Reflections on “Reflections from a Hashtag”

I was sexually harassed by one of my professors in graduate school. He was the director of the graduate program and was known to host parties at his apartment for the graduate students. I assumed, when he invited me to his apartment for “dinner,” that the “dinner” in question was such an event.

I was wrong. I was the only guest for what had clearly been conceived as a romantic dinner. There was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and an excellent cabernet. I was surprised to find myself the object of such attentions, but I wasn’t frightened, not at first, anyway. The professor in question, let’s call him Professor H. (H. for “harasser”), was only a few years older than I was. We were both young and unattached. Unfortunately, though I was flattered by his interest, I didn’t reciprocate it. I tried to communicate this to him in a way that would minimize his hurt and embarrassment. He was a hard man to put off though. The evening ended, I kid you not, with his literally chasing me around the dining table. He kept moving uncomfortably close to me and I kept moving away, around and around the dining table until, finally, he seemed to get the point.

When he realized, or appeared to realize, anyway, that I was not simply playing hard-to-get, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and that what was most important to him was that we continued to have a positive professional relationship. And we did continue to have a positive professional relationship, at least for the next couple of weeks.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I thought to myself gratefully.

But then, things changed. He suddenly became openly hostile toward me. He would publicly disparage everything I said, both in class and outside of it. He once spent an entire class arguing to the other students present that a remark I had made in relation to what is known in philosophy as “personal identity theory” demonstrated beyond all doubt that I was an irredeemable idiot.

Professor H.’s behavior toward me became increasingly hostile as the weeks passed. Finally, the lone tenured woman in the department approached me privately and explained that she knew what was going on. She had been a victim of Professor H. herself. It was very important, she explained to me, that I complain to the chair of the department because Professor H. was disparaging me to other faculty to such an extent that I was in danger of losing my funding.

So I dutifully complained to the chair. I will never forget his first words.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, “Professor H. has been warned about this.”

By that time, I knew Professor H. had a history. I just didn’t know how extensive it was. It seemed he used the graduate program as his personal dating pool. He’d started doing that, actually, even before he’d become the director of the graduate program. His behavior was so conspicuous that a group of graduate students had actually protested his appointment as director.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the chair said. “You don’t want to make a formal complaint against him, though,” he continued, “because that would hurt his career.”

I’m not a vindictive person. It seemed to me that Professor H. was not really evil, but simply incredibly emotionally immature. I didn’t want to hurt his career (though in retrospect, I doubt very much that a formal complaint against him would have had that effect). I just wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted to have my work evaluated fairly. The chair said he would talk to Professor H., and I’m sure he did, because my funding was not revoked.

I never again enjoyed the favor, in an academic sense, I mean, of any of my professors. When I’d first arrived in the program, I’d been feted as if I were some kind of celebrity. All the professors welcomed me, commented favorably on my work, invited me to their homes, etc. Not after I had gone to the chair about Professor H., though. No one was openly hostile, the way Professor H. had been, but everyone was decidedly cool. I was grudgingly given passing grades (one of my papers from this period was later published, in the same form in which I had submitted it for a grade, and then reprinted both in English and in Chinese and Russian translations, in an anthology and a textbook). The same well-intentioned female professor again approached me privately, however, and explained to me that I should not solicit letters of recommendation from any of the faculty in my own program, that I would have to rely on what she knew was my growing list of professional contacts outside my program when it came time for me to look for a job.

Thanks to the practice of blind reviewing, which involves concealing the identity of the author of a scholarly paper when it is submitted to referees for judgment concerning whether it should be published, I was able to begin publishing scholarly articles while still a student and to build, gradually, a reputation that made it possible for me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship and then, finally, a tenure-track job.

It was a long, hard slog, though. The job market back then was no better than it is now. Philosophy is a notoriously sexist discipline and a job candidate, man or woman, who cannot present letters of recommendation from any of the faculty of their degree-granting institution is automatically thought of as suspect.

I labored mightily for years to become the best possible scholar, and amassed an impressive collection of publications, and yet I still regard it as something of a miracle that I was able to secure a tenure-track position, to get tenure, and finally, to be promoted to full “Professor.” I knew I would have to work as if my life depended on it, so I did. It seemed pointless to reflect on how unfair it was that I did not enjoy the patronage of a powerful professor that is more often than not the decisive factor in opening the door to a tenure-track position for a newly-minted Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my lot, so I tried to make the best of it.

