APA Issues Letter on Sexual Harassment
The Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association (APA) has published an open letter on sexual harassment. It is addressed ” first and foremost to victims of sexual harassment within the profession of philosophy, and secondly, to all members of the APA.”
We are committed, both personally and as the primary governing body of the association, to combatting the widespread and well-documented problem of sexual harassment in our profession and to supporting our colleagues who have been victimized by sexual harassment. We hope that all members of the profession will stand with us in condemning sexual harassment in all its forms, and in supporting victims of sexual harassment so that they may continue their professional lives as valued members of our discipline.
To the victims, the letter says:
Many of you have not received adequate support from your colleagues and redress from your institutions. All of you, we assume, have had both your personal and your professional lives deeply affected by your experiences. These effects are likely to endure for years to come…
All of you who remain in the discipline of philosophy face the prospect of encountering your harasser in professional philosophical settings whether at your academic institution or at philosophical conferences.
We, the board of officers of the APA, want you to know that we recognize the hardship imposed on you and the structural obstacles to recognizing and addressing sexual harassment.
The letter also issues a call for “all philosophy departments to commit to eliminating sexual harassment; the first step toward this is vigorously and immediately pursuing all allegations of sexual harassment.”
The letter provides some general advice both for victims and others, about where to learn about sexual harassment policies and about how to seek help from the APA. The APA, though, is limited in what it can do:
We recently consulted with legal counsel regarding the APA’s additional options for responding to sexual harassment; we explored sanctions such as denying conference registration by or revoking the APA membership of those found by their institutions to have committed sexual harassment, as well as supportive actions, such as providing victims with a buddy system at APA meetings. Unfortunately, these kinds of measures open the APA to excessive legal liability.
The whole letter is posted below and is available here. There is also an article about the letter at Inside Higher Ed, which includes some reactions to it from a few members of the profession.
Still no comments? How’s that possible?Report
The APA mentions “the widespread and well-documented problem of sexual harassment in the profession”.
That’s odd, considering the number of times people have publicly begged for any credible documentation to support this speculative ‘widespread’ trend. As far as I know, there is absolutely none. The anecdotal, unverified, unverifiable and cherry-picked claims made on ‘What It’s Like’ and elsewhere of course do not qualify.
The writing of this letter the consent of its signatories can easily be explained by sociological factors that in no way depend on the existence of any actual problem or documentation.
This is not to deny, of course, that there are some cases of sexual harassment in the discipline, just as there must be instances of all kinds of problems in every discipline and every profession. But there doesn’t seem to be any credible basis for believing that there is a widespread problem in philosophy, despite all the excitement and ideological commitment to this belief.Report
As recent cases in the U of Miami and Northwestern have made clear, women who report harassment may come to regret deeply doing do. Because of this, we may need to rely on what is, to the world reading them, unverifiable anecdotes on blogs. To dismiss all these voices, very often filtered through conscientious sources, is to take a very definite epistemic stance toward all the women using one of the safe recources they have for making their experiences more public. Perhaps that stance is assumed out of a great desire to avoid risk. But when it is accompanied by dismissing the agreement of the APA Board, it seems to become itself quite risky.
Is the anecdotal evidence credible? I doubt that anyone who has been involved in trying to improve the status of women in philosophy dismisses the anecdotal evidence. We’ve all see and too often experienced much more than we would like.Report
Thank you, Anonymous, for nicely summarizing the perspective of far too many in academic philosophy.Report
Thank you. I agree. I speak as someone forced out of the profession with a proven case of harassment (witnesses, harasser admitted it and had no energy for a civil case).Report
Commentator #3: While perhaps ‘well-documented’ was a poor choice of words (for it perhaps suggest official or legal documentation), I think that if one is going to deny that the problem is widespread or serious, one has to either be ignorant of the kinds of things that women in the profession often share with one another, but rarely succeed in doing something official about, or one has to think that the women in the profession are engaged in some sort of mass hysteria involving making up large numbers of sexual harassment cases. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one known sexual harasser at roughly half of the phd-granting departments I am reasonably familiar with (quite a lot of them). Now, you might deny the ‘known’ part, but I think women in the profession have very little to gain by lying to one another about their experiences with men in the profession, and I also think there is *so much* of this discussion going on that you really would have to think that there is some mass movement of women lying about bad experiences with men in the profession to get the result you seem to want here. (I should note that an unfortunate implication of what I just wrote is that it sounds like I think only women are sexually harassed in philosophy. I don’t think that’s true at all, and I imagine in some sense it is even harder to be a non-woman and be sexually harassed, because one probably lacks a network of people who will be sympathetic.)
Also, as a person who has been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by multiple philosophers (both grad students and faculty) I guess I would find it pretty hard to believe that this wasn’t fairly common even if I *wasn’t* tuned into this network of women warning each other about certain men in the profession. Yeah, generalizing from a case of one is bad, on the one hand, but on the other hand, I’ve got no reason to think that I’m somehow special here, or that I’ve done something that’s caused this many men to do these things to me that others have not. I also have every reason to think that the people who have done these things to me have done them to many other women in the profession.
I don’t really see any reason for denying that women’s word to one another is evidence that there is a major problem in the profession. Many of the signatories of this letter are people who are knowledgeable about this, and I don’t really see how it could harm you, or anyone else, to just take their word for it.
I really want to thank the board for writing this letter.Report
My experience is that if you stay in the profession for a while, befriend a cross section of women in the profession, and keep your ears open, you will hear all the data you need to conclude that philosophy has a serious problem. But, as Anne says, the stories are on the blogs too.Report
One hopes there’s a sensible middle ground in between “dismissing” anecdotal evidence of sexual harassment and relying exclusively on anecdotal and secret evidence to draw firm conclusions about who has and has not committed sexual harassment.Report
Another anecdote here. I don’t feel like going into it now. I’ve done so before here and at FP, but not at What it’s Like. For now I’ll just say that as an experience, it was pretty wack and as a life event, instrumental in ruining everything for a while.
Hopefully philosophers can spend more time doing philosophy now and less time dealing with being sexually harassed.Report
This is commenter 3 in the sequence.
@Anne Jacobson: Yes, I am taking a definite epistemic stand on the people using the What It’s Like blog. My stand is that many of the people are likely reporting events as they saw and recall them, and that we’re not in a good position to guess what proportion of women in the profession those reporters represent.
I really wish that one of the many feminist organizations in the discipline, or the APA itself, would do what clearly needs to be done here and conduct a decent survey of a good and randomized cross-section of women in the discipline at all levels, asking non-leading and very specific questions about non-subjective matters. That way, we could at last have some data that might inform these discussions. But such a survey could also undercut a narrative on which several organizations ideologically depend, and that narrative seems to be strongly accepted without decent evidence, so it’s not surprising that there’s no motivation in those organizations to take the risk of gathering the evidence.
I agree that the moderator or moderators of the What It’s Like blog, and others working to combat harassment, are in a better position to assess the merits of some accusations. But look, we all know that it’s commonplace for one side reporting on any incident to present things in a way that supports his or her side. If one is aiming to comfort and support the individual, taking an uncritical stance toward the story may be the right thing to do. But if we’re trying to figure out how much these anecdotes say about the profession, we have to know how many of them are fair representations of what happened, how many of them are somewhat biased representations, and how many of them are wildly different from what happened. Except in unusual circumstances, the people collecting or hearing these anecdotes don’t even hear the side of the accused person. Even looking at the stories that are reporduced on What It’s Like, one can see that many and perhaps most of them would not be clear cases of sexual harassment even if the reporter described the objective facts accurately, since the apparent harassment depends on a subjective reading the person attributes to some actions or words of the vaguely accused person. So I stand by my claim that these anecdotes are cherry picked (they don’t come from a random cross section of women but rather from people who wrote in to complain), unverified (the moderator or moderators don’t investigate the issue before posting the story, and lack the forensic training to do so anyway), and unverifiable (we readers don’t have the means to investigate these stories ourselves or even to figure out how many of them are written by the same person).
Am I “dismissing the agreement of the APA board” in remaining agnostic about the extent of harassment in the profession? Not unfairly, I suggest. Again, I don’t deny that there are some cases of sexual harassment or that this is lamentable and ought to be stopped. The question is whether it is “widespread” in the profession, as the APA board claims in the letter. It would be one thing if the APA board members had been provided with some objective evidence that established that it was widespread, like the kind of survey or other evidence that needs to be presented before anyone can be warranted in claiming that it’s widespread, and on that basis wrote the letter, and then I couldn’t see the evidence for some acceptable reason. Then, I might be wise to trust the integrity and critical thinking skills of the APA board members. But this isn’t what happened. The APA board members have no further objective evidence than you or I do. Or if they do have such evidence, it’s mysterious why they don’t present it. They merely believe on the basis of the available evidence plus the powerful social influences of the constant repetition of the ‘widespread sexual harassment’ claim that there’s widespread sexual harassment. And now their acceptance of that claim is being used as yet another data point by you in your response to me. But no matter how many people repeat and believe the claim, the actual evidence is no greater and no stronger.
