Read the story at What We’re Doing About What it’s Like.
Ruth Chang on sexual harassment in philosophy April 6, 2014
Wise words, from her interview here.
3:AM: Now turning to something completely different. What is your take on the spate of sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the profession recently? What, in your opinion, can be done to help make the profession less susceptible to bad behavior by male senior philosophers pursing relationships with female philosophy students?
RC: Well, I can’t believe that philosophers are worse than other academics, or people in general, although the distinctive, intense one-on-one discussions that mark training in philosophy probably makes our profession especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, misread signals and the like.
The two most prevalent ‘unsympathetic’ reactions to all the press about sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate behavior I’ve had – all from senior male philosophers, some of some fame – are both of apiece with what we do as philosophers and therefore not altogether surprising. But I find them pretty dispiriting.
The first is that we all have to remain neutral, that we can’t express even conditional moral disapprobation or sympathy for a party until we ourselves have the proof in hand and we can make our own judgment about the matter. Allied with this reaction is the intellectual reflex to think of all the counterarguments to any allegation or counter-interpretations to data with which we are presented. We are trained to be this way – to see the world in terms of arguments for and against a proposition, and to withhold judgment until all the arguments and data are in. This reaction is usually cloaked under cries of ‘due process!’.
Now I’m a lawyer, and I love due process probably more than most philosophers, but I really think that these attitudes and reactions are misplaced. The real world is one in which none of us is ever going to get all the evidence and data needed to make the kind of well-informed, dispassionate judgment about a case, and — crucially – people who tend to be on the receiving end of harm require the profession’s support rather than silence. So I think each of us has to make our own judgment, on the basis of whatever data we can be reasonably expected to get, including our understanding of how things typically roll in the world, and take a moral stand on cases of alleged sexual misconduct in the profession. It’s not that we have to blog about it or call up the victim, whomever we might believe him/her to be, but even casual remarks to colleagues in a department go a long way toward establishing a departmental culture or professional community where, eventually, people in that community have the sense: ‘We are a place that cares about the harm sexual harassment does to junior people in the profession and will take that junior person seriously’ or, to take just one possible alternative, ‘We are a place that cares more about the possible injustice done to an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment and will stand behind such a person until he is proven guilty’. Context really matters here. Given that sexual harassment is a very real and serious problem in the world, I would much rather be in the former culture than the latter. Of course, we can be wrong about any particular judgments we make. But that wouldn’t be the end of the world since most of us aren’t saddled with decision-making authority over the relevant parties. It’s time to stop pretending that we are university disciplinary committees and quit creating a passive ‘due process’ professional culture. Failure to build a welcoming, safe, and caring culture for the profession – one that reflects the realities of how the world usually rolls and thus errs on the side of supporting the alleged victim of sexual harassment – is, in my view, crucial to the health of the profession.
The second reaction I’ve had from senior male philosophers is that women undergraduates have all the power: with one little complaint they can ruin the career and reputation of a senior male philosopher who is guilty of nothing more than expressing romantic interest in her, and so the wisest thing a male philosopher can do is to steer clear of mentoring or working with any female student. The idea here is that if a senior male philosopher hasn’t got the judgment to know when his behavior is inappropriate, unwelcome, and the like, he’ll just punish all female students by taking his ball home and refusing to play with the girls. Louise Antony, in a NYT Opinionator piece, does a good job of skewering this view. I would add just one small point. At institutions where dating students is not prohibited, any senior person – graduate student or faculty member – obviously has the burden to make sure he’s not unwittingly exploiting the power imbalance between himself and a female student when he begins to pursue a romantic relationship with her. One way to check whether he’s doing that is for him to ask of every communication he has with the student, ‘Is this something I wouldn’t mind having videotaped/copied and shown to the university’s committee on sexual harassment?’ That might help pierce some self-deception.
I suppose that a silver lining in all the bad press philosophy has been receiving is that, like STEM researchers, philosophers might now be motivated to use the tools of their trade to figure out ways to make sexual harassment just unequivocally not okay within the profession. After the Larry Summers blowup, people in the STEM fields rolled up their sleeves and starting tackling the possibly related problem of the underrepresentation of women in those fields in the way they knew how – by collecting data, doing studies, and offering hypotheses based on rigorous analysis of that data. We philosophers are handicapped by not having the skills or resources — they have NSF funding — to collect data or to run proper studies about sexual harassment ourselves, but we can always try to do the same thing — to effect a shift in the culture of the profession — from our armchairs. I think that is already happening. But some people don’t like it and are being dragged along, kicking and screaming. So it’s a slow and painful process.
