“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.