@Anon grad student (Comment 7): I’m genuinely sorry to hear that you’ve been harassed. I, too, know many people in many departments. I would guess I know a couple hundred philosophers in total. Of those, two of them have told me they were sexually harassed. In one case, the story seemed pretty serious but it was so vague I couldn’t tell what was supposed to have gone on. In the other case, the person told me exactly what happened: a comment was made to her. Personally, I wouldn’t have thought the incident was harassment at all even if it really happened just as the person reported it. I also know some women in the profession quite well who have told me that they’ve never been harassed and have never met any other women who were, either. And I’ve had an undergraduate student tell me that she almost didn’t take a course because she’d heard philosophy is horrible for women, but that she now thinks all that is ‘bullshit’ and wishes nobody had misled her by saying that.
So whose anecdotal evidence should we trust, yours or mine? I think we should probably take it all with a grain of salt. I can think of several reasons why people who were genuinely harassed would not want to disclose that to certain acquaintances. I can also think of several reasons why, in other social contexts, people would like to spread rumors about people or present themselves as victims. And yes, we know that happens, too. Just this year, many cases have come to light in which well-known accusations turned out to be false. I’m *not* saying this is commonplace or that we should assume it. I’m also not saying that there isn’t a widespread epidemic of sexual harassment. For all I know, there might be. Maybe half the women in the discipline are being sexually harassed. Maybe it’s less than one percent. I have no idea, and I don’t think you or anyone else does, either. All I’m saying is, let’s do the research first and discuss the results second. And until then, let’s avoid misleading the public by talking about the *extent* of sexual harassment being “well documented” when it just isn’t well documented and nobody has even taken the steps to give us a rough estimate of how extensive it is.Report
Crimlaw: “relying exclusively on anecdotal and secret evidence to draw firm conclusions about who has and has not committed sexual harassment.” — You are not proposing that the APA letter is doing that, I hope.Report
To Anonymous @12 — I was not proposing that the APA letter is doing that. The APA letter did not draw any firm conclusions about who has and has not committed sexual harassment. So obviously the APA did not do this by relying on anecdotes or anything else. For it’s stated reasons, the APA is declining to take any stand about specific cases.Report
Anonymous 3–has it occurred to you that people don’t disclose that they have been sexually harassed to you precisely because you have the kinds of views that you are espousing here? And please don’t say you’re sorry. I don’t need your pity, and, moreover, I have every reason to think that you believe that I am lying or “presenting things in a way that supports my side”. These arguments that it’s just your word (someone who imho no one in their right mind would disclose to about sexual harassment, if they a) wanted to be trusted and b) needed it kept in confidence) against mine, or any other person who *has* heard a huge number of these stories, do not get things right. The whole point is that the vast majority of women in the profession who are sexually harassed are very careful about who they disclose these things to, and that puts the people who are getting disclosed to at an epistemic advantage compared to you–unless you want to start yelling feminist conspiracy or mass female hysteria. The point is that *not* having heard these things is not strong evidence that they have not happened, whereas having heard them *is* strong evidence that they have happened. Is it defeasible evidence? Of course. But if you’re in a position to have tons and tons of it, as I know some of the signatories to that letter are, it becomes less and less likely that the entire thing is a giant scam or feminist conspiracy or whatever you think it is.Report
Sorry, I should have said: if you are in a position to have tons and tons of it, then it starts looking like the only way to defeat the majority of it would be to endorse some kind of feminist conspiracy or mass female hysteria view. You might think there are cases where people are making things up or embellishing, but do you really think that the *majority* of cases are like that? If not, you are in a position of having to accuse the people who have heard of so many of these cases of lying about them themselves.Report
Hi, anon grad student.
Is it likely “that people don’t disclose that they have been sexually harassed to [me] precisely because [I] have the kinds of views that [I] am espousing here?” Not really. First, I haven’t been presenting a view here. I’ve been arguing that, while we have good reason to believe that sexual harassment is certainly occurring in philosophy, we are not actually in a good position to think that it’s extensive or that it isn’t extensive. Second, I tend to be very secretive about these doubts. Even close friends of mine don’t know that I entertain this agnosticism about how extensive it is. I’m frankly concerned about the backlash I would get, so I tend to keep my mouth shut and not raise questions when the topic comes up.
Possibly, some of the women I know have been harassed but don’t tell me because they don’t make a habit of telling people about these personal and painful stories. That is certainly understandable and plausible. It’s also plausible that many of the people who tell you and others about their experiences are presenting a distorted version of what happened. It’s human nature to do that. We’re always hearing people tell us about horrible colleagues or supervisors or students or whoever else doing awful things, and you can bet that the person being discussed would tell the story quite differently. I’m not saying that the stories we’re told are never true enough, or even that we never have a good basis for judging that. Maybe, for all I know, the people who have told you their stories have told them about people you know personally and you were able to interview those other people as well. Or maybe they presented you with clear evidence that was so strong and unambiguous that you didn’t even need to interview the other people to be confident that the stories you were being told were true. Or who knows, maybe you genuinely know the people who were telling the stories so well and for so long that you had great evidence that these people never distort the truth in personal anecdotes. I don’t know you, and maybe one of those things is true of you. If so, then I agree that you have good evidence that the stories you’re being told are true enough to justify your belief that a significant percentage of the women you know have been sexually harassed. And it’s also possible, for all I know, that you have good grounds for believing that the women you know really represent a random sample of the women in the profession in general (and not a biased section that were drawn to talk to you, or that you were drawn to, because of your common experiences). Were that the case, then I would agree that you have good grounds for believing that there is a widespread problem.
But look, I don’t have those grounds, and I don’t have any reason to believe that you or anyone else has those grounds. And all I’m saying is that we should take the steps to get some good evidence on this before we go around saying that it’s widespread *or* that it isn’t widespread. We just don’t know, unless you actually are in that great epistemic position. And even if you are in that position, it doesn’t chance the fact that there isn’t any good documentary evidence available to those who signed the letter, as far as I know and as far as they’ve clarified. So it strikes me as quite misleading for the letter to claim that the claim that it’s “widespread” is “well documented”. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not implying that it is or isn’t widespread. I really don’t know. I just think it does more harm than good for the goal of encouraging women to join or stay in the profession when these sorts of claims are made in the absence of good documentary evidence and they’re claimed to be “well documented” in official APA releases. I don’t think that’s such a horrible thing to think or say.Report
Anon gradrig, “The whole point is that the vast majority of women in the profession who are sexually harassed are very careful about who they disclose these things to, and that puts the people who are getting disclosed to at an epistemic advantage …”. There are many kinds of knowledge that are directly available only to people occupying certain positions. Sometimes it is scientists with very specialized knowledge, but it could also be someone who suffered abuse that left no historical record. It is only his or her word.
The present case of harassment in the philosophy profession isn’t exactly like either of these, but, in the case of many who support the APA’s letter, it does involve people having knowledge that isn’t readily accessible to everyone in the profession. It is really very unlikely we could change that any time soon. A well-designed questionaire that is reasonably well protected from various knds of cheaters could easily cost tens of thousands, and no amount of money will guarantee that there will be enough answers to yield statistically significant data.
So what do we do? we have those supporting/sharing the views of highly trained philosophers who are in what’s got to be the most critical profession going. (I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to say to someone that I am very sorry, but I just cannot believe something just because someone says it is so.) Ignoring what they are saying because it isn’t like a survey seems to me to employ a highly restricted idea of epistemic merit while at the same time not taking any step to alleviate what many good people think is a pretty dire problem.