Silence, administrative processes, and harm April 4, 2014
Reflections on the Oxford harassment case. (The response by Paula Boddington, just below, is also well worth reading.)
On Apology March 31, 2014
From William Carlos Williams, “Apology,” 1916:
Why do I write today?
The beauty of
The terrible faces
Of our nonentities
Stirs me to it:
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are currently approximately 13 million women enrolled at degree-granting higher education institutions in the U.S. And according to the White House Council on Women and Girls’ January 2014 report, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while pursuing a higher degree. These two facts together mean that approximately 2.6 million women at college this year either have been or will be the victim of a sexual assault.
Most college victims are assaulted by someone they know, and campus perpetrators are often serial offenders. One study found that 7% of college men admitted to committing or attempting rape; 63% of these men admitted to committing an average of 5-6 offenses.
Although there are no hard statistics on the number of serial predators who are faculty members, anecdotal evidence suggests that this, too, is a significant problem. I have yet to work or study at a university where there was not a serial harasser or even a serial rapist on the faculty.
Conversations with colleagues in philosophy, in the wake of the revelation of sexual misconduct problems in the CU Boulder philosophy department, the case against a Northwestern philosophy faculty member, the recent dismissal of an Oxford philosopher in the wake of concerns about the university’s handling of an investigation, and other allegations of sexual misconduct in the Yale philosophy department—less than a year after a prominent philosopher at UMiami resigned in a much-publicized sexual misconduct case—have convinced me that the problem of faculty sexual misconduct in the hallowed halls of academia is far more widespread than even I imagined. In philosophy alone, I can name 33 faculty members who (still) hold tenured positions and who have been, at some point in their career, accused of sexual misconduct. I have also become convinced that in many cases both the offended and the offender are harmed, and often others in the university community, too—which means that the number of persons who are hurting is even greater than the number of instances of misconduct. We need to figure out how to collectively move beyond known conflicts and harms.
One of the steps in moving beyond is certainly to starting talking about the policy question, about how to best prevent and respond to instances of sexual misconduct. But to merely engage in policy debates without acknowledging the individual humans who have been harmed by the problem would be to do more harm. In order to reduce the pain of those who have suffered, we need to break the silence; reach out to those who have been harmed; stop the practice of covering up faculty offenses with non-disclosure agreements (unless explicitly requested by the victim); worry first about the victim or survivor and second about the reputation of the university or faculty; and acknowledge that our complicity and failure to act has caused significant harm to an untold number of students.
We need, in other words, to apologize.
But what does it mean to apologize for an offense that one hasn’t committed? How could an apology from someone other than the offender reduce the pain of those offended?
I offered some thoughts last fall, in an open letter to Katie Roiphe, about how asymmetries of power in certain kinds of relationships can affect our ability to give consent. What I didn’t emphasize at the time was the importance of respect for vulnerability – and of knowing how to achieve vulnerability. Apologies are important because they provide an opportunity for the relatively powerful to experience vulnerability, to comprehend one feature of the offense, and, through that comprehension, empower the offended. In other words, apologies can act as a channel for the redistribution of power, which is often a precondition for moving forward. As Aaron Lazare, former Dean and Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, explains in On Apology:
“what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself… In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive.” (Lazare 2004, 42)
Now, clearly, not all apologies will effectively redistribute power. And ineffective apologies have, for some reason, become a sort of phenomenon in the U.S. over the past few months.
What makes an apology effective? Here’s a first pass at a few criteria:
1. A performance of vulnerability:
An effective apology is often a performative speech act — an attempt to transform a social reality, rather than simply describe or ruefully acknowledge that reality. In the case of apologies for offenses that reflect an existing power asymmetry, to apologize in a way that reasserts that power is not transformative. In order for an apology to be effective, it must be a performance of vulnerability, not an extended expression of power.
So, for example, Madonna’s botched attempts to issue an apology for using a hashtag with a racial slur were unsuccessful because, even after dropping her attempts to defend the indefensible, the “apology” she offered was an expression of power, an assertion of her imagined role as an inspiration and bearer of messages of tolerance:
“MY job is to inspire and bring people together. My message has always been about tolerance and non-judgment. The last thing I want to do is bring chaos or cause separation in anyway. #revolutionoflove”
An effective apology in this case would have been a process of: acknowledging that a racial slur is an expression of intolerance; attempting to genuinely comprehend why outrage is an appropriate reaction, perhaps via dialogue with the offended or an effort to empathetically imagine the experience of those offended; and publicly admitting ignorance and explaining why the slur is offensive, with credit to those who helped her with the process of understanding. Given the complexities of the often intersectional nature of discrimination, harassment, and violence, dialogue and performative imagination is a particularly important aspect of our attempts to comprehend.
