Nov 14, 2002

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Battling with the colleagial disease

From the academic conference to the legislature or the boardroom we have colleagues, or we have nobody at all. Colleague has replaced the old names we had for those we work with daily.
By Tom Koch

Nobody has friends anymore, at least not friends they refer to as such.

We don't speak of our associates with affection or respect these days. In fact, we don't speak of associates at all. We're done with co-workers, too. They're out. It is déclassé to refer to co-workers these days. It is like admitting you earn an hourly wage.

From the academic conference to the legislature or the boardroom we have colleagues, or we have nobody at all.

Like a virulent new species that spreads first slowly and then rapidly, explosively wiping out competitors in the ecosystem, colleague has replaced the old names we had for those we work with on a daily basis.

At first blush the change didn't seem pernicious, simply pretentious. After all, a colleague is an associate, a fellow member of a profession, staff, or faculty. The word comes from the Latin collega, one chosen to serve with another. So where's the harm in having a colleague rather than a friend, co-worker, or office-mate?

There is in colleague a sense of the chosen, of the elite congregation that is absent in the older words that simply referred to someone in the office place, someone whose desk abutted yours. In the word is a whiff of the academy and the weight it once received in the public at large. To say “I need to discuss it with my colleagues,” suggests weighty deliberations. To say “I have to run this by the folks at the office,” is to make the consultation trivial.

Colleague implies a knowing that reduces us to formal positions, to ciphers for the job. It denies we are individuals whose responsibilities and actions must be singularly accountable. When a politician says - as they now do frequently - “I must take this to my colleagues,” they're really saying, “I won't take a stand but I'll let my co-workers figure out the spin.”

My physician - a very fine one - now works in a group practice, a clinic. He speaks to me glowingly of his colleagues, their care and concern and the expertise of the treatment they render. By using the word he can conveniently forget that one of those colleagues nearly killed me through bad medicine and indifference. Another's treatment was so inadequate my physician - who had sent me to the other when he partly retired - agreed to personally take up my treatment again.

We expect this of physicians, of course. They are famous, and infamous, for refusing to speak ill of their brethren. In part it is because they know the difficulties of diagnosis and the complexity of treating difficult cases. And, in part, it is because they are socialized to a view of they and we in a way that makes colleague appropriate. They are members of a profession and share a professional view, after all, the hoary essence of the word.

The word reminds my doctor, and others, of the primacy of a professional association irrespective of individual judgment.

That is what has made the word so popular these days. It masks individual accountability under the guise of professional collegiality, and competence.

In the summer of 2001 I was at a conference on law attended by a professor from Vancouver. A post-modernist, he chose as his text the sorry treatment of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside sex-workers, the women then listed officially as simply missing. This was before an arrest was made in the case but not before concerns over the womens' disappearance had surfaced.

Police, he said, didn't forcefully investigate the case because they did not care about the status of poor sex workers in the region. He used the whole as a riff on the law and its inadequacies.

Afterwards I went up and asked him where he got his data. As a onetime police reporter I was aware of the thousands of hours police had put into the case. I was aware, too, of the extraordinary difficulty of solving serial murders. One like this, where no bodies had been recovered, is extraordinary, unusual, almost unprecedented.

“So where do you get your facts?” I asked.

They came, he said, from a colleague. Of course.

A prestigious paper based on his presentation is soon to be published. My guess is he won't site a colleague or, “someone I met at an office party,” as his source. He'll have filled in official looking citations after-the-fact.

The interesting question, at this remove, is why I didn't challenge him publicly. Why didn't I stand up and say he was arguing a case for which the facts were not then in evidence?

Alas, the answer is I'm not immune to the collegial disease myself, or at least to a knowledge of what it means to break ranks within the academy. I went to him privately rather than publicly because to do otherwise would have been to publicly break ranks in the face of our mutual colleagues and that, in the worlds where the word is used, is far less forgivable than making a case based on an office worker's bias.

I'm appointed at both UBC and SFU and to have treated him as an acquaintance, or a co-worker who had erred, would have reflected not on him, irrespective of the correctness of the criticism, but on me.

And that is what makes the word choice so important, and so pernicious. It carries with it a responsibility to protect colleagues where one might not have felt obliged to shield an office-mate or acquaintance. Calling someone a colleague assures we will not step up or speak up when someone else is wrong.

Since that conference, I've been sensitive to the word as a code for obfuscation, irrelevance, and falsification. I translate it now as meaning, “I won't speak up,” and “I won't take responsibility.” What's chosen with its use is obedience and professionalism where what is needed is critical responsibility.

Will the word quickly go away? Alas, no. It's too convenient by far.

Tom Koch is adjunct professor of gerontology and a forum associate at the David Lam centre for international communicaton. his web page can be found at

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