Dear Men, Shut Up About ‘Due Process’ Already

From sea to shining sea, on social media pages nationwide, brave men are taking up cudgels on behalf of their brothers-in-sex-and-gender, the ones whose lives are facing ruination because of this country’s #MeToo moment, as accusation after accusation of sexual harassment and assault issue forth from women who’ve previously remained silent. In each case, their defense takes an exceedingly simple form: it is to insist on ‘due process,’ to assert that every ‘accused’ has a ‘presumption to innocence,’ that they are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ that they fear this business of identifying the men who harass and assault in impunity is all too likely to morph into that most dreaded of social epidemics: the witch hunt. Cease and desist, they say; let us wait till ‘the facts are in,’ till a ‘trial’ has taken place and ‘guilt’ has been conclusively established.

There are several–deliberate, I suspect–confusions at play here. Most prominently, this kind of response confuses the standards for a criminal conviction by the state in a court of law with the usual evidentiary standards that underwrite our usual social judgments of misbehavior. A courtroom furnishes one epistemic context; it addresses the imbalance of power that exists between the state and the accused, and puts the burden on the state to prove its point. This standard of proof is relaxed in civil cases, which only require a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and do not require guilt to be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Our day-to-day social encounters furnish yet other epistemic contexts; within them, we are, on a daily basis, subjected to ‘evidence’ of varying  levels of reliability, submitted by sources whom we trust to varying degrees; we act on the basis of these sorts of claims, assessing them using our socially acquired and developed skills of evidence evaluation; we often act on the basis of incomplete or only partially verified evidentiary claims; indeed, we have to, for stasis and inaction are not options more often than not. That is, we do not sit around, waiting for the standards of a criminal court to be satisfied before we act; social ends, desirable ones, have to be met.

Critical legal studies scholars have, for a long time now, identified one dishonorable ideological function that the law and its institutions–among which is legal language–play in our society: the establishment of a kind of ‘rationality’–the legal kind, which ostensibly aspires to the value-free, fact-laden-and-dependent kind of reasoning followed in the sciences–which can then be used to discredit other kinds of reasoning. The invocation of deployment of criminal law’s standards of evidence and its methodology for determining ‘guilt’ in social contexts outside of courtrooms is a good example of this kind of ideological maneuver. This invocation is particularly problematic when it is realized that courtroom deliberations themselves are anything but value-and-bias-free; determinations of guilt in courtrooms are as socially and politically riven as those that take place elsewhere; it is just that legal decisions lay claim to a presumption of having cleansed themselves of prejudice thanks to their supposed circumscription by ‘legal method.’

This particular technique of obfuscation has a long and dishonorable history–and it looks likely to continue for the established future. After all, maintaining this confusion is necessary for the maintenance of established power relations and for the continuance of bad behavior by serial offenders.

Anita Hill, Harvey Weinstein, And National Amnesia

In October 1991, I, along with millions of other curious viewers, watched the Senate nomination hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. My curiosity, like that of many others, had been piqued by the presence of Thomas’ former assistant, Anita Hill, who had accused him of sexual harassment at her workplace. On the second day of her testimony, I was joined in my viewing by my girlfriend; we worked together at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey–she as a technical writer, I as a systems analyst. As we watched the hearings, my girlfriend grew increasingly animated–she commented time and again on Hill’s ‘bravery,’ her ‘courage,’ on how difficult it must have been for her to speak up. She spoke too, of the many incidents of harassment–major and minor–she herself had suffered at her workplace; she told me how all around her, women were talking–to each other, and to anyone, men included, who would listen–about how Anita Hill was giving voice to a complaint all too often ignored. And indeed, over the next few days, in newspapers, on talk shows, in usenet newsgroups, you could hear women talking about how Anita Hill’s testimony had blown the lid off the modern workplace’s biggest and most enduring scandal: the daily rituals of intimidation, humiliation, harassment that women had to undergo within its precincts. All around me, everyone agreed: this was a national ‘conversation’ we needed to be having; the world was not going to be the same again after these kinds of ‘revelations’; boyfriends and husbands were listening. (On the night Thomas’ confirmation was received, I was at my girlfriend’s house. When we heard the final 52-48 vote to confirm, she kicked the bed in disgust and anger; no one would listen to women; despite all that Hill had said, despite her transparent sincerity, the usual fog of obfuscation and denial–and in Thomas’ case, an astonishing self-pitying rant–had derailed her claims.)