In the case of institutional, official apologies, a performance of vulnerability – as in, say, publicly admitting culpability despite concerns about the possible legal ramifications – is particularly important, given that the relationship is almost always asymmetrical. (And, for what it’s worth, our legal aversion to apology is probably worth questioning. Case law is rife with examples in which apology and remorse have resulted in the mitigation of damages and even punishment.)
2. Both public and private:
Apologies should be both public, provided that the apology is couched in a way that does not violate the privacy of the offended if the offended does not want the facts known, and private.
To issue an apology that is only public is like referring to someone who is in the room using the third person; it is to fail to understand that an apology, as a transaction of power and shame, must occur between the offender and offended. So, for example, in the case of Madonna’s apology above, a “real” apology would have been not just a public broadcast on her Instagram page, but also a personal apology addressed to each individual who expressed disgust in response to her use of a racial slur, and/or a letter of apology to associations representing the offended group.
To issue an apology that is only private, on the other hand, is like issuing a promissory note without any intent to pay. Transactions should have a public or verifiable element in order be a legitimate, enduring, and trustworthy exchange.
3. Affirmation of a shared norm:
An apology should be an affirmation of a norm that the apologizer believes to be appropriate and binding. In order to serve as a basis for reconciliation, it cannot be a mere acknowledgement of a difference in belief or values, with a request for forgiveness based on a provisional acceptance of the difference. To respond to an offense by saying, “I think the restrictions that are being imposed on me are Puritanical, but I understand that my actions have been perceived as offensive and therefore apologize,” is to acknowledge that a transgression has taken place—but in a manner that places the onus for the judgment of unacceptability on an unshared belief or value endorsed by the offended, rather than on a shared belief or value. It therefore blocks reconciliation by calling attention to differences, rather than by recalling and reaffirming the legitimacy of communal codes of behavior or values that have been violated in the offense.
Similarly, the language of the apology must name and describe the offense in the way that the offended understands it—in terms that acknowledge that it is in fact an offense and demonstrate that the offender has acquired some level of comprehension of the underlying issues. Attempting to apologize for “non-consensual sex” with a “freshman” is unlikely to be effective, when what happened was the rape of a first-year student.
Restitution is the act of restoring to the rightful owner something that has been taken, lost, or surrendered. Reparation is the act of repairing or making amends for a wrong.
If we use case law as a model, then it is reasonable to think that whether restitution and/or reparation are a required in order for an apology to serve as grounds for reconciliation depends on the degree of the harm experienced by the offended. (Note that I said the degree of the harm experienced, not the degree of the harm inflicted. This is a subjective measure, not an objective measure of the harm, as substantiated by evidence such as the testimony of counselors and other experts, the victim’s narrative as relayed via correspondence at the time of the offense, etc.)
It may also depend on whether the offense takes place in an environment of systemic inequity or power imbalance. When an offense results in the loss of a job, opportunity, or other tangible benefit, an apology, arguably, must be more than words. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks in God Has a Dream:
“If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil. Confession, forgiveness, and reparation, wherever feasible, form part of a continuum.” (Tutu 2004, 57)
Many believe that when an offense is an example of the kinds of actions that perpetuate a deeply entrenched or systemic form of injustice, an apology that aims to reconcile must include both a commitment to both restitution in the form of working to try to restore the particular loss(es) of the offended, and reparation in the form of a commitment to trying to address the broader problem of the systemic injustice(s).
5. Empathy and affect:
Some victims point to an affective element that must be present for an apology to be a “real” or effective. The offer must be a non-binding and genuine offer to reconcile; the offender must genuinely mean to make an offer, both in the sense that s/he is visibly affected in a personal but non-self-indulgent sense, and in the sense that the offer should be made in a way that permits the offended to gracefully decline. As Elizabeth Spelman explains in Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, for a victim who does not want reconciliation, an apology can be problematic if it is not presented in a manner that provides the offended an opportunity to reject it without further harm:
“My apology is a kind of subpoena, pressing you for an appearance, a response. Given what I have declared, and declared openly, about my deeds and my attitude toward them, shouldn’t you be pleased? Shouldn’t you give up any anger and resentment you have? Don’t you at least owe me some kind of response?… You have lost the moral high ground your anger might have afforded you. But more, it shifts the burden now to you.” (Spelman 2002, 99)
(Thanks to Alice MacLachlan for this insight.)
