone can get behind. But “Be Nice” is not enough for a code of conduct, and there are consequences when an organizing committee glosses over the seriousness of anti-harassment and diversity policies. People can “be nice” and be racist. People can “be nice” and use ableist language. People can “be nice” and sexually harass another person (and all too often, justify their behaviour as simply “being nice” if this harassment is reported). Being “nice” and being ignorant are not mutually exclusive. Being “nice” and being inconsiderate are not mutually exclusive. Being “nice” and being misogynistic are not mutually exclusive. Being nice and failing to examine your own privilege are not mutually exclusive. We are all capable of perpetuating harm despite good intentions.

I also worry about what happens when the “Be Nice” rule is officially sanctioned by conference organizers as something of greater importance than a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviour. For example, last week I was approached by a well-meaning fellow participant who innocently suggested I may have violated FSCI’s code of conduct because of the tweets I published asking for more diverse speakers for the opening panel discussion — all of whom were White, English speakers. (I’ll expand more on the need for diverse voices in scholarly communications in a future blog post this week). She suggested my tweets were Not Nice because they had made people feel uncomfortable. I want to be clear that my fellow participant meant no harm, and that I was not reprimanded by organizers for my tweets. However, this conversation did make me wonder if this type of code of conduct prompts participants to prioritize comfort (often, the comfort of white people) over the very real frustration, exhaustion, and sadness that comes with being a person of colour in a predominantly white space. It is angering to see people of colour and folks from non-Western regions completely excluded from an opening panel on the ‘future’ of a field (in this case, scholarly communication). It is tiring to constantly educate people about their privilege. It is exhausting when these same people continuously suggest that the only way their space will be made more inclusive is if you put the labour in to fix it. At this rate, I would be joining every conference and meeting planning committee I go to.

Requesting that people ‘be nice’ while failing to emphasize the unacceptability of discriminatory and oppressive behaviour also paves the way for tone policing. Tone policing refers to the berating of marginalized folks for speaking ‘too loudly’, ‘too impolitely’, or ‘too angrily’ when they are speaking up about discrimination and trying their best to make a space more inclusive to those that are pushed to the margins. Criticisms about the person’s tone often serve to undermine the supposed legitimacy of their statements. Tone policing suggests that people will only be receptive to hearing about discrimination if it’s sugar coated, delivered calmly—only if the person delivering this complaint is “Being Nice” while they do so.

I’m not advocating for a call to “be nice” to be removed from codes of conduct. But I’d like to see more conferences put a priority on making their meetings a space where harassment and discrimination (on the micro, as well as more structural, systemic levels—such as thinking about who you’re repeatedly excluding from a conversation) is not tolerated.

Do you know of a conference or community that states and enforces its Code of Conduct in a meaningful way ? Please share in a comment or @lorrainechu3n.