Community

I should begin by saying that, when someone is harassed, the only person to blame for it is the person doing the harassing.

There’s usually only going to be one person doing any actual harassment. Most of us aren’t assholes, after all.

That being said, about 90% of the experience of being harassed is watching other people as they witness the harassment while doing nothing to stop it. This is how the bad behavior of assholes is allowed to escalate, and this is also how targets are primed to be victims.

More often than not, the target of harassment is chosen because they’re friendly and polite and don’t push back against the harasser. They know this, but they’re often plagued by a lingering sense of self-doubt, as if they have done something to deserve the treatment. The harasser takes advantage of and exacerbates this insecurity, of course, but the target’s sense of self-worth is also eroded by how the community treats the harassment as normal.

You can avoid one asshole, but you can’t avoid everyone in your office or classroom. This means that the target doesn’t just feel uncomfortable around the harasser, but around everyone. This is how a hostile workplace environment is created.

I’ve said this before, but the purpose of American Title IX laws is to protect the university. Because of systemic injustice, protecting the university almost always means protecting the person accused of harassment. If a professor takes steps to confront or report a harasser, they could very well lose their job. From a legal perspective, professors cannot respond to harassment in any way unless the target reports it directly in clear language. Even then, the professor can only relay the complaint to the appropriate office, as they cannot legally take any sort of action to protect the target of harassment. The same goes for workplace supervisors. We can report harassment, but we can’t do anything to address or prevent it.

I think this is why so many people allow harassment to continue – they believe that a higher authority will intervene and handle the situation. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly not going to happen, at least not in the way that it should.

It’s therefore up to a community of peers to address and prevent harassment. This is not ideal, and it has the potential to backfire by becoming a different sort of harassment in turn, but it’s usually the only way to protect the target. No one needs to be a hero. “Protecting the target” usually takes the form of making sure that the harasser is not invited to events where their target is going to be present or making sure that the target doesn’t have to walk to class alone if the harasser is always waiting outside the classroom. It also involves the act of acknowledging of the harassment by pointing it out and making it visible while it’s occurring.

It feels wrong and weird to have to give this talk to grad students, as if we (collectively, as professors) are abjuring responsibility, but it’s better than saying nothing at all. It’s also an important lesson about academia, I think. The institution will not protect any of us, so we have to protect ourselves.

#MeToo Ethics

Not everyone can be Anita Hill.

We all know who Anita Hill is because she is a smart and brave woman who tried to make the world a better place and succeeded. We do not know the names of the smart and brave women who tried to make the world a better place and failed. If you try and fail, your career will be ruined while the creepy douchebag who’s harassing people will gain extra immunity from future accusations. Anita Hill succeeded because she is smart and brave, but also because she is mediagenic and had a lot of legal support – and it still wasn’t easy for her. Maybe you can’t be Anita Hill, but you can keep triplicate copies of all your records of harassment on hand so that you can stand behind a future Anita Hill when she steps up.

They may not be telling the whole story, but you should believe them anyway.

When a person in a precarious position provides testimony against someone in a position of relative power, it’s important to treat their testimony seriously but also with a sympathetic understanding of the broader context. Most people just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved, and most people aren’t going to risk ruining their professional reputation unless something truly upsetting is going on. The chances are that the bad behavior being reported has been going on for a long time and includes far more microaggressions than outright harassment, but it can be extremely difficult to get other people to take microaggressions seriously. If someone makes an accusation, it’s fair to assume that what they’ve chosen to highlight in their testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if they accidentally misrepresent the shape of the iceberg, that giant island of ship-destroying ice is still there.

There are no neutral parties once an accusation has been made.

You cannot simultaneously be friends with a rapist or harasser and the person they raped or harassed. Once a formal accusation has been made, you have to pick a side. This isn’t always easy, but do you really want to be friends with someone who harasses and assaults other people? Or, in rare cases, with someone who has made a false accusation of harassment and assault?

When in doubt, the person who makes death threats is wrong.

Sometimes it’s not clear what’s going on or who the aggrieved party actually is. If you find yourself in a situation in which you have to pick a side but don’t know all the details or who’s telling the truth, you should side with the person who isn’t sending death threats, rape threats, or suicide bait to the other person – or asking or encouraging other people to do it for them.

The accused party does not get to dictate the terms of the relationship.

Someone who has behaved badly does not automatically deserve a second chance, or a chance to explain themselves, or a chance to apologize, or any amount of time and emotional energy of the person they’ve harassed or assaulted. If the person who has suffered because of their actions eventually wants to repair the relationship, that’s up to them, not the person who ruined their life. It’s important that mutual acquaintances not try to act as intermediaries, especially not if there’s a court order in place.

I know it may seem as though I’m speaking in broad generalizations, but each of these observations is based on my own experiences. I thought about giving concrete examples to illustrate these points, but I ultimately decided against it. Like I said, most people (including myself) just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved. If someone is willing to risk their career to stand up to harassment and abuse, however, it’s important to support them, even if that “support” is as simple as saving a copy of an incriminating email or unfollowing someone who asks other people to send rape threats on social media.