Consent culture, compliance culture, and hypocrisy

So. A number of people spent over a year helping their university to move from this—

(—actually, longer: for years, harrowing long years for survivors and their advocates, coming to more general attention in fall 2015, on which see for examples posts here from January 2016 onwards tagged sexual harassment and assault at UBC and #UBCSAAM—)

—to this:

Declaration of potential bias and conflict of interest: I was on the Steering Committee. (It was an honour and a privilege.) The new Policy on Sexual Assault and Other Sexual Misconduct and its associated Procedures are here. The UBC Equity office has (very full) information about the policy’s development, more material at the Sexual Assault Response site (including a nice infographic on the background and timeline page), support and response protocol, and an intervention and prevention education plan that includes commitments to change not just a culture (directly about sexual activity) but cultures plural (intersecting) and the culture as a whole (intersectionally):


Being a community that cares
[…] respects individual agency
Fostering a safe and inclusive learning, working, and living environment


On a broad level, sexualized violence is a reflection of societal issues more widely present in North American culture. Educational institutions have a special opportunity to help our students, in fact all members of our community, learn to engage in critical analysis that enables them to identify, address, and respond to the systemic nature of oppression that surrounds us all.

By educating all community members – from senior University administrators to students – universities can create a campus culture that addresses sexual violence head-on, ensure that community members are active bystanders in the prevention of sexual violence in all the roles they have, and respond to survivors of sexual assault in a caring and respectful manner. Universities can also equip students as future leaders with the tools and knowledge to effect change in their communities, and contribute to conversations and actions addressing sexual violence in society.

(The Lindisfarne Gospels, late 7th / early 8th century, British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV. Revised and updated for the 21st century by the medievalist Damian Fleming, @FW_Medieval)

Over the last few years, our university has also done other things along similarly illuminated and exemplary lines, as befits a major public research university with responsibilities and duties to their own collectivity, to their community, and to their surrounding society and The Public Good:

UBC PR, branding, marketing, and sloganeers: the greatest sages in all human history; bigger and better than Buddha, Confucius, Isocrates, Jesus, Lao-Tzu, Mohammed, Mozi, Sartre, Seneca, the voice of God in Leviticus, and the goddess Ma’at. Throughout human history, billions of people have wasted immeasurable time and energy contemplating dharma, considering its connection to karma, and concerned about hubris and the threat of Nemesis. And now, lo, we are all saved by disruptive innovation communication.

We—as an institution (some of “us” independently, individually and as groups, too)—officially, formally, publicly have an understanding of terms like “consent” and how it intersects with power, inequity, and equity. We—as a whole institutional body, organism, ecosystem—understand that rape culture is an actual thing, that it’s a bad thing, and that it’s an integral part of intersectional social injustice. The opposite of a Social (and Political and Ethical) Good. It’s in our policies, in black and white (highlighted in the next item in red), publicly freely openly online for all to read. As is right and proper at a public university.

(This would not be true of my late father, who was a 1950s straight white man—in his teens and early twenties during that decade—and was a good man, a true gentleman, and a gentle human. He was far from being an angry man, but one of the few things that would anger him was injustice. Thinking of him with love as we approach what would have been his 80th birthday.)

And yet.

Compliance culture and silence are assumed in areas that are presumed to be completely distinct from one’s physical person.

Yes, the Buchanan Tower Saga continues.

This (redacted to remove all personally identifying information) was emailed to department administrators on a Friday just before noon. About something due to start on the Monday morning.

Administrators duly passed it on to staff and faculty in their departments. That’s about as much as one could feasibly do on a Friday afternoon.

That is not “consent.”

I presume—if that’s not being overly presumptuous—that like other construction and reconstruction work this was planned, contractors worked with, the whole project then worked out and designed, over some considerable time. Not just on Friday morning for work starting on the Monday. So why, once again, were those who work in this building not consulted back in those planning stages rather than now? Why were the humans and their (properly efficient, productive, healthy, continuous, quality) work as human resources not taken into account as part of the preliminary environmental impact assessment? An environment includes sound. An academic environment necessitates not just a regular reasonable expectation of noise levels that do not damage hearing (though that’s already an issue) or that fit any general-purpose white-collar-work office environment. An academic environment is different. Our work is different: deep thought, 100% focus, intense cognitive labour, working out and juggling ideas, developing arguments and trains of thought that tend to be long and complex but, at crucial stages, are easily broken and destroyed by distraction, by any breaches in that focus. It is a workplace that requires quiet.

