too many of our profession’s big shots continue to show indifference or, worse, cover for philosophically talented peers about which there are plenty of “open secrets.”
What if (more) big shots spoke up? October 13, 2015
Philosopher Janet Stemwedel has written an excellent piece for Forbes on the Marcy sexual harassment case. She explores the interesting fact that the astronomy community seems more responsive to victims’ needs than his university is.
You might think a university would recognize itself as something like a community, and that it would prioritize protecting vulnerable individuals within the community (like students) from harm. Maybe a university’s institutional policies are even intended to protect students, but in their operation they seem not to work that way. In this case, a professor found to have violated a university policy is essentially told not to do it again — because if he does, maybe the university will suspend or fire him.
This doesn’t seem to do a lot to protect current and future students from the same kind of harm from the same professor.
The Politics of Sympathy October 12, 2015
“Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.”
That quote is from an email sent out by Geoff Marcy’s department head, in the wake of it being made public that he has been found responsible for sexual misconduct, and that Berkeley decided in lieu of sanctions, to sign an agreement with him about what would happen if he was found responsible again.
Sympathy is complicated. I’m not a moral psychologist, so I won’t pretend to be one — but I am a philosopher who thinks about the way social and political structures can influence our beliefs. And in view of tense and complicated conversations following several cases of issues of discrimination and violence related to members of our professional communities, I haven’t been able to help but think for awhile now about how, like credibility, distributions of sympathy are political.
This seems perfectly predictable, in a certain sense. We’re ready to lend a sympathetic shoulder to our friends. We tend to consider the interests of those in our own social circles more readily than those of others at a distance. Nonetheless, the experience of it can be unexpected. The first time I was ever told that a friend had been sexually assaulted by someone I knew, my reaction was — to me — utterly surprising. Though I knew the wrong-doer, he wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t someone I cared for. The only time I ever spent around him was not of my own choosing, but rather the begrudging result of our having multiple mutual friends. Yet, when I found out that he had assaulted my friend, I found myself absolutely weeping. First, for her – that wasn’t the surprising bit – but then, for him too.
I felt more deeply for him, suddenly, and unexpectedly, than I ever had before I knew what kind of wrong-doing he was capable of. That feeling, I think, was borne out (in part) of the recognition that even in the best of possible futures, there would be no undoing what he had done. If things went as well as they could, given what had already happened, he would recognize the wrongness of his actions, and seek to make what recompense there might be. And how painful would it be to live with that knowledge? How would you cope with knowing that you have irrevocably changed someone’s life by harming them so severely? I also think this was, in part, simply because I knew him.
To be clear, I blamed him. I was angry. I wanted him to be held responsible. At the same time, I felt deep lament and sympathy. My heart ached. I wished that it weren’t true. It didn’t take much reflection to understand a little better why we can be so recalcitrant and resistant in the face of claims to harm against our friends. If I could feel so much sympathy for someone who I didn’t even like, how would I feel had he been a friend? Family? What would I think, if I didn’t also know the victim, or the extent of the evidence? What if I were his department chair, and he were one of my department’s star researchers?
All of this is to say, I get it. I can understand how the pull of sympathy might disrupt our priorities in a harmful way. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Of course it’s fine — perhaps good hearted, even — to feel sympathetic to those among us who have acted wrongly. Sympathy for those who have acted wrongly need not necessarily conflict with an appropriate sense of justice (indeed, I think it can enrich it). But we do need to be careful about what follows. When we’re not so careful, victims can be harmed by the politics of sympathy in many ways. It isn’t news that those who attempt to come forward with allegations against the powerful, well-connected, or socially-established, often find that with friends so well-placed to offer protection and so ready to offer understanding to the perpetrator, evidence simply isn’t enough. Perpetrators may be easy to sympathize with for other reasons (like their gender, being central to a department’s research profile, their interests being closer to our own, their being well-meaning, or sincere). Victims are unjustly harmed when this translates into a resistance to the belief that a perpetrator could be guilty, or results in, once again, concern for victims’ well-being having been sacrificed for the sake of the one who harmed them as we consider the (real or imagined) difficulties that they face while setting the victims’ to the side.
