Getting our sh*t together

In light of today’s news of the lawsuit against Miami, and in light of Eric Schliesser’s post from a few days ago, I wanted to open a thread in the hopes of encouraging a conversation about what we can do better as a discipline in responding to problems of equity in our community. Conversations about sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination more broadly in philosophy are difficult. They are difficult because none of us are perfect. They are difficult because the subject matter is painful. They are difficult because social dynamics are such that some feel they cannot even public offer affirmation or support for victims without inviting retaliation or scrutiny upon themselves. They are difficult because some people who want to say something don’t know what to say. They are difficult because many still do not believe there is even much of a problem to discuss in the first place. They are difficult because some of us who want to be part of the solution have been problems ourselves. They are difficult because it feels like we have the same conversations over and over and don’t get very far. But I think it’s important to keep talking because, to be blunt, we need to get our sh*t together.

(I will moderate this thread — but I do invite conversation and reflection on the issues raised by Eric’s post mentioned above, affirmations of support for victims in philosophy, queries about how one can contribute to cultivating a healthier professional dynamic in the discipline, or suggestions.)

9 thoughts on “Getting our sh*t together

  1. I think that this is a valuable conversation to have. I count myself among those who would like to be supportive but typically have little idea what I can productively contribute. I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of harassment and other bad behaviors, for folks who are mistreated online, and so on; but I take myself to be so ill-informed about the relevant cases, issues, etc. that it’s hard to know what I can productively say or do. (Publicly, anyway. I’d know more what to do in a private conversation; but I take it that a big part of what we are trying to talk about here are ways of being more publicly and openly supportive to members of our community whom we might not even know personally.) I’ve been told by several people–and I think this is worth saying openly here–that doing things like merely acknowledging in an open forum that something lamentable has happened, acknowledging that one would like to be helpful but doesn’t know what to do, or offering even faltering remarks of support (“I’m so sorry…I have no idea what to say”) are very helpful, and all the more so when a lot of people do it. I believe that; but I’d still be glad for further suggestions, if anybody has them, as to what people who are under-informed, outside the relevant situations, but full of sympathy for those who are suffering can do to be supportive.

  2. One small, sort of individual, thing I’ve noticed is that people who are allies often fall prey to the trap of playing devil’s advocate in conversations about sexual harassment. For instance, I’ve had people who I know want to be supportive of victims of sexual harassment attempt to speculate about what the harasser’s intentions could be, ask if it’s possible that the victims are wrong or overreacting (even when they don’t believe they are), and ask the victims to think about the situation as if they were someone else (including the harasser) – all in the name of shoring up the victim’s position and being supportive! To be clear, in all of these situations, I’ve seen the allies in question express that they *do* believe the victim and they want to be supportive before engaging in this kind of behavior. When I’ve seen this occur, I sometimes think it’s the product of lack of understanding about how it feels to be a victim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. Perhaps allies think they need to fully understand the situation from the victim’s perspective in order to know what to do? Perhaps they also are thinking more about how to convince those who doubt sexual harassment and gender discrimination exist in philosophy? I think both are admirable goals, but the behavior is problematic for two reasons. First, victims often need support in the form of people saying things like “I believe you when you say this happened, and I believe that you can accurately report how serious it is” (i.e., victims need to be taken seriously). Second, victims already have an extra burden in experiencing sexual harassment or gender discrimination. That is, it takes more work to be able to engage philosophically when you have to overcome the anxiety and self-doubt that often go hand-in-hand with experience sexual harassment or discrimination. We should be careful not to add to that burden by requiring them to educate us – it’s not solely the victim’s job to fix the situation, to educate anyone, or to change the field to be better for future victims!

    So if you are someone who already believes sexual harassment or gender discrimination is a problem and wants to be supportive, then don’t attempt to adjudicate every situation that a victim says is a problem. One of the best responses I’ve received from an ally when I reported experiencing sexual harassment was something like this: “You’re right – that’s horrible! What would you like for me to do to help?” *This doesn’t mean that you always have to go on to do exactly what the victim wants,* but having someone validate me by expressing that I was accurately reporting a problematic situation was SO helpful.

  3. I’m a young graduate student, and I don’t understand much about the professional politics of philosophy. So, I don’t have many suggestions. But I do want to write about what things look like from this young graduate student’s view.