There’s some suggestion that those supporting the APA statement are getting benefits in some way. Don’t I wish!Report
Ask any woman in philosophy if she’s ever been sexually harassed or known anyone who has, and the answer will be a resounding Yes. As Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women, I’ve heard enough stories from women who have been harassed, or had their views dismissed by their colleagues, or been silenced or shamed at departmental meetings, to make your hair stand on end. Unless you want to call your colleagues liars without proof that they are liars, you should apply the same epistemic standards here that you apply elsewhere. You’ve heard the reasons why targets of harassment don’t speak out more often; you’ve seen what happened to the student at Northwestern who did. You have to take very seriously the obstacles to reporting harassment, so that you understand why a survey of all philosophers is unlikely to generate any more information than we already have–which is that harassment is ubiquitous. Also, calls for surveys and such are a way of changing the topic. If, as most of us acknowledge, there is harassment in the profession, then it’s pretty much beside the point to start arguing about how much of it there is. What we SHOULD be talking about is how to help put an end to it.Report
To concur with Anne Jacobson’s and Hilde Lindemann’s points above, I’d just like to reiterate here how deeply problematic it is that we’re still going out of our way to come up with extraordinary demands for evidence of the existence of a problem that many, many women in the profession, individually and together, have been calling out for literally decades now. One might even say that the constant refusal to take them at their word is symptomatic of exactly the sort of climate that also allows sexual harassment to be an all too frequent — and frequently unaddressed — phenomenon.Report
Anne Jacobson–I’m a little confused about why you quoted me, then made it sound as though you were disagreeing with me about the questionnaire. But it was the person I was responding to who was demanding the questionnaire. I just want to be clear that there’s no connection between the quote at the beginning of your comment and what you say in the other parts of it (which I take it are not targeting me?). I *thought* this was the first time we’d ever agreed about anything, but I now can’t tell if you are disagreeing with me or not.Report
Anon grad student, my comment got garbled, probably because I tried to correct a typo. I was trying to say you were right in saying what I quoted. I’m sorry for the mess-up, and I’m glad you asked for clarification.Report
Hi, Anonymous 3. I think you’re assuming “widespread” must mean something fairly evenly distributed across all members of a group or profession. But sexual harassment is well-documented by social scientists as tending to be higher in prevalence in industries that are disproportionately male, and higher in prevalence in workplaces that centrally feature hierarchies of power; therefore, sexual misconduct is not equally distributed among members (because the population is, itself, disproportionate and elaborately hierarchical). It can be ‘widespread,’ affecting many, but not distributed evenly. It can even affect a majority of members and would-be members, but if the effects are more often felt by students, junior faculty, and contingently employed members, who are less likely to remain members of the group, it can be widespread at the bottom of the pyramid, without being documentable by random selection of continuing members.
I agree with you, in part, that some sort of survey would be desirable and if done well, a knowledge-gain for APA members. I was not involved with the formation of today’s Open Letter, but I did chair the ad hoc committee that formulated the initial recommendations regarding sexual harassment in the profession (http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/sexualharassmentreport.pdf), and one of my early suggestions to the ad hoc committee was that we model a survey of APA members on the excellent work done by field anthropologists who demonstrated significant sexual misconduct experiences among men and women in anthropological field work, and whose survey results were widely reported. (In fact, those anthropologists sent me their instruments and encouraged me to use them, great colleagues!) Committee members could not pursue such a survey at the time because we were all full-time employees around the continent who were pressed for time to get out any recommendations, but I did share your intuition that something like it would be worth doing.
However, you’ll see if you read any of the pop-sci-mag write-ups about the anthropologists’ survey that the early efforts of the anthropologists were remarkably like the anonymous story-gathering that you criticize above (see, for instance, http://news.sciencemag.org/archaeology/2013/04/survey-finds-sexual-harassment-anthropology). The survey was an online and voluntary survey which did not “really represent a random sample of the women in the profession in general” and it was not dedicated to documenting an incidence rate across the profession. I think their efforts bore fruit anyway, because in small industries, a number of stories need not be distributed to show a problem. I strongly disagree with implications that those who take part in these endeavors are interested in showing there is a problem, but that’s merely because I, for one, would love to discover bad experiences are not widespread in Philosophy.
Further, I wish to attest that many of the officers who signed the open letter have very good grounds for the view that sexual harassment has been widely experienced; some of the signatories have been directly approached with a number of personal accounts, and while this gives them epistemic privilege, I do not see how it undermines their averring a problem. I agree with you that “we” lack data as to whether or not sexual harassment is widespread. I do not agree that “we” all need random surveys proving evenly distributed harassment for it to actually be widespread. A study satisfying all of us is not required for the truth of the proposition.
Having said all that, I think it wiser to read the phrase, “widespread and well-documented problem of sexual harassment in our profession,” more charitably to mean something far less mysterious: it seemed to me at first glance to be a vague way for officers to gesture to plural numbers of stories in the press about sexual harassment in our profession in the past few years. I took “well-documented” to cover journalistic accounts.Report
You say, “Ask any woman in philosophy if she’s ever been sexually harassed or known anyone who has, and the answer will be a resounding Yes.”
As I said above, this universal claim is shown to be false in my own experience. I recall asking this directly of at least three separate female friends in philosophy. Not one of them said yes. They all said they hadn’t been sexually harassed and didn’t know anyone who had (in the sense of knowing them personally, that is. Naturally, they knew thirdhand about the celebrated cases).
How can this be explained? I don’t doubt many other people, including you, who report having got a very different impression. The simplest explanation may be that there are places where this happens a lot and others where it doesn’t. That wouldn’t be too surprising. If a department has a harasser that nobody is doing anything about, then that person is liable to harass several people. And perhaps other people pick up some bad attitudes or practices or attitudes from the harasser, or at least see that harassment goes unpunished there. In that case, there would be considerable harassment in those departments. And if the other department members have chosen to do nothing about the problem for some reason, then it would make sense that they would also silence or shame the accusers at department meetings, since they would then have an interest in the boat not being rocked, unfortunately. This would further embolden the harasser or harassers. Meanwhile, in other departments, people would be decent and/or would drum out anyone who isn’t decent, and women would never be harassed. Quite possibly, I’ve just found myself in such departments. I don’t thereby deny that there are other departments where harassment is rampant, and please be assured, I do think something should be done to stop that.
How many departments are harassment-prone, and how many have no harassment? I don’t know, and it seems from this conversation that nobody is in a good position to answer that one.
You confidently assert, however, that “harassment is ubiquitous.” I really have to say that wild overstatements like that do little to help advance the discussion or strengthen anyone’s credibility. Can we please do without the hyperbole?
You say I should apply the same epistemic standards here that I apply elsewhere. And I do. If someone I don’t know accuses someone else I don’t know of something, whatever it is, I try not to assume that the claim is true or that it’s false. I promise you that I’m not making any special exception in this case. I would treat an allegation of theft, plagiarism, racism, murder, fraud, reckless driving, or anything else the same way.
You say “[w]hat we SHOULD be talking about is how to help put an end to it.” I agree. We don’t need the claim that sexual harassment is “widespread” or that this claim is “widely documented” to know that there’s some sexual harassment, and that we ought to find effective ways of stopping it. I really wish the document hadn’t made the extreme and baseless claims, but let’s focus on how to help put an end to it.
One thing you mention, I think rightly, is that the negative fallout that affected the Northwestern complainant could serve as a deterrent against others complaining. To her example could be added the Miami case. These people brought their complaints to the relevant bodies, but then their identities and private lives became a matter of public discussion and they were pulled to and fro like baubles by the opposing camps. And why did this happen, in a system that is intended to protect the confidentiality of all the parties for exactly this reason? As I understand it, in the Northwestern case the story came out because the complainant wasn’t satisfied with the severity of the punishment and in the Miami case because the complainant’s boyfriend leaked the story to a journalist. Once these stories came out, a large number of people, some well organized, decided the right thing was to broadcast the story everywhere to shame the accused and ‘raise awareness’ about the issue. Predictably, this shaming led the accused in both cases to fight back. This reaction to public disgrace should not have been surprising to anyone This began cycles in which all the private details of both parties’ lives were put under the microscope, causing them long term damage. Meanwhile, political pressure and the relaxation of the usual standards of evidence used elsewhere led to some discomfort about the fairness of the proceedings, perhaps justifiably. And the endless repetition of the “Philosophy is rife with sexual harassment” claim in the mass media has no doubt turned many women away from the profession. If, as some have suggested, a key to reducing the harassment that exists is to increase the ratio of women to men, that’s a heavy cost to the strategy.
Is this ‘public shaming and public discussion of private cases’ strategy of stopping harassment effective, ineffective, or actually counterproductive? And are there other strategies we should be looking at? Maybe this would be a useful conversation on your proposed topic of how we should go about stopping the sexual harassment there is.Report
Can we talk about having a “buddy system” at a professional academic conference?Report
Hi folks. I’ve been getting some messages asking about why I’m not moderating away the comments from Anonymous3. One person thoughtfully remarked that allowing his comments through was “rather counterproductive attached to a letter designed to help victims feel listened to and trusted.” I understand this line of thinking, but I don’t agree with it. For Anonymous3 represents an interesting philosophical approach from which we can all learn.
First, Anonymous3 has carefully read the APA’s letter and has decided that what is most worth commenting on in it is the word “widespread,” which appears once towards the end of the letter. That’s an interesting choice. It shows an attention to detail, though to a detail very few of us would have thought, on our own, to pay much attention to. For Anonymous3, that there’s sexual harassment, that people have suffered as a result of it, that there are things we can do about it when it happens, that the APA is for the first time making a public statement about it in support of those who’ve been harassed, that the APA admits it is rather limited in what it can directly do, and that the letter invites us to support victims—all of that is not as worthy of our attention as is the fact that the letter did not include a justification for using the term “widespread.” People, imagine the awful things that would happen were we to be slightly off in our estimation of how many people in philosophy have been sexually harassed before we made sure to be supportive of victims of sexual harassment and learn about the relevant laws and policies.
