People are still mumbling about the disclosure of the public sector salary lists in the local paper. There’s a lot to chew on, of course. It’s the stuff of rich gossip, about which one can never get enough around here or anywhere. It’s also given the loose-lips department plenty of opportunity to voice opinions about what someone, or a job, might be worth. But this blog is not really about the lists per se. I bet The Telegram saw a real spike in sales with the publication of those lists. All the power to the paper and to the reporter who picked up where government left off. No, this blog is really about the reaction to a MUN prof’s comments about the inadequacy of those lists.
Dr. Amanda Bittner, a member of the Department of Political Science, publicly decried the fact that government had dropped the ball on publishing the lists, especially after it had promised to legislate them into being sometime during the last provincial election campaign. She went on to question the merits of publishing all those names and salaries in the paper without proper scrutiny and consideration, without context and qualification. Saying so, on social and in electronic media, as is her right to do, generated a whack of ugly, personalizing invective all aimed at her and her right to say what she did. It’s amazing what pushes buttons these days, amazing what people get all worked up about. You can always console yourself by saying, well, at least something like this exposes all the anger and misogyny out there—in case anyone doubted these attitudes exist.
I actually have no problem with the publication of the lists, and, in fact, I think publication is a step in the right direction of transparency and accountability. Like Bittner, I do wish they had been nuanced properly. Anyone who knows better would understand that many of those big six-figure salaries in the Faculty of Medicine, for example, include fees for clinical practice, that many of the entries are snapshots in time, and therefore fluky misrepresentations of what someone’s true salary might be. There are many anomalies, weird entries, and salaries that include bonuses or one-off payments; these could be easily explained with better categorization and dating. It’s also useful to benchmark these salaries against other Canadian universities where, with few exceptions, we are often not competitive enough. But once the list is out it’s impossible to make those arguments. No once wants to listen to them, and that’s not the way media works, anyway.
And this is the thing: speaking out is a tricky business. You have to appreciate the oppositional way media works. Not doing so is perilous to your thin skin. It was ever thus, but social media has heightened the war between the righteously minded and the other guys who are righteously minded. It’s dog eat dog, and as a colleague once laughably noted, for the other guy it’s the other way around. Most of us have become spellbound spectators to these ongoing wars of words (and pictures). The current US presidential campaign is the quintessential example of 21st century media reality. Nobody pays attention to reason anymore. No one would recognize reason if it showed up, anyway. A vulgar, fake-tanned, carrot-topped Republican candidate is actually admired—and certainly followed closely–for the sheer intensity of his bullying and prevaricating. The more hysterical the pronouncements the more hyper the response, and so it goes until we are all screaming in bold caps at each other. The word hater, actually a pretty old word, has been revived in our age with special vigour to embody an entire class of badly behaving people.
One might like to think we are different in this country but, really, not so much. And here at home things can get really small-minded and parochial. When a MUN prof makes some public statements about a list of salaries she is bound to get attention. And she should probably expect that. The topic of salary disclosures itself is loaded, exposing people’s vulnerabilities and shattering our false notions of privacy. But when the reaction builds into a crescendo of invective, leading to cyber bullying and even death threats then you have to wonder why some people just don’t, as we used to say, get a life.
I don’t want to blame that amorphous oracle of dissemination ‘the media’ for all of this. We are all complicit in the spectacle. Watching people go at something for whatever reason and then get dumped on is just the familiar way our world works. Cheap thrills is the new normal. It sure does inhibit many people, especially intellectuals, from speaking out, however. Sure, in our world we have academic freedom, but who needs the predictable barrage of insult? My advice would be, if you are going to put it out there just be prepared to engage in the noisy see-saw effect. If I were an arts student today I would probably be thinking of pursuing a career as a media consultant.