No comment

The ACL Executive Committee recently released a short statement against Russia’s invasion of The Ukraine that condemned the war and severed financial ties with “Russia-based” organizations. The statement is fairly uncontroversial in terms of its content. But it elicited a response from Zeerak Talat and Ryan Cotterell, who pointed out the inconsistencies in the ACL releasing a statement now, on this issue, and never before, on many other issues. They condemn this as “selective outrage”, and then go on to recommend the ACL construct a policy determining when it will make such statements in the future.

I have nothing but warm feelings for the people involved in the statement and the response; however, I think there are deep problems with both of them. In terms of content, the condemnation of the war is not likely to find any disagreement in our community, and I find that part of it unobjectionable.1 But the response is correct to observe the ACL’s inconsistency and bias in making such statements. Unfortunately, it misdiagnoses the problem, and prescribes a solution that will only exacerbate it. When consulting any doctor (even fake ones, like us), it’s good practice to get a second opinion. I argue here for a different diagnosis and prescription.

The response suggests that the statement reflects bias on the part of the ACL Exec. Rejecting the idea that this is a change in “its long-held informal policy of [not] making statements on political developments”, it instead suggests that the statement “[reflects] the value that white victims are more deserving of a statement than Black and Brown ones”. Although the authors took care to couch this in structural (as opposed to personal) terms, I can’t help but read this as a charged accusation more likely to bring heat than light. After all, the committee contains people from many different backgrounds and nationalities. In fact, the statement is best understood as a change in informal policy. It can be situated as part of an unfortunate trend over the past few years for people in leadership positions (at least in the US) to broadcast paternal reassurance to their communities in response to world events. It seems that many leaders increasingly seem to feel a growing responsibility to address some events in such ways. Why this is happening is a topic for another day.

What, then, is wrong with the statement? Its chief harm is not its selective outrage, but its presumptuousness. The ACL Exec has no grounds to issue political statements of any kind on behalf of its membership. As defined in its constitution, the delineated purposes of the association are the promotion of research, cooperation within the field, and to represent the field to outsiders. The members who have voted them into office have done so on their ability to execute these purposes; we have not authorized them to do anything further. The ACL Exec does not have standing to issue comments on anything outside these narrow purposes, and should have the discipline to resist calls to do so.

Furthermore, attempts to do so run the risk of undermining these purposes. We are bound together as a community by our common interest in computational linguistics and natural language processing; any executive statement outside these interests, whether on the day’s political issue or the Baconian question, can only fracture this unity. This does not mean the Exec cannot comment on any contentious issue, but such comments should (a) be immediately relevant to our field, and (b) reflect diverse input from the membership.

Their diagnosis leads Talat and Cotterell to prescribe the following treatment:

The concrete recommendation of this post is for the ACL to adopt a policy and a procedure for determining which crises warrant the condemnation of the ACL as well as what sanctions are on the table.

It follows from what I wrote above that I think this is a bad idea. There is no need to develop a policy. What text could possibly anticipate the deep sorrows of tomorrow’s world? Even if the the ACL Exec had jurisdiction to condemn general crises or issue sanctions, it is far simpler for it to continue with its apolitical stance, and far better for its members to seek consolation from more appropriate venues.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the precedent set by such statements only inflames the demand for them. The response presents a litany of situations that the ACL could have commented on, but didn’t; I am sure the reader could add to it. There is no way for a global organization to choose issues worthy of comment in an equitable way. Which is why it’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to.

The core problem is that the Exec has exceeded its authority. Attempting to fix “selective outrage” with more statements will only lead to a more complete outrage. Complete outrage may be preferable to selective outrage, but it is even better to have neither. The official response from the ACL Exec to any worldwide crisis outside the narrow scope of its mission should be silence. Or, if it must say something, it can respond, “No comment”.

  1. Edited to clarify that condemning the war is unobjectionable; the severing of ties with Russia-based organizations is a separate matter.