    I’m at a department with no lack of prestige. Many of our tenured faculty will quietly assert their support for under-represented groups in philosophy. But the people I see going under their real names and publicly and openly supporting real change and supporting victims are almost entirely vulnerable graduate students, with still nascent professional networks and no guarantee of a future job.

    From my view, I’m just confused why this is happening. Our senior faculty has job security and incredibly rich professional networks and a heck of a lot more power than the students have. Why don’t they do more, or say something more? Why do they act so quiet and afraid? Maybe they are doing something behind the scenes, but I don’t know what it is, and so for all I can tell, their support is in word only and not in deed. I don’t know how much I can trust them, and I don’t now if they’re really allies.

    If graduate students are willing to potentially throw it all away in order to do the right thing, I think it’s just unconscionable that so many tenured faculty members, who dare call themselves ‘feminist’ or ‘progressive,’ seem to do nothing out of fear of rocking the boat or because they just want to keep their heads down and do their work, or whatever. I feel increasingly disgusted with my department and with the field as a whole. Why are female graduate students carrying so much of the burden for change? Why don’t senior philosophers actually DO something? It is beginning to look more and more like moral cowardice, or moral complacency. I’m sick of it.

  4. Thank you, anon7! I’m also a young graduate student, and the push to change the climate in my department has been primarily lead by female graduate students. It took a long time to convince faculty (even sympathetic ones) that such change was necessary. So thank you for expressing how frustrating this is.

  5. I think a first thing faculty can do is learn about the policies. There are at least two types of issues: sexual assault/harassment, which is covered by Federal policy (Title IX) in the USA; and policies about faculty-student ‘romantic’ (sexual relations), which are college/university specific. I think simply reading Federal policy is a start: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title-ix-rights-201104. This explains the minimum an institution must do–most were not doing it until recently, hence the rash of federal complaints.

    I think faculty could set aside time in their classes to go over policies briefly, and ask students understand them. You will probably find out they don’t. I still believe that students’ knowing their rights is a starting point to address this problem.

  6. Mike, I just wanted to respond to your comment to say that I think one thing you can do is what you did in this thread — express sympathy and support while acknowledging your lack of understanding about what else to do. One other thing to do though would be to ask around about how you can help. Solicit ideas. Talk to your friends. Maybe build a network of folks you trust that together can work to improve your corner of the discipline.

    Philosophy blogs aren’t everything — I have no delusions that what we do here, or what, Justin, for example, does at Daily Nous, is more important than what happens in departmental life, at conferences, or in people’s research lives. But philosophy blogs do provide a platform for mutual engagement and public discourse among philosophers as a community. And as anon7 points out, it sometimes seems like most the folks who are willing to go to bat in advocating for change or offering support are graduate students and other relatively vulnerable members of the profession. As little a thing as it may be, I really do think just posting a comment on a blog under your own name, particularly as someone who doesn’t fall under those categories, can make a difference.

    I love what’s happening on the thread over at Daily Nous where graduate students are offering to provide the sort of intellectual engagement that Morrison should have been able to get out of the mentoring relationship she was seeking in the first place. Obviously, I cannot speak for her — I don’t know how concretely helpful it is — but I do know that others who have felt victimized and isolated in the profession have commented to me today that they were incredibly encouraged by the gesture.

  7. One thing a department can do is have a plan in place to make sure that students are not left scrambling for an advisor. Fear of losing research and even financial support can be a reason that keeps people from reporting or switching advisors. And even if someone does report, the disruption and anxiety about their research is another huge stressor. Departments can make clear their support of students by taking on the responsibility of insuring that students have appropriate research supervisors in the event of a colleague being sanctioned. This can be a benefit to all students who might be losing a supervisor (cf. the Marcy case) not only the student(s) directly victimized.

    If students knew their department had such a plan or policy in place, it could really help them speak up and take away one coercion tool from some predators.

  8. That’s such a good idea Sigrid; thanks for sharing it. (And thanks to everyone else in this thread for contributing to the discussion too.)

  9. I’m concerned that now more information is publically available about the behaviour in the Miami case, the powerful in our profession will say things like – oh, he is a bad apple, a crazy man! Such attitudes foreclose on more difficult conversations that I think we need to have about how this behaviour is the ‘bleeding edge’ of a culture in our profession which allows its female members to be discredited, bullied and cast aside more generally. We sorely need bystander training for that as well, IMO.

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