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.
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.