Second, one must admire Anonymous3’s analytical approach. He doesn’t quite lay his cards on the table, but it is clear that he has in mind necessary and sufficient conditions for when a phenomenon is “widespread.” Most of us have a looser conception of “widespread,” like, “happens quite a bit at a several places.” Anonymous3 is having none of that vagueness, thank you very much, for he has figured out exactly what “widespread” means. I only wish he would tell us. How many cases of sexual harassment must there be, at how many different institutions, for it to be “widespread”? He is not going to spoil us by just giving us the answer, I can tell. No good teacher would. Don’t worry, though. I’m sure once we figure out how many cases of sexual harassment there actually are, he’ll tell us how far short it falls of being “widespread.” Then we can do something with our time besides being supportive of victims and learning about the relevant laws and policies.
Third, one can’t help but appreciate Anonymous3’s scientific cast of mind. This is not a philosopher who is afraid to get his hands dirty with empirical research. He calls for a survey to figure out how much sexual harassment there is. To be honest, I can’t think of a better way to get an accurate count. Let’s do it! Ladies, please come forward and tell us if you’ve been sexually harassed. Don’t forget to provide all of the awful details so that Anonymous3 can make sure you are not being oversensitive. Also, we’ll need some evidence, as, unless you are personal friends with Anonymous3, we can’t tell whether you are even telling us the truth. Maybe you’re just lying about having been sexually harassed in order to obtain all of the benefits such a lie will bring you.
Finally, note how comfortable Anonymous3 is with paradox. We need detailed, publicly accessible testimony in order to verify the existence of sexual harassment. But we mustn’t talk about the problem of sexual harassment, certainly not in any detail, for doing so will only cause more problems. The worst thing we could do is publicly discuss, together, specific instances of sexual harassment, in an attempt to learn from them and perhaps deter or avoid future instances of it, for, by doing so we will only end up making things worse for ourselves. We’ll be forcing those who have engaged in the objectionable behavior to say things which are hurtful to their victims. Victims, just keep it to yourself (and your Title IX compliance officer)—for your own sake.
See? I really doubt most of us would have realized any of these things without Anonymous3’s comments. It’s just too bad we don’t know who Anonymous3 is, so we can thank him appropriately. He has selflessly posted without revealing his name, forgoing all credit he might have received for sharing his insights. Such anonymous posting is to be applauded—except at the “What It’s Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?” site, where anonymity is used to protect lying feminist ideologues, obviously.Report
@Kate Lane Norlock: Thank you for your generous and interesting reply. It’s good to hear that you, also, thought it would be useful to actually try to get some sense of how extensive the phenomenon is and get beyond the mere anecdotes for once. I think we can both agree that a study will never be perfect, and there will always be room for some reasonable disagreement on how prevalent it is. But my hope, and perhaps yours also, is that we could at least get some general sense of the range of reasonable options. Right now, that seems lacking.
I actually don’t have a problem with doing a survey based partly on anecdotes, as you describe the one the anthropologists used. Yes, it’s a somewhat imperfect method of doing the research, but in this case I don’t know what could be better.
I also strongly agree that “a study satisfying all of us is not required for the truth of the proposition.” The fact of how much sexual harassment there is remains a fact whether or not there’s a study that shows it.
If “widespread and well-documented” is intended to mean just that there have been a number of cases and at least two or three of them have been reported widely, I agree that’s true. But I think it’s important to be careful how one puts these things. The evil of dissuading women from joining or staying in philosophy might be outweighed sometimes, but it’s still an evil that we should avoid when possible. I sincerely am concerned that women not get turned off the discipline because they read a sentence in a plausible way when something else is met. Already, thanks to some irresponsible journalists, philosophy is being portrayed as uniformly hostile to women. I do not think that that view is warranted or good for women or philosophy. Aside from that, Kate, I think you and I might agree on this. Thanks again for the comment.
@Anne Jacobson: thanks for the responses. I’m not so sure about the epistemic claim you’re making. Maybe an analogous case will help. Let’s suppose I or someone close to me has been badly affected by plagiarism. Maybe a surgeon who plagiarized his or her way through medical school botched an operation. This is a big deal for me, understandably, and I tell lots of other people about it. Some people have gone through similar things and bond with me over it. We end up deciding to focus on the phenomenon in our work, which we call ‘honest philosophy’, which has a positive ring to it. Our research is closely connected with political and administrative work we do in the profession to help rid it of plagiarism. In the context of seminars and committees on the subject, I come to hear about hundreds of cases of alleged plagiarism. I also meet some people who think that plagiarism isn’t as extensive or serious as I think it is, but neither I nor these other people enjoys our exchanges and we don’t stay in touch. Then I become the chair of a very large committee on the plagiarism problem. At this point, most people close to me are fellow crusaders against plagiarism. People come to me at social events to thank me and tell me their personal stories of plagiarism. Some weeks, I can’t even open my inbox without reading several plagiarism stories. I’m not naive, and I don’t automatically believe all the stories I’m told. But many of them seem very plausible.
Now someone wonders how widespread plagiarism is in philosophy. Have I become an expert on the issue? I would say no. I know many things about plagiarism and how it’s done, and I know of many cases of plagiarism. But the story I’ve just told you is consistent with a world in which 90%, 10%, 1%, or even 0.01% of people plagiarize. I’m surrounded with plagiarism stories and have good grounds for thinking many of them, maybe even most of them, are true. But that tells me nothing *proportionally* about how widespread the problem is.
This is even clearer when one considers my counterpart, who feels confident that plagiarism charges are overblown. She goes around meeting and hearing the stories of false accusations of plagiarism that ruined people, or of other ways that the anti-plagiarism crusade hurts people. She’s on a huge committee to investigate the ways in which what she thinks is the ‘plagiarism scare’ is perpetuated. She concludes from her own experience that plagiarism is so rare as to be practically nonexistent.
I think both these people would be experts in one sense, but that neither one has a good epistemic basis for making any claim about how widespread plagiarism is. To be that kind of expert, it’s not enough to know one side of the issue. You need to have some basis of a proportionality judgment in your data collection. That’s what I’m not seeing here. I hope that helps make my grounds for uncertainty clearer.Report
What I just learned from Justin’s comment is how intolerant and prone to censorship some readers are, that they are afraid of discussing a well articulated and clearly honest view, which happens to be the most liked in the comment section.
Also I cannot but understand why anonymity is sadly needed to state ideas, for otherwise Anon 3 will be the focus of ad hominem, harassment and public shaming – the rethorical resources of the intolerant.
Further I learn from Justin’s comment that I should never ever dream of making a formal complaint against my harasser, since I am a man and she is a woman – unlike the APA statement, the discussion in the comment section was never gender neutral.
Authorities like the APA and editors like Justin demand me to accept their views on the basis of testimony, narrative and of course, power. If I dare to demand more robust forms of evidence, I am treated as a moral abomination. I cannot but be suspicious.Report
Sorry if this has been addressed previously, but do we have any data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy as opposed to the disciplines that are closest in culture, e.g. economics and the hard sciences? It’s not very useful to compare philosophy with the other humanities, as those disciplines have gone down a very different path in the last century.Report
On a different, and I hope less contentious, point: I just want to say that I think the APA should be commended for taking legal advice when formulating the statement, listening seriously to it, and being very forthright and open about its implications and the constraints under which they have to work. It seems to me that people and organizations in academia very often propose large-scale policy initiatives and only later, as an afterthought, decide to investigate what the legal ramifications of those policies might be — which can result in miscommunication, wasted effort, unrealistic expectations, and a lot of unnecessary strife. Checking with lawyers first, as the APA did, is much better practice.Report
You inferred from Anon3’s choice that all of the important things Anon3 chose not to write about must not be ‘as worthy of our attention as is the fact that the letter did not include a justification for using the term “widespread.”’
Do you think that a comment on one part of a blog entry always implies that the commenter takes the rest of the entry to be less worthy of our attention? I don’t think that’s true, but I wonder if you do. Maybe there’s something special about this case.
I realize that your long reply to Anon3 was just snark, so maybe a serious question about it is out of place.Report
Wait a second. My reply was not “just snark.” I make five serious points in that comment. One can be serious without being somber, you know.