Lack of consideration or consultation isn’t even adequate to the basest, most basic purposes of compliance culture. It is neither “consent” nor evidence for a culture of consent.

Consultation, consideration, and consent aside—this is not after all “my” building or “my” office, it belongs to the University, as does my labour there—this is the first that I have heard of this work and what it entails. Piecemeal communiqués sent out at the end of the week, one working day before work begins, do not constitute proper communication in a respectful environment. This is not how responsible adults in any civil society behave. This is definitely not how to behave in a university: whose core and defining work by faculty and students is teaching, research, and learning; which translates, in everyday practice, to proper communication in a respectful environment. Full explanation. Treating one another as intellectual peers capable of handling knowledge because that’s what we do in a university. 

I quote:

The University of British Columbia envisions a climate in which students, faculty and staff are provided with the best possible conditions for learning, researching and working, including an environment that is dedicated to excellence, equity and mutual respect.

UBC Statement on Respectful Environment for Students, Faculty and Staff

Vide supra: UBC PR/HR “Platinum Rule”

Returning to the Friday missive: its use of the passive voice is worrying. To put that actively: it worries me. We’ve talked about that worry on here and on Twitter before: a part of corporate pseudoculture’s Project Managementese, NewSpeak, linguistic perversion, and all their hellish acolytes; it’s a sign of an abnegation of agency, as contrasted with an active verb with an identified active subject. Passive structures like “has been scheduled” make any intelligent reader ask: “by whom?” As we teach our students, a classic way to identify a passive sentence is to see if one can add “by zombies” to its end. Choosing “zombies” as the invisible agents is savvy and canny: it emphasises how passivity is used to remove live active sentient conscious thinking responsibility, to replace it with an unnamed faceless impersonal vagueness, and to dehumanise.

Passivity is affiliated with the opposite of consent culture.

It is supposed, however, that questions such as those above won’t be asked: because the answer is obvious, any unnamed agent is of course Higher Authority. In any given situation, context will make it clear who or what that is. (One could talk further about uses of cheap rhetorical manœuvres around any ambiguous “we”, and about rights (and/or/as “authority”) to speak on behalf of a body as a whole, such as The University. For example: I never do, or should, or would.)

Not asking questions, not thinking and deciding before acting—be that out of training or out of fear—instinctively and unthinkingly complying: this is not responsible ethical behaviour, but compliance culture. It is compliant in two ways: (1) Where the default mode is to comply, and where compliance is assumed by the party that is in a position of power. (2) Where “ethics” is perverted from individual free thought-out decisions to “complying with, by not breaking, prescribed rules.” Passive tacit acceptance is not consent. Silence is not consent. Lack of resistance by the party in a subordinate position of power is not and cannot be consent. Thus is compliance culture related to rape culture; and both are parts of a culture, ethos, and structural system (in its own way, “intersectional”) of social injustice.

This isn’t just about faculty, though. We all know what a bunch of whingeing, spoiled, out of touch, neurotic, persnickety fusspots we are. Literary types are the worst: all paranoid extreme close reading, criticising and theorising everything, bemoaning all assaults on beauty in/by the world, bewailing the sufferings inflicted on language by its abuse in others’ common usage. If higher-level academic work often means obscure research at the best of times, of unclear relevance, the stuff that IgNobels are made of; you can depend on arts and humanities scholars (at least the reading-and-thinking end, I can’t speak for the social sciences) to expend vim, vigour, and creative juices on elevating the brewing of storms in tea-cups to a high art.

This is also about staff and about departments as a whole.

Let’s think about colleagues who are staff for a moment. That email places any department administrator in an awkward and potentially awful situation, without their consent:

For this work, we will be reaching out to the Administrators to further discuss the best suitable day/time that works for everyone in these offices.

