Saturday, August 18, 2018

Some Bodies Matter More Than Others: The Judith Butler Thing

This week I started an online petition calling for Judith Butler to resign as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. If you're a member or past member of MLA, I'd invite you to sign it and to share it as widely as you are comfortable doing. Here is a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education making a similar case.

I started this petition because Butler and a bunch of other leading scholars sent a letter to NYU to intervene in a Title IX investigation in which a professor had been found responsible for sexually harassing a graduate student. [NOTE: Link opens Word document.] The case had already been adjudicated, and the verdict was in. Butler and various other big-shots were trying to lean on NYU to minimize the harasser's punishment. They should all know better. But what sets Butler's action apart is not just she was the first signature on the letter but that she explicitly signed as:

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, President-Elect, Modern Language Association (2020)

The last part is the biggest problem for me. Because the point of including that title is to add more clout to Butler's signature. That letter is about marshaling clout on the abuser's behalf. And it is beyond outrageous to use the Modern Language Association's collective authority to try to protect a senior scholar who's abused a junior one.

The other signatories of that letter have embarrassed themselves, maybe disgraced themselves. But they were not explicitly speaking as the leader of a major scholarly organization. Butler was. And that makes it impossible for her to lead that organization effectively after this.

I have no particular connection to this case. I don't know the victim, or the harasser, or Butler. I am an obscure scholar, rather than a star like Butler and her co-signatories. I am just a concerned bystander: a member of the MLA who has grown tired of the endless excuses made for sexual harassment in our profession. I heard too many of those excuses when I was a graduate student and couldn't speak up without ending my own career. Now I'm far enough along to have tenure and be safe from reprisal, but perhaps not so far along that I've completely forgotten how this looks from the bottom. If you're another scholar who's tired of the excuse-making and wagon-circling, please sign.

Most of the attention this case has gotten has been about the role-reversal angle, because in the accused harasser is a woman and the harassed student is a man. That's extremely rare. The vast majority of academic sexual harassment cases involve male professors harassing female students. There's also an unhealthy share of male students being harassed by other men and female students being harassed by other women. (For what it's worth, the victim in the NYU case is a gay man, a traditional target of harassment.) Female professors harassing men is not something that never happens, but it's very unusual, because that particular abuse of power turns out to be harder to get away with than the others.

But the gender switch didn't affect Butler et al.'s letter in the slightest. It slavishly follows the establishment playbook used to get male harassers off the hook. It talks about how brilliant and important the harasser is, it talks about what a great person the harasser is socially, threatens the university with blowback if they dare to punish the offender, and personally attacks the harasser's victim. It's the familiar structural problem of professors abusing doctoral students (who are extremely professionally dependent upon their dissertation director, and therefore extremely vulnerable to harassment) and then trying to use their pull to escape consequences. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Many people have various beefs with Butler that I don't. Some people are hostile to feminism, and want to use this incident to discredit feminism. Some people are hostile to literary theory, and want to discredit theory. Some people are hostile to Butler over the boycott-Israel movement, and would like to see her discredited ... you get the idea. I don't share any of those agendas.

Judith Butler is very smart. Her work is useful. I've taught it to students, and would teach it again, this instance of bad behavior notwithstanding. Literary theory is useful and valuable. Feminism is great. And I have no position on the boycott and anti-boycott movements; I am much more interested in the fight against sexual harassment in the academy. The MLA should fight to protect its junior members. If it won't, it doesn't matter to me what resolutions the organization does or doesn't pass.

Nor do I think for a second that feminism itself is discredited by this incident. Butler, and the other high-powered feminists who signed that letter, are not the only smart feminists in the world, and you can find lots of feminists fiercely objecting to their behavior.

Men harassing female students is by far the biggest problem here. But you can't end that problem while giving the rare women who harass men a pass. Yes, women have much less power in the academy than men, and still face enormous misogyny. And that is exactly why letting an occasional powerful woman off the hook will make it impossible to stop men's abuses.

It will never be the case that women in the academy are allowed a set of privileges that men are not. Men will always get away with at least as much as women, and almost always more. There is no achievable future in which women can still harass students but men cannot. Social privilege doesn't work that way. (By the same principle, there is no achievable future in which queer faculty can get away with sexual harassment but straight faculty can't.) If you preserve the old excuses and dodges for a handful of abusive women, abusive men will keep running wild.

Precisely because the number of female abusers is so small compared to the number of female victims, gender-neutral enforcement of Title IX rules still represents an enormous win for women. Holding a small number or powerful women accountable is a small price to pay for protecting thousands, and it is literally thousands, of less powerful women.

Remember, abusers can't do it alone. They rely on enablers, and in academia the enablers have been extremely reliable. We talk about the abusers themselves and the administrators trying to make problems go away quietly. But the real infrastructure of abuse is provided by colleagues. Sexual harassment flourishes in our profession because the rest of us run interference. We look the other way. We hope the rumors aren't true. We give colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but give their victims only doubt. We write letters of support. We have a friendly word with the Dean. Or we just keep our head down and stay out of it, as if staying out were an act of neutrality. Abusers flourish in our field because of our collective connivance, because of what we do but most of all what we fail to do. As a dearly-missed professor once said to me about a case of sexual abuse in my old graduate department, "These are supposed to be enlightened guys, but they stick together like the fucking mafia." It's not any one criminal act that's the problem. It's the ongoing structure of conspiracy. And women, as well as men, have helped to protect the abusers.

The abuser in the NYU case is one person who harmed another. The letter trying to get that abuser out of punishment is an institutionalized response aimed at enabling future abuses. Protesting against one instance of punishment is only a means to the larger end of preserving senior faculty's privilege of impunity. That is what needs to end. No more letters to the deans pleading for harassers. No more lending our reputations to wrongdoers' cause. Judith Butler wasn't just standing up for one colleague in trouble. She was standing up for an old, corrupt, and long-standing way of doing business. The time for doing business that way is over. We should never look back.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.