Aiming for the Good in Bad Company

Dear Professor Manners,

It’s become clear to me through fb posts and live discussions with colleagues that many people are worried about what the etiquette is if you are due to appear at a conference with someone accused of/ found guilty of gross sexual misconduct.  Or if you simply find out that you are at a conference with such a person.


Dear Anonymous,

Where to begin with this?  I think it best to say at the outset that I don’t have any decided conclusions about this, in part because there are radically many variables that might relevantly bear on the question as it would be experienced in situ.  I’m also personally very torn in such situations.  What I would want to do and what I think prudent diverge.  Let me just lay out what sorts of considerations most register with me.

Most emphatically, I think an expansive sense of audience or target is necessary in such situations.  One is not simply deciding how to interact (or not) with a person who has committed gross sexual misconduct, name him or her X.  How one behaves toward X will be evident to others, others who may include victims of X or who will be affected by the effects of X’s actions on wider climate.  The “audience” also includes people who merely participate in the profession at large, a profession that has a sorry track record of tolerating sexual misconduct.  This sense of the wider audience entails, I think, that behaving as if nothing exceptional is in play is problematic.

A profound worry I have in situations such as this is how corrosive it is – for victims certainly, but also for the community at large – when we behave as if nothing is amiss.  “Going on as usual” sends the message that the problematic behavior is tolerated as usual and I think we all appreciate how badly that has served philosophy as a profession so far.  Even if we assume that we’d all prefer to be polite and collegial in our social practices, in circumstances such as this, collegiality easily tips into an appearance of clannishness, with those whose well-being and status in the profession is most vulnerable given notice that they don’t belong.  More generally, blunt injunctions to “be nice” can encourage vice where our niceness towards one implicitly discounts the harm dealt another.

All the above suggests that one do something, but then the question is what to do.  This is harder still, I think, because there are more considerations.  My own sense is that philosophy as a profession promotes rudeness.  (I’ll not defend that here, as in my experience people either treat that claim as radically obvious or deeply controversial.  The former will be with me so far and I’m unlikely to persuade the latter with a blog post.)  Given that the profession does largely abjure the social niceties, it would seem to permit drastic measures such as visibly shunning X or being openly uncivil.  However, it’s far from clear that our generally higher tolerance for rudeness has served us well and so even warranted incivility, where its provocations will be unknown to some bystanders, can simply appear to be replicating problematic social patterns in the profession.

Perhaps equally important, the latitude philosophers sometimes enjoy to deploy scorn, disdain, and contempt is not necessarily a latitude granted to all philosophers or in all settings.  In particular, it has come to my notice of late that some believe there exists a veritable coven of women philosophers who practice dark feminist arts on the profession.  Because of this, there is, I think, an issue of strategy in play here too and what some are allowed to do without comment or censure may not extend to this situation.  As cynical as it sounds, the “angry feminist” trope still has legs, it seems, and so I’m reluctant to give it additional traction.  How a gesture will come off is not wholly up to the one making it.  What I do can be conscripted into narratives about “hysterical” or “enraged” women and so I would seek to make such conscription harder for those so inclined, aiming to deny them that which could be used to discount and dismiss me.

What I think all that adds up to is that my own preference in such situations would incline toward minimal civility, and by “minimal” I mean deploying the full range of microcommunicative elements to convey that while one is observing what is socially required in a shared space, one is not at all enthusiastic.  E.g., if I must share a panel with X, I will greet X perfunctorily and send every signal I can that further interaction is undesirable.  Where I can avoid engaging, I will.  The general aim for me would be to be superficially and minimally polite while rendering my dissent and displeasure evident through micromessaging – facial expression, bodily posture, tone of voice, and so forth.

One thing I would add to all this is that where it is possible to avoid entirely being in this situation, I would.  E.g., if I am invited to participate in a conference and know that X is also being invited, I would just decline and, if possible, explain why.  I grant that those who are junior may have trouble declining opportunities or giving explanation when they do, but that may increase the incentives of tenured folk to do this so that conference planners are more circumspect in their efforts.

