Do Something! Reflections on MeToo and Philosophy (guest post) (updated)

When several years ago I posted the screenshot of a defamatory tweet by a serial harasser on my Facebook page (for “friends” only), I did not expect how people would react to this. Tenured philosophers, including many with left-wing or liberal politics cautioned me to take down the post. They private messaged me urging I should take it down, and even publicly chided me “Why would you post such a thing?”

The following is a guest post by Helen De Cruz (Saint Louis University). A version of it first appeared at her blog, Wondering Freely.

[Artemisia Gentileschi, “Susanna and the Elders” (detail)]

Do Something! Reflections on MeToo and Philosophy
by Helen De Cruz

When several years ago I posted the screenshot of a defamatory tweet by a serial harasser on my Facebook page (for “friends” only), I did not expect people would react as they did. Tenured philosophers, including many with left-wing or liberal politics, cautioned me to take down the post. They privately messaged me urging I should take it down, and even publicly chided me, “Why would you post such a thing?”

Well, it was already public, so what do I do about it? Should I sue him? Most certainly not. It would ruin my career. Better to keep my head down and write papers for top-10 general philosophy journals if I wanted to survive in the cut throat context of academia. Better to just plug away, work at my publication record, do not rock the boat. “You know how people are, they don’t want a troublemaker.”

I’ve since thought of this incident and many others that happened in the course of my academic career where philosophers are happy with the status quo and nothing happens.

Let me tell you about a rare instance in which something did happen. At a conference, while I was a postdoc, I told Eleonore Stump about a particular troubling case of gender harassment I had experienced, as well as about a bad general climate with drinking late into the night and difficult power relationships I experienced in the work place. She was shocked and said to me, “What our profession needs is a code of conduct.”

I thought it was a good idea. Codes of conduct are not uncommon in professions. Even clowns have them. A code of conduct by the American Philosophical Association would stipulate how we could cultivate a better professional environment. This would be an environment where people are not just at the mercy of one person (who may be excellent, of course), or where the boundaries between professional and private are frequently blurred; where professors take advantage of people in weaker situations such as putting their names on their students’ papers without contributing (common in Europe) or where they serially have relationships with their students. It would be an environment where you could go to conferences expecting these to be professional events. So we went ahead and petitioned. Thanks to the fact that I had a senior tenured colleague advocating, we got a good number of signatories and the code was adopted. I still consider this to be a significant victory for Eleonore and me.

But I didn’t expect all the pushback! Codes of conduct are bad, stifling, redundant! If a code were adopted, you can’t even have a drink with a student without being accused of sexual harassment. A lot of people I considered allies and whom I still greatly respect (and so will not link to their blogposts, etc.) went on philosophizing about the good and bad of codes of conduct. They thought deeply about the nature of codes of conduct, about what it says about a situation, about how they don’t work anyway (a conclusion they reached a priori).

The dynamics became clear. Many senior people told me, a postdoc on a string of temporary jobs at the time, that codes of conduct are superfluous at best and somehow make things worse, and that I had made things worse by petitioning for it. I felt terrible for the way our actions had been received, and I started to doubt myself.

Eleonore, for her part, was not bothered. Philosophy is a professional group of people, she told me, and while virtue is important, you cannot expect virtue to win out every time. You need good structures and procedures, and a code of conduct can help to foster those.

Thinking back of this incident from 2014, what I am now struck by most of all is that no-one who said how bad codes of conduct are actually had a counter-proposal or did anything to improve the climate and the situation for women and non-binary people in academia. All they could do was attack a junior colleague’s attempts to improve the situation. So, though the code was adopted, nothing structurally changed because the collective of academics had already decided it was a bad idea without thinking of an alternative.

And so, they could go on as before.