The affective component of the offer, in order to be sincere, also should not be excessively beseeching—as was the case, for example, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s early January 2014 press conference, in which he apologized more than two dozen times for the George Washington Bridge incident.
Perhaps even more important than the affect is empathy. As one survivor of an instance of sexual misconduct in philosophy said to me last fall, “I don’t want him [the offender] to suffer; there’s already been enough of that. I just wish I could somehow make him see what I’ve been through.” To see or feel what a victim has been through requires an empathetic and vivid re-imagining of both the offense and the context of offense from the point of view of the offended.
Sounds like a pretty complex set of criteria, no?
Complex, but not impossible. Perhaps the best example of a strong apology, one that meets many of these criteria, is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which contains explicit and appropriate apologies, avoids any attempt to defend or explain the offense, focuses on healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors, provides a means of accountability for the future, acknowledges the need for restitution, and offers explicit direction in disciplining offenders.
We are at a watershed moment, with the recent passage of the Campus SaVE Act, which was slated to go into effect on March 7, a lawsuit filed on March 2 by a University of Virginia rape victim to try to block the implementation of Campus SaVE, the January 22 U.S. Presidential Memorandum to create the new White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and the January 29 letter from 39 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Office of Civil Rights, calling for, among other things, the creation of a public database of complaint resolutions.
While Washington continues to debate the policies, I challenge the faculty and leaders of higher education follow the model of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter. Specifically:
I challenge the leaders of higher education to organize a Higher Education Leadership Council to draw up a specific apology and a set of commitments that go beyond the bare minimum required by laws such as Title IX and VAWA/Campus SaVE.
I challenge members of the Council and individual campus administrators and faculty leaders to agree not to enter into settlements which bind the parties to confidentiality unless the victim/survivor requests confidentiality and this request is noted in the text of the agreement.
I challenge members of the Council and individual universities to promote reconciliation for alumni and former students by permitting victims from the past to step forward to report previously unreported problems, particularly problems caused by faculty members who may still be teaching.
I challenge members of the Council and individual universities to agree to adopt policies which provide that for even a single act of sexual assault which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accordance with university policies or relevant law, the member of the community is to be permanently removed from any position in which s/he is in contact with the victim and other potential victims, and, if warranted, dismissed from the university.
I challenge members the Council to commit to improving inter-university transparency and communication, so that a known perpetrator with a problem that has not been resolved through therapeutic professional assistance is not able to simply move from one university to another.
I challenge individual faculty to learn about—and question—individual campus policies and procedures, to seek knowledge about how best to respond if a victim or survivor does come forward, and to make ourselves available to students in a way that
I challenge the members of the Council—and all members of the community of higher education—to make our own the words of Vice President Biden when he drafted the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act: “…violence against women reflects as much a failure of our nation’s collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation’s laws and regulations. We are helpless to change the course of this violence unless, and until, we achieve a national consensus that it deserves our profound public outrage.”
The Extreme Badness of Silence March 25, 2014
Note: One of the survivors quoted in what follows requested that I remove the “trigger warning” that was originally at the beginning of this article, arguing that it contradicts the message that we shouldn’t be afraid of sharing trauma narratives. Her point that there is a certain tension is a perceptive one. We’re not ashamed, and part of the purpose of this piece is to encourage transparency — but we also feel, given the intensity of the responses to sexual misconduct in philosophy over the past couple of months, that readers should know that what follows could be triggering.
This is a difficult post to write – and probably an even more difficult one to read.
I’m writing it because I have had a number of conversations in the past month that have led me to believe that there are more than a few philosophers who have no clue just how damaging even mild forms of sexual misconduct can be – or, for that matter, how the extreme badness of silence and silencing techniques can compound the problem, for both the survivor and for others in the community.
And, after talking to some 15-20 survivors of faculty-student sexual misconduct – mostly in philosophy – I am beginning to think that the problematic nature of faculty-student relationships is not “merely” that the power asymmetry (or perception of a power asymmetry) precludes bona fide consent. Although consent is important, the issues go far beyond consent.
The role of a faculty mentor or adviser, particularly at the graduate school level, is not just that of an authority figure. Dissertation students are often described as the progeny of their Doktorvater or Doktormutter, and there are academic genealogies in philosophy and mathematics and many other fields which track the relationships between academic “parents” and their “children.”
