A Call to Shun

Philosophers debate whether to isolate sexual harassers by minimizing contact with them and ending the practice of inviting them to appear at conferences.
March 30, 2011

Let's say there is a scholar in your field who is known to harass women. Maybe you witnessed an incident. Maybe you heard from friends who were his victims. Maybe you heard from friends of friends. The person is known (among women at least) as someone to avoid, but he continues on in a professorship at a top university, serving on influential editorial boards, turning up on the programs of all the right conferences.

If the man has never been convicted by a judicial body or punished by a university (at least not that you know of), is this just a case of "innocent until proven guilty"? Or does this suggest disciplinary negligence -- or tolerance of serial harassment?

That is the question being debated this week by philosophers as a series of blogs and websites have responded to an online project in which women in philosophy have shared stories of the bias and harassment they have experienced. The stories are anonymous, but the philosophers who have taken up the cause say that the accounts ring true, and that they personally know of many similar cases. And a number of philosophers are now calling for some form of shunning to take place -- for scholars to take a stand by refusing to interact with or honor those of their colleagues who have reputations for being harassers. These philosophers charge not only that harassment is widespread, but that departments and colleges have looked the other way, and that the problem includes some of the top figures in the field today.

In a post this week on the blog New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science, three philosophers write that "there are many important figures in the profession whom their colleagues and students know to have engaged in various forms of sexual harassment on multiple occasions. Many of us have heard first-hand accounts of harassment from those who have been harassed; almost all of us have heard second-hand accounts from those who know the harassers or the harassed....

"Institutional mechanisms provide little in the way of redress to the victims of such figures. Those who have been harassed, or worse, come forward in many cases, put themselves through a long and painful process, and if the figure is prominent it is very unlikely that any meaningful action will be taken. Given this systematic failure of formal mechanisms, it should not come us a surprise that many women get discouraged and drop out of the discipline along the way."

The post goes on to note recent suggestions from feminist philosophers that such harassers be taken off the invitation lists for conferences. "One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc. We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know," the blog post continues. It also notes the difficulty of carrying out such steps when one may not be certain of a professor's guilt or if one who is a victim is among those without tenure and might pay a price for shunning a noted scholar.

Mark N. Lance, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and one of the authors of the post, said in an interview that he is advocating the use of shunning. He said that over 25 years of teaching philosophy, he has become "completely disillusioned" with the way colleges handle complaints. Before coming to Georgetown, he saw a case in which he had direct evidence of the accusations being "open and shut," but the professor received only "a slap on the wrist."

It's time, he said, for philosophers to take a stand against "the many people in the profession believed by wide numbers of people to have engaged in horrible behavior on repeated occasions."

Lance said that "of course" one has to be careful about believing unsubstantiated rumors. But he noted that what he and his colleagues are calling for isn't sending anyone to jail. "Five women tell you roughly the same thing they have experienced. Maybe that's not enough to convict someone in a court, but it strikes me as perfectly reasonable grounds to think someone is behaving badly. I think if such a person walks up to you, you can say, 'I'm sorry, but I don't talk to people who behave the way you do.' "

Added Lance: "We make judgments on far less -- we decide that so and so is an asshole and you wouldn't want to invite him to your dinner party." Why are such people honored at gatherings of scholars? he asked.

The post at New APPS and others in the blogosphere were inspired by an online project launched last year called What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, edited anonymously (with many posts under the name Jender), in which women post stories (with all identities removed) of their experiences in the discipline. The various categories of stories give some sense of the tenor of the site: Sections include "being afraid to speak," "blatantly illegal," "But surely you're male," "ignoring women," "women are incompetent," "women are tokens," etc.

The essays posted under "sexual harassment" include stories of a prominent professor asking a junior professor to find him a graduate student to sleep with at a conference, sexual harassment by one's doctoral adviser, a sexual assault by a senior professor in the field who invited a graduate student to his hotel room at a conference to see a book, and many others.

Most of the stories are from women, but several are from men who witnessed harassment. One male graduate student recalls: "Last year a very eminent philosopher joined our faculty. At his welcome dinner he made frequent distasteful and sexual comments about individual female graduate students in front of the entire faculty. He continued to make comments in graduate seminars and at departmental events throughout the year. When female students complained to our graduate adviser (female), they were told that he was harmless and that, given his reputation, should be tolerated. When I mentioned it to our department chair (male) he laughed it off and said that 'someone' should talk to him about it."