I’m writing this in an angry mood as I am thinking back of the literally twenty or more academics (all, except one, women or non-binary people) who told me they were victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and more. One particularly sticks in my mind—her married professor kept on trying to start a relationship with her when she was a grad student. She eventually relented, feeling she was in a difficult situation due to all sorts of problems in her personal life. Then, after a couple of years, he got tired of her and they parted. He never even read her dissertation, though formally her advisor. He never writes her letters of recommendation. She had the immense fortune of having an external committee member (fwiw a white man, and a lovely human being) who knew about the situation and who became her de facto adviser and letter writer. That true ally never said anything, though he wanted to, because the victim was worried that were the relationship revealed, her career would be over. After all, it was consensual. And people would say she tried to sleep her way into a better position. Meanwhile, that relationship, though long ended, is still negatively affecting her career. Her advisor, of course walks free with no repercussions.

I can tell many other stories like this. Some people do nothing because “it’s a lot better than it used to be.” This is not a recipe for doing nothing. We still have a structural problem.

Purely anecdotally and from my own and other people’s experiences, what is often happening is that academia is such a cut-throat, cold environment where your own ability to do philosophy is constantly questioned. You doubt yourself, you wonder if you have it in you. And if you are not a man, you do not benefit from “brilliance beliefs”. This was perhaps most apparent in my personal life when I was on a team of 6-7 postdocs who were all competing for the same tenure track position and all the faculty were going on about how brilliant this or that male candidate was. When I asked those faculty about my own chances, they said that surely as a woman and a person of color I would soon benefit from affirmative action. The message was clear: everyone wants to hire you, just not us.

In such a situation you can find yourself lonely, friendless and vulnerable to individuals who predate on people with that profile. They make you feel you’re special. The structural problems in academia regarding how we treat junior people, the callousness with which we discount their needs and testimony because they’re just passing through and aren’t people we need to take into account anyway, is part of why this keeps on happening. So if we seriously acknowledge that academia, and particularly philosophy, has a MeToo problem, we need to acknowledge the structures that enable these situations.

A student recently asked me why tenured people do nothing and even actively work to keep the status quo. After all, they are in the safest position to actually do something and not just philosophize the situation away or discount possible solutions. My sense is: Many people want to do nothing because it doesn’t affect them. Some might do nothing because they’re still traumatized. As a woman or non-binary person in academia you sometimes feel like you’ve navigated a field of landmines; when you come out at the other end with tenure or a TT job you say “Oh good I didn’t step on a landmine!” as you hear stories about the unscrupulous individuals you have through luck avoided to associate with.

It shouldn’t be this way.

Some people do nothing out of fear of false accusations. While these do exist (but note the incidence is low), I think their possibility is not a good reason for doing nothing. Acknowledging philosophy has a MeToo problem will indeed involve that we take seriously the testimony against repeat offenders and do something, rather than sit back, do nothing, and wait until there might eventually be a Title IX lawsuit (or the equivalent in non-American contexts). But it also just involves believing people, standing with the victims, and, for the love of God, not advising “Just keep your head down!” or “People who create a stir are seen as troublemakers, just wait until you have tenure.”

Support the victims. Believe them. Believing them does not mean you need to engage in a collective hunt against the person they accuse, but it does mean to be very cautious, and it means listening to them and thinking together about legal ways to address the situation. I’ve known a situation where a well-known repeat offender kept on getting invited for prestigious lectures at conferences, even though several women told the conference organizers that they felt unsafe with him on the program. In one instance, the organizer uninvited the person (who has since left the profession after credible Title IX allegations). This was good but it came, in a sense, too late, as this had been a pattern for years, and organizers knew about it.

Supporting possible victims before they become actual victims is even better. We should develop strong mentoring relationships, preferably in structured contexts so it does not depend on personal sympathy alone. We should find a path forward, and finally end the pervasive sexual harassment that is happening in our profession.

UPDATE: A #MeToo in Academia conference is in the planning stages. The organizers write:

We would like to form a planning committee with a group of people from various backgrounds to discuss what such a conference on sexual abuse in academia should include. At this point, the conference is not associated with any institution, discipline, or location. Thus, everyone with interest is invited to reach out. Survivors of sexual harassment or abuse, particularly in academia, are especially encouraged. 

You can learn more about it here.