And, as for your particular question, well, my general response is that we should pay attention to the details that make a difference. So note that if, instead of writing “all of that is not as worthy of our attention as is” I had written “all of that is given little or no attention by Anonymous3 compared to,” there would have been no inference for you to complain about (an inference that is not that big a leap, in my view, but whatever), but no difference whatsoever in the substantive content of the point I was making.Report
Justin–I respectfully disagree and personally would have been happy if the comments were just closed on this letter from the beginning–why do we need to talk about it? It’s just the APA disseminating information. It might be ‘helpful’ for people who can just think to themselves, this person is making bad arguments and being ridiculous. But I do think that many of the people this letter was actually intended to help support will now feel worse having read this post/comments than they did before reading it all. I do agree that the comments from anon3 may be giving those people (and I include myself among them) a distorted picture of what philosophers really think about this letter, since I don’t think there’s much to really object to it even if one doesn’t consider oneself a feminist, etc. (You have to be on some bitter campaign, I think, to object to it–there’s just nothing objectionable about it. I still really want to know why anon3 is so concerned with discrediting it when all it is is a letter trying to support victims of sexual harassment.) But I suspect that it will be hard for a lot of people who are struggling with the repercussions of dealing with harassment already to so easily dismiss these comments. In short: I suspect it is a bit easier for you to laugh this off than it is for, e.g., some grad student in philosophy who has just been sexually assaulted by a faculty member in her department. So I guess I’d ask you to weigh that against the fact that it seems to be easy for *you* to dismiss this person by ridiculing them. For people whose identity as philosophers is (unfortunately) shaped by having had these kinds of experiences, I really doubt it is so easy.Report
Nono, could you say exactly why you think it matters? For example, what concrete steps are we taking that you think we should not take if we found out that, say, Physics was worse than Philosophy for this kind of thing?Report
Anne Jacobson: “It is really very unlikely we could change that any time soon. A well-designed questionaire that is reasonably well protected from various knds of cheaters could easily cost tens of thousands, and no amount of money will guarantee that there will be enough answers to yield statistically significant data.”
It seems to me that it would definitely be worth it to run such a survey, even at such a cost and even with the risk about the lack of statistically significant data (though to be honest I don’t exactly understand how there could be such a risk, but I assume this is just due to ignorance on my part.) If every member of the APA contributed a dollar or two, it looks like that would be enough to fund such a survey. Perhaps we could partially do it via a kickstarter campaign?Report
Anon grad, I’m sympathetic to some of what you say. As I said earlier in the thread, I think Anon 3 captured the view of many exceptionally well. I also agree with you that Anon 3 is not deserving of abuse for stating the rival view. That said, it’s not clear to me why is the testimony of your female colleagues isn’t good enough for you. They tell me there’s a problem. They’re in a position to know. And I believe them. (Their word is good enough for me.)Report
I’m sorry, I find it hard to get behind this attitude. Since when are philosophy blogs meant to be about protecting people’s feelings? I thought we were here to reason together.Report
It matters because a lot of the rhetoric seems to be about a problem specific to philosophy (given its isolation in the humanities class of comparison), whereas I’d guess that the problem has more to do with the ‘two cultures’ in academia and wider society.Report
Without weighing in on the relative merits or demerits of Anon 3’s stance, I just want to echo Anon grad #27 and say to the people who wrote to Justin asking him why he didn’t zap Anon 3’s comments: seriously? Someone says something you don’t like, and your first instinct is to demand censorship of the offending speech? All we need now is another post from Justin expressing “some skepticism about the idea that academic liberty is on the decline.”Report
Just to be more specific, this post has been viewed several thousand times, and the number of people who either messaged me or tweeted to express concern about Anonymous3’s postings was 3.Report
UCD Philosphy students seeking to put bottom up pressure on our institution to support gender equality related strategies, which also include tackling rape and sexual assault. Please support our cause and petition here: https://m.facebook.com/SSSSayGENReport
I was one of the people that expressed a concern to Justin about this thread. Anon grad in 27 thinks that’s because I’m scared to discuss these issues. I’m always pretty amused by anonymous interneters passing judgment on other people’s bravery levels – as if it’s a tremendously brave act to disagree with people anonymously on internet discussion boards. The Onion Man thinks that it’s just that I don’t like the view anon3 is expressing. But we *have* discussed these issues, time and time again, in various forums on the internet, and I haven’t shied away from discussing these issues myself, nor have I suggested that the opposed side should in general just be shut down before they get a chance to state their case. Stuff I don’t like goes up on the internet, and on this blog, all the time – literally all the time – without me suggesting that its appearance is inappropriate or should be curtailed.
What I don’t like is the idea that every post on the topic, no matter its purpose, should be treated as an opportunity to rehash this whole discussion *again*. There’s nothing new in anon3’s brand of scepticism to anyone who’s been paying any attention at all to discussions of sexual harassment and how it’s perceived and dealt with by universities and professions, and we know from all those earlier discussions that a truly determined sceptic won’t be impressed by any kind of evidence that could be forthcoming in this context. And so I don’t really see any potential for this discussion thread to be any more fruitful than the uncountably many earlier iterations of the same discussion without philosophy and more generally. On the other hand, I can see the potential for harm; I don’t think the point of posting the APAs letter should be for us to ‘reason together’ about it, as nono suggests above, but to at last send some kind of minimal signal of support to the primary addressees of the letter – the victims of sexual harassment within the profession. So I think there’s a danger of the thread undermining part of the point of the post and the letter, as I see it. If your first reaction to Justin posting this letter is to think of ways to treat this as an excuse for an online philosophy discussion group were we ‘reason together’ or worry about what exactly ‘widespread’ means in this context, I find that pretty alien and disturbing.
So Onion Man, yes, seriously. There should be a time and place for opposing views and to reason things out, but that doesn’t mean that *every* post on the topic has to be a platform for another round of that discussion, or else one side is being censored – you’re not being censored every time you don’t get to pick the time and place on someone else’s blog to express a particular view. And I’m troubled by the fact that this particular post has become a platform for anon3’s scepticism, rather than a place to show some empathy and support. Justin plainly disagrees with me on how to deal with that – he thinks that it’s best to let people air their views, as long as they do so respectfully, and to offer robust replies. I think that that’s probably the right approach in general, but in this case I don’t agree, since as I’ve said, I think that the potential for good to come of another discussion of this kind is virtually non-existent and the potential for harm rather higher (and I share anon grad student’s concern in 32 above). But I respect Justin’s position and decision, and I’m grateful that he’s engaged with those of us who’ve expressed worries.Report
A small but kind of obvious point. There can be widespread sexual harassment without there being a lot of people doing the sexual harassment.
I suspect that one reason some people resist the claim that there is widespread sexual harassment is that they themselves are not harassers and they don’t know anyone personally who is. Since as far as they can tell, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of harassers, they conclude there mustn’t be much harassment.
Suppose that no more than .01% of faculty harass but those that do harass at least 3 people. That’s a recipe for widespread harassment in the profession.Report
“Suppose that no more than .01% of faculty harass but those that do harass at least 3 people. That’s a recipe for widespread harassment in the profession.”
Since there are about 13,000 philosophy professors in the US, that would mean a grand total of one harasser, and a grand total of three victims. So, no, that’s not a recipe for widespread harassment.Report
The fact that folks are still discussing whether sexual harassment is a thing that happens or not, speaks to the fact that there is a gulf between what people of different genders experience and perceive. Speaking as a cis-man, I think most professors of my gender are so blind that they don’t even see their actions as a form of harassment (could be something as invisible as making female students in the department feel sexually objectified, and putting them in a position where they feel they have to flirt or perform sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement).
But these kind of behaviour do not happen in a vacuum; the relationship between graduate students and professors is medieval and hierarchical, and therefore very often oppressive. Sexual harassment is just one form in which this institutional abuse is manifested when it concerns women. When you have someone who has an almost absolute power over your professional life and death, then you have a fertile ground for mistreatment, implicit forms of extortion (like a professor asking you for something, inviting you somewhere, etc. Try turning down someone you must be in good terms with), just to name a few. There is no redress, because the power structure does not allow it.
When was the last time professors were accountable for anything they inflict on students? They can ruin a student’s life, and the truth is that this is part of their job as gatekeepers in the academic system (especially in the hyper-competitive field of graduate philosophy). Thus, predatory behaviour is not only normalized, but systemically encouraged as a from to weed out the mountains of applicants and begging students. This is why, in my view as a graduate student, cis-male professors are unaware of the sexual harassment they inflict on their female students, or the reason why white professors are blind to their own racism.Report
Three too many.Report
Hi, Justin. I’m glad that you decided to publish my comments, but not glad to hear you say you did so merely in order to make a sarcasm-dripping mockery of what you think I’m saying. I hope you were just blowing off steam and that you didn’t really mean that. I’d like to respond to your points, and by doing so clarify where Aidan McGlyn is mistaken.