Prof. Manners

27 thoughts on “Aiming for the Good in Bad Company

  1. Professor Manners is correct that it’s always important to be polite, if only because rudeness loses you social traction with the others around you. The polite way to respond to a bully, for example, is to smile brightly and say, “Oh, I don’t think so,” or “No thank you, I don’t believe I will,” or, if driven to extremes–and only in extremis–one lifts both eyebrows, stares coldly, and says, “I beg your pardon?” When one sees another person being targeted for bad behavior, one attempts to draw that person out of the line of fire, or, if that isn’t possible, to make it very clear that one is on the side of the target and not the offender.

    Oh dear. Now I need my smelling salts.

  2. Prof. Manners is right: the question is complex and multifaceted. Thus, caution seems a good approach.
    Yet, I wonder if just declining the invitation is the best one can do in such unwelcome situations. Think of the students, junior faculty or colleagues who have, directly or not, experienced X’s harassment – and perhaps cannot just choose to simply avoid the conference. Or think to those in the audience who are not aware of the facts or do not give them much importance – such as those who invited X to the conference in the first place. Perhaps your attitude and micro-messaging can have some impact on all of them. I, as a graduate student, learned a precious lesson from a professor’s behaviour towards one such harasser and discriminator we happen to meet at a workshop.
    Is that too naif? Is it too much difficult to maintain an appropriate behaviour which is useful to the atmosphere and community?

  3. One way the questions is complex is that the question asks about someone “accused of / found guilty of” gross misconduct. Since “accused of” and “found guilty of” differ in important ways ones answer to the questioner might reasonably take these differences into account.

  4. Crimlaw: No kidding. I’m actually pretty disturbed that the glaring (if unwitting) invitation to abuse encoded in that slash wasn’t pointed out in the first or second comment. if we’re going down the road of shunning and shaming — and I’m not saying we shouldn’t — then the question of how confident we can be that the person in question has actually done anything wrong is not exactly a minor detail.

  5. What would count as definitive proof? Can we only treat with icy politeness colleagues who have been convicted in a court of law? Who would in fact in that case be very unlikely to still hold teaching positions and be appearing at conferences? Is everything short of that to be treated as mere rumour and the colleague in question therefore to be all the more heartily slapped on the back in order to demonstrate our sense of fair play?

  6. Sorry to have disturbed you, yerblues. I began the post by noting that there are radically many variables in play, variables which would (I thought obviously) include the degree of confidence held by the person in this situation deciding what to do. There is no formula here, no way for me to say where x degree of confidence applies, where y degree of confidence applies, etc. My response was meant not as a dodge but as a way to acknowledge complexities no general remark can capture.

    I likewise note that I explicitly said I don’t think shunning is the appropriate response. Shunning is explicit social rejection, which would presumably include a refusal to observe minimum civility, a posture of behaving as if a person simply does not exist. Being coolly and minimally civil is not shunning.

    At root, I suspect our real disagreement has to do with how we see people who pose the original question. At the risk of exaggeration, you seem almost inclined to view them as “barbarians at the gate,” awaiting the merest signal that the attack is on and they can now begin to persecute others guiltlessly. Advised to be coolly civil, they’ll shun and shame on the merest suspicion. I incline to see people who have the query above as genuinely torn about what to do or, even more likely, really at a loss. Most of us have little prior preparation for how to conduct ourselves in situations where there is something quite ugly, in some cases possibly criminal, just beneath the surface. This is (mercifully!) just not usual and so the hope is to find a response that honors the gravity of what’s in play, the many affected by how one behaves, and the general aims of civility as a governing norm. Please consider what I wrote as aimed interlocutors who are epistemically competent and responsible, socially concerned, wary of being uncivil, and more wary still of leaving sexual abuse unacknowledged. That’s who it was written for.

  7. Grad Student, no, I don’t think that’s naif at all. I guess my only reservation is a worry that many of the same people who would do this – go to a conference they’d prefer to avoid so as to be help, presence, and role model for others – are just the same ones who are, both on stage and behind scenes, doing an abundance of hard work on climate and professional issues already. I worry that expecting oneself to do this, for folks who are already really down in the trenches, might be too burdensome. Otherwise, I think it’s great!

  8. Thank you Prof Manners. Clearly ‘invitation to abuse’ was a bit hyperbolic. But I must say I don’t really understand what you mean by our disagreement being about ‘how we see people who pose the original question’. I’m not making any assumptions about people who pose the question. i have no visions of ‘barbarians at the gates’ (?!) or anything like that. My problem is simply with the question: ‘what is the etiquette if you are due to appear at a conference with someone accused of/ found guilty of gross sexual misconduct?’. If the question doesn’t imply that there is liable to be an etiquette issue if one encounters someone who has merely been accused — as well as the cases of people who have been found guilty — then I don’t understand the question. All I really meant was that the distinction between being accused and being found guilty is an important one that we shouldn’t lose sight of, and that bundling them together in the phrase ‘accused of / found guilty of’ seemed to indicate that it was being lost sight of. I realise that you take yourself to be addressing epistemically responsible people. But when we object to ways of speaking we take to be perniciously loose, it’s not usually because we think they will have some direct bad effect on the enlightened people in the speaker’s own circle.

    Kathleen Lowery: That strikes me as a spectacular bit of straw-person-ing. I am merely concerned that if the discussion gets framed this way it may lead people to pay less attention than they should to the danger that someone might suffer serious social sanctions merely because someone has accused them of something. I have no interest in setting up an impossibly high standard of proof; I’m merely concerned to ensure that it’s always higher than ‘someone said this person did something’.

  9. yerblues — what exactly do you think accounts of sexual harassment look like, other than “someone said this person did something”? Since you are raising this problem of “standard of proof”, presumably there is some “not impossibly high” standard short of court conviction that you would accept as reasonable? What is it?

  10. I was inferring the worry about how we see the question-posers here from your rhetoric: the invitation to abuse, invoking shunning and shaming. I just didn’t see how you licensed any of your characterization of this discussion from what I or the question-poser actually said. It seemed like an example of just the conscription, of me and the interlocutor, I discuss in my answer.

    Maybe I can make some headway with this if I understand what you’re proposing in the alternative. Say I’m in a social/professional environment with someone accused of sexual misconduct, in your view, I should….? Act as usual? Be warm? Exercise tact to pretend I’m unaware of the complaint? I guess I might see your worry if I understood what you’d pose in alternative. All of the above strike me as problematic, but I’ll not address that unless I know that’s what you have in mind.

  11. Perhaps we are to an extent at cross-purposes. I was thinking primarily of cases where there was only one allegation and the complainant was not a peer but, say, an undergraduate. Other things equal (ie in the absence of a bunch of circumstantial evidence etc), I don’t think that this should raise even an etiquette issue unless there has been some kind of finding. It may well be very premature, and have very bad consequences, to treat such a person as having ‘committed gross sexual misconduct’, in Prof Manners’ phrase. Do people disagree with that? Does Kathleen Lowrey disagree?

    Obviously it’s completely different if the complainant is someone one knows and trusts, or even someone known and trusted by someone one knows and trusts, and so on. Similarly if there are numerous credible allegations. But even among peers, it is not unknown — to put it mildly — for gossip to get out of control in a very harmful way. This side of the issue was not being so much as gestured at. That’s what concerned me.

  12. useful framing of “peerness” — my own feeling is that an undergraduate is “not a peer” when it comes to sexual harassment in the sense that ze would be *more* likely (not equivalently likely) to experience it than I would because of the relative vulnerability of hir life-stage and exactly this reaction on the part of others: oh, who would believe hir vs. renowned Professor X. Predatory Professor Xes rely exactly on this. So the “less worth listening to” factor which you invoke here, yerblues, is precisely part of the problem to be grappled with. It’s also the case that the hypothetical undergraduate whom you invoke likely doesn’t go to conferences, isn’t connected to professional networks, so that ze is isolated in terms of “multiple allegations”, too — inappropriate approaches to colleagues or grad students are more likely to accumulate in collective memory because colleagues and grad students go to conferences, stick around for years in the institution and/or the discipline. Undergrads don’t; inappropriate approaches to undergrads are in some sense “safer” for bad actors.

