“Everyone fucking knew”

A Hollywood screenwriter has written a powerful post, describing the way that everyone knew Weinstein was up to something bad, even if they didn’t know the details– and the reasons they went along with it.  And apologising.  He also notes the shock so many in Hollywood are expressing and calls bullshit on that.

Unsurprisingly, this has me thinking about the world of philosophy. I’m a pretty well-informed person when it comes to harassment in philosophy, and yet I am still sometimes shocked when a big story breaks.  So it’s not the case that *everyone* knows.  However– without fail– within days I discover that in a particular department, or a particular sub-discipline, it really was true that everyone knew– or at least strongly suspected.  And this is morally important, as these people are letting it continue, and not blowing the whistle.  (Well, some of them are trying to stop it, but not enough, or not the powerful enough people.)  And you know what else?  I often discover that some of the people expressing shock and horror on fb are actually within the circle of the “everyone” who knew that things were happening which shouldn’t have been– they were at the parties in professional settings at which sex workers were hired; they were at the department events held in strip clubs; they saw the moves being made by the professionally powerful older man on the professionally powerless younger woman.  And they just let it go on, expressing shock and horror only when it hit the headlines.

Sometimes I feel like there’s something to this adapted quote:

“if [disgraced philosopher]’s behavior is the most reprehensible thing one can imagine, a not-so-distant second is the current flood of sanctimonious denial and condemnation that now crashes upon these shores of rectitude in gloppy tides of bullshit righteousness.”

After all, some people are in a position to declare “no more department events at the strip club”, and to make that happen– it’s clear what these people should do.  It’s an important and baffling failure when they fail to do this.  What’s needed is not even difficult.

But individuals are not the whole of the problem.  We also need to think about institutions.  We desperately need to reform the way that departments and universities deal with sexual harassment.  Currently the university’s main interest is almost always adverse publicity– which means that victims and witnesses are silenced, and perpetrators are all too often quietly handed packets of money to go away.  There’s a nice discussion here of ways that institutions could be reformed.

And on an individual level we also need to think about the more complex cases in which people feel they don’t know how to intervene: e.g. the older man isn’t from the same department as the younger woman, and they can’t really tell whether what they’re seeing is mutually desired, or they have less institutional power (they themselves are just a student, and fear the consequences of objecting).  However, even in these cases, there *are* things to be done.  One could sit down next to the younger woman, join the conversation, offer her a way out in case she wants it (“some of us are going for pizza– want to come?”).  A colleague from another department could talk to the older man, remind of him of his professional power, and the potential problems that brings with it.    A student may not be able to safely intervene, but they may be able to check in with a fellow student, and see if they’re OK.  And they may be able to to raise issues with a sympathetic faculty member (though identifying these can sometimes be hard).

So did everyone fucking know, in all the philosophy cases?  In lots of cases, with appropriate domain restrictions in place, YES.  And we need to do something about all the reasons that this isn’t stopping the harassment.  I’d really love to see a widespread effort on the part of philosophers to think through ways that we can reform our profession– from individual actions to institutional change.  I hereby invite a discussion of this topic in the comments.  But please no identifiable discussion of individual cases or departments.

One thought on ““Everyone fucking knew”

  1. MIT has an active bystander training site. I suspect many readers are already familiar with it. It includes a page of recommended strategies for individual action, which might be a useful place to begin: http://web.mit.edu/bystanders/strategies/index.html

    It occurs to me that many of the reasons people are reluctant to act (thereby enabling the problem) may also serve as reasons they are reluctant to engage in discussion (online or off) regarding inaction and reform (?).

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