Being a Critical Voice

Mandy Henk
Oct 24 · 5 min read

Hi, I’m Mandy and you might remember me from such public dust-ups as #OpenEd19, Lawrence Lessig writes a Bad Blog, and An Open Letter to the Creative Commons Community. As a member of the open communities, I’ve been fierce and vocal when we have stumbled on our way to justice and equity.

Being fierce and vocal comes with real consequences and I’m comfortable with that. What I’m not comfortable with is being accused of harassment, even by implication.

Ours is a community that has a problem with misogyny, with online and face to face harassment, and with men abusing their power. Reframing dissent as harassment enables these men and serves to silence their victims. It also sends a message to women and others who need to rely on Codes of Conduct (and the committees behind them) to ensure their safety: Critics unwelcome, dissent not tolerated.

The various open communities are different in some ways — but they share an underlying set of ideals that attract an amazing number of good hearted and kind people. People who want desperately to serve their local communities and make this world a better place. They need the open movement to be a safe place for that work.

Right now, it is not a safe place for too many of us.

Weaponising harassment claims against internal critics, as was done in the OpenEd19 committee’s original statement, makes our communities less safe. When considered in the larger context of our recent history, the choice is particularly problematic.

The open communities are still reeling with the ongoing fallout from the harms done by Joi Ito, Lawrence Lessig, and of course, Richard Stallman. I don’t mean to invite comparisons between the conduct of the organising committee and those men — but I do want us to recognise when we are falling into the old habits that served to support and protect men like that over decades.

Part of our healing as we release our communities from the power and control these men held is learning new ways of being in community with each other.

The roots of misogyny within the open movement go all the way to the founding documents. Whether reading Stallman, Lessig, or Raymond, the concerns and interests of White men dominate. These men wrote and organised into being a movement that not only centred their concerns but also framed the debate in a dualistic fashion (open vs closed) that made structural racism, sexism, and colonialism invisible.

Their work was framed in a way that hid real material power relations. Our communities continue to struggle with the consequences of this today.

I want to put forward the idea that part our healing process as a social movement needs to be working toward a coherent critique of power to inform our strategy and tactics — and how we work in community.

The weakness of our collective analysis of power is how we end up with a panel of commercial publishers as a keynote at an open ed conference. It’s how we end up with influential members of our community making claims against critics that are neither substantiated nor reasonable.

Without a shared understanding of what power is, how it works, and how it should be used, we are floundering to build an inclusive and just community and social movement. Moving forward means welcoming critique and reconsidering where we are going and how we want to get there.

And who we want to join us on the journey.

Part of any social movement is evolution and transformation as we react to new critiques, new ideas, and new problems. Open as a solution to social problems is an idea that dates way back — to the early part of the last century.

It’s time for a rethink.

The open community has so much liberatory potential embedded in the wonderful people who make up this community. So many of us work tirelessly for our students, our library patrons, our professional colleagues. We’re all stuck here together in what sometimes seems to be the end of the world — climate change, the collapse of the rules-based liberal world order, the horror in the White House— so much is out of our control.

But healing the still raw wounds left on this community by the men who allowed women to be preyed on and victimised and who defended those committing the harms — this is how we can build the kind of solidarity and agape we need to face the challenges of our generation directly.

We do not have to repeat the patterns these men laid out for us. We can chose to be a different kind of community.

Those attending OpenEd 19 have a real opportunity to contribute to this conversation. Gatherings of our community allow for rich engagement and solidarity building.

But starting these conversations can be hard, so I want to offer some questions that might help jump start the discussion.

  1. How could the conference organisers have approached planning in way that would have helped them to foresee the controversy and understand why so many in the community felt alienated by the panel?
  2. What are we doing as a community that might make it hard for us to hear critical voices? How could we structure our communities to be more welcoming of those voices?
  3. While Codes of Conduct are important, they are also only words — what actions can we take to ensure that our communities are welcoming of everyone and that we don’t allow those with disproportionate amounts of power to treat others poorly?
  4. Is there an elephant in the room we are all tiptoeing around and if so, why? How can we work to become a community that welcomes frank and direct conversation about difficult topics?
  5. How does power work in our communities, both formal and informal? Who has it and how did they get it? How do we use power and how can we make sure that it isn’t being abused?

I do not have faith in the so-called leaders of the open community, but I do have faith in the community itself. Here in New Zealand we are celebrating Labour Day with a long weekend — and I would remind readers that for many of us our work with the open communities is part of our job.

That means that how we are treated and how we treat others is part of our working conditions. And there’s only one way that workers have ever made things better for themselves: solidarity.

So use this conference to build it.

I’ll be watching from New Zealand cheering you all on!

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