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Richard E. Hennessey
Richard E. Hennessey
1 year ago

The structural problems are in fact the problematic persons that compose the structures.

1 year ago

I sympathize with De Druz’s retrospective anger here, and she isn’t wrong that we still have a gender harassment problem in academia. But I want to suggest that she is not seeing this correctly. The key complaint is this:

no-one who said how bad codes of conduct are actually had a counter-proposal or did anything to improve the climate and the situation for women and non-binary people in academia…. [in general] tenured people do nothing and even actively work to keep the status quo”

Think about what she is saying here: she is alleging that none of those who worried about the proposal have done anything in this regard, and that in general tenured people do nothing about our gender problem. But of course such people may be doing quite a lot, they may have served on climate committees, they may have supported victims in just the way that De Cruz recommends, developed mentoring relationships, avoided hiring “problematic” individuals, employing gentle affirmative action in hiring, etc. People absolutely are doing all of this, right now. So, De Cruz seems to want something more, something more public, something more online perhaps, some permanent declaration of support for something like the original petition?

This is frankly not a good idea: the conflation of “doing something” with public, cost-free declarations of support for top-down, non-enforceable APA codes. Surely “doing something” can also mean “doing something that isn’t always perfectly visible to everyone who wants me to do something”. And many of us are doing those things, because we believe that they are orders of magnitude more effective than petitions and codes of conduct. Unfortunately, grad students don’t always see these things happening, but we should take care to remind them that they don’t (and shouldn’t) always see everything. The demand to make all progress public can seriously jeopardize progress itself.

Reply to  Catherine
1 year ago

I did not say anywhere that we have to make any public cost-free declarations as the only or even the main ways to address sexual harassment. You’ll note this post ends on a bunch of different suggestions, such as believing the victims and listening to them. I merely offered the code of conduct as an example of how Eleonore Stump and I tried to change something, and how all people went on about was that it was non-enforceable, would not work etc. I had that discussion back in 2014. Many professional organizations have codes of ethics, including other academic organizations. We are now 2023 and we can now think about what things work.

I disagree with your implied suggestion that we’re doing enough. I know many people are doing something (in the way of whisper networks, quietly uninviting problematic individuals from conferences). But I don’t think it’s enough. The whisper networks are imperfect. I did not know about Kripke for instance until he died and suddenly everyone saw it fit to talk about it. But then I moved here recently, don’t have much connection with his field and the circles he moved in etc. In this way, the whisper networks can fail.

Many, many grad students strongly feel and have told me (when I talk to them at conferences etc) that it’s not enough. They often don’t feel supported at their workplaces. Not just about sexual harassment but also working conditions, pay, reimbursement of travel etc. etc. One reason I think is that their welfare is not high enough on the priority list, or that people have many other things to deal with, or that there are all sort of professional ties with problematic individuals that make it awkward to call them out.

You write “Unfortunately, grad students don’t always see these things happening, but we should take care to remind them that they don’t”. I appreciate that, but if grad students keep on telling us we aren’t doing enough, we ought to listen and not just brush them off with “We’re doing plenty”.

Angry Grad
Angry Grad
Reply to  Catherine
1 year ago

As a harassed grad student I don’t care for all of the alleged invisible work you are all suddenly doing. By and large you are hiring and supporting harassers. And you might be nice to us victims once but only if we meet your high standards of victimhood and you can do so cost free. Cause it’s ironic that you declare that public declarations are cost free. It’s the opposite. All of that diversity washing work like equality committees are encouraged by academia and not sanctioned. Speaking up publicly comes at the highest cost. You would know that if you actually did anything about sexual harassment.