I spent a great deal of time, however, trying to figure out how things could ever go so terribly wrong as they had for me. Why hadn’t Professor H. been read the riot act immediately after his first transgression? Why hadn’t the proverbial fear of God been placed in him by so that he would at least have been discreet, even if he’d been a victim of satyriasis and unable actually to stop himself?[1] Professor H. wasn’t the only professor in that department who abused his authority to initiate sexual liaisons with female graduate students. Not everyone did it, but many did, and those who didn’t, viewed the antics of the others as a spectator sport.

This all came rushing back to me when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi was a prominent Canadian broadcaster who lost his job and was publicly vilified after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault.

“When a well-known fellow broadcaster saw me with a twenty-something date at a film festival event in Toronto,” writes Jian Ghomeshi, who was then thirty-nine, “he left a voice mail saying, ‘Dude, you are the king!’ I basked in his praise,” Ghomeshi continues, “He’d never called me before and never mentioned my work; the real message was the women I was with were the true gauge of success” (p. 29).

That was the way Professor H. was viewed. He was “the king!” He eventually left the university in question and moved to another university where he continued to harass female students until one of them finally sued.

I haven’t mentioned Professor H.’s name because singling him out for blame is now pointless. You could figure out who he was, of course, if you wanted to do a little research. The purpose of my recounting these events, however, is to make clear that harassment and abuse of women is a systemic problem. It goes on for one very simple and straightforward reason: It is allowed to go on. This is partly because of what Ghomeshi correctly identifies as a “systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity” (p. 30) that leads many men not merely to derive pleasure from harassing and abusing women, but to derive pleasure from the spectacle of it.

There is more to the problem than that, though. There is what I call “the first-stone problem.” Ghomeshi writes that many male acquaintances furtively commiserated with him. “What happened to you,” they wrote, “could have been me.” People are naturally reluctant to point fingers at one another for fear of having fingers pointed back at them. Most people are not sexual predators, but there aren’t many people who don’t have something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, something they don’t want paraded before the general public. This makes people naturally reluctant to call out the bad behavior of others.

“Professor H. didn’t mean to harass you,” the chair explained to me. “He didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, or to coerce you into a sexual relationship.” (I’m paraphrasing now, of course, because the conversation took place many years ago and only his first words remain indelibly marked on my memory.) “He’s just emotionally immature. He reacts badly when things don’t go the way he wants them to.”

I think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Professor H.’s character. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of behaving badly, very badly under certain circumstances. Philosophers distinguish, however, between explanation and justification. Professor H.’s emotional immaturity explained his bad behavior, but it didn’t justify it. Bad behavior should never be tolerated just because the person engaging it isn’t normally a bad person. People need to be called on their behavior, and judgment about their character, reserved for a higher power. Unless, of course, they are being considered for a position of such authority that the question of their character, however ultimately undecidable, becomes crucially relevant.

People are so social that they tend to respond more or less appropriately to censure, even private censure, to say nothing of public censure, by someone in a position of authority. If people are called on their inappropriate behavior, unless they are serious sociopaths, they will usually, at least eventually, stop engaging in it.

Aristotle figured this out long ago (if Plato hadn’t actually figured it out before him). If you want people to behave in certain ways, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics (Books I and II), then the culture needs to reinforce that kind of behavior. And if there are ways you don’t want them to behave, then the culture needs to send a clear message to that effect as well.

We need, without exception, to hold individuals responsible for behaviors that violate norms of what we, as a culture, collectively feel is right. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we think that by targeting individuals in this way we are dealing effectively with what is clearly a systemic problem. It may give the impression we are doing something about the problem, but all the while, the problem waxes and thrives.

 

[1] Discretion is actually very important. One of the problems of the conspicuous abuse of authority to initiate sexual relationships with students is that it makes other students feel vulnerable. Not only does it create anxiety. It can lead students to think that they would be well advised to initiate such relationships themselves simply to make sure that they have a protector.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 1 October 2018 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.

A Cure for Academic Bullying

Portrait caricatureWorkplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro-aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior. Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

(This piece originally appeared in May 2, 2017 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Academic Bullying and the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy.”)