The Extreme Badness of Silence

Note: One of the survivors quoted in what follows requested that I remove the “trigger warning” that was originally at the beginning of this article, arguing that it contradicts the message that we shouldn’t be afraid of sharing trauma narratives. Her point that there is a certain tension is a perceptive one. We’re not ashamed, and part of the purpose of this piece is to encourage transparency — but we also feel, given the intensity of the responses to sexual misconduct in philosophy over the past couple of months,  that readers should know that what follows could be triggering. 

 

This is a difficult post to write – and probably an even more difficult one to read.

I’m writing it because I have had a number of conversations in the past month that have led me to believe that there are more than a few philosophers who have no clue just how damaging even mild forms of sexual misconduct can be – or, for that matter, how the extreme badness of silence and silencing techniques can compound the problem, for both the survivor and for others in the community.

And, after talking to some 15-20 survivors of faculty-student sexual misconduct – mostly in philosophy – I am beginning to think that the problematic nature of faculty-student relationships is not “merely” that the power asymmetry (or perception of a power asymmetry) precludes bona fide consent. Although consent is important, the issues go far beyond consent.

The role of a faculty mentor or adviser, particularly at the graduate school level, is not just that of an authority figure. Dissertation students are often described as the progeny of their Doktorvater or Doktormutter, and there are academic genealogies in philosophy and mathematics and many other fields which track the relationships between academic “parents” and their “children.”

In other words, it is reasonable to think that, regardless of whether or not the full doctrine of in loco parentis applies, faculty have fiduciary duties to their students.

Obviously the experience of every student is different – and I don’t want to presume that all students perceive faculty as academic parents (indeed, I’d encourage students not to harbor this perception) – but I want to give a rough sense of how the perception of a fiduciary relationship, and the corresponding silence of the “family,” can make the impact of sexual misconduct more severe.

I’ll start with my own first-hand account. As a grad student at MIT oh-so-many-years-ago, I thought of my adviser as a sort of academic father figure, a mentor who viewed me as his academic offspring and cared about my intellectual growth and development in much the same way a father would. And so when he suddenly started touching me and behaving in a non-fatherly manner, it was both unthinkable and profoundly disturbing. I felt betrayed, disillusioned, afraid, isolated, damaged, guilty, defiled, and, above all else, angry at the “family” who protected him by turning a silent back to me, confirming my belief that to report the problem would be to commit academic suicide. “Being accepted into a graduate program is like being born into a family,” a senior member of the department told me when I asked for his support in transferring to another program, “you don’t just transfer out.”

I am not alone in this response. Many of the emotions that I muddled my way through in my decade-long hiatus from philosophy have been echoed in the reports of all the courageous women I’ve talked to this year. Here are just a few of the responses they have described:

Fear:

“I was walking across campus yesterday, and I saw someone who looked like him from the back, and, even though I knew it *couldn’t* be him – he’s not at this university – I couldn’t overcome my anxiety, and turned around and walked in the opposite direction.”

“I don’t go to APA meetings, because I’m afraid that I might run into him and have to deal with the mind games that he plays. I don’t want to be manipulated and mind-f*ed again.”

“I’m afraid of going to graduate school because I’m afraid of taking classes with men. I’m afraid that they’ll become someone else. I’m afraid of being alone in a classroom with a professor. I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to overcome these fears.”

“It took me three years to be able to go back to the closet where he cornered me, and when I did, I felt nauseous.”

Loneliness:

“He told me not to say anything to anyone else, because they’d be ‘jealous’ of the ‘special privilege’ of being his girlfriend. He told me I was lucky. I didn’t feel lucky – I just felt alone, and confused, like an alien who didn’t belong. I couldn’t talk then, and I can’t talk now because I’m afraid of retaliation.”

“I signed a non-disclosure agreement with the university which means I’m not supposed to say anything to anyone. It was stupid, I know, but I thought signing it would put the whole thing behind me. It didn’t. I still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And now I can’t talk to anyone about it.

