Offensive emails aren’t a window into the soul

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
October 17, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

Shock horror: academics have lapses in judgment too.

I was in my first year of writing my PhD and it was my very first experience teaching. I had a room full of oh-so-stoic feminist undergrads.

A decade on and I’m pretty sure there was a logical progression of conversation that led to my quip. (At least, this is how I rationalise it now).

I’d told the group I love dogs. I love them so much, I revealed, that even – then – in my early twenties, if a paedophile pulled up in his van and invited me to have a look at his puppies, I’d jump right in the back.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

In case it needs to be stated, I’m pro-puppy, not pro-paedophilia. But jokes, of course, don’t work if they have to be explained, so you just make a note to self to sharpen your material and you move on.

So let’s talk about Barry Spurr.

Spurr is in the doghouse for not simply using a whole raft of terms we find offensive, but more so, for being caught doing so. He chose not to save his colourful language for bawdy times with his chums in the uni clubhouse, but to write them down and then make the mistake that every one of us who can’t manage separate work/play/hate-crime/sexy-time email accounts makes daily: clicking “send” from his work address.

After 14 years of working in universities, my my my, the stories I could tell. Off the top of my head was a time when a colleague went on a rant about “mussies”.

In emails that followed, a friend and I joked about the incident. When repeating the term the first time, I would have used the quotation marks. In the emails that followed, however, the punctuation would have dropped off; the word took on a meaning that had absolutely nothing to do with disparaging Muslims and everything to do with indicting that colleague.

I don’t have a history of using terms like “Abo” or, God forbid, “chinky-poo”, but given a) my sarcastic sense of humour, and b) preponderance to dabble in a bit of echolalia in my prose, I feel thoroughly confident that there are all kinds of emails in my account that, strategically edited, would paint me as racist or misandrist or any other kind of evil “ist” imaginable.

One email however – or even a dozen of them – are not an accurate reflection of a person’s politics. At best they are an out-of-context snapshot of correspondence shared with a narrow, knowing audience privy to a history of in-jokes and familiar with your linguistic quirks and ribaldry.

I can’t actually defend Spurr here: I don’t know anything about his values nor have I read the full chain of emails in question. I do, however, know that single lines from my own emails – and I dare say, from most people’s emails – could be quoted in isolation and lead to a tarring and feathering.

Because, after all, we’re a high-horse culture that loves our daily dose of outrage.

But this story is indeed more complicated than throwaway dialogue to friends and family, or ill-advised jokes told in a classroom.

Any of us who work in organisations subject to the Freedom of Information Act know that our emails might get probed. Long before the NSA and Murdoch scandals, those of us with or have been well aware that internet privacy is a complete delusion. We know – even if we forget it each time we click send on that nugget of debauchery – that one day it might get read aloud in a courtroom or, God forbid, published by New Matilda.

This is what happens when you have a job paid for or subsidised by taxpayers.

Sure, Spurr was a thorough idiot for sending such things from his university account and in the wash-up there’s no decent case for privacy invasion here: he knew the score. But there’s also a very important glass-houses element, and one that compels each of us with an or account to do a good and thorough scan of our sent items file before climbing up onto that soapbox.

© Lauren Rosewarne