Ruth Chang on sexual harassment in philosophy

Wise words, from her interview here.

3:AM: Now turning to something completely different. What is your take on the spate of sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the profession recently? What, in your opinion, can be done to help make the profession less susceptible to bad behavior by male senior philosophers pursing relationships with female philosophy students?

RC: Well, I can’t believe that philosophers are worse than other academics, or people in general, although the distinctive, intense one-on-one discussions that mark training in philosophy probably makes our profession especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, misread signals and the like.

The two most prevalent ‘unsympathetic’ reactions to all the press about sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate behavior I’ve had – all from senior male philosophers, some of some fame – are both of apiece with what we do as philosophers and therefore not altogether surprising. But I find them pretty dispiriting.

The first is that we all have to remain neutral, that we can’t express even conditional moral disapprobation or sympathy for a party until we ourselves have the proof in hand and we can make our own judgment about the matter. Allied with this reaction is the intellectual reflex to think of all the counterarguments to any allegation or counter-interpretations to data with which we are presented. We are trained to be this way – to see the world in terms of arguments for and against a proposition, and to withhold judgment until all the arguments and data are in. This reaction is usually cloaked under cries of ‘due process!’.

Now I’m a lawyer, and I love due process probably more than most philosophers, but I really think that these attitudes and reactions are misplaced. The real world is one in which none of us is ever going to get all the evidence and data needed to make the kind of well-informed, dispassionate judgment about a case, and — crucially – people who tend to be on the receiving end of harm require the profession’s support rather than silence. So I think each of us has to make our own judgment, on the basis of whatever data we can be reasonably expected to get, including our understanding of how things typically roll in the world, and take a moral stand on cases of alleged sexual misconduct in the profession. It’s not that we have to blog about it or call up the victim, whomever we might believe him/her to be, but even casual remarks to colleagues in a department go a long way toward establishing a departmental culture or professional community where, eventually, people in that community have the sense: ‘We are a place that cares about the harm sexual harassment does to junior people in the profession and will take that junior person seriously’ or, to take just one possible alternative, ‘We are a place that cares more about the possible injustice done to an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment and will stand behind such a person until he is proven guilty’. Context really matters here. Given that sexual harassment is a very real and serious problem in the world, I would much rather be in the former culture than the latter. Of course, we can be wrong about any particular judgments we make. But that wouldn’t be the end of the world since most of us aren’t saddled with decision-making authority over the relevant parties. It’s time to stop pretending that we are university disciplinary committees and quit creating a passive ‘due process’ professional culture. Failure to build a welcoming, safe, and caring culture for the profession – one that reflects the realities of how the world usually rolls and thus errs on the side of supporting the alleged victim of sexual harassment – is, in my view, crucial to the health of the profession.

The second reaction I’ve had from senior male philosophers is that women undergraduates have all the power: with one little complaint they can ruin the career and reputation of a senior male philosopher who is guilty of nothing more than expressing romantic interest in her, and so the wisest thing a male philosopher can do is to steer clear of mentoring or working with any female student. The idea here is that if a senior male philosopher hasn’t got the judgment to know when his behavior is inappropriate, unwelcome, and the like, he’ll just punish all female students by taking his ball home and refusing to play with the girls. Louise Antony, in a NYT Opinionator piece, does a good job of skewering this view. I would add just one small point. At institutions where dating students is not prohibited, any senior person – graduate student or faculty member – obviously has the burden to make sure he’s not unwittingly exploiting the power imbalance between himself and a female student when he begins to pursue a romantic relationship with her. One way to check whether he’s doing that is for him to ask of every communication he has with the student, ‘Is this something I wouldn’t mind having videotaped/copied and shown to the university’s committee on sexual harassment?’ That might help pierce some self-deception.

I suppose that a silver lining in all the bad press philosophy has been receiving is that, like STEM researchers, philosophers might now be motivated to use the tools of their trade to figure out ways to make sexual harassment just unequivocally not okay within the profession. After the Larry Summers blowup, people in the STEM fields rolled up their sleeves and starting tackling the possibly related problem of the underrepresentation of women in those fields in the way they knew how – by collecting data, doing studies, and offering hypotheses based on rigorous analysis of that data. We philosophers are handicapped by not having the skills or resources — they have NSF funding — to collect data or to run proper studies about sexual harassment ourselves, but we can always try to do the same thing — to effect a shift in the culture of the profession — from our armchairs. I think that is already happening. But some people don’t like it and are being dragged along, kicking and screaming. So it’s a slow and painful process.