Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies.
In August of 2019, I rejoined SAA and the general archives fold after several years away due to professional and personal factors that diverted my time and energy into other areas. I immediately second guessed this decision after reading about what happened at the SAA annual meeting with the cancelled Brown Bag Lunch discussion on Frank Boles’ unpublished article, “To Everything There is a Season.” I was not at the meeting, so I can’t speak firsthand about the “pall” cast over the proceedings by the session or whatever other immediate fallout resulted from the decision to cancel it. However, the subsequent explanations by the SAA council and American Archivist editors, along with the apparently unquestioning acceptance by the membership at large, demonstrated what has become so disappointing about discourse in academy-dominated professions like archives. Or, in this case, the resoundingly negative discourse on social media that seemed satisfied with mostly attacking Boles’ character while providing minimal analysis of the article or its arguments.
In any event, when it comes to instances like the session cancellation, I would never accuse anyone of acting in bad faith nor would I question anyone’s motives for defending their principles and doing what they think is right. I have no doubt that there are many valid points that people could make and did make from a variety of perspectives. Specific responses to the Boles article recently made available on the American Archivist website offer some illumination from an oppositional standpoint. My disappointment stems from the apparent inability or unwillingness to engage with ideas or opinions that do not fit prescribed insider viewpoints or that might merely suggest the slightest deviation from a set of rigid premises that now seem to dominate the professional discourse. Heck, I probably even agree with most of these premises, but the notion that I should not be spoiled by other views that disagree with them is absurd. I read the Boles article and there were some things that I liked in his argument and other things that I didn’t. Imagine my surprise when my brain didn’t explode upon this realization.
On the one hand, I can understand the distaste of highlighting controversy for its own sake, as expressed in the statement by the Archivists and Archives of Color Section. But it stretches credulity to claim that the article and lunch session were categorically divisive in intent, design, and execution. As far as I can tell, other reasons for it being canceled were flawed planning and because it was deemed incompatible with the program requirements for inclusivity. Ostensibly, it failed to adequately question how archivists are “navigating power dynamics, facilitating transparency, preserving the history of transgender and other marginalized communities, or researching transnational records to actively transform our pedagogy and practice, and how do our actions affect the people and communities we serve.” In my reading, Boles’ article generally fits within the spirit of this statement, but apparently his approach or conclusions did not properly align with how the program committee and others thought this should be expressed. Although, it’s not clear if anyone who made the decision to cancel the session had a problem with the article until the social media backlash began.
Unsurprisingly, Boles’ account anticipated the reaction that unfolded at the meeting. All official responding parties made it a point to say they reject censorship, welcome vigorous debate, and appreciate multiple viewpoints, but the cancellation makes clear that this is only true to a certain extent. And if Boles’ article represents the intellectual tolerance threshold or demarcates what is or is not acceptable in disciplinary discussions, then the profession and our institutions are in big trouble. In so many ways, the archives profession has gladly assumed many of the highly caricatured qualities of the academic left, but we’ve really leaned-in to the ideological calcification aspect of it without generating the commensurate usable knowledge an applied discipline demands. The resulting self-congratulatory spiral of conspicuous wokeness is both exhausting and meaningless, offering the veneer of intellectual robustness and social value without the substance. The admirable and necessary impulse to rethink and reform institutions and practices in the name of inclusivity, representation, and justice too often shifts into a knee-jerk rejection of anything that smacks of convention or tradition.
In a telling sign of these Trumpian times, the archives profession appears more likely than at any other point in my career to embrace a narrow orthodoxy that leaves little room for criticism or consideration of frameworks that do not mirror the inviolable beliefs of those now making the rules. I suppose that’s where my regret mostly resides—not because I reject those frameworks or beliefs out of hand, or because I think there is something so important or essential about Boles’ perspective or the cancelled discussion, but that this incident further galvanizes a standard that can be easily applied against anyone else who finds themselves out of step with that orthodoxy or the hashtag warriors enforcing it. And let’s be honest: it’s not like we’re shouting down neo-Nazis or tangling with fascists in the streets here. Attempting to spare the archives world from Boles’ perspective perfectly embodies the half-baked approach by the academic left to policing itself through speech and thought codes. At the end of the day it allows the archives profession to do what it has become so good at: patting ourselves on one side of our back, while flogging ourselves on the other.
It comes down to this: a judgement was made in the service of zero-sum identity politics that preempted anyone from having to think about the matter any more than necessary. But that’s just the world we live in now and I regret re-entering the archives professional fray in an atmosphere where intellectual freedom has become so loaded with preconditions and unwritten rules that are arbitrarily applied. But I also know that my regret—my ability to have it and express it—is tied to the relative privileges that I enjoy and I do not take this for granted, nor do I begrudge anyone’s right to be offended. My hope is that good faith professional discussions can still occur even if they are uncomfortable or contentious. Good faith assumes civility or at least the lack of malign intent. I don’t see how archivists advance as a profession if we cannot move forward on this basis, especially if our default reaction is umbrage against those with whom we might disagree, effectively killing necessary conversations before they begin.