Thursday, May 14, 2015

Statement affirming respectful debate during current TMT protests

This was submitted to the WiA blog by leaders on diversity issues from within the AAS community. There has also been a statement from AAS President Meg Urry.

The last few weeks have brought to a head a confrontation between Native Hawaiian protesters and the Thirty Meter Telescope project. There are varied perspectives on all sides of this issue, amongst supporters and opponents, Hawaiians and mainlanders, astronomers and the general public, and all intersections of these groups. Events associated with the protests, including some cases of violence or threats of violence, have created significant divisions within our community, divisions which have manifested themselves in heated debates and discussions both in person and over social media.

Unfortunately, recent rhetoric in our community has crossed the line into racism and hostility, with language (e.g., describing Native Hawaiian protestors as a “horde” or other people of color as “snakes”) that dehumanizes individuals who oppose the placement of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna a Wakea. This language is a painful reminder of past acts of violence perpetrated against native people and others, and only serves to inflame rather than bring about understanding and resolution. In many cases, apologies have been issued, and these have been appreciated. Still, that this language was used in the first place by highly esteemed members of our community is troubling, because the effects linger, are particularly harmful to junior researchers and students, and create an environment of hostility and exclusion.


While our community (including signers of this statement) may have varying opinions on the Thirty Meter Telescope issue, our call here is for astronomers to behave with respect in their discussions and communications, both with each other and with the public. While progressive debate and discussion are to be encouraged as a matter of resolving conflict, racist or demeaning rhetoric has no place in the discourse of our professional community. As pointed out in the AAS President’s statement, the AAS anti-harassment policy makes clear that proscribed behavior includes "epithets, slurs or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group." Such discourse in this instance weakens the efforts of those seeking to resolve the current issue through respectful and inclusive dialogue.

We strongly encourage all members of the astronomical community to conduct themselves with respect toward each other and to those outside our community, and to consider the principles of fair discourse in their communication:

  1. Refrain from the use of racist or demeaning language;
  2. Treat the ideas of others, especially those who are marginalized, with respect;
  3. Focus on the issues, rather than the individuals discussing the issues;
  4. Be mindful of the significant power imbalances that can exist between those who are white, cis-, straight, able-bodied, senior, and/or male and those who are not;
  5. Thoughtfully listen to others' perspectives;
  6. Work to promote traditionally marginalized voices;
  7. Work to improve the discussion, rather than shut it down;
  8. Defend your interpretations using verified information while respecting the knowledge based in the lived experiences of marginalized people;
  9. Embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change your own mind; and
  10. Remember to be especially mindful of these principles if you are in a position of power or influence.

It is especially important that those who are empowered along one or more of the identity axes mentioned in (4) be mindful of these principles.

Discourse guided by these principles does not mean we must agree, and we do not seek here to “take sides” on the current debate. Rather, we advocate for respectful discourse as the only way to create a community in which people from different backgrounds can feel welcome to contribute. Respectful discourse improves our personal understanding of complex issues and allows us to embrace the diverse perspectives of our colleagues and of the public.  It is crucial that as leaders and role models in our field we understand the repercussions of our words and actions, and it is incumbent on us to demonstrate respect for the broader society on whose support we depend. It is important also that junior researchers not be professionally penalized for their views on this issue.  

For more information about discursive best practices and the current TMT discussions, please see the following resources:


This statement has been crafted by members of the following committees: the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), the Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE), the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the organizing committee of the Inclusive Astronomy meeting.  As per AAS policy, this is not a committee-endorsed statement and does not necessarily reflect the views of the AAS, its Council or its officers.  Affiliations are included for identification purposes only.

Endorsed by:
Nick Murphy, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Carolyn Brinkworth, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Christina Richey, SDSE LLC and NASA HQ, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of  Women in Astronomy
Meredith Hughes, Wesleyan University, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
John Asher Johnson, Harvard University, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Jacqueline K. Faherty, Carnegie DTM
Jessica Mink, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, MIT, Member of the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality
Sarah Tuttle, McDonald Observatory
Van Dixon, STScI, Chair of the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality
Jane Rigby, NASA GSFC, Member of the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality
Aparna Venkatesan, University of San Francisco
Kim Coble, Chicago State University
Adam Burgasser, UC San Diego, Chair of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy
Alyson Brooks, Rutgers University, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy
Jessica Kirkpatrick, Chegg, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Daryl Haggard, Amherst College, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Joseph Barranco, San Francisco State University
Neil Gehrels, NASA GSFC, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
David Charbonneau, Harvard University, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Keivan Stassun, Vanderbilt University and Fisk University
Caroline Simpson, Florida International University, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Wladimir Lyra, JPL, Member of the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality
Dara Norman, NOAO and Howard University Advance-IT Faculty Fellow
Kevin Covey, Western Washington University

Edmund Bertschinger, MIT, Member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy