Monday, May 2, 2016

"Mistakes were made": The case for proportional response to harassment

EDITED: As of 10:30CST, to deal with my failures of intersectionality and racism.

This year has led the “revelation” (in quotes, because y’all… we knew) that sexual harassment in the academy is alive and well. Through the heroic efforts of some, in the most egregious occurrences sanctions have been enacted. But we are left with a question - How do we prevent history from repeating?

In particular, how do we not end up in the situation where we are cleaning up 10, 20, or even 30 years of ongoing harassment that *finally* culminates in disciplinary action. Due to our current system much of the process is opaque even when people are found to be repeat offenders. How do we not take part in the institutional shuffle that so often follows revelations of harassment? How do we protect our community? How do we expose the systemic harassment that is happening to people who are not white women? How do we *change*? 

We still are very stuck focusing on heterosexual relationships when we talk about sexual harassment. But as the recent American Physical Society report on climate for LGBT physicists exposes, we are doing only a mediocre job at making our workplaces safe for people based on sexual orientation and gender minorities. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, agender, transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary face very mixed environments at work, and that experience is worse if you identify as a minority on more than one axis. This is often left out of our stereotypical vision of sexual harassment. Yet in report after report, such as the one above, we see the deeply damaging consequences of this harassment we rarely speak of.

Our current system appears to be predicated on the wildly inaccurate assumption that the job of the system is to protect poor hapless male faculty from the devious Lolitas (and they are always young women) that fill their lives (and of course their classrooms and labs). These assumptions are built on an outdated (as if it was ever otherwise) cisgender heterosexual fantasy world. Like so many things these days, we fail to protect those we claim to be thinking about, we endanger people we never imagined we would endanger, and we don’t know how to move forward. Huge swaths of harassment go ignored because they do not fit into the stereotypes we imagine, or fit cleanly into past experiences. People who are minoritized among several axis often find they are heavily discredited or disbelieved when it comes to reporting harassment. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the majority of "headline" cases we have seen about enforcing harassment have had white women at their cores (As so eloquently discussed here by Sarah Ballard). We need to extend and expand to keep our vulnerable community members safe.

I think we’re going about it a bit wrong.

I want to make something *exquisitely* clear here at the start. I believe people who harass should have consequences. I do not regret the actions that have been taken against our notorious harassers. I think the system does too little, too late. I think many people, especially junior or other vulnerable people have their careers derailed or destroyed before anyone knows to worry about it, and that is extremely unacceptable. I also believe that the way we’re dealing with it now doesn’t, in the end, fix that. I want to think about what we’re missing in this "all or nothing" framework and how we might repair or rebuild our approach.

As these news stories broke (news stories always, because our institutions operate under shields of impenetrable silence), I had more than one person ask me, as these harassers were being exposed and dealt with, “Oh god, am I harasser and I don’t even know it?”

The short answer is yes.

The slightly longer answer is - You are, but. You are likely not a predator. You do not believe you are above repercussions. You forget, sometimes, that you have the potential to be a bull in a china shop when it comes to issues of gender, race, and sexuality. You do harm without thinking because you are not a “male astronomer” or a "white astronomer" or a "straight astronomer", you are just an astronomer. Maybe you were young, maybe you made a mistake. You misjudged a flirtation, or you were a jerk. You crossed a line you thought you could get away with. You pushed your luck. You did not imagine how offensive your question would sound. We’ve been there. And so, the power built into the kyriarchy of our system means that you can do damage without batting an eye, and inevitably you have. Those mistakes have very real consequences. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

Some might think of what I’m discussing as microaggressions. And it is true that microaggressions are a part of this. It is important here to recognize that the theory of microaggressions was developed by Chester Pierce in his revolutionary work at Harvard and Mass. General regarding racism and health effects in the United States. Although racism & sexism are still very much embedded in our society, they are not the same, and the way we both deal with them and react to them is different. His work on microaggressions was extended by Mary Rowe to expand the application beyond race. But I am including things beyond microaggressions.

This is a conversation I think we are afraid to have, in no small part because our systems are so skewed in how they deal with any sort of complaint. How many times have we heard “He made me really uncomfortable, but it isn’t something to ruin a career over.” Holding someone accountable for their damaging words or actions should be a thing we can do without “ruining” their career. Our current system deals so poorly that it puts the onus entirely on the person being harassed to do a terrible kind of accounting. Who has more value? Your mental and physical health? Or the career and wellbeing of your harasser? And because the stakes are set to be incredibly high, people in power seem to find it easy to dismiss complaints out of hand. Mix that in with unconscious bias and you begin to understand the truly toxic environment academia has become.

I want to see a system where a careless sexist remark, a lingering touch, or an email asking a student out for a date can be reported, can result in protection and satisfaction for the victim, as *well* as a learning experience and proportional consequence for the offender. I want to not keep sheltering faculty who constantly question the competence of our students of color, or who make "offhand" racist comments in class - but are excused because "They're old." or "That's just how Y is, you know.". I want us to be able to hold people to account for harassment in a straightforward way. And then perhaps we teach *most* people that respect and communication is crucial, and that power differentials do matter, and society and its ills don't get left at the door when we enter our buildings. Our current options of endurance or scorched earth are unsatisfactory and problematic. At its worst, our system converts possible abusers into confirmed abusers, because there are almost no consequences for most of their inappropriate behavior and abuse.

What could this new system look like? Fundamentally, it will have to be rooted in our institutions but I believe we could test drive something locally within departments. It will require a lot of community buy in and cooperation. New things are hard, and we will screw them up. It will mean signing on as a department (for example) to have *meaningful* trainings about inclusion, racism, and sexism. It will mean equipping all of us with tools for bystander intervention (training which some Universities already have available) so when mistakes are made we can intervene, discuss, apologize, and learn. The system will require meaningful and increasing consequences, some as small as requiring apologies, or mediated meetings, or attending trainings. And some as severe as fines or firing. I think we have to base it in the work being done in the restorative justice movement. I think we need to move as much power and agency as we can back to the people who are experiencing harassment.

We have relied for too long on the “whispernet” because our current system continues to fail us, but unfortunately whispernet hasn’t protected us adequately either. In particular, early career field members often do not feel like they are valued - by their senior colleagues, or by their institutions. They see the value is placed on their senior colleagues, even those who behave reprehensibly (“But he is such a great physicist!”) and learn very quickly the implicit message about their value. This valuation is always colored by the inherent biases that we carry in our societies, and so unsurprisingly we see the reflection in our constantly disappointing demographic reports. People who are minoritized are not thriving in our field because we are repeating the failings of our society, instead of creating systems that will support their voices and prioritize their survival.

Returning to those people who ask me “Am I a harasser?”. Many of these people also ask me “What can *I* do?”. Add your voice and your hands to instituting systemic change, in your department and in our field.

These systems and teachings CAN NOT only come from the work of minoritized people and communities. Those of us who have some privilege need to take on the work of supporting programs to protect minoritized community members and create change.

Does all this change seem unlikely? Maybe. But maybe to me it is worth imagining that we can learn and grow, rather than accepting that we will just continue on, pushing out marginalized colleagues through our carelessness and contempt. I’m not interested in accepting that, and will continue to try and fix it. I do hope you’ll join me.

Author's Note: When I wrote the first version of this, I handled poorly issues of intersectionality in harassment. I apologize for harm done for those who read it, and hope in its revision it speaks better to the future I'd like us to strive for. I used old and lazy framing, which in and of itself is racist. I forgot the fundamental rule that work worth doing is worth doing correctly the first time. I aspire to do better in the future, and appreciate being called in to make corrections in the present.