On top of their other work, our administrator now has to drop everything and fit in this new business, delicately negotiate on behalf of someone else (who has abnegated all responsiblity) with every single faculty member, and act as diplomatic liaison between these Outside Forces and “their” “unit.” I put that “their” in scare-quotes because there’s another question here, again about responsibility, authority, and power: is this the job and remit of a department administrator, or of the department head, or (I would have thought ideally) of both? As a faculty member, my boss is my head. That’s in my contract. Now, I like both my head and administrator and get on with them, and prefer to work with people rather than the various opposites of “with.” (Being of the cooperative feminist pacifist branch of anarchism.) That’s not the case for all faculty. Especially not at one of the times of year with the highest work-load and stress: when we’re marking final exams and major final papers and projects, and working out (and checking and re-checking) and submitting final grades. There’s a risk of confusion, confrontation, and conflict.

This would obviously be bad in many ways: in my department, we are also—what’s the term?—working through some issues, and there’s a mixture of hope and despair at any possibility of change (and elephants in the room: with all possible and impossible due and undue respect, it is not possible to be “neutral” about the abusive, the poisonous, and all that and those who do not constitute a “community of care”). The last thing we (we, the department) need is further distress, alienation, division, and disruption to a fragile reconstruction process.

A problem, then:

  • The reconstruction of a building, one set of working practices, and the de facto systemic culture behind them
  • The reconstruction of humans, social structures, and their respectful environment; a set of principles and values; and the de jure radical innovation, renovation, and transformation of a new kind of systemic culture

When one asks whether something is the job and remit of a department administrator, or a department head, or both: that is a problem of systemic culture, in the terms of Sara Ahmed (as discussed variously online in December 2015 and January 2016). Do faculty answer to a single person in a simple chain of command? If so, why? I don’t mean “why that person” but “why just one person”? This isn’t the army, or industry, or a commercial company, or their inheritance in project management culture; nor any other part of the military-industrial-colonial complex rooted in 19th c. Imperial capitalism. This is a university: a collegial cooperative, an essentially anarchist rhizomal social structure. (Yes, that is one of the reasons why I work in a university and why I love a job that involves helping other people to question everything.) It’s a serious error to see a university and its subdivisions as a strict hierarchical tree, with single direct inflexible pathways, set up on simplistic binary lines.

Project management culture is at odds with with a community of care, active ethics, a culture of consent, (feminism,) and principles and practices of intersectional social justice. It is a complicit and complacent core part of institutional/~ised systemic intersectional social injustice.

“reaching out […] kindly”

But that’s just project management culture as it stands, and like any other intelligent living thing it can learn and change. There is some evidence of change; Friday’s message contained some positives compared to previous correspondence. I’m a soppy sort of person. Even in my literary-cricital over-reading-between-the-lines, I like to be able to end things on a hopeful happy note. Even if that involves some squinting:

  1. Some information is provided on the nature of the work that “will be performed.”
  2. The noisiest of the work won’t be during regular working hours: “any work that will generate increased noise and/or vibration will be performed in the early morning before 8:15 a.m., after 5:00 pm. in the evenings, and/or during the day on weekends.”
  3. While my imagination ran wild on the nature of the “coring” to be performed, this was heartening: “discuss the best suitable day/time that works for everyone in these offices”

I remain, of course, duly and dutifully (as any intellectual worker must) sceptical. We shall see. Words are all very good, and they’re important and can change and make and remake worlds. But actions speak louder than words: there’s a long tradition of judging someone by their deeds. Jean de Meun’s late 13th-century Roman de la Rose is, in terms of cultural capital, the medieval French analogue to Italy’s Dante, England’s Chaucer, and Spain’s Cervantes; and a difficult dense radical sophisticated satire. Near the end of the work, in a brilliant parody of (amongst several things) a Crusading sermon, Genius addresses the Army of Love, exhorting them towards performing œuvres pardurables (around line 20,000). In what is otherwise a hilarious comic set piece, the emphasis on performing good lasting works of perdurance is a very serious and deeply sincere twist, and presages recent calls to persistence and resistance. This great book—for yes, there are such things, and this one of them—is rich in wit and wisdom on criticism, truth, and authority. One of its recurring metaphors is about bones and the marrow that lies inside; one of its tropes, that of the wolf in disguise; its greatest literary creation is the character False Seeming; and its most famous quotation, which has become a standard proverb in modern French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine (l. 11,050s, originally la robe)

If it looks like a (medieval or other) duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck: check if it’s actually an inanimate hollow plastic simulacrum.

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