Many of the stories from women reflect frustration that their complaints haven't been taken seriously and that the harassment disrupted their ability to seek out professors they otherwise admired for guidance or collaboration. One story begins: "I, a woman, have had my share of unprofessional attention in philosophy (all from male professors). One male professor claimed to be 'in love' with me (he was married and I later learned that he told several female students the same things he told me). I asked him not to say those things to me, ever, but he continued to profess his 'love' and 'desires' for months. Another professor refused to talk to me (still hasn’t, half a decade later) after he made advances and I refused. This was especially devastating for me since I had taken many classes from him and thought we had a real philosophical connection."

As anonymous stories, they can't be confirmed, but much of the blog discussion about the various essays suggests that they are widely seen as credible.

Sexism and sexual harassment can be found in any academic discipline, of course. But philosophy is notable for lagging other humanities disciplines in reaching anything resembling gender parity in most departments. In 2007, the discipline debated its treatment of women after an analysis found that, in top-20 departments, women held only 18.7 percent of tenure-track positions, with two departments under 10 percent. For the past two years, the blog Feminist Philosophers has been drawing attention to conferences in the field at which all speakers are male.

Peggy DesAutels, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton and chair of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on Women, said that the recent public discussion of sexual harassment is long overdue. She said that the stories being posted on blogs are consistent with situations she has witnessed over the years or that she has heard directly from women who have sought her out because of her role in the APA.

"It's so frustrating to always hear all these stories, again and again, as women talk to each other about what they have experienced, and some men talk about what they have seen," she said. Women have discussed how to draw more attention to the problem and been held back by legal fears of simply accusing individual philosophers. The website What It Is Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, she said, seems to have found a way to set off the discussion without being sued.

DesAutels said she personally could verify that some of the top philosophers in academe have mistreated many women over the years. "There are well known, famous, serial harassers," she said. And she said that most women in philosophy have seen firsthand that famous philosophers don't seem to pay a price for the way they treat women. "To the degree that they are famous, they move from university to university," she said.

Part of the problem is that the number of women in philosophy is still low. In a circumstance that would not be possible in other humanities disciplines, "there are departments that have no feminist influence and very few women and that are very treacherous for women."

So is shunning -- as is being discussed now -- the way to go?

In the online discussion at New APPS, some have expressed fear of people being shunned based on false information, and others have said that more of an effort should be made to reform university judicial systems so victims will feel more confidence in filing complaints. Several of those who posted in favor of shunning said that they saw this not as an ideal solution, but as one that reflected the lack of better options.

Wrote one philosopher: "The informal approach suggested here is premised on the current systematic failure of universities to provide adequate formal mechanisms. In that context, social shunning seems entirely appropriate, if for no other reason than because it publicly affirms solidarity with the victims of harassment, rather than the perpetrators. Isolating people may or may not be the best strategy for moving people to be better colleagues and teachers. But reforming the wrongdoer (who probably has little interest in reform) is at best a tertiary concern. If, at present, such individuals cannot be eliminated through formal mechanisms, then the least we can do as decent human beings is not stand passively beside them."

DesAutels said that she practices a personal form of shunning. "If I'm organizing a panel or a conference, there are men I would not invite" based on their reputations for harassing women. But DesAutels said that this was "a private action" on her part. She said it was "difficult" to imagine any sort of collective list of harassers, given that different philosophers know about different incidents. When she has personally witnessed behavior, she said, she has no problem putting a man on her mental list of non-invitees, but she said she's less sure of what to do about individuals regarding whom her information is less direct.

One of the most significant things that have happened this week, DesAutels said, was that the debate spread from What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? to a discussion involving many more philosophers. She said she was struck that the authors of the New APPS post were three men in the field, all stating their belief that the problems facing women are real.

"We're finally seeing men challenge men," she said. "There are a large number of men out there who are not sexist and who are not harassing," but who need to become involved, she said, either by shunning the harassers or by helping the discipline think of other strategies.


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