I think sexual harassment is bad. I think other kinds of harassment, especially those that work by way of power imbalances, are bad. That's a position I stand by, and I hope I still would even if I had not been sexually harassed myself, and even if I didn't count among my friends an alarming number of people who had been sexually harassed.
We'll never know about the truth of that counterfactual claim, though, given that I have been sexually harassed (in more than one professional field), and that the number of people I know who have themselves been sexually harassed seems only to increase.
I know what it is like not to be able to share details of my own experience for fear of the professional repercussions it could have for me. When the person who harasses you has enough power that he could literally destroy any chance of a career for you in your chosen field -- when it's clear that your professional community values that person a lot and that it hasn't even gotten a chance to know you, let alone to value you -- choosing to go public looks an awful lot like choosing to burn your own career.
So mostly, you don't.
Maybe, eventually, once you find people within the community you feel like you can trust, people who've given indications that they value you, you share some of the details. Probably you wait for some sort of sign that these are people who, at least in principle, agree that harassment is bad. And probably, as you're naming your experience, you avoid naming the perpetrator, just in case there's a longstanding professional relationship that you didn't know about.
Because even people who are against harassment in principle can be damned loyal to their friends.
But often by the time you're ready to share some details with someone, you've so internalized the apologia that comes out when people do tell that you aren't even sure if you can call what happened to you "harassment". You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you -- if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can't just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.
Some days, when you start to notice how much harassment there is, how many of your peers (and mentors) have been harassed, and how little that seems to faze your community, you maybe even start to wonder if harassment is just the price of admission to the community, if shaking it off is the kind of skill people in the community need to cultivate to survive.
The landscape we bump up against every day discourages us from making a fuss.
It encourages us to use the most equivocal language available to describe our experience, if we talk about it at all.
It reminds us that we're weak if we can't shake it off, that we will be blamed for not finding some way to prevent what happened to us even though someone else did it to us.
It underlines that push come to shove, people are going to side with someone with more social capital, even if that person did something that the people siding with him are against in theory -- and that people are going to trust their own gut feeling that the person who harmed you is a good guy over the most careful and accurate recitation of the facts, even over what they see with their own eyes.
Not speaking up is the most rational move in most circumstances. Jennifer L. Berdahl, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, notes that
It's individually adaptive to go along with or try and act like members of the majority group when one is outnumbered. There are even rewards for criticizing others for not doing the same. But this individually adaptive behavior perpetuates the status quo.
So, if people aren't brave enough, or fed up enough, or whatever, to risk the individual harm that comes with speaking up, we are likely to be stuck with how things are right now. And some days, how things are right now is indescribably shitty.
The proximate cause for my writing this post is that writer and playwright Monica Byrne described her own experience of being harassed and named an influential member of the online science community, Bora Zivkovic, as her harasser. In a statement on his personal blog, Bora confirms the facts of Ms. Byrne's account, describes the measures put in place at Scientific American to address the professional harms to Ms. Byrne, and offers an apology.
I have known Bora for years. I have respected his professional judgment. I have deep affection for him and for his wife. I count him as a friend. He has never harassed me.
But that doesn't mean that I am going to offer apologia for his bad behavior. It doesn't mean I'm going to preemptively disbelieve Ms. Byrne's account, not just of what happened but also of how it affected her.
People make mistakes, even people who are our friends. People who do great things for a community can also do great harm to individual members of that community -- and, by extension, to the very webs of trust within that community that they worked hard to build.
I'm not going to stop being Bora's friend, but I'm not going to try to minimize or excuse his behavior, either.
I'm going to keep caring for him, but part of that will involve me continuing to hold him to a high standard -- because I know he can be that good, and I'm prepared to do what I can to help him do that.
I'm not going to cut Bora off as irredeemable, but I'm not going to center his redemption over mitigating the harms caused by his bad behavior. I'm not going to prioritize telling the world about his redemption, since I understand redemption as a quiet, personal, daily effort to live the standard one endorses.
I'm not going to argue that anyone else should forgive Bora or trust Bora. That's a personal matter, and I'm not equipped to make that call for anyone else but myself.
I am going to argue that, within our communities, we should look very hard at the power gradients that enable bad behavior that doesn't seem like bad behavior to the people committing it. We should interrogate the factors that make it dangerous for targets of bad behavior to speak up. We should recognize our tendency to focus on intent and ignore actual effects. We should notice when we get sucked into the familiar narrative of apologia and cut that out.
We should hold each other to high standards and then get serious about helping each other reach those standards. We should keep tinkering with our culture to making being better to each other (and to ourselves) easier, not harder.
Being good can be hard, which is one of the reasons we need friends.
I stand with others who have been harassed. And I hope, as a loving and honest friend with high expectations, I can help bring about a world with fewer harassers in it.