So last night, as the internet explosion over Justine Sacco was petering out, I got a series of tweets from Meghan Murphy.
Ironically, in light of what follows, I can’t quote them since she’s (I assume unrelatedly) locked her account, but the gist went something like this:
I was a hypocrite, she suggested — that word I remember clearly — because the previous night I had demanded that she strike several quotes from a controversial blogpost she’d written earlier in the week while saying nothing about others’ unethical use of quotes from her.
Here’s the piece in question, if you missed it. In it, Murphy had argued that “Twitter is a horrible place for feminism … a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded … a place hateful people are drawn towards to gleefully spread their hate, mostly without repercussion.”
Further down in the piece, Murphy had quoted from an essay by Ngọc Loan Trần in which Trần had articulated “calling in” as an alternative to calling people out for their bad behavior. Calling out, Murphy suggested, was an “unproductive and a fear-based response.”
Trần’s original piece, though, had offered “calling in” as an alternative to calling out only in situations in which the two parties’ “common ground is strong enough to carry us through how we have enacted violence on each other.” In a disclaimer at the end, Trần reiterated that the essay was “specifically about us calling in people who we want to be in community with, people who we have reason to trust or with whom we have common ground,” not about how we interact with random strangers on the internet.
When Trần learned that they’d been quoted by Murphy, they took to Twitter to ask that she pull the quote, saying that their writing had been “misused to justify something I disagree with.” “I’m a writer,” Trần said. “I blog, I willingly publish my work. That doesn’t equal giving permission to people exploiting my work for their white supremacist agenda.” (I’ve expanded some contractions in these tweets.)
Having read both pieces, I agree that Murphy’s quotes misrepresented Trần’s argument. But the issue of “permission” raises important questions. The night before last I got into a discussion about those questions on Twitter with some journalists I know, a conversation that began with Irin Carmon of MSNBC tweeting to ask “Who can explain why things written in public spaces cannot be quoted, as they can in every field of writing I’ve ever encountered?”
The conversation that followed was huge and sprawling, and I won’t be able to do it justice here, but my own position is summed up pretty well by a few early tweets. “I think it’s fair,” I wrote in the first, “to complain when someone who positions themselves as being your ally dragoons you by quoting.”
That “someone who positions themselves as your ally” part is crucial, because (as I said in a followup tweet) I think in this case what was happening was someone saying “don’t use my intellectual labor to advance a cause I abhor.” Although Murphy presented herself as agreeing with Trần, Trần felt misrepresented, and — because those misrepresentations had to do with important and sensitive issues within the feminist community — harmed.
Did Murphy have the legal right to misrepresent Trần in this way? Yes. Would Murphy, if she had been writing as a journalist, have had an ethical obligation to take down the quotes because of Trần’s objections? No, not if she and her editors stood by her use of the material.
But Trần’s objection wasn’t grounded in law or journalistic practice. It was a personal request, and a political one.
Murphy’s piece was a call for more openness in internet feminism, more reaching out, more working together. Given that, the fact that one of the feminists quoted most prominently in the piece feels abused by Murphy’s use of their writing seems worth mentioning, and the fact that Murphy refused to correct or alter her piece after Trần’s objections were brought to her attention seems like something that can be legitimately said to reflect badly on her.
If you position yourself as someone’s political ally, as Murphy did with Trần, you have — as Trần argued in their piece — an obligation to treat that person with decency. The contours and limits of that obligation can be debated, of course, but there is a growing consensus in some provinces of the online left that a respect for that person’s wishes with regard to the use of the fruits of their intellectual labor is an element of it.
What does that respect entail? Crediting them for their work, for starters, even if that work is only the invention of a hashtag. Prominently crediting and linking to writing that inspired you. Bringing them along if the work you do that’s grounded in theirs results in opportunities for other writing or speaking gigs. And yes, checking in before quoting someone, or at least respecting their wishes if it turns out they’re not comfortable with how you’ve used their words.
This isn’t all about credit, though credit is obviously a part of it. A Twitter account that has a hundred followers and a website that gets a million hits a day may both be public spaces, in some sense, but they’re not the same kind of public space, and what someone shares in one arena may not be something they’re happy with seeing shared in the other.
Now, the lines here are fuzzy, and there’s room for reasonable people to disagree about where to draw them. I’m not, for instance, going to be sending a draft of this essay to anyone quoted in it before I post, though I will give them all a heads-up when it goes live. And again, comradeship is a crucial element of how these obligations are construed.
