Affect, Evidence, and Oppression

I am a librarian who teaches. I love what I do for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is I spend my days watching people empower themselves with information. I get to be there when learners discover something new and incorporate it into their worldview. I sometimes forget how much fun, and how rewarding, that work is, but I try my best to remind myself and be thankful.

I suspect this sort of experience, and appreciation, is present with anyone who teaches, but I also think that being a librarian puts me in a different realm. I have content which I teach, but the real joy I get is when students connect with information that is well beyond me. In other words, they’re not learning from me, rather I helped them discover something completely new to both of us. Information can be a very powerful force, and it’s one I take very seriously.

That having been established, my feelings toward “information” as a means of empowerment have taken a hit in the last few months.

Initially, I was getting frustrated by the push for “hard data” in the world of higher education assessment. Learning is a messy topic, and rather than embrace the messiness, there has been a desire to boil down the “value” of higher education to job placement rates and earnings of graduates. This trend has also moved into library assessment, with studies looking at how libraries have an impact on GPA or retention rates, rather than looking at the more affective components of learning.

From there, I moved backward and tried to figure out where this approach to research was rooted. In the end it was Karl Popper’s writings on logical positivism which, to me, seemed most emblematic of the problems with research methodology. To be clear, there is a place for empirical research, but I also reject that it is invariably and unassailably “more true” than affect. We can try to assign numbers and establish “control,” but there is also value in feeling and emotion, and the way that affect and theory are often dismissed or ignored in the literature frustrates me.

Then, in July, I was lucky enough to hear Mark Lenker at Library Instruction West give a short presentation about “motivated reasoning” and how people don’t always allow information to change their minds. He cited a study by Redlawsk, Civettini, and Emmerson, then moved the discussion into our jobs as librarians. To paraphrase, Mark talked about how we try to “connect people with ‘good’ information.” The Redlaswk et al. study, however, indicates that the “quality” of the information isn’t the only part of the equation; we, as librarians, also need to consider the “quality” of the receiver. Giving someone otherwise convincing information might not change their mind; in fact, it might drive them further into their bias. In some cases, it would seem, affect prevails over data.

I see a lot of connections between Redlawsk et al. and this recent article by Vaughn, Kennison, and Byrd-Craven discussing the relationship between what students learn and their “values.” This particular study likewise looked at how individual biases have an impact on how we interact with information, and found that when students disagree with something, they are often less likely to remember it. Again, it would seem that affect can trump data when it comes to how we deal with the world around us, and a reliance on empirical “facts” does not give us a complete picture.

All of this more or less sets the stage for some things I’ve observed in the last five months, which I’d like to unpack from the perspective I’ve outlined above. I’d also like to state that I don’t think these examples are tantamount in their magnitude, only that each case presents an interesting discussion of “information” and how its use is closely linked with privilege.

First, #teamharpy. There have been a number of articles written about the case, and beyond signing the petition to drop the lawsuit and donating to the legal fund, I’ve been trying to respectfully listen to the experiences of others. At the risk of oversimplifying things, here’s my impression of the discussion: There was a pervasive feeling in the library world, especially among women, that Joe Murphy conducts himself in a way which is sexually threatening. Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus articulated these feelings about Joe Murphy online. Joe Murphy subsequently sued them and stated that they lacked any “hard evidence,” without which they had no right to make these claims.

In the debate which has ensued, Murphy and his supporters have demanded data in the form of witness testimony or some other form of “proof” that he is a sexual predator. Rabey, de jesus, and their supporters, on the other hand, have focused on the feelings and suspicions present in the “whisper network” of individuals who had encountered Murphy and found him threatening. Of course there may very well be “hard evidence” condemning Murphy, though I’m willing to rely on the affect of my colleagues to reach the conclusion that whether or not he is a “sexual predator,” a number of people certainly felt he was threatening or otherwise sexually inappropriate. Voicing those feelings should not be punished.

The purpose of my writing this is not to wade too far into the #teamharpy debate, but rather to point out that this is a large discussion of “information” and “evidence” which is taking place within the library profession. Most of the people following this case and discussing it are people for whom “information” is something we take seriously. We often refer to ourselves as “information professionals.” And yet, it’s been fascinating to see how different people state their feelings about this case and the kinds of information they cite as “credible” to them. Once more, at the risk of oversimplifying things, I’ll summarize two of the main arguments as being “I’ve heard too much for these claims NOT to be true” or “Unless we have ‘evidence’ of specific cases, these claims are unfounded and unfair.” It would seem that despite our common background, librarians do not have a shared definition or taxonomy of “information.” I already suspected as much, but this case has really brought that to light.

