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Apology: I made a mistake and I can’t fix it.

This post might be TL:DR but I must write it.  This past Thursday I made a clear mistake and am suffering the consequences of my error.

Some background: I am doing some pro bono work for the Canadian Library Association annual conference which has just ended in Victoria BC.  As a past-president of CLA, I was really looking forward to seeing my Canadian friends and colleagues.  CLA had asked me to moderate the Friday opening panel discussion and to teach in an executive workshop on community engagement. Due to the illnesses of other contributors I was dragooned into filling in another theatre session on consensus building as well as moderating the annual Great Debate.  The Great Debate was where I messed up.  (BTW, our topic was “Be it resolved that collections are inconsequential to the libraries of today.”)   For background, The Great Debate is a longish tradition at CLA annual conferences and it is usually done in great fun, loads of irreverence, and is full of laughter and interaction with the audience.  It always intends to court controversy.  It’s usually at the end of a strong day of more serious programming.  The original moderator was unable to make it to Victoria on short notice and I was asked to fill in on 24 hours notice.

So what was my mistake?  I used an inappropriate quote of a classic Canadian comedian from Saturday Night Live.  When Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd debated every Saturday night, Dan always started his debate rebuttal with the over-the-top comment, “Jane, you ignorant sl*t!).   There are over 50,000 references in a Google search that provide some context for the classic SNL comedy.  However, despite regular re-runs and specials, it is over 35 years old and I wrongly assumed (there’s that word) that this was a common cultural reference and I was wrong.  What made this even worse behaviour on my part was that one of the debaters was an excellent librarian from a major Canadian university who is named ‘Jane’.  Sadly, some (mostly) younger librarians in the audience misinterpreted the quote as me calling the Jane on the stage a sl*t in a public meeting at a conference.  This being the 21st Century, this assertion was tweeted right away to the entire world and picked up in a firestorm of online discussion as unquestioned fact.  As we all know, if it’s on the Internet it must be true.  This has developed a life of its own.  I did not call Jane a sl*t nor would I ever do such a thing.  That, of course, does not absolve my mistake and I was wrong to use this classic mainstream media comedy skit reference and assume that it would be understood.  Current standards and recent events have changed the context and I need to evolve.

I, of course, immediately apologized to Jane for the inappropriate quote.  Immediately calls went out for me to be pulled from the program, the profession, my job, etc.  No one contacted me to ascertain any facts, context, or explanations.  I was pulled from the program which is probably the highest punishment CLA can mete out for an organization that purports to be about freedom of speech and protecting those rights in Canada.  To be clear, no one from CLA asked me to defend myself or provide any perspective or information nor did they make an attempt to clarify the situation, provide any opportunity for me to address CLA and publicly apologize, or protect a long-standing lifetime member from the spread of misinformation.  The firestorm on the web continues.  I continue to receive threats as well as suffer the consequences of my mistake.

For the record, I apologize for my moderation of the debate and my comment and I apologize unreservedly to Jane especially for placing her in a difficult situation not of her own making.

As for what I will do next, I don’t know.  Lying low won’t help but I do have to remove myself from the line of fire.  Days of being told on social media (and beyond) that my voice is not wanted and the ongoing threats to my person, livelihood, reputation, and life, have made it necessary for me to remove myself partially from this arena.  I don’t pretend to be a victim here.  I am the author of my own problem.  I do, though, remain disappointed in the lack of appropriate professional process by my national association with respect to a long term, lifetime member and past-president when they had it in their power to diffuse a terrible situation with truthful statements while defending their expressed values.

So, at this point, I am choosing to exit, temporarily at first, and I’ll decide if I am wanted, want to or will feel safe later on.  This blog has posts already written and timed to post through the end of this month.    I will put Stephen’s Lighthouse on hiatus in July and August through Labour Day and stop posting anything.   I am closing my social media presences July 1st and disengaging from the social web for the Summer. In the Autumn I’ll decide if I want to continue to volunteer or engage or perhaps I will discover that my life improves by not pushing for change and success in our field.  I hope my Wizard of OZ references continue to be understood (or at least safe) …. but then that was 75 years ago.

Signing off….




Posted on: June 2, 2014, 1:00 am Category: Uncategorized

27 Responses

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  1. Alice said

    Hang in there, Stephen.

