We believe there are informal sanctions that could make a difference. The Feminist Philosophers blog recently suggested not inviting serial harassers to conferences. One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc. We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know.
By and large, however, philosophers have, to date, seemed unwilling to engage in such informal social sanctions. Of course there are some good reasons for this. One might not be convinced that the person in question actually did what they are said to have done. One might be in a vulnerable position and not want to risk reprisal But these explanations for inaction only go so far. There are many cases in which the behavior is well known to a wide range of people who are tenured and of substantial standing in their own right, and thus immune to immediate job threats.
Off the bat, it’s important to note that their tentative blog post has generated more buzz than an entire blog devoted to sexual harassment in our field, and that few people are linking back to the original anonymous post from which they got their idea. If that’s not an example of different uptake for men than women, I don’t know what is!
My first reaction was concern about a lack of due process and a further departure from blind peer review standards. I do tend to think that philosophy would be better off if it adopted stricter blind review standards, and that women would benefit the most from such standards.
On reflection, however, I’ve decided that we’re just talking about “The No Asshole Rule” (indeed, this is how it was presented in the original Feminist Philosophers post) which I wholeheartedly endorse. Here’s how Bob Sutton puts the justification for such a rule:
There’s lots of evidence that an asshole’s behaviour drives out the best employees and the people who witness it, reduces commitment and productivity and increases absenteeism. Organisations should also calculate the TCA – Total Cost of Asshole. One Silicon Valley company employed a salesman who constantly abused staff. It calculated that he cost the company £80,000 in one year – on new staff and time spent by senior management to rectify the problems he caused.
In short, assholes aren’t worth the damage they cause, famous or not. I’ve certainly seen evidence of misogyny in my profession, as well as practices that were not deliberately misogynistic but still created an environment hostile to female graduate students and faculty. This likely contributes to the low number of women entering the profession, in part because many women from my generation have avoided philosophy in favor of better options outside of the academy. (Go to any of the top law schools and law firms in the country to see where some of them ended up.) Still, if harassers make the profession hostile to women, then this will damage both the women harassed and the profession as a whole. In exchange for one smart asshole, we lose dozens of smarter scholars and colleagues to other fields or to the world outside of the academy. That surely contributes to the increasing irrelevance of our profession.
If you think about it, we all avoid people we don’t like. Coming to understand that someone is a harasser is a good reason not to like them. And here we pit the two kinds of deference that I’ve described in other posts: deference to expertise or fame, and deference to first-person testimony. Really, we ought to reject the first sort and embrace the second. So long as we pretend that philosophy is the work of singular geniuses rather than of research communities, I think we’ll be prone to ignore the obvious sense in the No Asshole Rule. In reality, there’s no one whose insights into Aristotle or Quine are so revolutionary that we couldn’t do just as well without their poisonous presence.
That said, I’m not sure that this can really be blamed on the star system. Since we’ve mostly heard from women philosophers, we’re mostly hearing the stories from graduate school and professional conferences, where the star system tends to play an outsized role. I’ve known and known of some obscure misogynists: tenure and unaccountable power over others seems to do the trick often enough, and it’s easier to get away with harassing undergraduates than graduate students. In general, I believe that misogynistic (and racist, and heteronormative, and ablist, and class-sist) institutions survive precisely because of this unaccountable power. This is also why I believe that the idea of formalizing this shaming is a mistake: this type of shaming works best when it’s a subtle social pressure. Better, instead, to let potential harassers fear that their next rejected paper is due to that drunken pickup attempt at the APA. What’s more, if there were, for instance, a website that listed accused harassers’ names, it would be open to abuse and probably legally actionable. We’re not the UK, but even in the US it’s still possible to lose large amounts of money for character defamation that leads to lost wages.