Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Fairness and Societal Good

Today, I had lunch at CMU's Faculty Club (I'd be happy to take some of you studenty folk with me sometime if you want to check it out). While I was eating dessert (their desserts are incredible), a tasty chocolate cake (that hopefully won't give me a headache), two professors sitting at a nearby table were having a conversation on neutrality in the classroom and beyond -- in particular if the traditional University protections on allowing points of view (on or off-field) to be expressed in the classroom should extend to their offering this to the wider public (via remote teaching/video) or if it should be limited to just the campus community. Mention was given to University dependence on public funding, not in terms of the university being more of a target for political action, but instead as a kind of fairness-ethics question. To summarise, is it acceptable to use public funds (as pretty much all universities, public or private, do in some fashion) to push a political point of view?

While I'm sensitive to other arguments, i don't think fairness-to-perspectives really enters into it. Universities are cultural, value-laden institutions, at least as much to expose people to a wide variety of ideas and perspectives as to provide vocational training. They are not publicly funded to promote fairness or avoid expressing points of view. Reflecting on a larger scale, culture and value-neutrality are not useful things for the state to aim at, and expressed strongly enough would make it impossible for a state to exist. This does not mean that certain traditions of avoiding some kinds of state-led inculturation are necessarily bad ideas, but rather that they're just traditions and should be judged as such. The things I once called "principled positions" on these issues begin to look increasingly ridiculous, either when we look at their results or when we look with open eyes for internal inconsistencies. Sometimes we look for traditions and comprimises near their corpse, sometimes like a wolf free of leash we wander free. A state that would not oppose its criminals, that would not manage its population and culture, that does not provide and/or protect the common paths and aid people in their growth as people would not be worth living in. We have, as a people, a distaste for things that "smell like propoganda", but this is more about traditions than hard, philosophically clean, borders.

On other news, it's really unpleasant explaining to people on Wikipedia that we cannot use specific-permission content on the site. Basically, because the project has standards for free content, and it's seen as a high priority that people be able to take all of our content and fork, starting their own Wikipedia-clone, or alternatively use our data for other purposes like displaying it from cellphones or publishing it in books (Aside: I just had this really weird steampunk-esque idea of a 60 foot-tall LCD displaying a wikipedia article, with people on a platform connected to hydrolics to pull it around the page via controls, viewing an article and leaving it centred on a fair-use image, by size taking it partly out of context), we don't accept any content on the site that has permission for use only on the site, instead requiring that it be generally released under an acceptable license. Novice users generally don't understand this, asking originators of images/photographs/whatever if they can put it up on Wikipedia. Explaining all this to them is a major pain, and is an example of a policy-stumbling block. At some point, I'll probably write up a nice, summarises-everything-from-policy-to-culture guide to Wikipedia and try to get some pointers established to it in places newbies will see.

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