First off, I don’t think anyone is saying that sexual harassment doesn’t happen, or isn’t important, or that nothing ought to be done about it. I’ve already made clear a number of times that I don’t think that, and I don’t know who else does. You say that this letter is “the first time the APA has made a public statement” about sexual harassment. I’m perplexed by that claim. I can’t think of any issue the APA has spent more time focusing on recently. You can see a few of the previous statements at http://www.apaonlinecsw.org/sexual-harassment, including the APA Statement on Sexual Harassment (from 1993, revised 2013). What’s new and important about the current statement can’t be the mere fact that it’s a condemnation of sexual harassment. And it’s not likely that any minimally informed person thinks the APA is pro-harassment or neutral about harassment, or that sexual harassing is something nobody in the profession cares about. Please take a moment to consider the very public cases of colleagues being accused of sexual harassment. They’ve lost their jobs, their reputations are in tatters, nobody wants anything to do with them, many people are wary of even citing their work. I think the message is out there loud and clear. You get charged with harassment, you say goodbye to your career, your good name, and your lifelong friends. I don’t know how the message could be much stronger. I’m trying to fathom what plausible ostensible function the letter can have. Whom is it meant to inform about something? What new information or policy is it seeking to get across?
You mock me for thinking that anything important turns on whether people are told that sexual harassment is ‘widespread’ when that word might not be apt (or as Hilde Lindemann claims in Comment 18, that it’s even ‘ubiquitious’, or so frequent that every woman in the discipline either has been harassed or is closely acquainted with a woman who has). I’ll bite. I can think of a number of things that turn on that. One, as I’ve already mentioned, is that women considering the profession, a major or minor, or even a course in philosophy can form a false belief from reading the letter, among much irresponsible reporting that such releases fuel in the popular media, that they’re significantly elevating their risk of being sexually harassed or assaulted by doing so. This would lead, and might easily be leading already, to way fewer women in the discipline. And that’s a bad thing. Another bad result is that administrators, colleagues from other departments who sit on committees that help determine the future of philosophy departments, etc. will form these same conclusions and decide that the university doesn’t really need philosophy departments, or that departments don’t really need new hires, all that much. Another concern is that academic advisors and parents might get wind of these messages and steer people away from philosophy. We’re already confronted with renowned scientists ignorantly deriding us in the media at a time when the discipline is under fire from budget-conscious administrators and anti-intellectuals in office. Instead of the APA releasing letters and building campaigns to combat our public image, we’ve now got yet another APA letter saying something no more newsworthy or informative than a letter from the governor stating unambiguously that the state is strongly opposed to serial killers and sympathetic to their victims, and that at the same time makes philosophy look even worse than it did when the physicists had a go at it. Saying harassment is ‘widespread’ and ‘ubiquitous’ helps people think that we’re not just outdated and irrelevant, but dangerous and morally odious.
I’m not saying it’s never right to make your group look bad in public for the short term in order to clean house and fix a problem. The trouble is that it’s hard to see how this could be part of doing that. Not only does the APA letter make no new or specific recommendations, but the epistemic constraints we face make it unclear how we could ever knowingly turn this into a victory. If the mayor announces that her town has a deplorable 20% of its inhabitants using crystal meth according to some study, it makes the town look bad for the short term but this revelation might help the city in the long run by offering a point of comparison later on, when the mayor has implemented clear, new policies to deal with the problem, adjusting as she goes in light of new objective evidence until she can announce with pride in ten years that the crystal meth rate is now down to a fraction of 1%. People applaud the mayor for her great work and revise their previously negative views of the town. But we can never pull that off, because we don’t even have a viable estimate of the extent of the problem now and there doesn’t seem to be any initiative aimed at getting a viable approximation in the future.
Please consider that point for a moment. At what point, and with what information, will the APA be able to say to the world, “Good news, everyone! We’ve tackled the sexual harassment problem we told everyone about, and it’s fixed now!” There will always be people in any profession prone to commit sexual harassment, just as there will always be people prone to gossip, steal, and engage in bitter feuds. The measure of our success on the sexual harassment front will come from how well we deter such behavior and people, and how quickly and effectively we stop it when it happens. But it’s unreasonable to think it will ever be completely eliminated, just as murder and terrorism will never be completely eliminated. So how can we ever show improvement or have grounds for thinking there’s improvement? At what point can we expect the APA to tell the public, and the women in or considering philosophy, that the ‘widespread’ claim made here and elsewhere has been downgraded? What will inform that decision?
You might disagree with my reasoning, Justin, but I hardly see that it deserves your sneering mockery. I also suspect you’re intelligent enough to know that arguments, unlike testimony, stand on their own regardless of their source, so that there’s no contradiction in suggesting in an anonymously written *argument* that one take anonymous *testimony* with a grain of salt, and only wrote that part of your reply as a lighthearted rhetorical spanking you felt like administering at my expense. So I’ll let that stuff go in the interest of discussing the main issue here.Report
I would like to second Aidan McGlynn’s comment.Report
@Dr John Redwine Protevi:
You second the comment that this we’ve already discussed this topic before many times?
When did we discuss it? Far as I know, we’ve never discussed this important issue of the need to balancing the harm done to the prospects of women in the profession, and the profession generally, by making rather uninformative statements like that in the APA letter against some good brought about by making the statements. Has this been discussed elsewhere? If so, where, please?Report
Some support for Aidan McGlynn’s and John Protevi’s view about the issue having been discussed many times before comes from the opening remarks anonymous 3 made above:
“The APA mentions “the widespread and well-documented problem of sexual harassment in the profession”.
That’s odd, considering the number of times people have publicly begged for any credible documentation to support this speculative ‘widespread’ trend. ”
All the public beggings I’ve seen have been part of discussions of the sort Aidan and John refer to.Report
Another thing worth noting is that, from the fact that “widespread” is a vague term, it doesn’t follow that a survey of the kind Anonymous 3 was suggesting could not help figuring out whether sexual harassment is widespread in philosophy. Neither does it follow that we don’t need something like such a survey in order to figure that out.
People who are saying that it’s enough to just listen to the women in the profession who tell us that it’s widespread are begging the question, since they are assuming first that most women in the profession think so and, moreover, that if they do it’s because they have been sexually harassed themselves or know someone first-hand who has been. But of course they can only make such assumptions based on the sample of people who have talked with them about that, which may not be representative, for reasons that Anonymous 3 has already explained.
I don’t see how anyone could fail to reach that conclusion unless they assumed that, for some reason, philosophers are immune to moral panics. To be clear, I am *not* saying that the concern over sexual harassment in philosophy *is* a moral panic (I honestly don’t know whether sexual harassment is widespread in philosophy), but only that it might well be one.Report
Three cheers for the APA for addressing this topic!Report
“People who are saying that it’s enough to just listen to the women in the profession who tell us that it’s widespread are begging the question, since they are assuming first that most women in the profession think so and, moreover, that if they do it’s because they have been sexually harassed themselves or know someone first-hand who has been.”
I’m someone who is saying it’s enough to listen to women in the profession. I don’t take myself to be begging the question. Nor am I assuming that *most* women in the profession think so. I’m only assuming that sufficient fractions do. This is an issue of justice. If harassment is occurring (and it is), it needs to stop.Report
Just seconding TJ’s comment, and adding a supporting anecdote:
I’m a dude who was sexually harassed by another dude. For a long time, my friends and colleagues (and, I admit, I) excused this person’s behavior on a number of grounds and continued to put us in social situations together. The harassment I suffered was less visible, excused and ignored, because nobody wanted to admit that we had such a colleague in our midst, and because I wasn’t visibly threatened by this person (partly due to us both being male, and to him not having any institutional power over me). And this person certainly never thought he was sexually harassing me–he just thought he was being nice (!). It was a deeply unpleasant experience and has had a fairly serious effect on me. For a while I didn’t realize that was what was going on (because I didn’t think of it as the sort of thing that could happen to me), and so tolerated this person’s behavior. Tellingly, so did my friends and colleagues, even when it was wholly out of line.
To tie this back to TJ’s comment, my experience opened my eyes a little to just how far we will go to avoid thinking the worst of our colleagues and friends, and how far things might go before one is finally motivated to take action. And I think it’s normal and OK to make excuses for people, especially when they provide their own too and clearly don’t see how or why their behavior is a problem (this person wasn’t explicitly intending to sexually harass me, but didn’t see that his actions actually constituted sexual harassment). But when it comes to issues like this one, as observers I think we need to be a little more careful, and take a few steps back. We need to be aware of our tendency to excuse our friends and colleagues, and look at events with fresh eyes. I strongly suspect that many harassers in the discipline are like mine: they just have no idea that what they’re doing is wrong, or even why it’s wrong (although they *should*). And perhaps it’s easier for us to take that critical step back if we separate the person’s actions out from their character, as we do with racist remarks: they’re not necessarily bad people, but their actions were and are *very* bad.