  2. Sara Carter said

    May I remind you that it wasn’t very long ago you shared this:

  3. Doug Johnson said

    I, for one, will miss your voice and the profession will be poorer for not having your contributions. I certainly empathize with you, having made a number of public comments seen as being in poor taste. We librarians tend to be a prickly bunch, I’m afraid. Doug

  4. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Stephen. I’m an American of an age, as it were, and I remember the skits that were the genesis of the quote you used. I would have found it funny.

    It’s a shame that there has become such a knee-jerk reaction to virtually everything these days. And it’s awful when seemingly professional people become a mob.

    Take care…and I hope to see you online soon.

  5. Textbook non-apology apology, blaming the hearer for what the speaker said. Try again.

  6. Kaylin said

    I don’t think perspective or backpedaling at the time of the event would have improved the situation, but I do think it’s terrible that people are attacking you to the extent that you’ve felt the need to remove yourself from social media/professional outlets. Everyone puts their foot in their mouth occasionally and I’m sure that’s all this was. I hope you come back soon!

  7. I do hope to see you back in the online world later this year. Have some good time away to reflect and enjoy life. We all make mistakes every day (I have made some stupid mistakes in the past, very stupid mistakes) and from those I have moved on and grew.

  8. Iris E. said

    This is a huge disappointment, Stephen. Your blog is insightful, interesting, and funny. I appreciate being able to check in with a valued and experienced member of the profession virtually! Your posts are frequent and current and I will miss them. They have enriched my work and I have frequently shared your posts with colleagues and teachers. Come back soon.

  9. Everyone makes mistakes and the appropriate reaction by an organization or employer is to request retraction and apology, and that the behaviour cease. Removing you from duties at the conference is an affront to our shared values as librarians, which values all voices. To respond to a previous comment: the “hearers” in this case have asked for the “speaker” to be banned from the organization. Textbook knee-jerk reaction. Try again.

  10. Patrick Hogan said

    All of us who use humor are familiar with the misfire. I hope you find forgiveness and keep your voice.

  11. Stephen, there seems to be much blame to go around. The Twitter echo chamber. The 20-somethings who “misinterpreted”. CLA’s leadership. But what your mea culpa could use is some self-examination.
    Pop-culture references are best used sparingly, if at all, since they’re unavoidably unoriginal. The Wizard of Oz is timeless and charming, yes, but resurrecting a shock-value catch-phrase from a 35-year-old comedy skit was a massive misreading of your audience, and of your role in introducing speakers, which was in fact to help set a tone (inclusive, elevated) for the ensuing dialogue. We all have flameouts — my advice would be to accept yours and move on.

  12. Yep, you made a mistake, but not one that deserves threats and general outrage . That kind of reaction just fuels accusations that political correctness has run amok, and feminists (and I am one) have no sense of humor. You recognize your mistake, and you’ve apologized for it. I hope people recognize that and let it go. Outrage should be reserved for stuff that warrants it. Good luck to you. I hope you can weather this storm and get back to your usual insightful commentary. Fortunately, the Twitterverse usually has a very short attention span, so I expect this will blow over pretty quickly.

  13. I think the problem here isn’t one of “context” or young people not understanding the joke (most people know the joke anyways), it’s one of you being (once again) tone deaf and inappropriate. I’m sure you’re a lovely man but you seem to have problems filtering your speech and understanding appropriate behavior and social cues that most people your age possess. Perhaps it is best to take some time away to reflect on your behavior rather than blaming your audience for “misunderstanding” the context of your completely inappropriate and unprofessional remark(s).

  14. Nancy Dowd said

    I will miss your voice until you return. And you will return my friend.

  15. I don’t really see what the big deal is. You made a joke, it fell flat and you apologized. People need to relax.

  16. Margaret said

    I consider myself a feminist. I also consider the “Jane, you ignorant slut” a funny bit from SNL. The whole point of the skit was that the Chevy Chase character was an idiot and he made stupid, ignorant remarks. The statement was not anti-women and, in the right context, it’s damn funny. The hysteria that followed your (Stephen’s) remark sounds out of proportion, ill-informed, and flat-out silly. I wish we saw this much indignation about real problems for women, e.g., wage inequality, glass ceilings, reproductive healthcare, affordable child care, etc. Want to get your panties in a real twist, contemplate this: Why does our female dominated profession hire and promote men more often and then pay them better than many of their female counterparts? Now that’s worth getting the Tweet-o-sphere chirping, not an ancient SNL reference that wasn’t funny (to you).

