[Lingtyp] ALT: code of conduct

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Mon Nov 20 17:05:51 UTC 2017

I strongly second Martin's plea to vote AGAINST the code of conduct, for 
the reasons that he outlines, and others.

At the ALT meeting in Padang, one of the participants, a woman from a 
European country, came to one of the plenary events in a thin, loose and 
revealing dress, and rubber flip flops.  This was offensive to the local 
participants, both with respect to the amount of flesh revealed, and 
also the implied lack of respect that this showed to the local hosts.  
So should the proposed code of conduct include a dress code?  
Admittedly, there's no mention of clothing in the proposed text, but it 
does say that harassment is "not limited to" the items that it 
explicitly lists, and in the eyes of some of the local participants, 
this was similar in principle (if not, perhaps, in severity) to Harvey 
Weinstein exposing himself.

As typologists, we should be more sensitive to cross-cultural variation 
with respect to matters such as these.  As local organizer of the Padang 
meeting, I informed participants of local customs and sensitivities with 
regard to clothing.  Participants then had the choice of taking these 
sensitivities into account in their behaviour, or alternatively ignoring 
them, or perhaps even flouting them intentionally, in order to make a 
point.  (In my own behaviour, I choose to follow the local customs, 
partly out of respect, partly for purely practical reasons. Sometimes, 
though, I wish I had the energy to show up barefoot, in shorts and 
t-shirt, in order to make the point that I want to be respected for my 
character, not for my clothing.)

But there's just no way any or all of this can be encapsulated into a 
"code of conduct":  it's both impractical and immoral.  Whose culture 
would be represented in the code of conduct?  Mine, yours, theirs?  If 
we proscribe anything that's offensive to anybody, then we won't be able 
to do anything — quite literally.  I know of no way to blow one's nose 
that isn't offensive to either Indonesians or Europeans. The way these 
codes of conduct are shaping up (I say "these codes" because it isn't 
just ALT), it's turning out to be a codification of an influential 
subculture of Anglo-American norms as they happen to be in the mid 2010s 
that is being imposed on all of the rest of the world.

Sure, there are universals.  Rape is abhorrent.  However, this is 
covered in the laws of most countries where ALT meets; we don't need to 
replicate such laws in a code of conduct.  But how do we deal with all 
the cases that aren't quite as bad as rape, but are worse than blowing 
your nose the wrong way?

Some of us think it's important to begin a presentation of one's 
linguistic work with a couple of slides showing some of the speakers to 
whom we are indebted.  But according to the proposed code of conduct, 
one of the items constituting harassment is "Presentation of sexual 
images in public spaces".  Somebody please tell me: who gets to decide 
whether an image is sexual or not?  Whose dress code do we follow?  As 
we all know, some cultures are rather skimpy in the clothes department 
...  And what if a gesture in the image happens to have a sexual meaning 
in the culture of one of the ALT participants.  Oh and what if the talk 
is a talk on, say, the language of sex?  Or is that now completely 

I would suggest that when people of different cultures get together, a 
process of behavioural negotiation takes place that is actually not too 
dissimilar from what we as linguists observe when speakers of different 
languages get together.  (I am reminded of the experiment by Ulrike 
Zeshan in which she brought together four signers of different sign 
languages in order to see what would happen.)

Most of us are good people who try and get things right, though 
sometimes we make mistakes.  A few of us are rotten apples, but we don't 
need a code of conduct to tell us that, or to help us deal with them.  
Instead of a code of conduct, what we need is common sense.

Some of the ethical issues that we are touching upon here are quite 
profound, and are being grappled with by society as a whole. Foremost 
amongst these issues is how we reconcile our support for cultural 
diversity with our belief that some things are simply wrong, wherever 
you are.  There are no easy answers to questions such as this.  But a 
code of conduct pretends to offer just that kind of easy answer.  Which 
is why I am against it.

To those of you who support such a code, I offer a challenge:  How 
should the proposed code have dealt with that European linguist in 
Padang, with the revealing dress and the rubber thongs?  Please explain 
your answer.