What makes this case even more curious is that although it centers on claims of sexual predation, the lawsuit has been filed by a person operating from a position of privilege, who feels that his reputation and livelihood have been damaged, and is aimed at people operating from a position of oppression (that is, women who have been threatened and might wish to voice their concerns). Although Joe Murphy already had a bad reputation within the profession, he did not attempt to counter this collective feeling, this affect, until recently. Indeed, it was only once the claims moved beyond “whispers” and turned into evidence that could be cited in a lawsuit (that is, tweets and blogs) that Murphy responded. The information was always there, it just evolved into something which is seen as “more true.” The result is a situation in which a person in a position of privilege is demanding “evidence,” and dismissing affect as being insufficient for justifying the claims.

Beyond the library world, there hasn’t been a shortage of recent news reports centering on discussions of “evidence.” In higher education, for instance, there’s been increased attention given to sexual violence on college campuses, such as the UVA and FSU rape cases. Like #teamharpy, these are cases in which the people and institutions operating from positions of privilege are citing a lack of “evidence” to justify their actions (or inactions), and victims’ accounts are faulted for lacking detail or forensic evidence, leading to them being dismissed as rumors, embellishments, or fabrications. And like #teamharpy, it’s been interesting to see how some kinds of information have been deemed “true” and others “false,” and how refutations of claims have been couched in the language of empiricism (which inherently devalues affect).

Perhaps the largest discussions of evidence to take place in the last few months center around the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Although these two cases share a disheartening, and disgusting, similarity, there are also a couple of key differences that I’ve been considering.

For the Mike Brown shooting, there was a great deal of discussion around information. When I heard Robert McCulloch’s statement regarding the Grand Jury’s decision, I was struck by his emphasis on “evidence” and “information,” which he openly acknowledged as “inconsistent” or “conflicted.” The reason I say I was surprised by this emphasis is because, at the end of the day, the deciding factor was not what happened, but whether or not Darren Wilson felt threatened.

The legal system is largely constructed to privilege “forensic evidence” and dismiss feelings as “insufficient.” Absent forensic evidence, however, affective evidence is permissible, provided that it is the affect of the officer (operating from a position of privilege), not the citizen (operating from a position of oppression). Put another way, because there is not a photograph of Mike Brown with his hands up, the law defers to whether or not Darren Wilson feared for his life. Consequently, Wilson can give biased testimony in which he describes Brown as a “demon” who made Wilson feel “like a five-year-old,” and that counts as evidence which exonerates Wilson of a crime. Affect prevailed in this case due to, not in spite of, a lack of evidence. At the same time, however, if a woman feels threatened by a man, she is challenged to present “hard evidence” to justify her claims, and is faulted for not having sufficient standing to make a claim.

So, then, we are led to believe that there is some form of information which is “less biased,” and “more true.” It could be as simple as a photograph or as complicated as an empirical data set, but the idea is that if the oppressed were to present this information, they could use it to empower themselves. This line of reasoning is why I do what I do.

Which brings me to the Eric Garner case, and why I’m questioning what “information” really is and how it can be used. The Grand Jury ruling in this case was only a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still pretty raw about things, but let me say this: this was a case in which “hard evidence” was presented (in the form of a video displaying the choking of Eric Garner), but it was, apparently, dismissed as inferior to the affect of the officers involved (who felt threatened by a large black man). So despite the rhetoric of “data,” “evidence,” and “proof,” involved in the Brown case, or the campus sexual assault cases, or even #teamharpy, a separate case which effectively “played by the rules” and presented “hard evidence” still ended with the people operating from a position of privilege selectively using information to reinforce that privilege. Their evidence trumps others’ affect, their affect trumps others’ evidence.

Long story short, I’m a librarian and a teacher who is motivated by empowerment. I meet with students and talk about how information can be used to make things better, to make their lives better. I talk about how evidence can be used to establish credibility and present an argument. When I initially read Redlawsk et al. and Vaughn et al., I was thinking about how I could apply their findings to my day-to-day work. I was thinking about how much I needed to consider affect and bias, both my own and those of the students I meet, when presenting information. And I was largely thinking about these words and concepts- “evidence” and “argument” and “credibility”- from the perspective of college students writing research papers and navigating the pitfalls of higher education. I try to talk about “the big picture” as well, but I realize now how limited, and limiting, I’ve been.

As a society, we’ve just witnessed, and continue to witness, how information can be used selectively. We’ve witnessed how there are no rules that govern “credibility” other than, I suspect, privilege and oppression. People do this individually, and institutions do it systematically. My own profession, which is built around locating and evaluating “information,” is divided on what counts and what doesn’t. With that in mind, the next time a student asks me what’s the best way to “support their argument,” I’ll need to pause for a moment. I could fall into the old librarian tropes, and talk about peer review and data and evaluating a source, but I know that’s not enough. There are bigger forces at play here, and we’re not all playing by the same set of rules.

In the end, I’m not giving up on information or libraries, and there’s still nothing I’d rather be doing. I suppose that, more than anything, these last few months have brought into relief just how necessary it is to discuss politics and social justice in the classroom, in the library, and in our profession. Doing so won’t solve all of our problems, but it will make for a good next step.

Many thanks to Jessica Critten for her comments, feedback, and wisdom in response to an earlier draft.