When I was in the middle of thinking about fact-checking and journalism last week, I came across this column by Ivan Coyote inXtra that forced me to think about the ethics involved in the act of checking facts, an area I’d previously assumed to be an ethics-free zone.
Ivan is a storyteller, a good one I hear. I’ve been following the writing side of her career ever since reading a book she wrote as a member of a collective called Taste This called Boys Like Her in 1998. Her monthly column in Xtra is, more often than it has the right to be, a revelation, told in the most engaging terms, often about issues related to gender. I remember one about being asked, upon checking into a hotel with a trans man friend of hers (storytellers are on the road a lot), what pronoun the two would like to be addressed by. You should read it; it’s good.
This most recent one was about an email she got several weeks ago from a student who said that her professor assigned her class to track down Coyote’s birth name. This student had tried the usual routes and failed, apparently, and decided to go straight to the source.
“I took a deep breath,” she says in her column. “I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.”
My first reaction, I have to admit, was “Dude: take a hint from those fingers and chill.”
But Coyote isn’t especially alarmist, and not at all flakey, so I decided to think about it a bit more.
Research, which is at the heart of all academic study*, is in an odd position these days, with so much of it having been taken over by Google and Wikipedia. Being able to find information has always been at the core of what professors try to teach their students, but now it can seem like everything you ever wanted to know about anything is available for the price of a well-chosen string of words in a search field.
But that ain’t necessarily so. It could be something as simple as someone’s unpublished office extension, or as persnickety as who makes the screws that attach the handrails to the backs of the seats on the TTC’s streetcars. It also applies to many, many bits of information of local or regional significance that were originally published before things started going online in the 90s. Like Coyote’s birth name, which she says she changed (though apparently not legally) in 1990. The reasons she changed it seem raw, involving an absent grandfather* and a somewhat complicated relationship to her gender. (A relationship, I should add, that she has done a wonderful job over an entire career of elucidating.) Hence her reaction, which I sympathize with.
On the other hand, I think learning to do this sort of research is extraordinarily useful. Reporters at the Toronto Star, for instance, know how useful crack researchers can be. They can ask their in-house librarians anything, and get an answer back quick. I remember working on a story and being unable to get hold of Sir Nicholas Serota, the longtime chair of the Turner Prize. His office said he was out and would return my call, but I had a tight deadline. So I called the library, and about an hour later, my phone rang. It was Sir Nicholas.
Coyote’s a public figure. Not a celebrity, not a politician, but someone whose work in the public sphere, in performance and publishing, has given her a place in the culture, and given people an appetite to know about her work, and her self. Books have been written about the subject of privacy, and where one’s right to it begins and the public’s right to know ends. And as we’ve seen recently, with the News of the World, just because you can figure out how to find something out doesn’t mean you necessarily should.
But I feel confident in saying that wherever that line is drawn, it’s on the far side of this episode.
As we’ve known at least since Odysseus met Polyphemus, names are powerful things, and I can see why Coyote might want to keep this one to herself. But I think what we’re talking about here is secrecy rather than privacy. We’ve got a right to the latter, not the former, which is why I think that outing someone is perfectly ethical. You shouldn’t publish pictures of someone having sex if they’re doing it in private, but you should also not feel constrained from mentioning that you saw John Baird out with his boyfriend if you did. He may not have chosen to make the fact public himself, but I can see no compelling reason for you not to do it, and several reasons that it might be useful public information. Coyote’s chosen to call herself by this predatorily masculine name, one that implies violence and a sort of tricksy wisdom. It’s a good image, one that suits her, and it’s probably better, in that respect, than whatever surname her absent grandfather gave her by default. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to know her birth name.
Fact-checking is not meant to be a polite business. It’s not a friendly interaction between chums. Information gathering is actually pretty close to the opposite, as any young reporter sent to ask a heaving mother for a picture of her just raped and murdered child can tell you. And though the circumstances involved in retrieving information are usually not so dramatic, there are always people who would rather this or that fact were not circulated any more widely than strictly necessary. So numbers are hidden in the middle of 10,000-page reports and meetings in ambiguously worded itineraries. But names are some of the trickiest, and most potentially important, of all. Take the common practice of Chinese people taking Western names. It can be difficult tracking the connection between the Becky Chan who is an assistant deputy minister, and the Chen Qiong who owns property in Singapore. It involves a supra-Google level of skills that are not necessarily intuitive. They need to be learned, and taught, which is what it seems that professor that chilled Coyote’s fingers was trying to do. I respect Coyote’s desire to be known only by her chosen name, but I’m frankly glad not everyone does.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story described a relationship between Coyote and her father that was, in fact, a relationship with her grandfather. It also stated the subject of study of the class in question, which Coyote has been unable to ascertain. The text has been revised to reflect this.
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