Me-too-isms, Social Movements and Libraries

One of my favorite Monty Python skits is the one where German and Greek philosophers are pitted against each other in a soccer match. They all line up for the competition, yet when the whistle blows, instead of kicking the ball they engage in a “philosopher pose” making for a hilarious, yet definitively inactive sports match.

What I take from this satire is that values that may appear wholesome and good in one piece of space and time, looks absolutely ridiculous in another.

In my view, this is the subtext underlying the discussion at Information Wants to Be Free , Tinfoil + Raccoon and other places.

To quote a few things being said, here is Meredith:

It’s great to see people criticizing things and coming up with new ideas (and there were some terrific posts on the woeful state of the OPAC). But then the groupthink takes over and people just echo the same ideas over and over again, without adding anything new or productive. What’s the point of that? I don’t need to read the same exact thing on 50 blogs.

And Rochelle says this:

In response to the lively, honest discussion happening at Information Wants to Be Free about “groupthink” and me-tooism, I’m going to offer an amendment to my politeness post. In my post, I wrote

There are a lot of people blogging about library issues, and I’ve tried to resist the pull of me-tooism.

Here’s my amended statement: There are a lot of people blogging about library issues, and I’ve tried to resist the pull of uncritical me-tooism.

In this discussion, I have defended Groupthink and “me-tooism.” I may even find myself defending “uncritical me-tooism,” not because I am a me-tooist or uncritical, but because I think uncritical me-tooism achieves great things when it has the right checks and balances coming from critical thinkers like [ahem] myself, Meredith and Rochelle.

Let’s go back to philosopher soccer match. The reason why philosophers suck at soccer is because they are critical. To the philosopher, kicking a goal has no purpose, and certainly preferring to kick a goal in two apparently equal soccer nets makes no sense.

To the soccer player, scoring a goal helps to achieve a commitment she made to the people on her team. Somewhere along the lines, the soccer player understood that she is playing soccer to score goals and keep the opposing team from scoring goals of their own. After a good deal of critical thought [or maybe not], this person has decided this is what he/she wants. It is meaningful to her to win soccer games and, better yet, to be the best soccer player she can be. And being critical about why she is scoring a goal is not the way to be a good soccer player.

Because soccer is a team sport, this commitment to goal scoring is a sort of [even uncritical] groupthink. When I think about the “OPACs Suck” and Library 2.0 memes, that is the way I see them. Sure, Nazi Germany had groupthink, but so did the Human Rights Movement under MLK and so did Indian anti-colonial movements under Ghandi.

So, while I am a critical thinker, I think having Group-thinkers is a good thing. The “OPACs suck” drumming will bring us better OPACs faster than a “while there are some things about the opac that are still passable, I think we ought to tweak . . .” introspective post. And I desperately want the “OPACs suck” crowd to win this battle, even if they go too far and bring us some things that are broken with it. That’s because I believe this is the right thing to do.

Oh — it is also wrong to suggest that philosophers have no business on the soccer field. Philosophers make good referees. Referees recommend the rules of engagement, pass judgement on deadlock situations, and let the players know when they’ve gone too far. And do referees get attacked for their critical behavior from the Groupthinkers? You bet. Everyone at the soccer game hates the referee. But they also know that the game is apt to suck if there are no rules enforced.

That means referees have to be brave, forthright, diplomatic in some cases and decisive. Sometimes they have to ignore the soccer players that disagree with their calls, in the understanding that once the emotions have blown over, there is still a soccer game going on and harping on a bad call is not going to score goals for the team. And just because a player yells at you doesn’t mean you have to stop making good calls.

And for the people who feel threatened by all this, well — I guess I see you as an arm-chair referee. You can always criticize where it’s safe to do so, but you’re not going to change much unless you get behind a player, team or referee.

So that’s why I defend “Groupthink” despite all the negative connotations placed on it by the Wikipedia article. The “OPAC sucks” groupthink may not be very precise to critical thinkers like me — nor is it very compelling reading — but it may just get better OPACs for my users. And if it does that, then I am in the stands singing “go go go!”

For Digital Archivers etc.

The classic A Companion to Digital Humanities edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth is available online.

As an aside, there is alot said on the Humanist Discussion Group that is relevant to the library world, including conferences, jobs and RFPs. The discussion is also quite excellent.