To this day, I don’t really know how many of my friends and colleagues fully realize what was going on. I suspect that many of them–those with whom I’m not close enough to have actually discussed my situation–might even report not being aware of any sexual harassers in our vicinity, despite their having been witnesses to it on many an occasion. To be honest, I kind of envy them their blinkers.Report
I’m gratified to read all the comments, actually. I think Justin is in error at points, but quite right that the main purpose of the APA Open Letter is more important, and that to speak “first and foremost to victims of sexual harassment” is an excellent thing for a professional organization to do. I think Anonymous 3 is sometimes erroneous but quite right that better data would be great, and discouraged students would be bad. (I disagree that the APA officers are not informed absent a survey, and it is not the case that all anecdotes offered at sites like “What it’s Like…” are either cherry-picked or unverifiable.)
The Open Letter is dedicated to making sure that any victims of misconduct who feel isolated know that they are not alone. I hope it succeeds in this aim. I was somewhat dismayed to see a comment on Facebook that the Open Letter is merely fine words. I realize it outlines reasons for not-acting, but let’s please not give up on expressions of concern and awareness having any value. When we feel isolated, then words of connection can sometimes attenuate our isolation. And when those words come from an organization that hasn’t previously done something so direct and explicit, even better!Report
Kate Norlock, forgive me because this comment may seem rude, but I also think it really should be said, is it possible that the person you saw referring to the statement as ‘fine words’ may themselves have been a victim of misconduct at some point? If so, then I’m not sure we should tell them how to feel about a statement directed firstly at them.Report
Much is possible, certainly. I agree that I should not tell the author of the update how to feel. My dismay motivated my recommendation to the many, y’see. (Your comment did not seem rude at all.)Report
There are many issues we could be discussing. Forexample, what can we do when a chair or a university protects a famous harasser. I am dismayed that the one most time (incl mine) has been spent on a problem arising from the fact that some people aren’t aware of what is for many of us a very serious problem.
This reminds me of someone who turned our discussion on Trayvon Martin on FemPhils into a discussion of the right of white men to carry guns. At FemPhil we disagreed a great deal about banning that person. So I’m not faulting Justin, but it seems to me a shame that we really haven’t yet addressed the issues surrounding a problem that may well be part of why women leave philosophy, when they do.Report
P.S. Do those issuing sexist decisions get protected? I recently discussed with a fairly senior administrator the fact that a chair of a department was routinely characterizing his negative assessments of women faculty in terms appealing to gender stereotypes. That is illegal under TITLE IX. So the administrator said, “I’m trying to get him to talk differently.” Great. That may solve the adminstrations problems; it does not help female faculty in a department run like the lads’ club. And I cannot count the number of times I’ve had or heard similar stuff.Report
Paul, you’re right, I should not have written “most”, but it doesn’t change anything to the point I was trying to make.
Imagine that you know a lot of people who told you they have been physically assaulted or know someone first-hand who has been. I’m sure that, from this fact, you wouldn’t draw the conclusion that physical assault is widespread in your community, unless perhaps you live in a very small community. Before you agree that physical assault is widespread, you would ask for a different kind of evidence, presumably something like a victimization survey. And you wouldn’t ask for that kind of evidence because you don’t believe the people who told you they have been physically assaulted or know someone who has been. Even if you believe them, which presumably you have every reason to do, what they tell you doesn’t warrant the belief that physical assault is widespread. I don’t see how the fact that “widespread” is vague has any bearing on that point.
Of course, it wouldn’t change the fact that physical assault is bad and must be fought, but that’s another issue.Report
“Of course, it wouldn’t change the fact that physical assault is bad and must be fought, but that’s another issue.”
Agreed. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the use the term “widespread” is appropriate. But whether it is or not is largely irrelevant. The important issue remains.Report
Anne Jacobson writes “it seems to me a shame that we really haven’t yet addressed the issues surrounding a problem that may well be part of why women leave philosophy, when they do.” From what I understand, the most significant drop-off in women in philosophy occurs between the time people take their first undergraduate course and the time they declare an undergraduate major. From then on out the ratio stays fairly constant. If that’s right, then this claim is at best contentious. Instead, it may well be that what some are calling a ‘moral panic’ is playing a bigger role in driving women away from philosophy. This is another reason why a closer look at the facts seems needed here.Report
A minor point: when talking about whether harassment is “widespread”, I don’t think that counting the number of harassers is necessarily the best unit of measurement. Number of departments might be better. If I was entering grad school, I would be wondering whether a given problem, eg harassment, was widespread enough that I might want to take it into account in choosing schools. If, for example, 1 in 4 schools has someone harassing students, I’d consider that widespread enough that I’d definitely want to take it into account, and depending on the schools, could really feel like my academic choices were inexcusably restricted by the fact that departments chose not to shut down the harassment.Report
But that’s not really what I mean – what I asked is whether there are actual, concrete steps we are taking to do something about sexual harassment that you think we should not take if, for example, it turns out that Physics is worse than Philosophy for this kind of thing.Report
So the biggest leak in the pipeline is at major selection stage. But in this day and age, do people still harass *undergraduate* students? I’m sure it would have been a problem 30, maybe even 20 years ago. And that explains the *current* faculty figures — there are still people around who got their PhDs in the 1960s. But it’s far from clear that people who got their PhDs in this century face this problem.Report
Concrete step: stop looking for problems within philosophy, start looking at the problem of “science for the boys, arts for the girls”.Report
I don’t think I understand what you mean. Take, say, the APA letter. One thing it says is that we should do this: “all philosophy departments to commit to eliminating sexual harassment; the first step toward this is vigorously and immediately pursuing all allegations of sexual harassment.” This is a concrete step we could take to do something about sexual harassment. This is the kind of thing I had in mind when I talked about concrete steps. You seem to be saying that if we find out that, say, Physics is worse than philosophy, we should stop ‘looking for problems within philosophy’. Could you explain what you mean by this? Do you mean we should stop looking for cases of sexual harassment in philosophy? Stop looking for ways to mitigate the problem?Report
Kate, I’m puzzled. If I’ve read the letter correctly, it says: (a) sexual harassment is a problem in the discipline that causes serious harm to members of the discipline, (b) we ought to do something about the problem, and in particular we ought to find ways to make the APA conferences a safe space for victims, (c) the APA can’t do anything to prevent those who have been found guilty of repeat instances of sexual harassment from attending conferences because they need to keep their legal hands clean, and so (d) individual members ought to find ways to support victims. Fine words, indeed. I’m not the individual who published the FB complaint, but I empathize with the concern. Wouldn’t it have been better in this case for the APA to stop with (b), and refrain from trying to shift the responsibility for making conferences safe spaces to individual members? Doing so would have accomplished the goal of expressing concern and raising awareness without making victims feel even more isolated by a powerful Board who tells them, in an official letter, that they’re pretty much on their own.Report
My last comment on the topic.
While the letter says that it’s primarily intended to be read by victims of harassment and secondarily by members of the profession, some member of the board apparently sent it to a reporter at Inside Higher Ed for some reason. It is now being read by an extensive audience of non philosophers, despite their not being its intended audience.
The first hundred words of the IHE article have probably been read by thousands already. The picture they paint of our profession could hardly be clearer: “It’s hard these days to talk about women in philosophy without talking about sexual harassment and assault and sexism in general. Whether conditions for women in the discipline are actually worse than they are in the humanities overall is up for debate and likely impossible to quantify, but philosophy has attracted much criticism in recent years for what some have called a systemic discrimination problem. From accounts on the blogs What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? and Feminist Philosophers to a spate of scandals involving male faculty members accused of assault or harassment, and sexist conduct generally, philosophy has developed a reputation.”
That’s the impression the IHE reporter took, not unreasonably, from this letter and a deluge of other APA and related releases. Those words will form the impression of philosophy held by most of our colleagues across the disciplines, and by the countless administrators who read the IHE. When readers of this and many related stories consider how much they should support us, work with us, or send students our way, this is what they think of us. They don’t really know much else, because this is all we project to the world nowadays. We already have a serious PR problem for being the butt of scientists’ and others’ jokes. We have an uphill battle ahead of us if we want to preserve and expand the discipline, and we need this like a kick in the head. Would you support an unfamiliar discipline if all you heard about it is that its board thinks it has a ‘widespread’ sexual harassment problem?
I suspect the board’s idea in releasing this letter to the IHE is to make people say, “Look at those great folks in philosophy, doing so much to stop sexual harassment.” But the message received is “Look at those horrible philosophers, sexually harassing everyone and doing nothing to stop it.” When philosophers go around saying “Philosophy has a widespread problem with sexual harassment”, people tend to assume they’ve got some reason to think that philosophy is particularly bad. But we have no good reason to think that. Maybe that’s not what they mean to say, but it sure is conversationally implied in most people’s minds.