“I want to talk about it, but I can’t. I feel like there’s something wrong with me, and I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t want everyone to read one of my papers and think, ‘oh, this is the woman who was f*ed by that guy.’”

“I tried to tell my adviser, and he told me that it would be best not to report, because there are too many powerful philosophers who are known harassers. Obviously he’s right; there’s [that philosopher] at [that top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university]. They’ve all done things to women who won’t report, because they’re too scared to report too. I understand this – but why can’t I at least talk about what happened? I feel like I’m dirty, and everyone looks away when I try to mention it.”

Betrayal:

“He was a mentor, like a father – he is old enough to be my father – and then he got drunk and tried to kiss me. I went to the bathroom and vomited. I felt betrayal, then loss – I had lost an adviser and a mentor and couldn’t ever trust him again – and later immense sadness and grief.”

“I always thought of professors as the pinnacle of integrity and respectability. Mine were the opposite of this. I’m not sure whether to be angry at them, or angry at the culture that misled me.”

“The fact that he is a creepy — a blatant misogynist who touches every woman he can get his hands on — makes me angry. But the thing that really makes me see red is the fact that no one else in the department cares enough to say something. They’re too busy covering their own sorry asses to speak up. I went back for a colloquium and it was like Thanksgiving with a dysfunctional family.  Everybody knows that Uncle Harry is a pervert, but, hey, cheers to him, he’s a good philosopher and we’ve known each other for fucking decades and that’s the only thing that counts.”

Deception:

“He exploited the fact that I was vulnerable. He would help, and then coerce me into doing something I didn’t want to do, calling it ‘love’ and reminding me of how much he cared for me and had helped me. But I never felt like I had control. I couldn’t say ‘no’ because he would have responded with rage and revenge. He would have ruined my career.”

“I began to hate myself for not telling anyone, for projecting a sunny image when everything was not okay. I would have loved to tell him how much I hated it when he touched me, hated his laugh, hated his disgusting ratty beard, but I was too scared about what he would do to my reputation if I tried to report.”

“I told my adviser what happened. He told me it would be best to keep it a secret, to just forget it and not tell anyone until I am 60 years old and writing a retrospective on my career. But I feel like I’m living a lie. How can I ignore and stay silent on something that changed my very conception of self?”

Guilt:

“I figured it must have been my fault. I must have done something – or failed to do something, I don’t know. I just didn’t see it coming. I felt like everyone must have been guessing what had happened, even though I refused his advances, and that they must just be assuming I’m another one of his conquests. I can’t even look other philosophers in the eye.”

Detachment:

“I still feel cut off and detached from sexuality sometimes, like I don’t want to be touched—or at least don’t want to be touched unless it is absolutely under my control. For a long time it was the opposite, and the only pleasure I could feel was if I didn’t have any control, if I just lay absolutely still with my arms at my sides.”

“I feel on the outside of philosophy, like I don’t fit in or belong. I guess that’s my fault, because I’m just too angry, still. I have trust issues – sometimes I trust people I shouldn’t, and sometimes I don’t trust people I should. But mostly I just feel different.”

“I should have submitted pieces of my dissertation to journals years ago, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. I might submit some of my pieces related to feminist philosophy and activism, but I don’t want to share the work I really care about with other philosophers because it’s none of their business and I don’t owe philosophy anything.”

“I’m not sure who I am any more. Before he assaulted me, my world was predictable, sane, regular. Now I just feel shattered, fragmented, completely at the mercy of things I can’t control. I have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring.”

Confusion and hatred:

“I told him I never wanted to see him again, and he agreed not to contact me. Everything was okay for a year. But then I started having flashbacks and anxiety and got really angry that he was completely ignoring me, as if he didn’t care. I emailed him and then hated myself for being so insecure as soon as I sent the message.”

