Blogging is an exercise of academic freedom, like writing journal articles or books. Blogging is something that has evolving norms and rules, like writing journal articles or books. However, given its nature, the evolution of the field, and the evolution of technology, the norms of blogging are, for better or worse, unique. It is the question of what those norms are and what they demand of us that has dominated the significant discussion about who is accountable for, and who should hold culpability for, the controversy around Brian Rathbun’s post and departure from the Duck.
The Duck, like most group blogs, has author accountability, but we do not have reviewers, editors, or publishers. Our authors are their own reviewers, their own editors, and their own publishers – we do not edit or censor each other. It is our readers and commenters who hold us responsible for our words – not our editors, reviewers, or publishers. This is not a stubbornness looking not to take responsibility. It is a political, political-economic, and academic freedom decision driven by the media of blogging. It is not only a good norm but one essential to the continued development of blogging in the discipline. That said, sometimes those norms and other political, political-economic, and academic freedom issues collide, as they did here in August. This post reflects, both looking back and looking forward, on those conundrums, and how they relate to the end of my tenure at the Duck.
Most readers are familiar with the events that inspire this post: Brian Rathbun made a post which many found offensive, and which I (in violation of the Duck’s policy not to attack other Duck bloggers) reacted to as sexually violent. Since Brian has apologized and withdrawn himself as a blogger on the Duck, it seems to me both inappropriate and beside the point to discuss that post. My interest is in the significant criticism that I have confronted about Duck bloggers not collectively rejecting the content of the post and/or apologizing for the fact that it was published on our webspace.
The Duck bloggers did not respond collectively because we have a policy agreement that we do not censor each other, we do not edit, and we do not take responsibility for each other’s content. To do any of those things would be to make the Duck something fundamentally other than what it is now. Instead, several of the bloggers talked about the controversy individually (e.g., Charli, Steve, and Dan). This post is in that spirit (if very late to the discussion).
Were I making the decision individually, I would have made a different decision. I would have reacted quickly, strongly, and collectively to say that our priority is to make the Duck a safe place for everyone in the field – especially those at its margins. I think the Duck’s blogging over the years has more than demonstrated that this commitment is common – and that our lack of official collective voice is almost irrelevant to our collective commitment to that principle. I think that post made the Duck less safe in many of the ways that we have worked to make it safe, and that the Duck content like that is antithetical to the principled reason that the Duck bloggers individually and collectively blog. Were it only my decision, I would have built on what I think is a collective commitment to safety, and edited that post, initially and post-facto, even in the midst of a general policy of non-editing.
Because that would have been my individual decision, I understand (and agree with) people who put significant pressure on us to respond collectively. I think, though we are not a collective, the speech act of a sexually violent post on a blog with all of our names attached is a political act not only by the person who wrote it, but by the non-existent collective that people read responsibility onto. I have made this clear before and I will again: I don’t think sexual violence and/or sex subordination are ever okay, and I don’t think complicity with it is ever okay. As a result, I felt like Brian had (and ultimately took) responsibility for his actions; I felt like I had (and did not take) responsibility for the ways that I would be read as complicit. I do not think I was the only one who struggled with that individually, but I don’t want to speak for others.
Speaking just for me, though, it was frustrating. It was frustrating to defend a decision that I struggled with (especially at APSA). It was even more frustrating to hear people make the assumption that whatever “guilt” was to be distributed to the Duck fell on Dan Nexon and Patrick Jackson, who are in my decade of experience with them among the most committed feminists I know in theory and practice. In all that time, I thought that a collective response would solve the problem.
I was wrong. A collective response would not have changed either the responsibility for that post or the culture that made it acceptable. It would not have made the Duck safer. The Duck cannot be what it is and peer-reviewed and edited. We also do not have the capital to invest the free labor without credit in that sort of enterprise.
To think about this as “to edit or not to edit,” however, is a false dichotomy. Done right, blogging can be open, inclusive, safe, welcoming, and equalizing. In order for it to serve that purpose, it has to be horizontal and free, rather than hierarchical, top-down, and edited. Ironically, the very policy that makes things like what happened in August possible also provides a powerful mechanism for advocacy against them – academic freedom on the blogs.
Its not that blogging, or the Duck, are institutionally sexist. In fact, I think the duck has been both explicitly and implicitly feminist in many ways throughout its history. The problem is not an institutional culture. It is that there was not, and cannot be, in this situation, an institutional response to the sex subordination that took place here, and that I am uncomfortable with this. My discomfort with it makes me a square peg in a round hole (or a bear in duck’s clothing, as it may be): fundamentally not a Duck blogger. Since I started at the Duck more than four years ago now, I have struggled with a lot about the blogging platform: I think its great, but I’m not sure I write to it appropriately. I have often sacrificed my commitment to blogging for my commitments to other things in my career and in the field. I have gone months at a time without blogging. What happened at, and around, the Duck in August gave me an opportunity to evaluate my level of comfort with, and commitment to, this enterprise.
What I came up with is that my time at the Duck is over. My opinion on the original post has been clear; my opinion about the response is much more complicated, but centers around my lack of desire to knowingly engage in complicity, even if it is ultimately for a good cause – which here I think it is. So its time for me to shed my Duck suit, and go on with bear business.
Well that really is the disadvantage of participating in a group blog as opposed to going the individual route. Of course group blogs seem to have a lot more readers so I guess it is a trade off.
Laura, I believe I speak for many of us when I say you will be missed. I respect the reasons for which you have chosen to foreswear group blogging, and understand the inherent incommensurability that you point to. The Duck can’t be what it is without a commitment to both shared norms and an a policy of individual responsibility and this does pose trade offs for those who have problems with this on principle or are in a position to endure censure from those who would hold them collectively responsible for the missteps of their co-bloggers. Though I understand the choice you’re making, I am sad that you are in a position to have to make it. The IR blogosphere will be emptier without your presence.