Recently Read (17 – 23 March)

This week’s collection of readings contains stories that seem trivial, but invite reflection on serious questions pertaining to freedom, diversity, tolerance and oppression. The activities of the Quebec language police once again highlight the tensions between language planning and linguistic human rights. The second story (involving topless models) raises questions about sexism and tolerance in scientific communication. Finally, the University of London’s heavy-handed tactics provide us with examples of both oppression and resistance.

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen | CC BY-SA | Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/433966

Language planning vs. linguistic rights

You will, by now, know that I have a soft spot for the activities of the Quebec language police. In the latest instalment of the activities of the Office Quebecois de la Langue Française, we read that they threatened to fine a shop owner for failing to publish Facebook posts in French as well as English. Here are the key extracts from CTV news:

Eva Cooper received a letter on Feb. 18 from the Office quebecois de la langue francaise saying a complaint had been logged regarding her posts to her store’s Facebook page, many of which are written in English. […] the letter accused her of violating Article 52 of Quebec’s Charter of the French language, which covers “the language of commerce and business.” Article 52 states that catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories “and any similar publications” must be written in French.

The authorities appear to have backed down eventually, but the debacle makes one wonder whether the need to protect linguistic diversity is well served by legislation; and how such a political need relates to fundamental human rights, including the right to communicate in one’s language of choice.

More to read: Other incidents in the ongoing war of the Quebec authorities against the English language, which included fining a teenager whose startup company had an ‘English-sounding’ name. Outside Quebec,  the Academic Française seem determined to achieve the “reconquête de la langue française”.

On sexism and tolerance

Academic writing is often criticised for being tedious, and -at the risk of offending colleagues engaged in proteomics research- the Journal of Proteomics is not my idea of engaging content (but then, I suppose that linguistics journals may not be interesting to non-linguists). This is probably why the journal encourages authors to submit ‘graphical abstracts’ of their work, which are visually stimulating images that encapsulate the content of the article. What can be wrong with that?

Apparently, some times the graphical abstracts can be too stimulating, and even sexist. At least that was the case with an article by Italian researcher Italian researcher Pier Giorgio Righetti, who used the picture of what appears to be a topless model holding coconuts, to visually illustrate an article on the proteomics of coconut milk. I don’t think there is a need to reiterate why such an illustration is in bad taste, as this point has been well-argued already [e.g., 12].

What I shall do, instead, is provide space for the editor’s letter of apology (taken from here), in the belief that one can learn from how people deal with mistakes, and because it highlights how the same content may be perceived differently, depending on one’s cultural background, sex, and sensitivity (which brings us back to the previous observation about subjectivity):

Thanks for kindly letting me know that a graphical abstract published in Journal of Proteomics is getting unwelcome publicity. Although I, personally, so not think that the alluded images are sexist (as well as I would not consider it sexist if a man were represented), at least this was neither the intention of the authors nor of the editor, I can agree that this kind of images may be inappropriate for illustrating a scientific paper, and consequently have asked our journal manager to remove them. If anyone has been offended, officially apologize for that, and I hope to give settle the case as soon as possible to devote to the lab which is what  take me up most of the day.

All that having been said, I would also invite readers to problematise over whether a multiplicity of perspectives (including offensive ones) is welcome in science, and to reflect on what one should make of comments suggesting that Italians should not be allowed to edit journals unless they think and write like American readers.

More to read: You may want to read more reactions to the incident by following the #ProteomicsSexism hashtag on Twitter. The Guardian carried an article recently, which provides additional insights into the impact sexist behaviour has on female scientists.

Chalk, sponge and oppression

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a Roman patrol arrests an insurgent for writing “Romanes eunt domus” (Romans go home) on a wall, and proceed to educate him in by making him write the  grammatically correct form (Romani ite domum) all over the town. In doing so, they demonstrated how spectacularly some exercises in authority can backfire. The University of London authorities recently provided us with a somewhat less amusing, but equally powerful example.

Not long ago,  a student was found guilty of defacing the walls of University of London for using chalk to write “sick pay, holidays, pensions now”, in protest against the employment conditions of outsourced cleaners.  After she was given a three-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £810 to cover the costs of repairs (plus £200 in prosecution costs, many academics felt that the sentence was “needlessly vindictive”.

In an open letter addressed to the university authorities, 49 academics reminded readers of the durability of stone, which “can last for anything up to millions of years and is very, very rarely harmed by fleeting contact with chalk”. Enclosed were a packet of cleaning cloths and instructions for their use (“fold the cloth two or three times, wet it thoroughly under warm, clean water, and wring it out… applied in gentle circular motions to the affected area, you’ll find it wonderfully efficient in removing unwanted chalk marks”). They went on to suggest:

We understand that there are other means of removing troublesome chalk marks from your premises. Hoses, strong-bristled brushes and gentle steam-cleaning are all acceptable methods. Of course, another method you may wish to pursue might involve identifying the chalker and aggressively prosecuting them, in a needlessly vindictive and wholly disproportionate attempt to suppress campus protest and intimidate any who might consider engaging in it. But we find this latter method to be labour-intensive, unnecessarily circuitous, and not at all in keeping with anyone’s ideal of how a world-famous institution of higher education ought to act. Next time, we suggest you use the cloth.

More to read: You can read more about  on the 3Cosas campaign in support of the University of London cleaners here.

~

There is a common thread running through all these stories: they all illustrate how public discourse has been controlled by invoking greater goods. In the first story, the perceived need to protect the French language was used to suppress discourse in non-desirable languages. In the second story, the just cause of gender equality was invoked to suppress subjective understandings that differ from the (equally subjective) dominant ones. In the last one, the protection of university heritage from vandalism was invoked to suppress the voice of students who raised questions about how the university administration conducted its day-to-day affairs.

Let me categorically state, lest I am misunderstood, that this is none of the above is meant as an attack against any of the above causes, all of which I feel strongly about (well, maybe that doesn’t apply too well to protecting stone walls). But I do strongly believe that the suppression of counter-discourses, whether by government authority or by peer pressure, is deeply problematic, especially in the context of the academy. I also feel that if, through our lack of tolerance, we deprive ourselves both of dissonant voices, and of the right to voice dissonance, academics have very little of value to offer to the communities we serve.

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