1 year ago

This is an important thread. Thanks. I’ll chip in with three basic points (that don’t pretend to solve the bigger problems):

  1. Alcohol, other drugs and the workplace don’t mix well. Exercise caution.
  2. Tenure is not primarily an intellectual protection. It’s a class privilege. Once that’s seen clearly, all apparent mysteries of why TT folk do so little dissolve immediately. Upshot: TT folk need to stop preening about tenure primarily as an intellectual protection. You’re already privileged; don’t be inauthentic.
  3. Don’t have sex (etc.) with people over whom you have professional power. Swear to god this rule is literally this simple. It applies everywhere at all times for all of eternity. It’s like a sexagorical imperative.
Timothy Sommers
Reply to  John
1 year ago

Dear John,

I don’t want to be argumentative, I just want to see your point about “class privilege.”
I would have thought tenure, and good benefits, was primarily a trade-off for lower-wages than comparably educated people outside academia receive – with intellectual protection as a necessary side benefit. For one thing, academic freedom is not just for the tenured, at least in principle.
I am not sure who the relevant class is, on your view. Surely, people who are tenure track don’t constitute a class in any of the ways of using class for social analysis that I know of. Do you mean that TT academics are disproportionally bourgeois? I am not sure that that is even true, for example, there are a lot of professors from classes considered lower. (I am certainly one.) But either way, I am not seeing the significance. Jobs with more prestige are filled by people who come from families that are relatively better off. I don’t see how this makes us see tenure in a new way.
Genuinely puzzled.

Reply to  Timothy Sommers
1 year ago

Thanks, Timothy.

When I say that tenure is ‘primarily a class privilege’ I mean to contrast this with the view that it is primarily an intellectual protection.

The difference is that not all the benefits of tenure are necessary for intellectual protection, but they are sufficient for occupying an elite segment of society: robust protection from economic vagaries, even (and perhaps especially) when these vagaries would otherwise threaten one’s employment; a near dissolution of the worker/boss model of employment; relatedly, resistance to seeing oneself primarily as a worker, but rather as an agent who has freedom to determine the course, purpose and even significance of their own labour; resistance to collective action (eg unionization) in favour of seeing oneself primarily as an individual; freedom to participate in university governance, especially in matters of hiring and promotion; and so on.

These are all class markers because they bear upon how we relate to our own labour and, by extension, the material conditions of our lives.

And I believe this is distinct from tenure-primarily-as-intellectual-protection because these perks are orthogonal to whether one enjoys intellectual protections (eg, one could /not/ have all the above-mentioned perks but still have a contract that stipulates the employer cannot terminate one solely because of the content of their research).

In short, the promise of tenure is the promise of no longer being primarily a worker, but a self-determining agent, in other words, a /profess/ional.

Cathy Legg
1 year ago

Thanks so much, Helen, for writing this post.
Philosophy still has a MeToo problem. Inevitable, I suppose, in a discipline whose practicioners pride themselves on being merely through their thinking powers a potential arbiter of anything (and, in that sense, ‘above’ the need for a code of conduct).
In my part of the world, skeletons are still rattling in the closet as we’ve not yet had an equivalent of the public outings in the US (as few, and as less than satisfactorily resolved as those may be).
The situation I was forced into closest proximity with in my career I observed to be extraordinarily destructive. The harm did not simply accrue to the harrasser’s targets – bad though that was – but a kind of moral degeneration occurred across the entire workplace. The animosity held by those who had chosen to look away from the problematic behaviours towards those who tried to do something to stop them was intense, and lasting.
The thing that does not receive enough attention, to my mind, is that our failure to call out a colleague’s problematic behaviours often results in a steady stream of the best and brightest, often from minority groups – to whom if anything we should be giving extra encouragement – being fed into the maw of abuse and potential career ruin. Over and above the suffering of individuals, what are we losing in terms of the work these colleagues could have contributed?
I remember how, back in my grad school days, I would hear my male peers trade ‘stories’ about problematic situations involving those who had power over us. Often the tone was a kind of sniggering and one-up-manship in cynicism. At the time, the possibility that my male peers might ever publically challenge the older generation of men to do better by us, their female peers, rather than using the behaviour as fodder for salacious gossip in private, was so completely off the table that it was unthinkable (including by me). With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see that such behaviours offer a giant ‘red flag’ about entering an industry. I wish I’d been able to see that then.
p.s. to Catherine, I’ve heard it said that it’s important not just that justice be done, but that it be seen to be done.