  17. Geoff Watt said

    I am not a librarian. I do not know Mr. Abrams, however, my late wife, Terry-Ann, was involved with the CLA for many years. She held high standards for professional conduct – and yet was able to laugh at herself when she made a faux pas. She would be incredibly disappointed at the immature actions of the CLA over this “tempest in a teapot”. Have young people nothing better to do than to rail against others in self-righteous indignation? Are there not other issues facing them and us would be better served by their attention. It amazes me that ignorant people utilizing social media can destroy people and principles so quickly. It strikes me that we have reached the age of Big Brother watching us – but it is not the government we need to fear, it is small minded people with cell phones.

  18. Not casting my vote one way or another but a long time ago on the interwebs I downloaded a s*load of wavs and the ‘jane’ quote was one of them and I have never known where it came from. So thank you for answering a long forgotten question in librarian style. And if nothing else youve given me pause for recycling humor in the future.

  19. sammy said

    So I am confused: what are you sorry for? That your audience didn’t understand your reference? That your hurt their feelings? That you put Jane in a “bad situation” – whatever that means? You are clearly upset with CLA and everyone who has attacked you on social media – but yet you do not give an actual apology for what caused all this to begin with.

  20. Sandra Burrows said

    While I might have referenced it as “to paraphrase from Saturday Night Live…” I would probably have roared with laughter and do not see what the big fuss is about …. although I can guess why.

    I was a huge SNL fan and would have found it hilarious (probably if her name had been Janet, Stephen could have said “dammit, Janet!” but maybe the culturally deprived will not get that either) and am rather appalled that so few librarians are culturally savvy enough to have “got it” but then the ones from that generation have all been “let go/retired”.
    Please take up the cause of pay equity–a cause that CLA famously dropped the ball on when it was in the courts! Make your protests count for something important re: money or professionalism and don’t continue with this petty infighting. Accept the apology as you can’t understand the reference and MOVE ON!

  21. Robin said

    Stephen, anyone who knows you would agree that you would never intentionally insult or disrespect a colleague in this manner. However, your apparent indignation at the reaction within the community betrays a surprising lack of awareness of the wider cultural conversation around sexual harassment and rape culture, and an insensitivity to the power imbalances in our profession that have historically cut quite clearly along gender lines. From my observation, high-profile male librarians can pretty much write their own ticket in this country, and that position of privilege demands a heightened level of sensitivity to systemic injustices in society and the profession. If your comments have served as a bit of a lightning rod, it may be a sign that it’s high time for an open and frank discussion on the issue.

  22. A different Kate said


    When is it OK to use sexist humor in a professional setting?

    Is your name Don Rickles?
    –> No.
    Do not use sexist humor in a professional setting.
    –> Yes.

    Is the current year 1962?
    –> No.
    Do not use sexist humor in a professional setting.
    –> Yes.

    Are you performing a standup routine at a summer resort in the Catskills?
    –> No.
    Do not use sexist humor in a professional setting.
    –> Yes.
    Recheck input.

  23. Manda said

    As someone who is kind of an expert at saying The Wrong Thing… I sympathize. Hang in there. It’ll blow over. People who threaten you are the same people who would want sympathy for themselves.

  24. An unfortunate misunderstanding, Stephen. Remember that there are far more people who support you than don’t (comments on this post seem indicative of that). I think the profession would be worse off without your insights, so I hope that this all blows over and you find a way to move forward with your positive contributions to the field.

  25. Had I been there I would have laughed, but I am an old chick and remember the skits well. I would not like to see you silence yourself over this event. In our current social climate we tend toward political correctness with such gusto that we stifle ourselves. Be well. Don’t stay away too long.

  26. Marie said

    You were the best speaker I’ve ever heard at a library conference. Engaging, entertaining, informational. I never cease to marvel at the amount of information that comes out of your blog posts. A true librarian. Keep on!!

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