    So, boy, yeah, I do disagree. My reaction to a single story from an undergrad absolutely would not be to think, oh, pfft, this doesn’t “raise even an etiquette issue”.

  13. I agree with Kathleen that the idea of its being an undergraduate elevates rather than softens my concern.

    But even setting that aside, I think the etiquette issue attaches regardless, even if uncertainty rather than undergraduate status is the core. If the issue is just that there is uncertainty, the uncertainty cuts in two directions. The bad consequence you have in mind is (I think?) someone falsely accused being treated with less warmth because of an accusation. Another bad consequence would be someone justly accused being treated as warmly as ever, with the concern not just that it creates an appearance of tolerating X’s sexual misconduct with a student but that it makes the community seem permissive of such. If, as you set it up, one really cannot know or reasonably surmise in one direction, then there are worries regarding consequences on both ends, not just one. That’s why it’s still an issue.

    I can’t help adding that there seems to me something odd about taking a quasi-juridical view of social interaction, if part of what you mean to suggest is something akin to an “innocent until proven guilty” attitude. I don’t want to discuss whether that attitude has a place here or not, but do want to observe that in social situations, when something as dramatic as an accusation of sexual misconduct is in play, behaving as if nothing extraordinary is present, is just strange. If I attend a dinner party and know that one of my dinner companions has been indicted for financial malfeasance, I will be unlikely to behave as if that is not “in the air,” influencing the atmospherics of social interaction away from the typical. Some things have social effects tact cannot, or should not, cover. Ignoring the coffee stain on someone’s blouse is not the same as ignoring his or her having been charged with a grave wrong. Trepidation, hesitation, wariness belong to the situation even if you want to detach it from the actual social actors.

  14. “I was thinking primarily of cases where there was only one allegation and the complainant was not a peer but, say, an undergraduate…. [And, say, the professor had gone out for an evening with the undergraduate, a first-year student, who ended up intoxicated and in his apartment for the night.]”

    Are “people” supposed to disagree that such a professor had engaged, at least, in “gross [professional] misconduct”–which might be sufficient to properly raise “an etiquette issue” among peers? If concern about reputation is supposed to be so important, shouldn’t the hypothetical professor have had enough sense not to engage in obviously questionable conduct?

  15. Ok, I don’t want even to skirt up against this. There is a young woman who was traumatized and attempted suicide. Let’s not make her situation or anything resembling it a topic for discussion. Even the best intentions and kindest dialogue are not going to be in her interest and could easily be harmful.

  16. I am clearly not expressing myself well. I was not suggesting that an undergraduate is inherently less credible, or that harrassment of undergraduates is not more concerning than harrassment of colleagues. One would have to be an idiot to believe such things and even more of an idiot to try to invoke them as assumptions on this blog. I mentioned the undergraduate case only because that would typically not be one in which one had heard the allegation directly or via one’s own grapevine from the complainant and so — unlike, eg the case of a first-hand report from a colleague *or* from and undergraduate — one’s judgment of credibility will inevitably be less straightforward. (Remember we’re talking about coming across the suspect at a conference, so it will typically be someone from another institution.)

    Prof Manners: your suggestion that treating someone ‘normally’ when they have been accused of sexual misconduct by someone one doesn’t know implies a tolerant or permissive attitude toward such misconduct begs the question. If I am right it only implies that one is legitimately suspending judgment.

    Surely some kind of possibly very loose analogue of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ applies also in everyday life? Isn’t it at least generally recognised that a single uninvestigated allegation is not enough (other things equal) to warrant social sanctions? And being the object of an as yet uninvestigated harrassment complaint does not seem comparable in the relevant respects to being *indicted* for financial malfeasance.

    Anonphil: your bracketed addition exactly replaces, and massively violates, my explicit condition ‘other things equal (ie in the absence of a bunch of circumstantial evidence)’ — a condition I mentioned specifically to pre-empt the sort of objection you raise.

