A few thoughts on avoiding avoidance

“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.

22 thoughts on “A few thoughts on avoiding avoidance

  1. Your stories here hardly are a parallel to the Ludlow case! Ludlow has been quite clear that HE is the victim, and that his accuser is only making these false charges because he has refused to be romantically involved with her. (Here, you can read it in this NBC story: http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/NU-Student-Details-Professors-Alleged-Harassment-246075891.html). So the parallel would be if you went to your colleague and he told you that he had done nothing, the 18 year old was just making it up because she wanted to date him so badly. Furthermore, you would be hearing from his lawyer if you said anything different to anybody in public. (I think this legal bullying may be a cause of the ostrich-like behavior you are seeing). As a feminist philosopher, how exactly would you feel then?

  2. disgusted philosopher, I’m not suggesting that the Ludlow case is in any way parallel to the offenders I’ve spoken with — as the story you reference and many other details suggest, the evidence seems to strongly suggest that it is *not* parallel. (I’ve seen no evidence, for example, indicating that Ludlow is apologetic or wants to reconcile.)

    This post is not about failing to confront offenders who are irrational or threaten to go legal. Empathy and attempts to communicate are not always appropriate.

    It also is not about Ludlow or the case at Northwestern. Clearly I touched a nerve with you in mentioning Ludlow, and I apologize for that.

    It’s about the larger issue, which is that there are many past and present offenders in philosophy — and many ostriches who know about the offenders, and in some cases even have unique information about offenders, but are deliberately or instinctively ignoring the problem, typically in order to protect themselves.

    Being an ostrich is, in my opinion, different from “merely” being a bystander.

    In the interest of staying on topic, I’ll ask that we refrain from discussing Ludlow or Northwestern, and focus instead on the more general issue of ostrich behavior.

  3. Dear Heidi,

    thank you for this heartfelt and brave post. Dealing with ostriches is really hard, as it is dealing with the offenders themselves, whether opnely willing to reconcile or not. I don’t know if the same people who mentor and help victims have to also help ostriches and offenders – for they clearly NEED HELP, that emerges wonderfully. I mean, it seems a burdensome task.
    However, your testimony suggests that the bystanders, ostriches and offenders who are upset and conscious enough to come to write and talk to you, do that because you are you, i.e. the “hot potato” who in fact is known for mentoring victims. They know you have a competence and knowledge, but that’s more. They feel you are open to listen to them, even if it can be hard to control one’s emotional reactions if you know who is your interlocutor. And even if they are not ready to share their concerns, guilt, will to reconcile and somehow change in public, especially with their colleagues – who also read their papers and books and discuss them and evaluate them -, they search for you.
    My feeling is that an offender is not as likely to share with any colleague as they are to share with someone like you. But perhaps with ostriches is different, for an ostrichy colleague is much more similar to a bystander or even to a colleague who doesn’t know, in the sense that they may perceive themselves to be in a similar situation with their colleagues and so may be encouraged to talk and discuss their experiences and worries.
    In the end, it’s difficult for me to say what we all – i.e. all of us who are not well known for their actively fighting harassment and discrimination, and for mentoring victims – can do with the issues you raised.

  4. I’m…somewhat sympathetic, though I think it might be worth pointing out that there’s at least *some* minimal expectation of decency from the offender before it makes sense for many people to reach out. And I think that’s part of what disgusted philosopher was getting at in #1.

    How about some kind of code of basic decency for offenders? At the very least, how about:

    1. Acknowledge the victim’s experience and [usually her] right to express that without you or your lawyer posting victim-blaming statements publicly.
    2. If you think you’re not guilty, just step forward and say something like this: “Hey, I want to make it clear that I am not guilty of these charges. But I want to acknowledge that this person has stated that she has had these experiences, and people should listen to her without judging her responsible for any sexual misconduct. I understand that many people will give this person the benefit of the doubt, and as a feminist I understand that this is important. I promise not to attack them for it.”

    I think the offender who said that would appropriately get quite a bit more understanding from folks around him.

  5. And obviously #1 referenced a specific case, but nothing of what I said is specific to that particular case. It seems that the obligation for an offender to show decency is a very general sort of obligation for anyone who is publicly accused of rape or sexual assault.