In other words, it is reasonable to think that, regardless of whether or not the full doctrine of in loco parentis applies, faculty have fiduciary duties to their students.
Obviously the experience of every student is different – and I don’t want to presume that all students perceive faculty as academic parents (indeed, I’d encourage students not to harbor this perception) – but I want to give a rough sense of how the perception of a fiduciary relationship, and the corresponding silence of the “family,” can make the impact of sexual misconduct more severe.
I’ll start with my own first-hand account. As a grad student at MIT oh-so-many-years-ago, I thought of my adviser as a sort of academic father figure, a mentor who viewed me as his academic offspring and cared about my intellectual growth and development in much the same way a father would. And so when he suddenly started touching me and behaving in a non-fatherly manner, it was both unthinkable and profoundly disturbing. I felt betrayed, disillusioned, afraid, isolated, damaged, guilty, defiled, and, above all else, angry at the “family” who protected him by turning a silent back to me, confirming my belief that to report the problem would be to commit academic suicide. “Being accepted into a graduate program is like being born into a family,” a senior member of the department told me when I asked for his support in transferring to another program, “you don’t just transfer out.”
I am not alone in this response. Many of the emotions that I muddled my way through in my decade-long hiatus from philosophy have been echoed in the reports of all the courageous women I’ve talked to this year. Here are just a few of the responses they have described:
“I was walking across campus yesterday, and I saw someone who looked like him from the back, and, even though I knew it *couldn’t* be him – he’s not at this university – I couldn’t overcome my anxiety, and turned around and walked in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t go to APA meetings, because I’m afraid that I might run into him and have to deal with the mind games that he plays. I don’t want to be manipulated and mind-f*ed again.”
“I’m afraid of going to graduate school because I’m afraid of taking classes with men. I’m afraid that they’ll become someone else. I’m afraid of being alone in a classroom with a professor. I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to overcome these fears.”
“It took me three years to be able to go back to the closet where he cornered me, and when I did, I felt nauseous.”
“He told me not to say anything to anyone else, because they’d be ‘jealous’ of the ‘special privilege’ of being his girlfriend. He told me I was lucky. I didn’t feel lucky – I just felt alone, and confused, like an alien who didn’t belong. I couldn’t talk then, and I can’t talk now because I’m afraid of retaliation.”
“I signed a non-disclosure agreement with the university which means I’m not supposed to say anything to anyone. It was stupid, I know, but I thought signing it would put the whole thing behind me. It didn’t. I still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And now I can’t talk to anyone about it.
“I want to talk about it, but I can’t. I feel like there’s something wrong with me, and I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t want everyone to read one of my papers and think, ‘oh, this is the woman who was f*ed by that guy.’”
“I tried to tell my adviser, and he told me that it would be best not to report, because there are too many powerful philosophers who are known harassers. Obviously he’s right; there’s [that philosopher] at [that top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university]. They’ve all done things to women who won’t report, because they’re too scared to report too. I understand this – but why can’t I at least talk about what happened? I feel like I’m dirty, and everyone looks away when I try to mention it.”
“He was a mentor, like a father – he is old enough to be my father – and then he got drunk and tried to kiss me. I went to the bathroom and vomited. I felt betrayal, then loss – I had lost an adviser and a mentor and couldn’t ever trust him again – and later immense sadness and grief.”
“I always thought of professors as the pinnacle of integrity and respectability. Mine were the opposite of this. I’m not sure whether to be angry at them, or angry at the culture that misled me.”
“The fact that he is a creepy — a blatant misogynist who touches every woman he can get his hands on — makes me angry. But the thing that really makes me see red is the fact that no one else in the department cares enough to say something. They’re too busy covering their own sorry asses to speak up. I went back for a colloquium and it was like Thanksgiving with a dysfunctional family. Everybody knows that Uncle Harry is a pervert, but, hey, cheers to him, he’s a good philosopher and we’ve known each other for fucking decades and that’s the only thing that counts.”
“He exploited the fact that I was vulnerable. He would help, and then coerce me into doing something I didn’t want to do, calling it ‘love’ and reminding me of how much he cared for me and had helped me. But I never felt like I had control. I couldn’t say ‘no’ because he would have responded with rage and revenge. He would have ruined my career.”
“I began to hate myself for not telling anyone, for projecting a sunny image when everything was not okay. I would have loved to tell him how much I hated it when he touched me, hated his laugh, hated his disgusting ratty beard, but I was too scared about what he would do to my reputation if I tried to report.”
