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?