When John Searle, a philosopher at UC Berkeley, was charged with sexual harassment a year ago, about 50 intellectuals and academics wrote a heated group letter insisting the charges were not true. How could they tell? Because they knew him to be a beloved mentor and great scholar of fine character.
Oh, wait. That didn’t happen. Instead, online chatter was both pro and con, with many saying Searle had long shown lack of respect for women, others denying this, some insisting on the need for due process while others complained that he was being protected as men “always” are– this despite the fact that numerous cases exist of men suffering instant suspension and firing for even minor allegations of sexual harassment. In short, the full panoply of heated reactions. But there was no public show of support by dozens of famed scholars.
Stalked and Harassed
Contrast this with the case of NYU’s self-described queer professor Avital Ronell, 66 years old, recently suspended for one year following an 11-month investigation of charges by Nimrod Reitman, a gay former graduate student of hers. Now aged 34, Reitman claimed that Ronell sexually assaulted, stalked and harassed him both verbally and physically over a three-year period, from 2012 through 2015. The university found that she did engage in unwanted sexual harassment, but not in assault (for which, they said, there were no “corroborating witnesses”—a new standard for a contemporary western society, perhaps borrowed from Sharia law) or in stalking.
Within a day of articles in The New York Times describing the case, about fifty scholars sent a letter to NYU’s president and provost. This slightly threatening letter, publicly circulated in June, had Judith Butler as its first signatory. It not only attacked Reitman but stated: “We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell. If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.”
But this time there was a bit of a backlash. Butler had signed the letter using her title as president-elect of the MLA, and, a day later, some MLA members denounced her action and called for her resignation as president-elect.
In the face of this apparently unexpected criticism, along with other charges that the letter in effect embraced a double standard, Butler issued a disclaimer that, while it seemed to address a few specific aspects of the defense letter, in fact left no part of it intact: “We ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter,” she wrote. “And we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.”
Meanwhile, on August 16, 2018, Nimrod Reitman’s attorneys filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against both Ronell and NYU claiming he suffered emotional damage, that Ronell besieged him with constant phone calls and emails, that she threatened his career and otherwise tried to control his life. This may well be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Reitman apparently wanted the quid for that quo and was eager to retain his mentor’s patronage and allegiance.
What takes this case far beyond the usual he said/she said, however, is the evidence in numerous emails from Ronell, such as this one:
“dearest Nimrod, my special one. …are you in the afterglow of our enchanted visit, did some of the beauty of our shared time and language stay with you, … I miss you greatly and announce that I now am on a need to hear from you, please don’t refrain much longer!”
Let’s Cuddle Like Cubs
The final complaint also includes the following cringe-worthy compilation from Ronell’s email messages to Reitman:
“most Baby … let’s cuddle like cubs,” “get your ass back home, darling … I am sorry I ever let you go!”… “I love you and long for you.”…“Lots of love my sweet beautiful infinitely desirable” … My image during meditation: we’re on the sofa, your head on my lap, stroking your forehead, playing softly with yr hair, soothing you.” … “I’ll see you at the orifice, I mean office… did you find your phallus?”… “It’s your cock-er-spaniel calling.”
The details of Ronell’s behavior thus surpass mere “unprofessional” conduct and instead suggest a years-long obsession with her student. It’s a perfect if somewhat unhinged example of some standard feminist views of women’s search for “connection,” as opposed to men’s purportedly more abstract morality.
Ronell’s recent response to the filing of the lawsuit took the form of a press release dated August 17, 2018, which claims both that the relationship with Reitman was mutual and that it was not sexual. Their correspondence, she says, is “gay-coded.” She also alleges that she was denied an opportunity to confront, question, and cross-examine her accuser.
This last charge is plausible since due process is seldom afforded to the accused in the “sub-legal” proceedings typical of Title IX charges on campus. Ronell further, and most mysteriously, alleges that Reitman’s accusations and disgruntlement arose from his intellectual inferiority.
He Said, She Said
From a strictly legal standpoint, sexual harassment, to be actionable, must be severe, pervasive and persistent. But a number of things must be noted about that standard.
- Quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment both turn out to be porous concepts, easy to assert but hard to prove.
- This situation is further complicated by the fact that universities function at the sub-legal level at which charges that would never fly in a court of law can nonetheless cost people their jobs and reputations. In addition, university harassment policies rarely invoke any negative consequences for those bringing trivial or false charges.