All of this, of course, can be exacerbated by the fact that it’s just easier to look the other way in the first place. As Judith Herman writes, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
Sympathy can be valuable, but when readiness to feel it is tied up in our social relationships, it will also, inevitably, have a political element — and that’s something we need to be especially careful with in view of the possibility of mistaking our fellow-feeling for evidence of innocence, or when it signals that we prioritize justice and care for the perpetrator over justice and care for their victims.
It is precisely that prioritizing that is so offensive in the email quoted above. These women who came forward risked their reputations, professional prospects, being subject to public scrutiny, to seek redress for harms they never wanted to be subject to in the first place. The university responded, having found their allegations justified, by doing (roughly speaking) nothing. I am sure Geoff Marcy is having a difficult time right now, and it’s fine to recognize that. But let’s not add insult to injury for his victims.
Since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, every presidential campaign has included accusations that candidates use code words so they can appeal to antidemocratic sentiments without violating what the Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelburg has called a “norm of racial equality.” This strategy was made explicit as early as 1981, when the Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained in a radio interview that politicians, who by around 1968 could no longer use the word “nigger” to denigrate black people, turned to abstracting the issue by talking about “forced busing,” “states’ rights” and “cutting taxes.” Such terms, he said, are “totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Violations of this sort have surfaced as recently as 2012, when Mitt Romney faced criticism for the claim by his campaign in South Carolina that President Obama wanted to eliminate work requirements from welfare.
So far, the current presidential campaign has been different…
Sexual harassment as a con October 11, 2015
Really interesting post from an astronomer reflecting on the sexual harassment in his field. Here’s just a bit of it:
Something that people rarely think of as a con game is sexual harassment, but after listening to the lived experiences of women who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted, I feel the analogy is apt. Like a con artist, the sexual harasser usually knows their victim well and uses their authority or “friendship” to gain trust. With that trust, the harasser then works to gain access to something far more valuable than money. They gain access to the victim’s body, their sexuality, their most private selves. In addition to anger and frustration, the common theme in the stories I’ve heard is shame and guilt. These feelings are why sexual offenses are so infrequently reported.
However, what’s worse than the betrayal of trust is that even when sexual harassment/assault and rape are reported, victims are often met with disbelief, invalidation, shaming and inaction. In my case, if I had overcome my shame to report my con artist, I likely would have had the charge reimbursed and the company investigated. But I seriously doubt that the person on the other end of the phone at the consumer protection agency would have asked, “Are you sure you didn’t lead the con artist on?” or “Oh, I know him. He’d never con anyone!” or “You know what, we need to keep this quiet. I think the best approach is for me to have a private conversation with the con artist to clear things up.”
So there are similarities, but there are also huge differences between being conned and being sexually harassed or assaulted. But the analogy should help doubters who question the intent of the victims who are brave enough to speak out, or question why they didn’t report the crimes right away. At least it should. I’ve been a part of the astronomy community long enough to expect some very ugly behavior and words in the wake of what is soon to follow. Sexual harassers are protected by the silence of their victims, inaction from authorities, and also apologists in their community.
He also goes on to reflect on the way that people like him are kept silent. I really recommend reading it.
The Sunday cat wishes youtube included addresses! October 10, 2015
MANY THANKS to JB
What happens if someone is found responsible for multiple violations of a university’s harassment policies after multiple individuals allege they have “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping”? In one case, it turns out, basically nothing. Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at University of California Berkeley, was found to have violated Berkeley’s policies, and according to BuzzFeed: “As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given ‘clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,’ which he must follow or risk ‘sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.'”
David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, said the matter has broad implications.
“Geoff Marcy is undeniably the most prominent exoplanet researcher in the U.S.,” he said, referring to the study of planets beyond our solar system. “The stakes here couldn’t be higher. We are working so hard to have gender parity in this field, and when the most prominent person is a routine harasser, it threatens a major objective nationally.”