“I told my adviser what happened. He told me it would be best to keep it a secret, to just forget it and not tell anyone until I am 60 years old and writing a retrospective on my career. But I feel like I’m living a lie. How can I ignore and stay silent on something that changed my very conception of self?”
“I figured it must have been my fault. I must have done something – or failed to do something, I don’t know. I just didn’t see it coming. I felt like everyone must have been guessing what had happened, even though I refused his advances, and that they must just be assuming I’m another one of his conquests. I can’t even look other philosophers in the eye.”
“I still feel cut off and detached from sexuality sometimes, like I don’t want to be touched—or at least don’t want to be touched unless it is absolutely under my control. For a long time it was the opposite, and the only pleasure I could feel was if I didn’t have any control, if I just lay absolutely still with my arms at my sides.”
“I feel on the outside of philosophy, like I don’t fit in or belong. I guess that’s my fault, because I’m just too angry, still. I have trust issues – sometimes I trust people I shouldn’t, and sometimes I don’t trust people I should. But mostly I just feel different.”
“I should have submitted pieces of my dissertation to journals years ago, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. I might submit some of my pieces related to feminist philosophy and activism, but I don’t want to share the work I really care about with other philosophers because it’s none of their business and I don’t owe philosophy anything.”
“I’m not sure who I am any more. Before he assaulted me, my world was predictable, sane, regular. Now I just feel shattered, fragmented, completely at the mercy of things I can’t control. I have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Confusion and hatred:
“I told him I never wanted to see him again, and he agreed not to contact me. Everything was okay for a year. But then I started having flashbacks and anxiety and got really angry that he was completely ignoring me, as if he didn’t care. I emailed him and then hated myself for being so insecure as soon as I sent the message.”
“He was so angry when I refused to take his classes after it happened. I was afraid, and I think I even felt, you know, guilty. So I tried to placate him by telling him what he wanted to hear, which was that I had feelings for him, which I didn’t. I hate myself for doing that.”
“I know this is irrational, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that if I’m not sexually attractive, I’m not a good philosopher. And, you’re going to think this is weird, but I flirt with other philosophers, and at the same time I hate them and still don’t trust men in general. I sort of feel like they won’t ever be interested in my philosophy, just my body, so if I can keep them interested but also keep them at bay, I might be able to get them to listen to my philosophy. I know that’s wrong, but I can’t make myself believe otherwise.”
“It was consensual, but I didn’t have any choice – he has too much power in the discipline – and at points I have hated him so much for taking advantage of the power asymmetry that I have plotted revenge against him.”
“I feel so alone. I tried to commit suicide last fall. I can send you photos, but they’re sort of gross. The scar on one wrist is in the shape of a IX.”
“I can’t read the blogs or Facebook any more. Most days I just cry.”
“I have a really hard time concentrating on anything right now. I can’t believe a friend wrote that on her Facebook page – I thought she understood.”
“My world is closing in.”
One of the most alarming things about these responses is that they come from women who were, almost without exception, mentally well-adjusted prior to the incident(s), and have no history of sexual abuse or sexual assault.
So, how do we support survivors who are experiencing one or more of these feelings?
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to give a survivor permission to talk, to think and feel at the same time, to explore the meanings and connections between thoughts and feelings, to regain a sense of control.
While professional support is important, it is also equally important that the proverbial “family” – other faculty and grad students – not shun or silence the survivor by discouraging sharing. Yes, it is important to support the survivor by acknowledging his or her philosophical thoughts and contributions, to help achieve a sense of normalcy by discussing philosophy instead of the issue – but it is also equally important to repeatedly indicate that you care and are available. There is nothing wrong with being a survivor, and survivors need to know that. Many survivors also need to be able to share their trauma narratives with members of the philosophy “family” – which in turn means we need to overcome either an inability to empathize, or, worse yet, a fear of empathizing with that which forces us to acknowledge how very precarious our own fate is. As Susan Brison points out:
“As a society, we live with the unbearable by pressuring those who have been traumatized to forget and by rejecting the testimonies of those who are forced by fate to remember. As individuals and as cultures, we impose arbitrary term limits on memory and on recovery from trauma: a century, say, for slavery, fifty years, perhaps, for the Holocaust, a decade or two for Vietnam, several months for mass rape or serial murder… In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes that ‘The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Whether the power is a fascist state or an internalized trauma, surviving the present requires the courage to confront the past, reexamine it, retell it, and thereby remaster its traumatic aspects… to the extent that bearing witness reestablishes the survivor’s identity, the empathetic other is essential to the continuation of a self.” (Aftermath, 57-9)
Another equally important thing we all need to do is to stop ostriching, to pull our heads out of the proverbial mud, and act. I’m no psychologist, but it’s pretty clear to me that the survivors I’ve spoken to are suffering. It’s also pretty clear to me that many of them blame university administrators for failing to impose appropriate sanctions, and the colleagues of their perpetrators for failure to recognize and respond to the problem. And, if I’m correct in thinking that the effect of a faculty member violating his or her fiduciary duties by making sexual advances is tantamount to that of, say, a parent making sexual advances on an adult child, then to maintain silence about a “known problem” is to be complicit in a behavior whose effects are similar (though of course not identical) to those of sexual abuse. The survivors need our collective support and counseling – as do the perpetrators.
