In the middle of this year a friend who had decamped to CSIRO from government wrote to me and asked me to participate in an interview exploring the economic impact of next generation broadband in Australia. Towards the end of his email he wrote.
If you are willing to take part in an interview, you should understand that:
· Your participation in the project is entirely voluntary and you are free to withdraw from the study at any time, without penalty and without providing a reason for doing so.
· You will be asked whether you consent to having your answers to the interview questions recorded for transcription purposes.
· Your name and that of your organisation will not be included in any publications from these interviews unless you provide specific permission for us to identify you as a participant in the research.
· Prior to the reporting of the study findings, you can request that any of the information that you provide in the interview be excluded from the analysis.
· If you have any concerns about the study or the interview process, you can contact the CSIRO’s Manager of Social Responsibility and Ethics [on phone number provided].
I wrote back immediately saying “Very happy to participate so long as I can avoid the kind of red tape intimated in your long list of things I should understand.” I also indicated that I was happy to provide blanket consent for them to do whatever they liked with the interview with me – after all, that’s the standard I’m used to from frequent interaction with the media. My friend indicated his optimism that sense would be seen and the interview would go ahead.
This enterprise concluded with an email from the contact person mentioned at the end of the litany of consents above as follows:
I would like to thank you very much for your interest in contributing to our project examining the anticipated impact of next generation broadband.
After our phone conversation earlier this week, I contacted our ethics officer regarding the ‘informed consent’ process. At this point in time, our research needs to abide by the ‘National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’ and CSIRO policy. Unfortunately, your response . . . by email was considered insufficient in terms of conveying informed consent.
Without being able to obtain oral consent prior to the recording of the interview, I am not able to proceed with our scheduled meeting on the 24th May.
I would like to make it clear, however, that I respect your choice not to provide further evidence of consent and appreciate the time you have offered.
You’d think I’d learned my lesson. But about a month ago a very persuasive person – which is to say someone I like – got me to agree to do a day of interviews at Monash University – interviewing students seeking enrollment in an exciting new venture for them: “BSc Global Challenges“. I have already told her that I’ll simply refuse to proceed if there is too much bureaucracy.
I have just received the brief for the interviews which contains this paragraph.
Interview topics to avoid
Like most organisations, Monash University is committed to promoting equal opportunity in education. Throughout your questioning and note taking during the interviews, please avoid the following “protected attributes” – Age, breastfeeding, career status, disability, employment activity, gender identity, industrial activity, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status, personal association, physical features, political belief of activity, pregnancy, or potential pregnancy, race, religious belief of activity, sex, sexual harassment and sexual orientation.
Well, it doesn’t involve me in any inconvenience so the dummy remains unexpectorated, but you may not be surprised to hear how much this incenses me. I am, again as you might guess, supportive of the intent which is to reduce discrimination on various grounds (at the same time as remaining blissfully oblivious to others) but the lawyers’ approach to this is to simply make any reference to these issues taboo. Well I might quite like to engage a student on a number of these issues whilst remaining true to the spirit of the policy – indeed it would enable me to remain truer to it.
After all, it would be of interest to me if a prospective student was a homophobe, and I might be asking about breastfeeding or any number of other things in order to understand the situation of someone who was breastfeeding – it might lead to a worthwhile discussion about challenges etc. But it turns out it’s much simpler to make a rule that we are all to be presumed guilty if we discuss such things.
One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. In the case of regulation, we really need the people at the coalface to be thinking about the efficiency of what they’re doing within a larger whole. It’s very difficult for the top, or the centre to get this to happen – as it has to happen at the periphery, but no matter. We’ll issue instructions. All those making regulations must do a regulatory impact statement – to the letter of the thinking of those at the top, but alas not to the spirit.
Likewise here, the real energy in the system is not really deployed trying to engage with the issue and minimise the kinds of pernicious discrimination that the policy proscribes. The energy is directed towards minimising the organisation’s exposure to risk. And once this is the frame, the actual issue pretty much disappears, indeed the edict is precisely to make it disappear in all the organisation’s official conduct. So much for engaging with the issue and trying to do something about it. We’re just covering our arses here.
The other thing these policies do when implemented in this way is they violate another great subtlety of human interaction. There is necessarily a great deal that is implicit in the mores of human interaction – something which preserves scope for ambiguity, irony and improvisation. The ideas that are being rolled out by policies such as this seek to make everything explicit and unambiguous or to consign it to silence.
And those on the left wonder why issues like ‘political correctness’ play as well as they do for the right. Well the right is the only place that is comfortable calling out the idiocy of this kind of thing. And people don’t like being coerced into doing farcical things. It might seem small, but, at least for some of us it’s not experienced as a small thing.
Red tape, political correctness and edicts from on high: the interview.