  17. Judging from the response of the philosophy blogsphere to the affairs Ludlow & McGinn, the right thing to do is to scrupulously avoid discussing the affair if it is a well-connected and powerful philosopher who has been found by his university to have physically abused an undergrad, but to go on endlessly and self-righteously about it if it is an old irrelevant fuddy-duddy who sent a salacious email to a grad student. Next question!

  18. Since I can’t moderate comments on this any longer today and can’t be sure things won’t stray into bad territory, I’m closing comments for now.

  19. A reader sent the following that seems relevant to the discussion here:

    I want to point out that US law provides excellent grounds for suspension, with pay, of persons accused of crimes that are germane to the performance of their jobs. A teacher at a school, if accused of sexual impropriety regarding a student, is placed on administrative leave – they are not allowed to continue in their job until the investigation is done, because their job will put them in a position to potentially continue in the problematic behavior. Similarly a custodian in a home for the elderly, if accused of abuse. DURING the investigation, they are placed on leave, without thereby assuming either that they are guilty or that they are innocent. If the accused is exonerated, they return to regular duties. But the Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases that placing someone on suspension given accusations relevant to their duties is not punitive, but reasonable and prudential.

    Th accusations must be germane to the job: if the custodian is accused of stealing something at a store, that would not warrant suspension of work duties during the investigation. But, for someone accused of something as serious as sexual assault against a student, allowing them to be around undergrads, grads, or junior women in the field, is germane to the accusation. In such a circumstance, suspension of their activities has been deemed by the Supreme Court to be not punitive. This makes an excellent case for explicitly dis-inviting someone to a conference, or for registering a complaint with the organizers of a conference.

  20. Interesting, Prof M. No doubt there are many cases in which such precautionary measures would be justified. But if they are explicitly not punitive, and explicitly don’t indicate an assumption of guilt, they don’t seem to lend analogical support to social sanctions, as such, in the sub judice cases under consideration; and far from eliding the distinction between ‘accused of’ and ‘found guilty of’, this kind of rationale seems to presuppose it.

  21. yerblues, I wasn’t proposing it as an analogue, but adding it to the mix as a response someone in the position described in the query might consider. This might make some more sanguine asking organizers to address the problem.

  22. Attending conferences and the like is part of our normal work duties, and they are duties such that these allegations are germane. It is workplace law. We, the field of philosophy, are the workplace for philosophers. Unfriending someone on Facebook is social sanction. Disinviting someone from a conference where junior women in the field will be present is putting someone on leave from their duties. It is not analogous to the case at hand, it IS the case at hand.

  23. Yerblues, do you think you might be losing the argument, and for good reason (though thanks for persisting). I’d like to pick up on two further positions you appear to have adopted under cross-examination after some telling interlocutors:

    1. “Legitimate suspension of judgment”. I don’t think this would be appropriate in serious cases such as those being imagined, of alleged sexual misconduct (I speak hypothetically, and agree that it is good that we should wish to test our moral judgments in this area for generalisability) – but betrays rather a bad faith fence-sitting. You could say that the seriousness of a case is itself reason to avoid forming a judgment, that you wish to defer to the verdict of a trial, should it get that far. But that would be to trade the risk of sanctioning somebody who turned out to be innocent against the risk of compounding the original misconduct, supposing it true, by letting the perpetrator carry on as if nothing had happened and potentially facilitating their repeat offending. Risk assessment combines judgment about the probability of a harm occuring and the severity of the harm if it did occasion. Which is the greater risk of harm in this case? I concur with the reader submission that suspension from duties would be reasonable and prudential. The basis for such suspension would not be that they were found guilty but that they might be guilty, and that there was a probability attaching to that. To seek to suspend judgment would be to avoid forming a view in such case, either under cover of difficulty of knowing or under the pretence of even-handedness. My point is that doing nothing is hardly a neutral position, intrinsically or consequentially, and though we might not welcome the imposition forming a provisional judgment is part of our cognitive and moral reponsibility. For your “legitimate suspension of judgment” I would substitute, “Judgment as to legitimate suspension.”

