by Ed Kazarian
There are two important posts up today elsewhere in the philosophical blogopshere that deserve your attention—both of which raise the question of how those of us in the profession at large can support those members who, because of activism or simply their social position, are vulnerable to various official and non-official forms of retaliation.
Above the fold, I will simply point readers to the Open Letter of Support for "for people in our profession who are suffering various trials either as victims of harassment or as supporters of victims" published on DailyNous by John Greco, Don Howard, Michael Rea, Jonathan Kvanvig, and Mark Murphy: and to NewAPPS emeritus blogger Eric Schliesser's more concrete suggestion about how to address the retaliatory deployment of legal means against complainants. Both pieces deserve to be read and reflected upon.
In what follows, I'll say a bit more about my sense of the importance of both pieces, and the larger phenomenon of retaliation against those contesting the inequitable state of the profession.
Let me begin with the Open Letter of Support on DailyNous, which neatly sums up the state of play in the discipline in the following lines:
As things currently stand, there are very substantial professional and personal risks associated with addressing sexual misconduct either informally or through formal university channels—including, as we have now seen, the risk of being sued for defamation. Moreover, these risks accrue not only to victims but to those who try to support them in seeking to have their grievances addressed. Unsurprisingly, many victims have felt as if they have no recourse, many who might otherwise have supported them have remained silent; and the culture of silence understandably contributes to the impression that there are really very few within our profession who are much concerned either about the prevalence of sexual misconduct within our discipline or about the risks associated with seeking to have it addressed.
We write, therefore, to say publicly that these developments are lamentable, to voice our support of rights to report concerns of misconduct, and to ask the philosophical community to join with us in supporting both the victims of sexual misconduct who have the courage to file a formal report, and the faculty who provide them with support.
As the authors note, their gesture of support is aimed primarily at contesting a 'culture of silence' (or perhaps better, an apparatus of silencing) that has developed in both official and unofficial contexts within the profession.
Eric Schliesser's piece is an attempt to sharpen that effort, in the form of a suggestion about how we can collectively address the retaliatory deployment of legal means against complainants. Unlike indemnification (on which Eric and Jennifer Lackey have led the way, and about which I also wrote a little on Friday), Eric's latest suggestion bears upon what we as a professional community can do about retaliatory abuses of litigation independent of the policy decisions of our university employers:
As bystanders we should be very clear that in the context of disciplinary cases (involving rape, sexual assault, harassment, etc.), the professional community draws a sharp distinction between suing one's university and suing one's peers or accusers. We all recognize that university tribunals have their own problems (most of these involving partiality toward faculty) and that victims and accusers alike ought to have some recourse to outside courts. But, as a profession we have a community interest (not to mention common decency) in ensuring that the targets of such a law-suit are employers (that is, universities and their officers) not colleagues and students accusers.
So, what can we done?
Quite a bit given that there are no controversial epistemic issues involved. It is public knowledge when somebody sues a student or colleague in the context of an rape/assault/harassment (etc.) case. As a community we should treat such legal strategies with aversion.
Eric has a concrete proposal regarding how individuals who engage in such strategies should be treated, which is somewhat analogous to the gendered conference campaign—and he invites discussion on his blog about the merits and appropriateness of such a strategy.
As I said above, I encourage folks to read and reflect upon both pieces in their entirety.
But I also want to emphasize that the issues at stake here are not and cannot be seen as limited to sexual assault and harassment within the institutional space of this or that university, nor are they exhausted by the sorts of formal-legal abuses at play in suing students who complain to one's university employer. Retaliation, as a part of the silencing apparatus that I mentioned above, is a larger and more widespread phenomenon that needs to be confronted as such.
Our profession continues to undergo a very necessary process of contestation, wherein people subject to significant inequities along a variety of vectors, gender and sexuality certainly (especially where those include the struggles of trans* people), but also race and disability, have been claiming some of the discursive space and professional recognition that have typically been denied them. To the extent that such efforts have been successful, many of the people involved have come to be subject, no longer simply to being ignored or marginalized, but to much more intense forms of harassment, especially within the more informal spaces of the profession and online. These sorts of campaigns—and they often seem to manifest at least the minimal degree of organization necessary for setting up anonymous, unmoderated blogs the point of which, for example, is to resist and mock feminist interventions into the discursive, conceptual, and practical space of philosophy—are also real, and often very hurtful forms of retaliation, professionally and personally alienating, and in some cases materially frightening. If we're going to express our disapproval of suing students who complain about one's professional conduct, it seems to me that we also need to declare our general aversion to those who would otherwise retaliate against people seeking fair access to the space of the profession on behalf of themselves or others.