Yet another thing I’ve learned in the past year is that higher education is a very large “family,” and that, although there are some dysfunctional members, there are also many of us who understand the extreme badness of silence – who are committed to ending the cycle of sexual abuse, to getting treatment for those members of the family who commit incomprehensible acts and preventing them from having contact with students and other vulnerable members of the community, in order to prevent further damage.
Please, if you are aware of a problem, don’t ignore it.
We need to make room for breaking the silence March 10, 2014
These last few weeks have been difficult for us as a community—and rightly so—but despite all that’s come to light, still, so much remains hidden. Here, at Feminist Philosophers, we have been talking a bit about the pain of silence recently. I think if we are to come out of this stronger as a community, if we’re going to be able to move forward at all, we need to make room for people to not be silent. Sometimes it seems as though we are caught in a web of interlocking prisoners’ dilemmas: Conversations about harassment, discrimination, and assault are difficult and they are often politically risky. In the short run, if we have the luxury, it can seem easier to simply avoid them. But collectively we have the power to make them less risky. We can create a culture in which victims are supported well enough to come forward and active bystanders are cultivated. We can do this by offering our solidarity with those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and would otherwise be ignored; by treating our colleagues with respect even when we disagree with them; by acting with compassion and understanding; by speaking and acting ourselves where possible.
To that end, I must acknowledge what happened here last week, and say that I am thankful for the courageous and peaceful activism of the Northwestern students, for the intervention of Rachel McKinnon (and others) in a comment thread here, and to all of those who are working to make our discipline more inclusive and welcoming.
UPDATE: I also want to acknowledge that our comments policy was violated in a number of ways–and that I am not thankful for. Our ‘Be Nice’ rule is not here simply for the sake of our friends; rather, it’s here so that everyone can participate in healthy and fruitful discussion. It’s important to note these violations even in cases where I’m very glad that something was said. I have also removed the links above.
Now Oxford February 27, 2014
An Oxford student has committed suicide. Among other things, she had secured a harassment order from the police for stalking by a philosophy lecturer.
A few thoughts on avoiding avoidance February 26, 2014
“Ostriches. All of them.”
This was the explanation offered by an irritated colleague at another university last week, after complaining bitterly about collective departmental avoidance in response to the offenses of a male philosopher whose office is across the hall from his.
I have had more than one ostrich-like urge to bury my head in the past few weeks. And I think I’ve even succumbed to a few such urges. (Who wouldn’t rather go out for a run, or read that tempting new book on quantum gravity, instead of thinking about the problem of sexual misconduct in philosophy?)
So I get it. I understand why the philosopher’s colleagues are practicing the art of avoidance.
But I’ve also been irked by ostrich-y behavior, and have mentored others who have been deeply wounded by silence—so I understand and share the philosopher’s irritation, and am renewing my efforts to avoid avoidance.
For those who are looking for tips on how to de-ostrichify a department, the recent post on Philosophical Spaces is a good place to start. I invite anyone who has additional thoughts on how to cope with a departmental culture of avoidance to comment here.
What I want to focus on in this post, though, is not how to de-ostrichify, but rather a question that I have found myself returning to as the problem of sexual misconduct in philosophy starts to become more public:
What is it like to be the person in that office across the hall, whose behavior has prompted the rest of the department to run to the nearest sandbank? What is it like to be a philosopher quietly wondering if your own past or present offenses will be revealed?
It must, I think, be a lonely place to be.