. . .“After all of this effort and trying to go through the proper channels, Berkeley has ultimately come up with no response,” said Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. (Schmelz was not a complainant in Berkeley’s investigation.) “I’ve seen sexual harassers get slaps on the wrist before. This isn’t even a slap on the wrist.”
Open Letter about Conservative Party Politics in Canada October 9, 2015
The Canadian Federal Election is coming up on October 19th, and the Conservative Party, under current PM Stephen Harper, has been using some extremely questionable tactics (to put it mildly), perhaps with the guidance of his new political consultant, Lynton Crosby. Crosby is an Australian political strategist who has worked for years for conservative parties there, as well as for David Cameron’s Tories. Regardless of the source of Conservative tactics, many of them have capitalized on divisive anti-immigrant sentiments.
Earlier this year, Bill C-24 came into effect, which many have criticized as creating a two-tiered citizenship system. Under this bill, it becomes possible to strip dual citizens and naturalized Canadians of citizenship if they are convicted of serious crimes in Canada or abroad. Canadians who become citizens under Bill C-24 can also lose citizenship if they fail to display sufficient intent to reside in Canada. However, the government’s interpretation of dual citizenship has proved itself to be extremely broad, given their revocation of Saad Gaya’s citizenship. Despite his having been born in Canada to parents who are Canadian citizens (having given up their Pakistani citizenship), none of whom have applied (or re-applied) for that citizenship, the onus is upon him to prove that he is not a Pakistani citizen.
A phrase used by Harper more recently, during the Globe and Mail debate in September, has also been seen as an instance of dog whistle politics. In discussing whether or not his government had taken health care away from immigrants and refugees, Harper said, “We do not offer them a better health plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive. That’s something new and existing and old stock Canadians agree with.” The phrase “old stock Canadian” was something for which he was quickly called out by the Liberal Party on Twitter. When asked to clarify later, Harper suggested that he was referring to Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations. (Though given the appalling treatment of indigenous people by the Canadian government, and Harper’s own dismissal of missing and murdered indigenous women, this clarification seems to make the whole thing even worse.)
There has also been a Conservative attempt to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that women are allowed to wear face coverings such as niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. This has been centred around the case of Zunera Ishaq, who successfully fought for the right to wear her niqab during her citizenship oath, just in time to vote in the upcoming election. But just on the heels of the Conservative loss in this case came a statement saying that the Conservatives would seek to establish an RCMP tip line for the reporting of “barbaric cultural practices.” The cultural practices in this case are acts such as child marriage and honour killings, which are already illegal under Canadian law. While this idea has gathered some satirical responses, it does have plenty of support in the Conservatives’ base.
As a response to the current tactics being used by the Harper government, an open letter drafted by four Canadian academics, but signed by almost six hundred more, was published in the Ottawa Citizen and has been picked up other mainstream news sources, such as the CBC.
NYT interview with David Haekwon Kim October 8, 2015
George Yancy – continuing his fascinating series – interviews David Haekwon Kim in the NY Times’ The Stone column. The whole interview is a great read – covering topics from the ‘model minority’ myth, the Euro-centrism of philosophy, and responses to racist abuse. Here’s one particularly interesting excerpt:
Transformative efforts face a complex legacy of insularity. For example, currently, there is an increasing presence of “East-West” comparative philosophy in the profession. Unfortunately, the wider picture, one including a “North-South” axis, reveals that non-Asian, non-Western philosophies, like those found under the headings of Africana philosophy, Native American philosophy, and Latin American philosophy, do not even make it onto the map in the Western profession of philosophy. I think it’s no coincidence that these exclusions are of philosophies of colonized peoples. And it should be pointed out that Asian peoples and philosophies, too, have been enmeshed in colonial conditions. A sign of significant progress would be the robust development of what we might call “East-South” philosophy. In fact, I propose that we operationalize this idea and build it into the infrastructure of the American Philosophical Association. This would not only indicate the admission of “South” philosophy into the profession, but also “South” philosophy’s engagement with “East” philosophy would imply a strong decentering of Western philosophy. Perhaps all this is to say that I long for the day when we let the world teach us about the world.