When Meghan Murphy called me a hypocrite on Twitter last night, she was wrong on the facts. I’d never demanded that she pull Trần’s quote. But she was right that I considered her quoting of Trần more problematic than the quotes of her that she’d objected to, and I think the distinction between the two helps to illuminate the concepts I’m grappling with here.
We’ve already discussed Murphy’s Trần quotes, so let’s move on to the Murphy quotes that bothered her:
Meghan Murphy has been accused, not always fairly, of being a close ally of discredited pseudo-feminist Hugo Schwyzer. I say “not always fairly” because Murphy and Schwyzer had strong disagreements on a variety of issues. But when Murphy said in her essay this week that she’d been “consistently, publicly critical of” Schwyzer, “his work, and his teaching, from the moment I was aware he existed,” that wasn’t quite accurate either — or at least it wasn’t the whole story.
Murphy may have been critical of Schwyzer all along, but she was also friendly with him for a time — even after others’ objections to him were widely circulated. In one quote from Facebook that’s been making the rounds, Murphy said she didn’t “see Hugo as a misogynist,” that although they disagreed on some issues she believed “he does genuinely want equality,” and that she thought “he is, in the end, a decent person.”
Murphy believes — if I’m remembering our exchange from last night correctly — that it’s unfair to circulate these quotes because they’re from a private Facebook conversation, they’re taken out of context, and they’re undated.
So does my quoting of Murphy here, in the context of what I’ve said above about her quoting of Trần, make me a hypocrite? Unsurprisingly, I don’t think so.
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m likely to mangle this analogy, but when I think about these two situations I keep coming back to the distinction between a friendly and a hostile witness. When you, as a lawyer, are questioning a “friendly witness” on the stand, you have an obligation to let them tell their story in their own way. With a hostile witness, however — a witness for the other side, or a witness for your side who has turned against you — you’re allowed to frame your questioning in such a way as to try to impeach their testimony or undermine their credibility.
So it is here, I think. Trần’s objection to Murphy’s piece isn’t that Murphy quoted Trần, but that Murphy selectively quoted Trần to make it appear that Trần agreed with a set of propositions Trần actually opposes. Trần may be right or wrong about that, but right or wrong it’s an objection that a friend would treat with more respect than Murphy has shown.
When Aura Bogado quoted Murphy’s past statements about Schwyzer, however, she was honest about her aim — she was trying to impeach Murphy’s position. When you’re arguing with someone, when you’re trying to refute their claims by dredging up contradictory things they’ve said in the past, you’re necessarily going to wind up quoting stuff they wish you wouldn’t, and it’s reasonable to give their objections less weight than you otherwise might.
Let me turn this discussion back on myself for one final example.
When I was debating journalistic ethics on Twitter the other night it was fairly late in the evening. I was in a relaxed mood, the conversation was moving very quickly, and I was tweeting in haste. I stand by the substance of everything I said, but there were a few grammatical infelicities and some language that was rather earthier than is my standard practice in public speech.
So let’s say that someone wrote a blogpost about that conversation, and quoted me in a way I found a bit embarrassing. As a matter of journalistic ethics, I’d have no grounds for complaint. I said that stuff, I said it in public, and it’s anyone’s right to quote it if they please. If Meghan Murphy wants to put those tweets on her blog, there’s nothing I can do about it, and not much chance I’d try.
But let’s say it wasn’t Meghan Murphy who wrote the piece. Let’s say it was someone who presented themselves as my friend and ally. In that case I might well drop them a line asking if they wouldn’t mind paraphrasing instead of quoting, or inserting a strategic ellipsis or two. And if they didn’t comply, and I got the impression that their intent in not complying was to embarrass me, I might well conclude that they weren’t much of a friend or ally after all.
It’s not likely that I’d make a huge case out of such a disagreement, for a bunch of reasons, but I’d likely remember it. And if something like that happened in a situation in which the stakes were higher, I might well take my complaint public. I might even publicly request that they take a quote down. I’ve never done it, but I can see doing it, and I stand behind the reasons why I might.
• • •
I said during the conversation the other night that I found the moral fluidity surrounding these issues exciting, and several of the folks I was talking to responded that they didn’t find it exciting at all — just the opposite.
I definitely get where they’re coming from, and I think the fact that I’ve only rarely been a target of this kind of ire shapes my emotional response. But at the same time, I think what we’re seeing here is an articulation of a new — and increasingly coherent — set of moral principles. They’re not arbitrary, they’re not incomprehensible, and they’ve got real merit.
Note | In the last two paragraphs above, I originally used the word “ethical” where I meant “moral.” I’ve fixed it.