An abusive relationship is a closed loop. So is a professional network. So is the patriarchy....
Without exception, every single one of these men is still working—writing, publishing, editing, teaching—today.
These men do not work, or live, or act in a vacuum. Unless they are masterminds or psychopaths (and they cannot all be), their behavior, or aspects of it, is often visible. These men are everywhere. They write and they edit and they teach. They have small magazines and small presses and small reading series. They have publishers and editors, they have podcasts and publicists sending them books to review. The influence they wield may seem insignificant to those in their community who have moved beyond their reach, but for those who haven’t, it is more than enough to frighten or threaten or silence. Their power comes from institutional support, whether implied or explicit, and it comes from systems that rely on the victims of harassment to be the ones who take down their abusers by speaking out in public.
These men have friends. They have readers. They have peers. They have permission.
Every time we treat issues of abuse as black-and-white – every time we ask a woman why she didn’t just leave the apartment or the relationship, why she didn’t just call the police, how she didn’t see it coming; every time we tell her not to feed the trolls or that she has no real proof or ask why she’d allow herself to be bullied by someone so insignificant in the first place – every time we do these things, no matter what our intentions, we are complicit in the systems that allow predatory individuals to thrive in small communities. Abusers whose power and influence seem relatively minor are often the most dangerous kind, since the people around them who can afford to ignore their behavior will do so until something drastic forces them to act, while those who have something to lose at their hands will continue to stay silent. A man who’s “no big deal” can still ruin your reputation. A man who’s “no threat” can still leave marks. A man who “doesn’t matter” can still set fire to your life and then walk away whistling.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past week, it’s the same thing I learn over and over again every single time I see women speaking out publicly against men who have harmed them. It is exhilarating and terrifying and heartrending to watch people tell their stories, to see the changes that can come from that telling. But victims of harassment, assault, rape and abuse deserve, absolutely and in every case, the dignity of being able to do whatever they want with their stories. Right now it feels as though we rely on them to pursue change by putting themselves and their experiences at the mercy of Twitter, Facebook, Gawker, Salon – of legions of strangers who all know they know better.
We consistently fail young women—all women—by tacitly relying on them to learn from each other, or from their experiences, which of the people in their communities they can and cannot trust. We ask them to police their own peers, but quietly, through back channels, without disturbing the important people while they’re talking. We wait for the victims of abuse to be the ones to take power away from their abusers, instead of working actively to ensure that these motherfuckers never get that far in the first place.
These issues are not simple ones to discuss or to deal with, and they do not develop – or change – overnight. There is a complex and tangled system of habits and behaviors and assumptions that runs underneath our tendency to turn a blind eye to potentially predatory behavior in our communities until it reaches a boiling point.--Emma Healey, "Stories Like Passwords" [HT Sara Bernstein]
When I was not yet tenured I had an intellectual and shall-we-say-non-philosophical crush on a fellow professional philosopher whom I would see a couple of times a year at conferences. She was aggressively not interested in my flirting. Eventually, I got the message, and changed my attitude toward her, and we have become professional friends.+ At one point she made it clear to me that one of my one-time senior colleagues, let's call him 'Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice,' had sexually harassed her when she was a graduate student and she preferred to keep her distance from philosophy boys altogether. Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice was unfailingly generous and supportive of me; a delightful senior colleague who took me out for lunch and helped me think through my work. I really did not want to believe the charges about him; I could not imagine that my senior Feminist colleagues would tolerate this kind of thing in our department. Since it all happened longish in the past, I decided prudently (recall my lack of tenure) to keep very quiet about any of this. And who is to say, I quietly thought to myself, that my professional colleague wasn't just rationalizing her relative lack of professional success?