“He was so angry when I refused to take his classes after it happened. I was afraid, and I think I even felt, you know, guilty. So I tried to placate him by telling him what he wanted to hear, which was that I had feelings for him, which I didn’t. I hate myself for doing that.”

“I know this is irrational, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that if I’m not sexually attractive, I’m not a good philosopher. And, you’re going to think this is weird, but I flirt with other philosophers, and at the same time I hate them and still don’t trust men in general. I sort of feel like they won’t ever be interested in my philosophy, just my body, so if I can keep them interested but also keep them at bay, I might be able to get them to listen to my philosophy. I know that’s wrong, but I can’t make myself believe otherwise.”

 “It was consensual, but I didn’t have any choice – he has too much power in the discipline – and at points I have hated him so much for taking advantage of the power asymmetry that I have plotted revenge against him.”

Depression:

“I feel so alone. I tried to commit suicide last fall. I can send you photos, but they’re sort of gross. The scar on one wrist is in the shape of a IX.”

“I can’t read the blogs or Facebook any more. Most days I just cry.”

“I have a really hard time concentrating on anything right now. I can’t believe a friend wrote that on her Facebook page – I thought she understood.”

“My world is closing in.”

One of the most alarming things about these responses is that they come from women who were, almost without exception, mentally well-adjusted prior to the incident(s), and have no history of sexual abuse or sexual assault.

So, how do we support survivors who are experiencing one or more of these feelings?

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to give a survivor permission to talk, to think and feel at the same time, to explore the meanings and connections between thoughts and feelings, to regain a sense of control.

While professional support is important, it is also equally important that the proverbial “family” – other faculty and grad students – not shun or silence the survivor by discouraging sharing. Yes, it is important to support the survivor by acknowledging his or her philosophical thoughts and contributions, to help achieve a sense of normalcy by discussing philosophy instead of the issue – but it is also equally important to repeatedly indicate that you care and are available. There is nothing wrong with being a survivor, and survivors need to know that. Many survivors also need to be able to share their trauma narratives with members of the philosophy “family” – which in turn means we need to overcome either an inability to empathize, or, worse yet, a fear of empathizing with that which forces us to acknowledge how very precarious our own fate is. As Susan Brison points out:

“As a society, we live with the unbearable by pressuring those who have been traumatized to forget and by rejecting the testimonies of those who are forced by fate to remember. As individuals and as cultures, we impose arbitrary term limits on memory and on recovery from trauma: a century, say, for slavery, fifty years, perhaps, for the Holocaust, a decade or two for Vietnam, several months for mass rape or serial murder… In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes that ‘The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Whether the power is a fascist state or an internalized trauma, surviving the present requires the courage to confront the past, reexamine it, retell it, and thereby remaster its traumatic aspects… to the extent that bearing witness reestablishes the survivor’s identity, the empathetic other is essential to the continuation of a self.” (Aftermath, 57-9)

Another equally important thing we all need to do is to stop ostriching, to pull our heads out of the proverbial mud, and act. I’m no psychologist, but it’s pretty clear to me that the survivors I’ve spoken to are suffering. It’s also pretty clear to me that many of them blame university administrators for failing to impose appropriate sanctions, and the colleagues of their perpetrators for failure to recognize and respond to the problem. And, if I’m correct in thinking that the effect of a faculty member violating his or her fiduciary duties by making sexual advances is tantamount to that of, say, a parent making sexual advances on an adult child, then to maintain silence about a “known problem” is to be complicit in a behavior whose effects are similar (though of course not identical) to those of sexual abuse. The survivors need our collective support and counseling – as do the perpetrators.

Yet another thing I’ve learned in the past year is that higher education is a very large “family,” and that, although there are some dysfunctional members, there are also many of us who understand the extreme badness of silence – who are committed to ending the cycle of sexual abuse, to getting treatment for those members of the family who commit incomprehensible acts and preventing them from having contact with students and other vulnerable members of the community, in order to prevent further damage.

Please, if you are aware of a problem, don’t ignore it.

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