  6. Matt, I didn’t read Heidi’s “avoid the ostrich behavior” as equivalent to “reaching out” to offenders. I think her point (correct me if I’m wrong Heidi) is rather that confronting problems and helping victims means (when possible) that we should talk to offenders about their behavior. That some offenders are suffering is not evidence that every offender is contrite, and it doesn’t make their offenses acceptable, but it is evidence that at least some of those conversations could be quite productive.

    I take it many people who do the ostrich thing to do so because they’re afraid of confrontation, afraid of how the conversation might go, worried about backlash–but here Heidi’s given us evidence that we shouldn’t always fear those things from the offender.

  7. Simon Evnine, what more would you like to know about the relationship between ostriches and bystanders? Isn’t it a straightforward metaphorical use (i.e., Bystanders are ostriches when they bury their heads in the sand)?

  8. Sexual misconduct often seems like an individual problem—one bad guy not respecting professional standards, appropriate norms, women in particular or in general—but we need to see that it is a SOCIAL problem. Yes, the offender needs to be held accountable, but we all should work to change the culture so that offenders are fewer, offenses are addressed properly, and these abuses can be rooted out. Studying and teaching about genocide and rape, I am always first concerned with survivors. My students are often more concerned with perpetrators – asking “How could they?” and “How can we not become them?” Many see, in the genocide case, an element of moral luck. I have come around to thinking that if we want to help survivors, we also need to pay more attention to perpetrators. Why is this seemingly endemic to philosophy? I am not sure it is, but I do think that a culture of bullying has grown within our ranks and that needs to be addressed. It is surely tied to a particular conception of masculinity, and philosophers don’t get a pass on this because their bullying is usually discursive. There is often an arrogance in these situations (think Frye’s ‘arrogant eye’) and that needs to be called out, especially in relations between faculty and students. We need to build a healthier culture, and especially we need to break apart the heterosexism that defines masculinity in terms of abusive power. There’s more, but this would be a start, and I’m grateful to Heidi for opening up the discussion.

  9. beta, thanks. I guess I was just curious to learn more about what “burying one’s head in the sand” amounts to, in real terms. After all, standing around and not doing anything (i.e. being a bystander) might already be thought to be “burying one’s head in the sand,” in some sense. But I think the OP means something more than that is required to be an ostrich, and I wanted to know what, and whether (as you imply) ostriches are a variety of bystander or something else altogether.

  10. Thanks, Heidi, for a very thoughtful and very humane post. I agree that it is important to open a discussion that not only supports the victims of sexual misconduct but also approaches those who conducted themselves in such a way that violates trust and compromises community. Forgive me for the mix of metaphors that follow. I want to see if I am understanding you correctly. One way of thinking about something like sexual misconduct is like this: In so far as the community has been compromised the perpetrators should be excluded from the community — exiled in a way — so that the community can fortify itself. That may be the way that prompts what you call ostrich behavior. It may not be hiding from facing facts, so much as restraining one’s anger and confusion. (I am not sure what the operative metaphor in play here is, but it is one where the community doesn’t change much by excluding some people.) But another way, the way I think you suggest, doesn’t take exile as a viable option. Rather it takes the community to be large and inclusive, and so necessarily full of the messiness of human relationships. Sometimes that messiness rips the fabric of the community, and the task is to repair the hole. The repair comes by bringing the people who have been torn apart together again. The fabric might not be the same, and certainly not seamless, but it is nonetheless secure. On this model, hiding like an ostrich is like avoiding to stitch up the tear. Things might still hold temporarily, but the fabric could rip more. And also darning is detail work, and sometimes painful. Avoiding it doesn’t make it any easier. I think something like this latter model is behind the restorative justice model, if you are familiar with it. If you aren’t familiar with it, you might find the model interesting.

  11. I wanted to say something very much like what Lisa Shapiro says in her opening sentence: What a decent, humane, and thoughtful post.

  12. I too like this post very much. If offenders are truly sorry and want to do what they can to repair the damage they caused and mend their ways, they may need some help. I’ve always been fascinated by how hard it seems to be for some people to apologize and ask for forgiveness, and that goes for us philosophers too.

  13. Simon, thanks for pushing me on the difference between bystander and ostrich behavior.

    A passive bystander is aware of a problem — a conflict or unacceptable behavior — and does not attempt to intervene. An active bystander, as philodaria points out, assesses a situation and attempts to identify ways to help.