According to the mission statement on the APA website,”The American Philosophical Association promotes the discipline and profession of philosophy, both within the academy and in the public arena. The APA supports the professional development of philosophers at all levels and works to foster greater understanding and appreciation of the value of philosophical inquiry.”
Promoting the discipline both within the academy and in the public arena. Working to foster greater understanding and appreciation of the value of philosophical inquiry. These are things we badly need people to do if our discipline is going to survive for another generation in the current higher ed environment. Some of us are out there on our own trying to fight the good public relations fight with colleagues and friends outside of philosophy, trying to “foster greater understanding and appreciation” of what we do. But we need leadership and involvement on an organizational level here.
I’ve been looking through the APA website for recent evidence of a PR campaign for philosophy, as opposed to one that sabotages our public image. We don’t seem to have one at all. But I would call this letter part of a strong and probably successful *anti*-PR campaign. I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way by any of the signatories. But please let’s take a minute to consider the effects.
The APA letter indicates frustration at not being able to recommend and implement more things to help prevent sexual harassment. This isn’t so mysterious. Cracking down on sexual harassment is a job for lawmakers, university administrators, departments, and individual professors and students. It’s simply not the business of a professional academic organization like the APA. This is even evident from the APA’s own mission statement. Moreover, the APA does not have the power to sanction non-compliant departments, and lacks a clear guide, beyond the obvious, for how departments or individuals should deal with harassment complaints. Those are institutional and not APA issues. This is why the letter was unable to recommend anything other than determination and resoluteness in reporting sexual harassers to the proper authorities and otherwise speaking up against harassment, which we all knew ought to be done before we read the letter. And departments that haven’t taken this duty seriously are not going to be swayed by an APA letter, however well intentioned.
Maybe the letter has brought comfort to some people at the same time that it’s added to negative publicity against us all. I’m sure the writers meant well, and we can’t unsend it to the IHE reporter or unwrite the article. But now that the APA board has said its piece and made its damning implications in a public forum, however wisely or unwisely, I hope we can devote some thought and effort to giving the public and the broader academic community a *favorable* impression of what we’re all about and why we’re needed to solve important problems that others need to have solved. Maybe we should have a thread on how to do that.Report
Why is everyone so concerned with how this letter may be giving a bad public image of the discipline? The fact is that philosophy already has a bad image. What do you think I tell my friends and family when they ask me about how my studies are going? I tell them about that time when a professor told me point black that Chinese philosophy is not philosophy. I tell them about that time when the only black student in the room approached the professor after class for a question, and the professor asked him if he was from Audio/Video (supposedly there to disassemble his mic). I tell them about how MA students are merely cash cows, going into ever deeper debt while everyone pretends the whole arrangement is not abusive. And yes, sexual harassment is another issue students talk about with others.
Bad image…please. Stop pretending this supposed meritocracy has any good image left to defend. And if you didn’t know, just go around the poverty stricken neighborhoods surrounding your university and ask what people think of philosophers. Preferably, skip the white, middle and upper middle class men when you conduct your reality check.
If anything, this letter starts to show a modicum of acknowledgement for the problems that direly need resolving. But as the comments here have shown, many are still far from accepting who they really are and what they are doing to colleagues and students.Report
Oh believe me undergrads are still harassed. In fact they’re still assaulted — i.e., raped, violated, penetrated. (Just to be clear.) By senior philosophers who have not been sanctioned.Report
I’m in full agreement with Adian McGlynn, especially his worries that allowing the endless reiteration of more or less reflexive and inflexible skepticism on this point may have become quite harmful, especially in the context of discussion of a letter like this one.
Actually, I’ll go farther, since it seems obvious to me that precisely in being endlessly and inappropriately reiterated, such skepticism ceases to be a mode of truth-seeking in order to become a mechanism for derailing discussion of an issue and preventing that discussion from reaching any consensus or providing any uncomplicated support for people who have been harmed. It would be nice if we actually stopped enabling this strategy–or caving to the specious cries of ‘censorship’ that are part of its immune response to criticism.Report
One of those rare times i wish Daily Nous had a downvote function.Report
I want to highlight one thing I learned in reading the APA’s letter: the APA has an ombudsperson, and that person can (and even ought to) be contacted by those who experience or anticipate experiencing harassment at an APA event. I have been modestly invovled with the APA for many years and was not aware of there being an ombudsperson. I think that this is great, and that we can all attend more to and publicize the processes that are available to those whose workplace environment has been negatively impacted.Report
I’d like to challenge those who are skeptical concerning the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the discipline to take Ed Kazarian’s and Adian McGlynn’s observations seriously. It really does increasingly appear that the skepticism is largely — if not entirely — defensive (i.e., a means of avoiding confronting the reality of a problem).Report
Ed Kazarian, all due respect, but this is clearly not derailing. A letter was written. Justin posted the letter and opened comments so we could discuss the letter. Some people mentioned liking the letter, some said they didn’t like it. Reasons pro and con have been given. There has been direct engagement between opposing views, mostly in a constructive spirit. Both sides are evidently making sincere arguments.
If anything in this thread is an attempt at derailment, it’s your suggestion that we only give a voice to the side you agree with and insist the other side is derailing. There was no prior conversation to derail. The discussion you don’t like is the first discussion in the thread. And nobody’s beem stopping you or anyone else from raising any new topics about the letter.Report
Something every faculty member can do is familiarize themselves with the policies/law on sexual assault/harassment, and discuss them with their students. When I was at the U of Oregon, I set aside time in all my courses to review the basics with students about their rights, etc.; for most of them, this was the most sustained discussion they ever had about these matters–since schools do a terrible job at informing students of their rights. I also told them that if they were not getting any response to their concerns they were welcome to speak with me about it, and I would try to help them. (This was easier for me to do as I had a joint appointment in law.) If you do this, I think you may find very quickly from students that the problems of sexual assault/harassment are much greater than you imagined. You may also generate an enormous amount of anger from some of your colleagues who would prefer that student remain hopelessly ignorant of how they can press their grievances. This is certainly what happened to me.Report
Cheyney Ryan, that’s a kind and generous thing to have done.
Word of warning to anyone thinking of offering this to students now: check your university’s policies. Many now demand that any faculty member hearing any sexual harassment allegation report it immediately, whether or not the student wants you to. Many students who have experienced sexual harassment, especially of milder forms, just want to get on with their lives and put it behind them. Sometimes they work out that they’d like to talk with someone who will understand, but nothing more. If you offer them a friendly face and understanding, they will want to tell you because you know the people involved. But you can’t promise to keep it quiet. You have to choose between reporting it or else being fired for noncompliance if it ever comes out that you heard but didn’t report. The university will be looking for a fall guy then.
If you report it, the student will be dragged unwillingly through a grueling process. With the recent Title IX precedents, the university will probably not want to take any chances and will err on the side of disciplining or dismissing the alleged perp. Reporters and bloggers who get a whiff of the story will hunt down every detail. A likely result, as we’ve seen, is that the alleged perp will come out swinging and the thing will end up in court. And in court, all names are named. The result could be worse for the student than the original incident. The university administration puts these policies in place to cover it’s own ass, not the students’.
If your university leaves it to you to use your judgment about when to report, then it’s a great invitation to make to students. You can discuss the accusation, offer comfort, and help the student decide view to move forward. But if your university compels you to report all allegations of harassment, it’s kinder to the students to warn them about this, offer sympathy to anyone who’s been harassed, and advise that they unburden themselves to a discreet non faculty member instead of telling you anything.Report
Let It Be makes the important point that schools are now identifying faculty and others as “mandatory reporters”, meaning they are obliged by school policies to forward sexual assault/harassment allegations to the administration, regardless of the student’s wishes. The mandatory reporter issue differs from school to school, so faculty should find out how their administration construes this. (There is certainly no general obligation to report what students tell you that is constant across schools.) What you may find out is that your school’s policy on this is a hopeless muddle, with no one knowing quite what the rule is or means–this is the situation at U of Oregon presently.
Personally, I ignore what the the administration has to say on this and begin by telling students that everything they say to me is confidential unless they wish otherwise. I suppose there is a risk of being sanctioned for this, but that strikes me as less important that hearing what the student has to say. I don’t know of any case where someone has been sanctioned, much less fired, for keeping such information confidential; if you are a tenured faculty member I wouldn’t worry about it. (I have been subjected to retaliation for reporting student complaints, though; indeed, this is why I left the U of Oregon philosophy dept.)
But I certainly agree that caution should be used here, not just on what is said to students–the policies are not simple–but also on how you say it. Obviously male faculty like myself need special concern about the latter. At the very least, it is essential to inform students about their rights–since most schools do almost nothing in this regard.Report