- The widespread knowledge of the legal standard also means that people have incentives to exaggerate or lie about encounters or events and the harm they have experienced.
- Furthermore, the total lack of responsibility of adult students who claim they were repeatedly harassed is obscured by the one-sided understanding of sexual harassment. Whereas in many other human situations we’re encouraged to look at interactions, in the case of sexual harassment charges we’re supposed to see nothing but innocent victims and guilty predators, period. No nuances here, no mixed signals or crossed wires, no complexity, no complicity.
Given this simple-mindedness, prohibiting relationships between professors and students–or, more broadly, between any two people where “power differentials” exist — appears to be a logical way to ward off problems. Of course, universities wish to avoid liability, and they often settle with claimants even in weak cases rather than incur further legal expenses and publicity. And the accused often do not have the institutional resources to fight back against allegations. But these are hardly the sole costs universities should be worried about.
Harassment policies and speech codes these days affect every aspect of campus life, including the content of academic discourse. Everyone is on the alert for microaggressions and situations of discomfort. But what about the discomfort of people constantly suspicious of one another, never sure who will misunderstand a word or look, commit a sexual transgression, or file a complaint out of anger over quite other matters?
This hardly creates an atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning. It also suggests an absolute separation between a personal and professional life that does not correspond with reality, though we like to pretend otherwise these days. People tend to get involved with people they know – in schools and workplaces. Thus, to formally prohibit relationships between adults is to take a huge step toward allowing the state to dictate personal life.
Thus far, the situation on college campuses has only gotten worse, not better, as the advent of campus Bias Report Teams and multiplication of avenues for filing complaints reveal. The ensuing hypervigilance has been instituted without any discussion of the consequences on human relations on campus.
It is ironic that we live in a world now in which biological males and females can decide they “identify” as the other sex and have the legal right to be treated as such, right down to deciding which bathrooms they wish to use and what pronouns they wish to be addressed by. The categories are multiplying with dizzying rapidity, and the potential for charges are too. Yet at the same time we have rigid and punitive rules about what someone in a position of “power” may say and do in relation to an “underling,” as if these are uncomplicated matters, as if the “power differentials” that indeed govern so many aspects of life turn adults into nothing more than slaves and slave masters.
But the fact remains that most sexual harassment charges are brought by women against men. In discussing the double standards displayed by the Ronell case, lawyer Scott H. Greenfield blogs: “Forget the jargonized rhetoric about power dynamics and oppression. To these feminist scholars, Title IX is just a bludgeon to beat men into submission, and they fought to protect one of their own from facing the consequences of her sexual abuse. And largely succeeded.”
A More Paranoid World
And, indeed, that is what some feminists openly declare. Jane Gallop is not the only feminist to have argued that sexual harassment is what men do to women. True, she wrote that as part of her effort to defend against charges leveled at her by a female student of hers. Other well-known feminists have described women in a “patriarchal society” as unable to give genuine consent to heterosexual intercourse. Yet (hetero-, not just homo-) sexual awareness is a part of life – ever present though not in equal measures on every side of an interaction. Policing sexual awareness has now become the rule in school and the workplace, but it is not bringing about a better world, merely a more paranoid one.
The legal criteria for sexual harassment are rarely met when on-campus justice is meted out. Pervasive, severe, and persistent can somehow transform into one-time events involving words (including opinions expressed in class), looks, or awkward passes. Any physical move is nowadays labeled “assault.”
It’s worth noting that the real boundaries that have been effaced are not those between professors and students or between the powerful and the allegedly powerless, but between serious and trivial charges.
Ronell’s press release suggests Reitman cultivated her friendship in order to get her help as his mentor. Why is this different from all the #MeToo complainants who put themselves in a compromising situation because they too wanted something from the more powerful figure in the relationship? Yet that observation counts for nothing when women make charges against powerful men. Yes, people engage in trades of all kinds to keep their jobs or promote their own interests. Integrity, honesty, and much else can be readily offered up for something else one wants.
My point is not that Title IX (like any law) should be applied equally to all. That should go without saying. Rather, in my view, Title IX should be scrapped, for it is far too crude an instrument to be generally effective in promoting justice. By now we have had years of evidence that it is a bad law, producing endless problems in schools and workplaces, a culture of suspicion and resentment, fear of interaction, and, by feminists’ own accounts, it has not come anywhere close to remedying the problem, as they see it.