By chance I later discovered that there had been more complaints about Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice.* By which time I was no longer a colleague. There were, surely, more who knew that Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice has been causing trouble; there is always a chair, a supervisor, a graduate director--some of these find out about the frailties and follies (and worse) of their colleagues. There were other victims. All folk 'in the know' reinforcing a culture of silence. Like me these professionals make their peace with their decision not to rock the professional boat, not to investigate further, to 'respect other people's privacy,' to avoid creating waves over messy 'incidents' (they had drinks, the victim was seen hugging the professor, he wasn't her supervisor, they are adults, etc.) It's this culture of silence that victimizes the victims in our profession over and over again.
The victims are victimized in the event; the victims are victimized by their self-doubt and their knowledge that they played some active role in the harms done to them; the victims are victimized by the (sometimes tacit) threats and by fear of potential retaliation from their professional superiors; the victims are victimized by the culture of silence that refuses to recognize the harms that are done to them; the victims are victimized when they are told to keep silent in order to let other, politically more desirable (because more articulate, made fewer non-optimal choices, have a 'better' racial demographic, a more prestigious PhD, etc.)** victims be 'the face' of victim-hood; the victims are victimized when they are told not to speak because they might endanger some lawsuit; the victims are victimized by all the do-not-disclose-agreements that our universities promote; the victims are victimized by all the anonymous naysayers who troll our professional blogs; the victims are victimized by all the senior professors in the profession, including, alas, a few Feminists and pro-Feminists, who deserve their own place in hell (yeah I know the arguments against) for policing their reputations and their friends' reputations as well as even sometimes a victim's repuation with zealousness, but can't even say 'I am sorry for looking away' decades later; and, damn you universe, the victims are also victimized in this post because rather than speaking of individuals who are in control over their destiny, they are objectified here in anonymity by me (sorry, really). [Undoubtedly I have missed much more!]
Of course, there are important distinctions to be made; just because we are caught in a web with patterns of behavior that victimize others it does not follow we are equally culpable. Some folk are really sincerely and with considerable opportunity-costs to their own careers promoting change in the discipline; they (you know who you are) make choices under non-ideal circumstances in which the interests of the deserving have to be balanced. I am not here second-guessing their decisions; nor am I criticizing any victim who wishes to remain silent. Until the professional norms and institutional reward structure are changed even the most noble among us are trapped in situations that can be unintentionally harmful to others.
When I started to blog about these issues, at first tentatively then more boldly, the floodgates opened. First, a number of victims' advocates within the profession reached out to me, and then, second, an increasing number of victims and the victims' friends. I can't escape the web of complicity in their stories, which are about people I know directly or indirectly, which are about non-optimal decisions, too much trust, human need, and our peers who take advantage of human frailty.
Yes, human institutions are imperfect and bound to be full of all-too-human-stains full of transactions, explicit and implicit, that involve some kind of trade of favors; one should not expect better from professional philosophy -- even though it is populated with a whole bunch of people -- worldly do-gooders, ethicists, and social philosophers -- that really ought to know better. When Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice is mentioned professionally it is always with epitaphs like 'distinguished,' and 'eminent.' What makes him distinguished, I guess, are the works he published, his stellar former students, and the esteem of our peers. I always hope that my friend, whom he harassed, misses the accolades. I always wait for somebody to put a stop to the charade that makes us pretend that we can divorce 'the arguments' from people's character(s) and the professional institution we co-inhabit. Sometimes I fantasize that the most-distinguished-name-professors in the field, ask forgiveness (I recall King Hussain of Jordan doing something like this) of the victims on behalf of our profession as a way to apologize for all of us--okay, maybe that's a bad idea, too (what if one of those distinguished-names is somebody else's Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice?) And by waiting for others to act, I, too, victimize the victims, again...
+There are non-trivial moral and phenomenological differences between crushes among (relative) peers and cases of harassment (and worse), and the cases should not be conflated. But...at the time, I was not just a peer; I was a member of the institution that housed Professor-creep-who-seems-so-nice and this institution is considerably more prestigious among our peers than my friend's then-employer.
*If I explain how a lot of folk can reverse-engineer lots of identities.
**More about this in the future; I am reading up on this phenomenon.