On 20/11/2017 21:09, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> Thanks to the EC for its efforts, but I would strongly urge all ALT 
> members to vote AGAINST the code of conduct.
> Such codes of conduct may be needed, but the present formulation is 
> incompatible with free science.
> There is no definition of "harrassment" (just some examples of what 
> harrassment is), and the formulation "offensive comments related to 
> aspects of identity" is terribly vague.
> On the basis of such a code of conduct, almost anything that is 
> controversial could be construed as violating the code, so anyone 
> could be expelled from the conference, even though they are trying to 
> make a serious contribution to science.
> It's completely unclear who has the authority to "find conference 
> participants in violation", and how participants could defend 
> themselves if wrongly accused. I would not want to attend a conference 
> with such rules, as I would not feel safe to express my (potentially 
> controversial) scientific ideas.
> So the present formulation is completely counterproductive and 
> dangerous for ALT.
> I am aware that in Anglo-American culture, such codes of conduct are 
> more and more widespread, but there are big cultural differences. In 
> most parts of the world, precarious employment and restrictions on 
> travel are much more urgent problems that are worth thinking about. I 
> suggest that ALT's EC consider also other options to make people feel 
> welcome at ALT conferences, e.g. to increase the participation fees 
> for participants from rich countries substantially, in order to 
> alleviate the outrageous obstacles to conference participation that 
> many (potential) ALT members face.
> I'm all for addressing the problem of harrassment, but only if it 
> clear what exactly consitutes harrassment, and if there is no threat 
> of expelling participants from ALT conferences. (Or if there is such 
> a  threat, then there should be a due process, as we're used to in 
> free societies, rather than an arbitrary decision by some unspecified 
> authority.) Maybe there should be a larger discussion at the ALT 
> conference, or on the LINGTYP List.
> Best wishes,
> Martin
> On 20.11.17 14:24, Kristine Hildebrandt wrote:
>> Dear ALT members:
>> We have two important items up for vote. Both items are contained in 
>> a single electronic ballot, which can be found here:
>> https://siue.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6id2p5qEU7W3tzf
>> This link allows you to vote exactly once, and the origin of the vote 
>> is untraceable (ie. the vote is anonymous to me when I collect the 
>> results).
>> Item 1:
>> Of the six current Executive Committee members, three are rotating 
>> off, and need to be replaced (Felix Ameka, Isabelle Bril, Keren 
>> Rice). Three continue for another term: Silvia Luraghi, Stepehen 
>> Matthews, Felicity Meakins.
>> The ALT nominating committee identified and consulted with three 
>> nominees for the EC: Mark Dingemanse, Rachel Nordlinger, and Ljuba 
>> Veselinova.
>> When you go the e-ballot, you will see brief bio-sketches of the 
>> three nominees. You can vote for all three together, or for any 
>> individual. And even if you do not vote for any nominee, you can 
>> still vote on Item #2 (below).
>> We are grateful to both the outgoing EC members, and to the 
>> Nominating Committee (Nick Enfield, Nina Dobrushina, Martin 
>> Haspelmath, and Claire Bowern) for their work for ALT.
>> Item 2:
>> The ALT Officers (Jeff Good, Dmitry Idiatov, and me), in consultation 
>> with the EC have drawn up a code of conduct statement to be added to 
>> the ALT statutes. Please vote either for or against the adoption of 
>> this code.
>> *Voting is now open as of this email. The deadline to vote is Tuesday 
>> December 5 at 5pm Central Standard Time.*
>> Thank you!
>> -- 
>> Orche
>> ('Thanks' in Manange)
>> /Kristine A. Hildebrandt/
>> /Associate Professor, Department of English Language & Literature 
>> <http://www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/english/>//
>> /
>> /Secretary, Association for Linguistic Typology 
>> <http://www.linguistic-typology.org/>
>> /
>> /Editor, Himalayan Linguistics 
>> <http://escholarship.org/uc/himalayanlinguistics>/
>> Check out our Manang Languages 
>> <https://mananglanguages.isg.siue.edu/> project page!
>> /Southern Illinois University Edwardsville/
>> /Box 1431
>> Edwardsville, IL 62026 U.S.A.
>> 618-650-3991 (department voicemail)/
>> /khildeb at siue.edu <mailto:khildeb at siue.edu>
>> http://www.siue.edu/~khildeb <http://www.siue.edu/%7Ekhildeb>/
>> _______________________________________________
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> -- 
> Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de)
> Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
> Kahlaische Strasse 10	
> D-07745 Jena
> &
> Leipzig University
> IPF 141199
> Nikolaistrasse 6-10
> D-04109 Leipzig
> _______________________________________________
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> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp

David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816

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