It is now 2017, some twenty-six years on. The years have rolled on, much has changed, but yet more endures. We have been assured, thanks to La Affaire Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, that we are at a national watershed moment when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment, that we now have unprecedented awareness about the problems that women face in the workplace–and elsewhere–when it comes to the business of being able to simply maintain some kinds of boundaries around themselves and their bodies. Back in 1991, in my workplace, there had been many employee seminars for ‘sensitivity training’ and the like–all to increase workplace awareness about the problem of sexual harassment. The men hadn’t liked it then; the current evidence seems to suggest all those seminars, at workplaces nationwide, had little effect–the Weinstein scandal is merely the most publicized of the many sexual harassment ‘scandals’ since. There is reason for pessimism again: the #MeToo campaign is already old hat, and business is returning to normal all too soon.

We’ve been here before; we might yet find ourselves at these crossroads again. Our memories are all too fragile, all too easily effaced.

#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

Boccaccio And Double Entendres In A Patriarchal Society

In his review of a new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s The Decameron (by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, 2015), Stephen Greenblatt writes:

Many of these stories are scandalously obscene, but the scandal has nothing to do with filthy words….circumlocutory words, or periphrases…have nothing to do with prudery. They are part of Boccaccio’s inexhaustible bag of metaphorical tricks, and they work because, except for the crudest and most tongue-tied of us, everyone resorts to such tricks constantly, if rarely with such inventiveness. As Boccaccio writes “The Author’s Conclusion,” “Men and women generally…go around all day long saying ‘hole’ and ‘rod’ and ‘mortar’ and ‘pestle’ and ‘sausage’ and ‘mortadella’ and lots of other things like that.” The point is not that such words should rightfully be innocent of double entendres but rather that we gleefully carry our sexual energy over into everyday language, and we love it. It is part of what it means to be healthy and alive.

As the unsurprising popularity and ubiquity of the ‘That’s what she said’ and ‘said the actress to the bishop’ formulations shows, our language is littered with ample opportunities for such ‘interventions.’ Quasi-hecklers and budding comedians especially delight in these: the innocent speaker launches forth, utters the fateful phrase–say, perhaps, “I kept pushing hard” or “there was no point in stopping” or “it had quickly hardened”–and the would-be Michael Scott, sensing an opportunity, steps in with his interjection. Titters and snickers follow. Easy pickings indeed. (I cannot tell a lie; I have indulged myself on occasion in precisely such a fashion.)

But we don’t all “love it” and we don’t all find the reminders of this “sexual energy” in our “everyday language” to be part of the meaning of “what it means to be healthy and alive.” There are times when the constant, knowing, deployment of double entendres or ‘That’s what she said’ interjections can, in certain social and conversational contexts, become occasions for discomfort, for displacement, for silencing, and thus even contribute to a form of harassment. As women have often complained in workplace settings, the deployment of double entendres in conversations by their male colleagues–with nods and winks at other accomplices–has often contributed to an uncomfortable work environment. (Sometimes their gentlemen colleagues–in the bad old days–would bring their “sexual energy” to the workplace by watching porn at their work desks, or by putting up pinups of scantily clad women on their desks.)

In a society riven by unequal gender relations and dynamics, by patriarchy and sexism, our carrying over of our “sexual energy” into our “everyday language” includes carrying over a great deal of that  same inequality and imbalance. The woman whose uttering of “it wasn’t as long as it could have been” is interrupted by a “that’s what she said” in the workplace is, in all likelihood, surrounded by men who make more than her, whose work is taken more seriously, who are listened to more carefully and respectfully.

Our “everyday language” does not just contribute to our politics, it also reflects it.

Professional Academic Philosophy’s Blind Spots

A few years ago, I read an email–or a post on an online forum, I am not sure–written by a very accomplished senior philosopher (a logician to be precise.)  In his argument, the logician–adept at providing mathematically elegant proofs of recondite logical problems–seemed to have committed at least two logical fallacies in the first paragraph of his ostensible argument. The topic of the discussion: women’s place in academia.

It was not the first or the last time I noticed the Ironic Absence of Argumentative Rigor in Professional Philosophy When it Comes to Women (or indeed, Any Topic That Threatens Male Privilege.) This observation of mine can be made more general, perhaps even cast as an exception-free law of sorts: professional training in philosophy is no bar to, and indeed might even increase the probability of, sloppy argumentation on topics of personal and political interest.

There is now, once again, in the world of professional academic philosophy, a renewed debate about sexual harassment and sexism (here; here; here; here); once again, many of my academic colleagues–especially the female ones–are dismayed by the plentiful display of very unphilosophical and unsympathetic prejudice by many accomplished  and senior male philosophers. They are right to be dismayed; but they should not be surprised.

