Why I’m (Absolutely) Voting “Yes” on the SAA Ethical Principle #9

So, the Society for American Archaeology rolled out a new addition to its Statement on Ethics, putting before the membership for a vote. It “focuses on members’ obligations to ensure safe and supportive instructional, workplace, and collegial environments for archaeological work” (quote from e-mail to membership 09/19/2016). Specifically, it reads:

Principle No. 9: Safe Educational and Workplace Environments: Archaeologists in all work, educational, and other professional settings, including fieldwork and conferences, are responsible for training the next generation of archaeologists. Part of these responsibilities involves fostering a supportive and safe environment for students and trainees. This includes knowing the laws and policies of their home nation and institutional workplace that pertain to harassment and assault based upon sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, national origin, religion, or marital status. SAA members will abide by these laws and ensure that the work and educational settings in which they have responsible roles as supervisors are conducted so as to avoid violations of these laws and act to maintain safe and respectful work and learning environments. (Text from letter to membership, 09/19/2016)

As the SAA states in its cover letter, this is an ethical principle that is not focused on artifacts and sites, but that “archaeological work is quintessentially social and collaborative,” and this proposed addition to the Statement on Ethics reflects that.

I’m definitely voting for it. Here’s why:

  1. Recent efforts to document sexual harassment by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (Barreis and Henry 2015; Meyers et al. 2015) show that this is a massive, if tremendously under-appreciated, problem for the discipline, and it’s something we need to take steps to rectify. This is a start, but it also opens the door for more progress down the line by providing an institutional and professional directive to fix this problem. With the directive comes justification for organizations across the discipline to focus on this more clearly and take steps particular to their situation to improve.
  2. What objections there are out there (looking at you, Michael E. Smith, from Publishing Archaeology), suggest that this is not an “archaeological” matter, as though we can separate artifacts from the process of research. The “ology” part of “archaeology” points to the process of study, not the subjects of that study (the things/artifacts), so matters that pertain to the conditions under which findings are developed are ABSOLUTELY archaeological. Who is party to that, their voice in the process, and the power relations that govern the production of knowledge, of course, affect how the process progresses, and discriminatory or harassing relationships can only make archaeology less than it otherwise would be.
  3. Matters of science aside, what kind of person would object to a professional statement censuring people treating colleagues in such manner?
  4. Smith also objects to Principle #9 on the grounds that it does not have the force of law, and that the SAA has no regulatory teeth. Sure, technically, he’s right. The SAA isn’t going to be locking anyone up, but that’s not the point of ethics statements. Ethics statements guide behavior among practitioners, and can censure things that are otherwise considered illegal. If my side business was trafficking in battlefield artifacts that I looted from privately-owned battlefields off the clock and with my own equipment, I would be acting within the bounds of the law, but outside the bounds of archaeological ethics, and could reasonably expect to be kicked out of the SAA or SHA for doing so. I wouldn’t go to jail, but I would rightfully face the destruction of my professional esteem and risk my employment. An ethical statement on sexual harassment gives some foundation for tangible and visible censure for those who egregiously transgress them.

So, I’m voting yes, and I’m doing so for the above reasons. I’m also writing this post to give support to those who worked to bring together the ethical statement and those who have been looking at the breadth of this problem and bringing attention to it. I’m a straight, white, able-bodied, American male, and I strongly support this measure. I have the privilege to work with now, and to have worked with over the years, many people who fall into the categories that this principle seeks to provide some support and protection to. I will be thinking about all of them, and thanking them for being part of my life and career, when I click “yes.”

REFERENCES

Baires, Sarah E. and Edward R. Henry
2015     Gender Roles and Archaeologists in the Southeast: Working Toward Equality. Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference 57(1):14-18.

Meyers, Maureen, Tony Boudreaux, Stephen Carmody, Victoria Dekle, Elizabeth Horton, and Alice Wright
2015     Preliminary Results of the SEAC Sexual Harassment Survey. Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference 57(1):19-35.

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