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Blogging and Ethics, Part 3: Matthew Arnold in a Polka-Dot Dress

There are two groups that predictably object to guidelines in any given context: those who need them the most, and those who need them the least. Liz Lawley responded very quickly to my earlier posts about guidelines, and no surprise to me, because she falls very squarely in the latter category.

Mamamusings is a model of blogging rectitude; we could call it “fair and balanced” if Fox hadn’t ruined that concept forever. I can’t imagine Liz ever writing anything that went outside the pale. So it’s interesting that in her post concluding that she needs no guidelines, she worries that pulling a post may have been unethical. But her actions were on solid ground, at least according to one set of guidelines: Rebecca Blood states that the one exception to never pulling a post is when “you have violated a confidence or made an acquaintance uncomfortable by mentioning him.”

At that, this is a guideline that shows just how malleable and blog-specific most blog guidelines are. I would be horrified to discover that a blog for the New York Times pulled a post solely because it was worried about making someone “uncomfortable.” In Liz’ blog, it doesn’t bother me, because her blog falls so squarely in the “collegial commentary” arena. My guess is Blood would agree that if pulling a post violated other guidelines, it would be up to the blogger to decide which guideline prevailed, and that the intent of the blog–to entertain, to inform, to persuade–would be crucial to guiding the blogger.

But we aren’t all Liz. Some of us, such as Jason, argue that anything short of anarchy is “hegemony,” and that those proposing guidelines are “accolytes [sic] of Matthew Arnold.” Jason then goes on to blast me for not immediately posting his comment, saying, “THIS is what a librarian should now be shown to be… technologically challenged, and silencing.”

Had Jason done just a tiny bit of fact-checking–the first rule cited in the most casual guidelines proposed anywhere–he would have learned that in order to kill the evil spam monster, I intercept all email-based posts, and with a little more research–an email, an IM, a phone call, even a little searching of my blog–he could have learned that so my personal and scholarly pursuits would not collide, I delayed upgrading Movable Type to a version of MT 3* that supports MT-Blacklist, which would have made it possible to enable immediate commenting (not that any blogger needs to post all comments any more than the Times needs to publish all letters). As for the buggy early-MT-3 Perl error that displayed when he posted, which I have duplicated–hey, Jason, others have been posting comments for months; did you break my blog? (Only kidding! It didn’t stop the comment from appearing internally. Also, Typekey would have allowed his post to appear immediately.) Then again, Jason would have learned a lot by reading my commenting guidelines on the front page. Then again, he could have waited to post until he got his facts right. Then again, I wouldn’t have such a good example for this post.

(Has anyone else noticed that “hegemony” has become a word of the day? Overdone words remind me of something one of Sandy’s cousins said about another cousin in a garish polka-dot dress: “Wear that thing more than once, and people ‘ud think you lived in it.”)

To the charge of polka dots–I mean, hegemony–I respond with four words: Library Bill of Rights. The LBOR was developed in our profession because we needed an internal guidance document. The first interpretation to the LBOR, on labeling, was in response to librarians labeling books as “Communist.” We were healing ourselves. And so it goes: most of the interpretations to the LBOR are internally-directed. This doesn’t surprise me; nearly all of the challenges to MPOW come from librarians.

For those who don’t need guidelines, the rest of us must seem like children of a lesser god. I wish I could be more like Liz, and know instinctively when I was doing the right thing. But I am someone who has to schedule trips to the gym and other uninteresting activities, someone who pouts when she has to turn off the TV and finish her homework, someone who has to eat her vegetables first. I’ve made mistakes on this blog I’m not proud of–times when I should have revealed a conflict, illuminated a source, or checked a fact. As a teacher, I’ve discovered that respect for the writing of others–something I have always felt instinctively–does not come naturally for everyone. Guidelines help people like me, in the vast middle, who both need and welcome direction, who are comforted by Yeats when he writes, “Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn/ And custom for the spreading laurel tree.” If guidelines make the difference of a midnight to a student impaled and wriggling on the horns of a dilemma–to cite, or not to cite?–then guidelines have done their job. Call us broken, lesser beings, call us Matthew Arnold in a polka-dot dress, but at least give a nod to our desire to improve ourselves.

That reminds me of another response to Liz. She writes that “having a set of ethical guidelines for writing a blog seems to me as problematic as having a set of ethical guidelines for writing a book. What kind of book?” To which I ask, does it matter? Sure, you could quibble that non-factual writing has license to make up facts; who would disagree with that? It would be like saying that commentary should be opinionated–of course it should. But I would argue (and not with most writers, I’m guessing) that ethics and integrity are crucial to all genres. A series of ethical lapses, literary and otherwise, is the source of the great humor in The Producers; a few unfortunate comments in writing helped ostracize Truman Capote; likewise, we can all think of books, movies, poems, blogs, or paintings that are well-written, beautifully structured, and grossly inauthentic. (I feel that way about The Motorcyle Diaries–book or movie, take your pick; makes me want to break out singing “Springtime for Che in Bolivia.”)

My next post will be more of a spoof, more Lewis Carroll than Matthew Arnold. And now it’s time to start the work day, so off I go. I’ll try to pick up the blog after tonight’s baking extravaganza. Yesterday I baked 120 gingerbread persons and 90 Mexican wedding cakes, and mixed the dough for approximately 150 Swedish almond slices; it was wonderful Baking Zen to move among cookie dough, a warm oven, the cooling racks, and my own thoughts. Sticky hands kept me from the keyboard, but that, as a famous American is wont to say, was a Good Thing.

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