A remark on Facebook a couple of days ago claiming that philosophers are suddenly refraining from comments and likes on Peter Ludlow’s posts prompted me to go out to his page, out of curiosity, to see if it was true. It does seem to be the case. But then I reflected on the fact that the same is true of my own Facebook page. Like Ludlow, I’m a political hot potato. In the wake of choosing to post openly under my real name about sexual misconduct problems in philosophy, friends in philosophy are suddenly refraining from likes and supportive comments in public arenas. Privately, though, they’re eager to connect; I have received almost two hundred private emails and messages of support. As, no doubt, has Ludlow.
So perhaps “lonely” isn’t quite the right word.
I’m not drawing a parallel between Ludlow’s recent online experiences and my own because there’s any connection between Ludlow and myself. There’s not, of course. What I’m trying to do is to use the example to show that we philosophers are oddly social and political animals, despite all the accusations of ineptitude. And right now many if not most philosophers are behaving like ostriches because it seems like the socially acceptable and politically prudent thing to do. That doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
About four months ago I had a long and difficult conversation with a philosopher who was accused of egregious sexual misconduct, and perceives himself as an offender. He has not come forward about what happened—to his colleagues, or even to many members of his immediate family—and the news about public instances of misconduct in philosophy has affected him, as an offender, just as profoundly as it has affected me, as a survivor and mentor to victims and survivors.
I have also had conversations with two other philosophers in the past month who have admitted to both engaging in sexual misconduct—and to feeling ashamed about it.
I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes. But I can report what they’ve told me. In no particular order, here’s what I heard:
- They want to reconcile. The three philosophers I spoke with (all male) are apologetic, but have no idea how to express the apology. Two of the three are consumed with guilt, and with trying to understand things from a victim’s point of view. One has read every single entry on the “What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?” site… more than once.
- They’re afraid. Some of their fears are the obvious ones: fear of disgrace or public humiliation, fear of hurting family members, fear of losing a position or an opportunity, fear of being ostracized. Some of the fears are non-obvious: fear of being misunderstood, fear of their philosophical work being read differently or being analyzed for signs of psychoses they don’t feel they have, fear of the emotional response that public disclosure might release within them.
- They feel isolated. Talking about your recent or past sexual misconduct isn’t exactly the kind of thing you can casually chat about in the department seminar room.
- They’re introspective. One of the three I spoke with talked about a lifelong fear of being perceived as un-masculine, which he attributes to being bullied by male peers when he was younger. Another talked about about the challenges of a strict Catholic upbringing. The third described a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive father.
In all three cases, it was extremely clear that the offenders are suffering, too. And while the mere fact that they’re suffering doesn’t excuse egregious behavior, it does seem good reason to overcome our social insecurities and talk to the offender about the problem. Yes, we need to be thinking about victims—but one way to help victims is to deal with the problem and find ways to promote dialogue and, where appropriate, reconciliation.
In other words: avoid the ostrich behavior.
Petition to Northwestern Regarding Handling of Title IX Complaints February 24, 2014
is here. Its originators are actively seeking signatories from outside Northwestern University. (Thanks, S!)
Do universities overreact to sexual harassment claims? February 23, 2014
The popular perception that they do remains, despite regular debunking. (See here for one example of such debunking.) But now the philosophical world has before it a case in which a university actually made a ruling that:
Ludlow drank with the underage student in Chicago in February 2012, and “engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” by rubbing her back and kissing her.
Northwestern found that the student had been drunk and woke up the next morning in Ludlow’s bed with the professor’s arms wrapped around her.
That’s pretty serious stuff– the kissing was, according to the finding, unwelcome. And, according to the finding, she then woke up in his bed with his arms around her. This isn’t an inappropriate comment, or possibly-accidental touch. Nor is it, according to the finding, mutually-entered-into but worrying due to the power dynamics. Unwelcome kissing is serious, and waking up in bed with someone after unwelcome kissing is also serious. (It’s also not a case where the student alleged unwelcome kissing and the university did not make a finding of unwelcome kissing. The university takes this to have happened.)
So what did the university do after it decided this rather serious behaviour had occurred?
Besides freezing his pay for one year and revoking [an] endowed position, court records show the university told Ludlow to avoid one-on-one social contact with undergraduates, directed him not to have romantic relationships with “any Northwestern student in the future,” told him not to give alcohol to underage students and required him to complete an individualized “sensitivity/harassment-prevention training” program.
It’s really pretty hard to imagine a milder punishment.
This is, of course, just one example to count against the myth of overreacting to sexual harassment claims. But it’s a vivid one.