For as long as I’ve been a member of this discipline, it has bred a very particular sort of arrogance. This is manifest in many ways: sometimes it is the resolute conviction that philosophy alone–and sometimes only its analytic, science-worshipping component–provides the royal road to Truth; sometimes it is the assertion that no other discipline engages with philosophical problems; sometimes it is the implicit claim that its students and practitioners are the best equipped with argumentative dialectic and clarity and rigor in written and oral expression. The philosopher stands above all, best equipped to provide lofty judgments on all matters of human endeavor and thought. His education, his methods, his intellectual tradition has outfitted him admirably and ideally for this task.

The contrast between this confident, narcissistic self-assessment is only heightened by the actual, empirical manifestation of these supposed capacities: all too many professional philosophers reveal themselves to be narrow-minded pedants whose conception of human inquiry and motivation is remarkably impoverished. And all too many travelers on the Royal Road to What There Really Is are rapidly undone when arguing about political issues that might possess an emotional or sexual dimension. Keep matters confined to a closely specified and formally clarified sphere; you might see rigor on display. But let matters spill out into an issue in which positions are often underwritten by prejudice and you will suddenly observe philosophical acumen take its leave.

I do not doubt pedants and hypocrites are plentiful in other academic disciplines; I have had the misfortune of encountering many of them myself. But the gap between the self-image, between the professed claims to loftier things, and actual ground realities makes philosophy’s situation just a tad more sordid.

Cleaning up the muck takes much longer when those entrusted with the task continue to screw-up, all the while convinced they can do no wrong.

More on ‘Male Anxiety’ in Academic Philosophy

Daniel Mullin comments on my post from yesterday about ‘male anxiety’ in the workplace–in particular, in academic philosophy departments–and describes his strategy for dealing with an atmosphere in which there is heightened sensitivity about sexual harassment:

Since that time, I’ve considered ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible. I certainly kept my office door open during consultation and only met with female students during office hours. I was a little more casual with male students, sometimes meeting them at a campus coffee shop if, for example, they had class during my office hours. Ironically, then, I suspect that ‘male anxiety’ does not foster more equality, but is more likely to result in preferential treatment of male students by male professors. I still consider my policy a prudent one, but it’s unfortunate that female students had less access to my time than did male students. Sadly, however, the practical effect of male anxiety might be that female students don’t get the best out of male professors which may contribute to an already existing problem: the dearth of women in the discipline.

It is not immediately clear to me that the precautionary measures that Mullin (and his adviser) describe should lead to a situation in which male professors accord ‘preferential treatment’ to male students. Meeting students during office hours, or by appointment on school premises, or conducting all discussions–the ones that do not require a private hearing–in an office with open doors, don’t seem to entail zero contact with female students, and neither do they suggest that all avenues for discussion with them have been blocked. And of course, they do not preclude careful and detailed comments on papers and respectful conversations in academic fora and the classroom.

More problematic is Mullin’s assertion that he considers ‘ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible.’ This is roughly equivalent to saying ‘I consider ANY female student to be potentially an irrational actor who will make false, career-destroying accusations against me.’ This seems like a very prejudicial attitude to maintain toward women students; it makes it seem as if false accusations by them and destroyed careers are the norm in academia. Are they? Are female students–especially those in philosophy–especially prejudiced against their male professors? So much so that they have conducted a vindictive smear campaign against them?

Again, it must reiterated, it is a false dichotomy to suggest that unless and until male professors can interact with their female students in a host of intimate, possibly problematic, situations that there cannot be fruitful academic interaction between the two. To suggest this is to paint a curiously impoverished picture of the numerous modes, possibilities and venues for meetings and discussions between professors and students. If Mullin could not meet on a campus coffee shop with his female students, could he have met them in the department lounge or common room? Or on the quad? Or is the fear that a student will insist on a private meeting and then turn around and make a false accusation of sexual harassment? The picture of the female student that emerges from these anxious responses is not a flattering one.

It is significant that Mullin mentions his adviser giving him the–very sound!–advice to ‘be conscious of what [he] said to female students. ‘ Indeed, all professors should be careful of what they say to their students: we occupy positions of power; we often set examples by our behavior and speech. Professors, like other folks, can also make racist and sexist speech; why shouldn’t we be cognizant of the effects of our words and actions?

As I indirectly noted in my past yesterday, what started as a problem about sexual harassment of women in the workplace can turn very quickly turn instead into one about ‘fearful’ men in the workplace, whose needs now must be attended to. The most substantive effect of this is, if Mullin is to be believed, is that women have suffered even more. They needn’t have, but they might, according to this account. Perhaps the women should have not complained so that business as usual could have proceeded?

Finally, Mullin suggests that ‘the academy is already doing more than enough to make men hyper-conscious of the dire consequences of even seemingly innocent interactions with female students.’ The crucial point is whether this ‘hyper-consciousness’ is leading to better behavior or just the anxious reactions that I have described and discussed. If it’s the latter, then we haven’t made any progress.

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.