Tackling Misogyny: Procedures or Social Sanctions?

I’m sure that at least some of you have seen the blog run by Jender amongst others, called What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? filled with hair-raising and heart-breaking stories of women who have, indeed, tried to make their way in philosophy. There’s stories about being overlooked, ignored, minimised, dismissed, excluded, sexually harassed and sexually assaulted at universities. There’s also the charmer about the philosophy bigwig who asks a junior woman professor at a university he’s visiting to ‘show me a grad student I can fuck.’ Nice.

These stories of course only mark the tip of the iceberg. Feminist Philosophers blog, where Jender also hangs out, then went to to suggest, amongst other tactics that could help even out the gender imbalance at conferences, that conference organisers should not invite serial sexual harassers who women sometimes would go out of their way to avoid. This was then taken up and discussed by Mark Lance, John Protevi and Eric Schliesser on the big group blog, New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy and Science, who suggested that Jender’s proposal could be extended ‘to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc.  We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know.’

From there, the discussion stretched to Inside Higher Ed, with an article entitled A Call to Shun written by Scott Jaschick, which also pointed out that the number of men in tenure-track and senior positions  in philosophy far outweighed the number of women, in US universities. And then finally it hit the mainstream presses, on Gawker, which of course manages to make stories of sexual harassment ‘pervy’. Throughout the discussion, and I haven’t been able to read all the comments yet, so apologies if there are some really awful ones amongst these posts, there has been some of the expected kickback: those lying womenfolk, those womenfolk who are all seducey make it okay to harass, even an occasional bit of MRA-talk about those feminazis who hate men and why don’t we care about them.

But more interesting has been the discussion about formal and informal mechanisms for dealing with sexual harassment. There are lots of reasons that formal mechanisms don’t work for lots of people: aside from the length of time they take to negotiate (one woman points out on the IHE article that because often sexual harassment is ongoing, each new encounter makes the whole process spin out even longer), the number of people to whom one has to explain the situation (negotiating with their doubt, their judgement and so on being a rather exhausting process), the emotional toll it takes, its inefficacy when directed towards those that the administration likes for whatever reason, and – although this isn’t addressed explicitly in any of the articles I’ve seen, I don’t think? – there can be massive negative consequences, personally and career-wise, of getting the reputation for pursuing a sexual harasser through those formal complaint procedures.

So we have the suggestion of informal ‘shunning’. Some have, with more and less hyperbole, suggested that without the formality of systems of justice and the ‘certainty’ they’re meant to bring, individuals could wind up excluded on heresay; this is the ‘OMG WITCHHUNT!’ objection. And others have pointed out that social sanctions are applied to all kinds of behaviours that are disapproved of in our society, and why should this particular behaviour be any different? I am pretty much with the latter group, although I understand those who think that we should be putting our energies towards fixing the formal systems rather than developing shun-lists…

So what do all of you think? Does justice need to be formal, or is misogyny better tackled outside the (equivalent of the) courtroom? And here I’m thinking less of Hamilton Nolan’s suggestion on Gawker that women splash harasser’s faces with whatever is near to hand, than by a community explicitly working together to places checks on misogynistic (and other reprehensible) behaviours? Effective? Important? or just Problematic, as the philosophers would like to say?



Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, social justice

Tags: , ,

10 replies

  1. I am a fan of social sanctions in an ideal world. There tend to be two problems with introducing it in practice:
    (a) some people at either the level of instinct or the level of rational analysis find it almost impossible to distinguish from bullying (see the Geek Social Fallacies, especially #1) and refuse to participate or actively attempt to defend the person sanctioned or sanction the sanctioners, causing a lot of internal community conflict.
    (b) it often turns out (at least in communities that I’m a part of) that not as many people are opposed to sexual harassment as one might hope. So a substantial fraction of participants oppose social sanctions or vow to not enforce them because it turns out they like sexual harassment just fine.
    (b) is always a really distressing conversation to have in a community you felt safe in; you seldom feel safe after it turns out that a loud minority feel that sexual harassment is the effective/normal/desirable (at least, but not exclusively) heterosexual mating strategy.
    On a slight tangent (in your first comment! sorry!) we’ve had this discussion in the geek community a fair bit lately, and it led me to discover Section 316 of the NSW crimes act, which does criminalise not involving the police in some matters. (See 3.27 through 3.30 of a review for some possible negative effects on victims.)

    • Nice elucidation of the difficulties there, Mary.
      In an ideal world I’d love it if everybody who witnessed an act of sexual harassment would just give that person a 24-hr timeout display of the cold shoulder, just telling the harasser if he demands an explanation “you are on a timeout – bye” or similar. In theory this would allow the harasser to modify their behaviour the next day and be dealt with normally as a reward for catching the clue. If the behaviour is not improved, another day in timeout.
      In practice, I can foresee it all going horribly wrong.

  2. As an (unwarned) former grad student of a misogynist, my experience is that the power imbalance directly stemming from the cash generation by senior academic staff such as by heading Centres of Excellence or being appointed a Federation Fellow mean that entire departments will turn a blind eye to by problem for fear of losing much needed research funds. It’s ‘better’ for the university to have funded research and a couple of ‘disgruntled’ or ‘failed’ students than lose all that money.
    Junior academic staff are concerned about their limited career opportunities in australia and wont rock the boat.
    For my part, I would always warn anyone who asked me about the graduate experience they could expect under such supervision. Warning I wish someone had given me.
    I can’t see social sanctions working under these conditions.