    2. “Innocent until proven guilty.” Now this really is a red herring if ever I heard one. The maxim has both a descriptive and a prescriptive reading, and it is pernicious use of both that needs to be disambiguated and guarded against. Prescriptively, the idea is that we should treat the accused as innocent until they are proven guilty. However, this is another instance of begging to suspend judgment under cover of shifting cognitive responsibilty elsewhere – onto a future trial that we neither know will convene nor care to facilitate. Descriptively, the idea would be that accused is innocent until they are proven guilty – well clearly that’s false. There’s a fact of the matter about their innocence or guilt, neither dependent on the having of a trial or the finding of a trial (since miscarriage of justice can also occur). My point is that advocates of this maxim sound like they are exhorting others to treat the accused as innocent and that they actually are innocent, in absence of a future finding otherwise. They claim the pretensions of a court of law without actually being in one.

    Thanks for instigating this debate here, which I sometimes feel that others would rather not have for reasons that I can only describe as failing to treat the matter with the seriousness it deserves. The consequence can be entrenchment of the very power relations that were a contributing factor in the offence. Proactive attention to the climate of our profession is an imperative.

  24. Pursuit of Truth, you make good points, but I think your repeated use of “under cover”, “pretense”, “red herring”, and even “bad faith” is kind of alarming. There’s no reason to think the ‘rights of the accused’ position is pretending or trying to hide true motivations.
    Suppose someone accused Anne Jacobson of doing something really awful, something that caused real harm to another philosopher. Should the rest of the Feminist Philosophers immediately form the judgment that Anne is probably guilty? I hope they wouldn’t. Should they instantly dismiss the charge? In some cases, I guess they should, but in some they have to at least entertain the possibility that it’s true.
    They should suspend judgment. And that’s not bad faith or a pretense.
    Of course, it wouldn’t be “neutral”, whatever that means, but we can aim at fairness without aiming at some non-existent and dubious ideal like neutrality.

    I’ll just give one specific example of what I mean. You write:

    “Prescriptively, the idea is that we should treat the accused as innocent until they are proven guilty. However, this is another instance of begging to suspend judgment under cover of shifting cognitive responsibilty elsewhere – onto a future trial that we neither know will convene nor care to facilitate. ”

    Right, except it’s not “under cover”, and it doesn’t shift responsibility. It takes responsibility seriously, by responding to the evidence and the limitations of the evidence. The responsible reaction to evidence can certainly be to suspend judgment (philosophers should probably do this *more*, not *less*!).

  25. I respectfully disagree with most of the above. Why should anyone be dissuaded from engaging in normal professional activities simply because a badly-behaved person is present? We’d all have to stop going to large conferences or events if that were the rule. It’s not like the world only endures one or two jerks; lots of them are running around, most of whom we don’t even know about, many of whom we have an inkling about, and some of whom we have decent reasons to believe are repugnant.

    At the same time, I don’t need perfect, airtight evidence to stop trusting a person or offering him my friendship. Life is not a court of law. I would tell my daughter not to take classes with certain professors; I would tell her never to be alone with certain people. I wouldn’t encourage students to entrust such persons with their career development; I wouldn’t invite them to lunch. I’m not going to curtail my professional life because they’re around, but I’m also not going to be naive about “suspending judgment” as if I need epistemic certainty to protect myself and others against creeps. If that’s unfortunate for those whose reputations are worse than deserved, then I’m sorry, but it has been unfortunate for me to be on the receiving end of bad behavior so I know where my priorities lie.

  26. I think that’s a false dichotomy. You don’t have to have some wild, unreachable standards, like requiring epistemic certainty, to think it’s often reasonable to suspend judgment. When I suspend judgment, it’s not because I need epistemic certainty to act. It’s because I need more than gossip.
    Relying on gossip can be very harmful and unfair. The fact that it’s gossip about who’s sexually harassing people doesn’t make it less so.

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