Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy

In 1990, I began work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. My technical employment status was ‘Resident Visitor’; I was a ‘consultant’ sent to work at the Laboratories on a contingent basis. Because of this status, I was not required to attend the training sessions that were often set up for permanent employees. Off they went, while I, and the rest of the consulting crew stayed in our offices, attending to whatever it was we did. When my colleagues and friends returned, they complained bitterly and caustically about these trainings, these onerous impositions on their time and energy: they had been made to attend day-long seminars on ‘diversity,’ ‘affirmative action,’ ‘women in the workplace,’ ‘sexual harassment’ and the like.

Their contempt for these efforts was unvarnished: ‘a fucking waste of time,’ ‘useless,’ ‘just a bunch of moaning and whining,’ ‘the usual politically correct bullshit.’ They wondered, to a man–and I use that term advisedly–what would it all mean? What did ‘management’ want? How should they comport themselves? They were bewildered and anxious and angry: ‘It’s like you can’t crack a joke anymore without someone getting offended’; ‘Try being friendly with someone, and you’ll get cracked down on’. One older gentleman, with whom I had developed a bit of a friendship, complained to me that he when he called younger women ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ , he meant it as a term of affection, not meant to be remotely insulting, patronizing or offensive; it was just how he interacted with that demographic. (I failed to point out to him that he used these terms more often for women of color.)

Listening to them, one would have been hard pressed to not imagine that a gigantic inquisitorial McCarthyite whip had been cracked, shedding skin and sending them scurrying for cover. Those whose protection was seemingly demanded by these trainings now became the focus for more suspicion and contempt: Will this woman complain about my language, linguistic or body? Will this black man accuse me of being patronizing? Oh, the inhumanity! The realm of social interaction, previously unsullied by exhortations to be more sensitive to assorted sensibilities, to problematic presuppositions, to the potential for prejudice-enforcing behavior, had been transformed into one of suspicion and worry; relationships, which would have flowered and bloomed without this malign intervention and chaperoning, were now doomed to wither. Why not just let things be as they are–when they seemed to have worked so well for everyone? Couldn’t the whiners and complainers just learn to live and let live?

I am reminded of that group of anxious men as I read Louise Antony‘s article at the Stone yesterday, noting the male anxiety triggered in academic philosophy by La Affaire Colin McGinn, in which a senior philosopher resigned his tenured post after being accused of inappropriate behavior by his female graduate student. As Antony notes, the MIT linguist  Steven Pinker wrote ‘that “such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.”’ And then, of course, there are the familiar worries from elsewhere:

Pinker’s reflexive and overheated reaction to the events in Florida is simply one precipitate of the fog of male anxiety that floats through the halls of academia. I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

Unsurprisingly enough, in academia, just like it was at Bell Labs more than twenty years ago, the actual disciplinary record is the same: very few men have actually been complained about, and an even smaller number have had any action taken against them. Very few careers had been ruined; what had been, or could be, ruined was the atmosphere that had existed before, where all the squirming was done by women, or some other vulnerable minority, and where all the smirking and grinning was done by men. Yes, there was plenty of banter, some of it just the kind that adults engage in to take the edge of what might otherwise be a stilted social engagement. But in these very same engagements, the balance of power was always visible to all; if there were lines to be crossed it would only happen in one direction. How much give and take, the supposed fabric of banter, could really be spun out in these domains of unequal power?

Antony is right to note that the real effect of the heightened visibility of discourse about sexual harassment–or about other variants of discomfort and offense inducing behavior–is not as much legislative or punitive, as it is to induce an uncomfortable spotlight on the perpetrators and to place an expectation on them of real, substantive change in their behavior. That is onerous; it requires some serious introspection, some work on building new habits of speech and action, some effort directed toward sympathetic or empathetic listening; it requires working on the new, as yet not clearly understood or defined, parameters of new relationships; it requires the construction of a new space of discourse, with new guidelines and conversational implicatures. If male academic philosophers insist that ‘openness and informality’ be understood and construed only as specified by them, and that intellectually rewarding academic relationships cannot be formed in any other way, then they are guilty of several false dichotomies.

As Antony notes:

The real worry, I think, for men is that they will have to change their ways. They will have to monitor what they say to female students and colleagues. They will have to think twice before chatting up that attractive graduate student they see at a conference. They’ll have to stop relying on smutty double entendres to get laughs in their seminars.

So, yes, it is a burden. Having to change our ways always is.  So, since those folks who complain about diversity training and sexual harassment sensitivity sessions always set great store by plain speaking, it would not be untoward to direct at them, a simple and plain injunction: Deal with it. Change.