A note in August: Folks arriving here via Brian Leiter’s blog — if you want to know why I described Brian Leiter’s blogging practice as trollish, please click through any of the links below. Also, I wrote about the letter of support written on behalf of Ronell before anything at all was known about the case, beyond the fact that there was this letter of support.
The story of this post: in mid-June I wrote down some thoughts about a letter that was written in defense of Avital Ronell and published via a blog that some people experience as trollish and that some people see as encouraging harassment. (These links take you to posts about that blog or to posts about harassment within philosophy.) In my original post I made some observations about the letter and the context within which it was shared. I revised my post a few times, as my thoughts evolved. These paragraphs replace that writing.
Not long after my initial post, The Chronicle of Higher Education published two stories. The first offers a little perspective on the letter itself (e.g. via comments from people who wrote and signed it). The second article (which is behind their paywall) is more broad, and centers on the resonance of this letter with one written in 2004 by Derrida in defense of a friend of his (Dragan Kujundzic, then at UC Irvine) who was accused of SV/SH. The second Chronicle article includes a reference to my blog — to my characterization of the blog that published Ronell’s letter (Leiter Reports) as untrustworthy. In that post, I also describe that blog as trollish. Because of this, Brian Leiter wrote about my blog. Someone emailed him and said some negative things about me. Leiter published that and threatened to write more about me.
My original post about the letter of support written on behalf of Ronell revolved around an observation: the letter belongs to a genre in harassment literature — the character testimony written in defense of a friend/colleague accused of misconduct. This kind of testimony is meant to inform disciplinary action, and is usually considered independent of investigative processes. I wanted to stress, too, that we know nothing about the case itself, and I wanted to alert readers to that blog’s history.
It is normal for letters like that to be grounded in the prestige of a person’s career, their accomplishments, their professionalism and in the prestige etc. of the signatories. This particular letter might have been framed differently had it been written as an open letter — this grates on readers because, stripped of its context, it becomes a glimpse of what scholars say about themselves and each other behind closed doors. This letter also contains strong denunciation of the charges themselves. I feel confident that the archive of most harassment cases which gets to a disciplinary stage includes letters like this. This letter is notable largely in the distinction of the people involved.
(Here, for example, is a link to another letter written on behalf of someone accused and found guilty of harassment. Here, a story about the controversy surrounding another open letter written in support of another professor accused of harassment.)
There’s a reason I have thoughts about letters like this. My heart has been broken by colleagues who have chosen not to stand with victims of harassment, and — worse — by friends who have defended abusers. I try to forgive these things, but I can’t quite bring myself to forget them.
If I’ve thought about these letters it’s also because I have written a letter or two. I’ve signed letters like this. I’ve been asked to write letters like this and refused. I signed one letter I shouldn’t have — I signed a letter expressing dismay at someone’s removal from a leadership position, and realized later that this removal was, in fact, the right thing. When I advocate for students accused of academic misconduct I encourage them, if they were facing a disciplinary charge, to gather letters of this sort in their defense. I would advise faculty and staff facing disciplinary action to consider doing the same. In the end, however, letters like this probably do more for the people who write them than anyone else.
In my own navigation of accusations (against others and against me), rumors of accusations and as a witness to harassment, I have tried to understand the positions of people who have defended harassers – to appreciate what it means when SVSH charges are filed against people you really and truly love. Or whose work matters to you.
I’ve tried to understand the public eagerness to believe that every rumor of harassment is real — and to square that with the persistent dismissal of sexual violence and sexual harassment within our own communities. It’s real and not real. It’s a story and it’s just a story.
Students, staff and faculty should be able to file complaints and grievances. Students need to be able to raise questions about faculty conduct and they should have different pathways for doing that. Complaint, grievance and resolution processes should be transparent, timely, balanced and sensitive to the needs of the student, staff and faculty community. Those communities should be informed about and engaged by these processes. They should be free from forms of bias. They should be driven by a commitment to de-escalation, to non-adversarial resolutions wherever possible. Faculty, staff and students should be able to trust complaint processes.
That a complaint has been filed against a person should not be treated, in and of itself, as a scandal. A student, in fact, filed a complaint against me — this was a counter-complaint to the one I filed because that person was harassing/stalking me. I’ve written a little about this in the preface to Campus Sex/Campus Security.
Accusations can be used as a form of gaslighting in a harassment dynamic. This could be what’s going on at NYU, in which case the anonymous leaking of a letter like this might be part of a harassment dynamic. To date, no writing on that letter has given us any insight into the case itself. The leaking of case documents can have all sorts of triggering effects for immediate and surrounding communities. It might trigger the harassment of me, for example — harassers will dominate the discussion of harassment, harass and threaten anti-harassment voices — they will bully people who disturb their sense of the order of things.
Standing with victims of harassment, for me, means resisting scandal mongering and trolling — and it means being super wary of any narrative about a harassment case that isn’t victim-centered and victim-led and, ideally, informed by the standards of professional, feminist investigative journalism. In the absence of the latter, how does one know who the victim is? (There is a long essay on this blog about confidentiality, harassment discourse and harassment dynamics.)
I aim to follow the lead of anti-violence, abolitionist feminists — to find a compassionate perspective on the community failures which reproduce and amplify SVSH, in order that those failures might be acknowledged and addressed. I know this can be done without sacrificing the victim’s wellbeing.
I started Trouble Thinking shortly after the 2016 presidential election. It’s a sandbox, a notebook, an on-line journal of sorts — an experimental space. Normally, I get very little traffic (e.g. less than 10 visits a day). But the Chronicle drew Leiter’s attention to my blog — in just a few hours after his initial post about me, his blog post directed a thousand visits to mine (compared with 60 directed to my blog by The Chronicle). This happened because The Chronicle leaned on my quiet blog to say something they might have said by referring to their own reporting. The Chronicle is not, in my view, a good outlet for reporting on harassment. (For good reporting see Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon’s work on Baylor, Nidhi Subbaraman’s reporting on UCSC, and the Indy Star’s reporting on MSU.)
I don’t trust the community that reads his blog (click through the links at the top of this post and you’ll understand why) — when I saw that traffic I wrote a bunch of sentences aimed at those readers — e.g. “Are you excited by the prospect of the professional humiliation of a woman scholar? The vulnerability of the student victim? Both? Is this your new episode of Law & Order?” I decided, however, that addressing a reader I don’t trust creates an ungenerous, shitty vibe, so I made this blog private for a couple days so I could make space to think and write. Once things quieted down, I opened the settings and started writing/live-blog-editing.
I use this as a writing space — I revise posts all the time and rarely flag those revisions. I like exploring the capacities of a blog, as a distinctive literary space. I like the idea that posts aren’t stable, for example. That the things people read here are both ephemeral and on the record. I also like exerting some control over how people access this material.
I’ve narrated all this because I’m interested in creating a safer space on-line — it takes very active management of your website. I wrote a feminist sports blog for five years — the trolling, threats and overt misogyny of the sports mediascape was and is intense. I really enjoyed writing for readers looking for relief from that. I want to produce that kind of safer space for people trying to get to the other side of harassment discourse. I know that in doing this work I become a target for harassment — the goal here is to model a non-defensive, reparative relationship to that fact.