Provoked by the discussion here, I’ve been thinking about how “evenhandedness” and “mediation” can become their opposites – how invoking these highminded concepts can inadvertently or deliberately undermine fairness.
I’m reminded of four instances where precisely that has happened.
1. Journalism: When science journalists give equal time to evolutionists and creationists, they are enhancing the credibility of creationists. They are not engaging in responsible, ethical journalism. There are not two valid sides to that dispute. Ditto for global warming scientists and the denialists. Ditto for opposition researchers who manage to slime their agenda into the mainstream media.
2. Academic integrity: Some years ago, my university’s Judiciaries recommended “mediation” instead of a university judicial hearing for a plagiarism case. A brand-new, untenured professor had caught a grad student who submitted a paper that was 90% copied directly from a book. The student’s well-connected, very senior advisor lobbied for him. The young professor started getting not-so-subtle pressure from his superior, who ironically taught an ethics course! This was not a situation where mediation was remotely applicable: One party had behaved ethically, while the other had blatantly broken the rules. (The untenured professor prevailed, a hearing was held, and the student was unanimously found to have plagiarized. Disclosure: I was not the prof in question, but I did say, “Wow, that student’s writing sure sounds like a book’s jacket blurb !” Lo and behold, it was.) “Mediation” in this case was a form of professional blackmail.
3. Workplace bullying: University officials are similarly pressing for “mediation” in a current situation where one faculty member has already been found by an internal investigation to have intimidated, bullied, and threatened three of his colleagues. I’m reluctant to link to the coverage of this case (I’m cowed too, and I don’t even work with him!), but I’ll do it anyway: this article at Inside Higher Education tells his side of the story, while trivializing the experience of his colleagues who were threatened. “Mediation” in this instance is a fig leaf for a university administration that’s unwilling to penalize the offender for fear he’ll sue.
4. Marriage and divorce: A couple I know are splitting up. The have a young child. He initially pushed hard for mediation to arrange for civilized, shared parenting. She refused. Her subsequent tactics have not been civilized. They’ve been dirty. “Scorched earth” points toward the general neighborhood. Now she is publicly complaining to the court that he is unwilling to enter into mediation. Here, “mediation” is a cudgel being used to make him look like he’s the intransigent party.
We all want to be reasonable people. (At least you all do, or you’d be reading a much more fiery blog!) I’m just deeply dismayed when “reasonable” and “fair” are warped into Social Darwinian weapons.