This week I published a new post, it was nothing more than a thought piece about how we refer to people in our research. This post received largely positive feedback (thank you to those for your messages of support) but it also received some extremely harsh accusations, which I would like to respond to. I do not believe Twitter is the platform for debates (especially with the number of keyboard warriors out there) but I believe I have the right to respond in a professional manner. I’m first going to address the accusations made about my post and then I want to address the bigger issue here, academic freedom.
I’m going to address each accusation separately, starting with the first that said I accused convict criminology of ignoring the harms of stigmatisation.
Nowhere in my post did I suggest anything of the sort. I said that whilst we teach that labels such as offender or convict can be stigmatising, they are embraced voluntarily by a group of academics for a positive purpose. My exact words in the post were “they own that label, and that is their right”. Labels are used by different people in different ways. I also acknowledged that some academics who have criminal convictions choose not to identify as a convict criminologist, again that is their right.
The second accusation was that I implied academics have no right to fight the corners of people they research.
I am very offended with this accusation. I have been researching crime and criminal justice for over 17 years now and feel privileged to be able to use research to help the hidden voices be heard. I never wrote anything of the sort in the post. What I said was that any terminology used to describe people we research should be agreed with participants, we should ask them how they want to be defined. This is done widely by many but there are still researchers who fail to ask participants how they identify themselves.
The third accusation is that I have denied academics the right to define themselves the way they want.
At no point did I say that or imply that. I said people have the right to define themselves any way they choose. But academics do not have the right to define or label their participants without asking participants how they want to be defined.
The fourth accusation is that I suggested academics have not consulted people they advocating change for.
Again this is a huge misinterpretation. I did say that many academics want to advocate generic changes without always consulting the people those changes applied to. I used the example of the label prisoner because in my experience some prisoners are comfortable with this term whilst in prison. My point was that everyone we research is an individual and we shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to be labelled the same. There are academics out there who do apply labels without consulting people, but I didn’t want to suggest this applied to all academics.
The final accusation was that I suggested academics had no right in advocating for different terms to be used.
Again this is not what I said. What I said was that, if advocating, then it should be based on the wishes of those people the terms apply to. I didn’t say this wasn’t happening, I just said it is something academics should consider if they don’t already.
Overall my post has been misinterpreted and as such misrepresented. In my brief response a couple of days ago I stated the key point of the post was that we need to ensure we give participants the power to label themselves and then ensure our research outputs mirror their chosen identity. Whilst many academics do it already, I wanted to use the post to question how many of us actually ask participants how they would like to be referred to in the outputs. That was it. There was no malice, merely pointing out an aspect of how we use labels in our research and scholarship. As I said before in the post, and I will say again, people have the right to define themselves any way they want.
So that’s my response to the accusations made. Whilst I didn’t need to respond, I felt it was important to have my say and defend my post. The accusations played on my mind a lot and one reason was the manner in which I felt attacked on Twitter, personally. The comments probably weren’t meant to be personal but they came across that way. I chose to create an anonymous blog for precisely these reasons. In criminology it can be really difficult to put a thought out there or say something controversial without getting a barrage of abuse on the back of it or be judged on a personal level. But I am a person, a person who feels offended by the accusations and mostly the, seemingly, aggressive manner in which the accusations were written.
The suggestion that I was bad mouthing convict criminology and belittling the work of academics could have a detrimental impact on my career had this blog not been anonymous. This is particularly worrying given that the accusations were wrong. But you see, once it’s out there, seen by hundreds on social media it is really difficult to defend yourself. This puts people like me, on the receiving end of such Twitter hatred in a vulnerable position. I mentioned early on in this post that I had received a lot of support for my post, which is true, but more than that, I received kind messages from people sympathising with the way in which it was responded to. Other criminologists shared with me times that people had publicly attacked their academic work on Twitter, told them they were wrong, and suggested their experiences didn’t matter.
This to me is the bigger problem. I have seen it happen at conferences too and it appears to be a growing problem. The absolute joy of academia is academic freedom. The freedom to research interesting areas of society, the freedom to ask challenging questions and the freedom to write. With that freedom comes debate, but it should be healthy, supportive debate. Even if we don’t always agree with someone’s work, we should always respect each other for at least trying to uncover new knowledge or find solutions to problems. The blatant attacking of people’s research at conferences, the nasty responses on Twitter, the demoralising reviewer comments are not healthy. They are not what academia was built upon. You can be supportive of people even if you disagree, this is what we teach our students. If my students treated one other the way some criminologists treat each other I would be appalled. We teach critical thinking, dignity and respect in my classes, it’s shame not all criminologists practice it. I have had colleagues cry on my shoulder at conferences because of the way another academic has spoken to them. I have had colleagues go on sick leave because of things said to them about their work. We don’t always get it right, our research isn’t always flawless and our ideas are never perfected, but we are all trying. We are trying to answer the big questions, we are trying to offer solutions to social problems, we are trying to be good at our jobs. So why can’t we all support each other in that, why can’t we respect each other for that and ultimately why can’t we just be nice to each other?
Thank you for taking time to read this post, it was difficult to write and I am truly sad and concerned about the way academics turn on each other. It is making me rethink whether there is a place for blogging criminologist as what has happened goes against everything this blog was designed for. So to finish off my post I just want to say thank you to all my supportive, inspiring and caring colleagues. Thank you to all of you who have provided such great engagement with my blog over the last two years. I’m going to take a well deserved break this summer, and I hope all my followers have a fun filled summer free from guilt and free from academic politics.