  3. Mary @ 1 – I think that many in the geek community reflexively oppose ostracism in their community because of the what they experienced in school and general life because of their geekiness.
    And as you kind of allude to ostracism probably on works effectively when you have a majority support in the community for your actions. And in a geek community where many have suffered through ostracism because of what other non geek people believed to be true about them, geeks are going to require a very high level of “proof” before participating.

  4. I turned my comment into a Geek Feminism post, if people want to pursue the Geek Social Fallacies angle a lot.

  5. On another note, does anyone know of any resources that would be useful to give to someone who has been a victim of sexual harassment that helps empower them to talk to someone about it? All I can find is really basic sheets with definitions and some generic advice to talk to someone, but I want something that addresses how they might feel and actually helps put them in a space in which they feel comfortable telling someone. So far I have downloaded some stuff from the Equal Opportunity Commission, and I’m looking around elsewhere too, but I thought less formal resources would be valuable – blog posts dealing with these issues, for eg.
    Sorry if this is derailing, I’m just on the search now and.. I’ve read so may articles and posts on this I’m not sure where to begin finding something that would be useful for someone in that situation, and who probably isn’t familiar with a lot of the language and feminist discourse around the issue.
    This person is mostly a stranger and I just want to give them stuff that might help, with the hope that they will talk to key people so that the professional relationship between organisations ends and others like her aren’t put in that situation. But obviously I myself don’t want to pressure her into telling anyone, for reasons that I’m sure most of you here will understand.
    (And as grad students the issue of power differentials and personal stakes is very relevant)

  6. PS Just because I wasn’t clear – despite my last part in parentheses, this person’s actual professional relationship with the harasser is long over, the stakes not as high now as they were at the time. So this person does not face dire material consequences for sharing the information in terms of her job and studies. I *think* (but obviously can’t say with any authority) the barriers are the usual social repercussions for people who have been harassed and intimidated. I don’t think she feels comfortable approaching the relevant authority figures, I’m presuming that’s why she hasn’t done so.
    I just want to help so that she feels she has options should she ever be in this position again, and so that she might consider telling an authority (or allowing me to do so anonymously) so that future grad students in our course are not placed with this person who harassed her. These are my concerns, feel free to tell me if I’m out of line here. I’m not in a position to ‘shun’ nor am I in a position of power, but if I can do anything to help then I want to.

  7. Thanks for thoughts, all. Mary, I’m entirely onboard with the complexities, which I think is why I found the APPS post interesting :because it came from within the community, and from 3 men, and kind of suggested that a new norm of behaviour be set (like, making the issue of (b) a matter of explicit negotiation, rather than just the unspoken status quo. And I find it particularly intriguing because the community in question is, of course, semi-professional: it’s informal, but still academic, and has the potential to have significant effects on whoever is shunned…
    Elaine, that was precisely my concern when I was reading everything: I’ve dealt with discrimination as a student, and found the system really problematic (‘I would never!’ sayeth the man. ‘Oh well, then’ sayeth the head of dept, ‘he would never. Case closed.’) And I knew that to push it any further would risk positioning myself as the problem; funnily enough, stories about these kinds of boat-rockers get around a lot more quickly that those about sexual discriminators and harassers. Sorry to hear about your experience, Elaine: that’s really awful, and I wish there was more support for you!!

  8. @Rayna, sorry that your posts above sat in moderation for a while – I suspect that WildlyP was asleep over in the Netherlands. I don’t have any suggestions right now, I just wanted to bump this thread to the top of the sidebar so that people get a chance to read your comments.

  9. @Rayna My apologies too! :-)
    As far as reading material goes, I don’t really have any, although many universities and other institutions will have a flyer/brochure about harassment and discrimination, usually with contact details for people to talk to. What I think it sometimes missing from those brochures is the point that if you are feeling uncertain about whether or not something counts, about what the consequences are etc, those people are usually available for that purpose as well. Also counsellors, woman’s room co-ordinators and equity people can be good to approach.
    The alternative I might suggest is sending her somewhere like What is is like to be a woman in philosophy?, just because reading others’ stories, and discovering a community of people who consider these behaviours problematic (or illegal, or whatever) can be enough to help you reassess your own experience, to realise that your injured feelings are not markers of your own hypersensitivity, but recognition of injustice… sorry I don’t have more thoughts though!
    Thanks for thoughts, everyone; it’s been interesting to think about. I also wanted to update you all that there’s a new blog called ’What are you doing about what it’s like: Making thing better for women in philosophy’ which, when it opens, is seeking to tell some of the more positive stories about institutional change. I like this ideas-sharing, and hope that it gives us some more ideas about how to tackle misogyny. Whilst I like the shunning idea, as others have suggested, it’s insufficient on its own, and can create bigger problems. But I for one would like to give especially men explicit approval for not being okay with sexual harassment and discrimination, and to make that visible (shunning is not the only way to do that, but it is one). Because although their status in the masculine bloc can be at stake, and I get that that can be a scary thing to put at risk (yes, there’s a privilege conversation to be had here too, but I’d like to acknowledge why it can be hard), it also means that that move (disapproval or shunning) has more significance for other harassing men than when women do it.

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