    An ostrich, on the other hand, is aware of a problem but shuns the problem — and often the people involved — through active (though probably not always conscious or intentional) avoidance of the problem. Typical ostrich behaviors include avoiding both the victim and the offender, and avoiding conversation about the problem.

    Although ostrich behavior is a kind of passive bystander behavior inasmuch as the ostrich fails to intervene, I think it’s qualitatively different. There’s a big difference, after all, between failing to intervene in unacceptable behavior, and positively avoiding or isolating the parties involved. Both behaviors are reprehensible, but the ostrich behavior to me seems worse.

    I think there’s also a behavior that is significantly worse than ostriching, let’s call it silencing, in which someone who is aware of a problem actively works to prevent or discourage those who know about the situation from providing support. (I have lots of thoughts on the extreme badness of silencing, but will refrain and stay on topic here.)

    Lisa, thank you for the very helpful reference to the restorative justice model — and for the beautiful analogy of repairing the fabric of a department (or a discipline). There are many departments who, through failing to confront the messiness of human behavior and talk about present or pass offenses, have failed to stitch up those tears. A step towards becoming happier and more whole is to open up discussion about those offenses, and supporting offenders who want to make a private/public apology in an attempt to reconcile. (Though please note that it is important not to assume that the victim wants an apology — the apology or attempt to reconcile needs to be offered in a way that enables the victim to gracefully decline without consequences. Thanks to Alice MacLachlan for pointing me to Elizabeth Spelman’s excellent work on this point.)

    And Lynne, thank you so much for emphasizing that this is a SOCIAL problem. Precisely. It’s a problem for philosoph-y and philosoph-ers, as much as it is a problem for any individual philosopher.

  14. A quick note, in response to emails I have received this morning from a graduate student and untenured colleagues — just in case there are any readers who are reading this post as a uniform call to public activism:

    Please don’t feel obliged to speak up publicly! I’m *not* recommending that anyone take the path I have chosen (or, for that matter, the path on which I’m about to embark). There are lots of non-public and non-confrontational ways to avoid ostrichy behavior. Talking about whether under-representation is a problem is a relatively safe and non-confrontational baby step that can open up the conversation within a department in important ways. And reaching out to victims (and, where appropriate, offenders) is a good non-public way to help repair the fabric.

  15. It is encouraging to hear that SOME of these offenders are reacting to their shame and guilt in positive ways: i.e., a desire to reconcile with their victims (IF the victims want this), and to transform themselves into the kinds of people who do not engage in sexual misconduct. As those who work on transformative justice argue, shame or guilt …or better, shame/guilt are volatile emotions, and they need to be acknowledged and dealt with so that they don’t lead to what have been called “shame-rage” spirals. These “shame-rage” spirals involve displacing the shame you feel onto OTHERS by stigmatizing and accusing them of the behavior you want to disown. This is not bystander behavior, whether passive, active or ostrich-like, but rather a form of agent behavior that involves re-directing one’s own shame and anger onto others. So victimperpetrator … then perpetrator finds another “perpetrator” who is in REALITY a victim of their own displaced rage and shame at THEIR sexual misconduct. Let’s call it twirling wolf behavior. I have definitely been observing a lot of this twirling wolf behavior going on lately, and it is definitely not confined to philosophers or philosophy departments, if that is any consolation.

  16. As a graduate student, I’ve never been a first-order ostrich, but I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m being an ostrich ostrich, if that makes sense. The position is one of knowing some shady stuff is going on, and wondering why certain members of the department whom you respect (and who, unlike you, are in a position from which it would be appropriate to intervene) don’t seem to be doing anything about it, and being afraid or worrying that it’s inappropriate to talk with them about it. And this may well be the right thing. Perhaps the only thing that I really have standing to do is to avoid avoidance with my own peers, and ask them questions and support them in handling the situation as they see fit. I have never had one of these conversations with a department member, even ones that I love and trust, because I feel that trusting them means assuming that they know things or are doing things that I don’t know about, and which would be inappropriate to share with me. My department is a very paternalistic one, in a good way– in the sense that the faculty don’t gossip with or make us privy to whatever disputes they have internally. And because of this we are relatively insulated from the political and psychological pressures that I hear of graduate students having to contend with in other departments. But it leaves one in a difficult position in cases like this. I think that from our perspective it would be almost impossible to tell whether or not other faculty members are engaged in the kinds of dialogues you’re recommending.

    Was that a question? I don’t know. But anyway, thank you for writing this. Some really helpful language here.

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