My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press. Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all. So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity. As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.
Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”). The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).
Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.
I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.
You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?
When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.
There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities. And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.
So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.
I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past. So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.
I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.
My little corner of Chicago–two wards, with a tiny boost from Evanston–has more than 100 people signed up to go to Wisconsin to knock on doors for Hillary this Saturday. With less than 10 days’ notice, we’ve turned out enough people to spill over the boundaries of our original target (Kenosha) and conquer Racine as well.
To put that in perspective, that’s a bigger group of volunteers than we sent to Wisconsin at this time during the Obama campaign. After Labor Day, we’re going to flood the zone in Iowa.
So don’t let anyone tell you there’s no enthusiasm for Hillary.
A few months ago, 70,000 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against ISIS. All very well and good, great to see, important to notice, etc.
But whenever violence is justified by appeal to religion (regardless of which religion it is, see Baruch Goldstein), adherents of that religion have to take proactive steps to ensure that beliefs leading to violence are being rooted out. So here is one that I would be interested in discussing with these 70,000 imams:
How do you interpret Qu’ran 4:34?
That verse describes relations between husbands and wives, and in some interpretations allows husbands to beat their wives. Other interpretations suggest that men are superior to women. And yet other interpretations reject all violence or any suggestion of gender inequality. What do these imams think about that?
Now, one might wonder what that has to do with anything: this fatwa concerned ISIS and Al-Qaeda, not gender. But I believe that the two are linked. In male-dominated traditional societies, women can stand in for the ultimate Other, that which must be controlled and dominated. Hyper-masculinism means great propensity to violence, or as a professor of mine once put it, “when it comes to violent crime, women are just not doing their fair share.” The one thing that virtually all terrorists have in common is not their religion, or their culture, or their class background, but rather their sex.
Put another way, Islamic terror will not cease until women in the Umma are empowered and equal. And this applies to all terror. It may not be a sufficient condition — Communist China early on adopted formal norms of gender equality and Maoist rule might have been the most brutal of the 20th century, which is saying a lot — but it is a necessary one. For my own faith, it is surely no accident that the religious settlers who have committed the worst terror against Palestinians are also the ones who hold the most retrograde views on gender.
So while it is great that we hear condemnations of terrorism from imams, my follow up question is: how are you personally, in your practice and in your work, fighting for gender equality with Islam? What do you tell your followers about Qu’ran 4:34? Because if that answer is a shrug of the shoulders, or an uncomprehending stare, it isn’t good enough.
Sam Wang gives Hillary Clinton a poll-based 70% probability of becoming US President, if the election were held tomorrow, and not after another six months of public exhibition of the ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity and vanity of Donald Trump. Ban Ki-Moon has picked Christina Figueres’ successor to lead the next round of UN climate negotiations: the even tougher Patricia Espinosa of Mexico. The Monstrous Regiment of Women is doing pretty well in many places.
Not everywhere, and especially not in the Vatican. Here is a sobering tale from the Sistine Chapel. Continue Reading…
[15/X/15: last word on this here]
One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes. It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime. Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally. We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.
This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse. All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty. Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT. We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby. Continue Reading…
[15/X/15: last word on this here]
Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list. A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation. For a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him. You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”. No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.
Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.
Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis. And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal. How serious is this, really? On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is at least as bad as doing less of it here. So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible. Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed. Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.
So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic. On the other side, what were the costs? Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone. There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].
Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.
On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!
We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything. Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics). And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.
Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]
[more here 12/X/15]
[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.
[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser. I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client, shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.
The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.
Laura Esserman, shaking things up in a men’s world to improve the health and increase the happiness of her patients, and other people’s patients. Evidence-based medicine and courage. Rockstar! You go, doc!
Patricia Horoho, [link corrected 29/IX] smoothing things out in a men’s world to improve the comfort of officers at the expense of her patients (students who aren’t officers yet). Evidence-suppressing management and craven servility. Flack in scrubs costume, and not such a great officer come to think of it. Hang up your stethoscope, doc, and maybe park your stars in the kitchen junk drawer too.
This week’s movie recommendation continues last week’s theme of court-related drama. As the credits are still rolling, we watch a deeply distressed young woman named Sarah Tobias exit a roadside bar in an urgent search for help. Tobias has just been raped in full view of the bar’s patrons, and in this week’s movie recommendation, Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, she is looking for justice. Continue Reading…
Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.
Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:
Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.
And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.
But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.
And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.
Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.
But put that aside for the moment.
Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?
After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” training the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.
But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?
There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.