Bystanders won't always interpret you as charitably as I do.

I recently had occasion to chat with someone in my professional circle about a well-publicized case of a member of our field who is no longer employed in our field because of being a sexual harasser. Verily, I was anticipating that the extent of the chat would be, "Hey, how about that [now-famous-for-sexually-harassing dude]?" met with an eyeroll or an "Argh! That guy! Good riddance!"

And yet ...

My interlocutor somehow started along a path of harassing emails not being so bad, at least if the proper contrast class (physical assault) is considered, and from there we were off the path and into the weeds.

My best attempt at a charitable interpretation is that my interlocutor was trying to mount one of two arguments (or maybe both simultaneously):

1. That our professional field is no worse, when it comes to sexual harassment, than is the larger human community.

2. That sexual harassment in our field is not a sufficient condition for the truly dismal gender balance in our field, especially at the highest career levels.

And, you know, I'm actually inclined to accept both of these claims as true.

However, to (1) I must respond that "no worse than the larger human community" is a pretty low bar to set for one's professional community, especially when we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than that for things like analytic reasoning. And, to (2), I reckon that even if it's not sufficient to explain the relative lack of senior women in our field, being sexually harassed within our field before we make it to senior ranks sure doesn't help us want to stay.

But I'm not sure it matters that I could find a charitable interpretation for what my interlocutor was trying to do. Later, someone else who was in close proximity to our chat said to me, "Wow, that was really something, watching [my interlocutor] defend sexual harassment."

Perhaps this is one more reason colleagues like my interlocutor just aren't aware of all the harassment that happens to people in our field -- because they come off as minimizing or defending it, which doesn't make them a great choice as far as people in your field with whom you want to share that experience.

6 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yeah. It's kinda like if nobody has ever come out to you, maybe you send off a homophobe vibe. Food for though, Janet, food for thought.

  • The same reasoning says that we don't have to do anything about poverty, equal rights or harassment of any group in the US, because we are not as bad as.... pick your favorite third world country. Surely philosophers ought to be able to make the distinction between absolute Platonic ideals, and the relative nature of ... well reality and nature.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I'd have thought so, yes.

      But if empirical scientists are still jerked around by their implicit biases, I reckon philosophers are just as subject to their own. Plus, for some reason groups that have done relatively well under the prevailing conditions seem to require a higher standard of evidence from arguments to Do Something than they do from arguments to Do Nothing.

      Though there's someone in the wings ready to tell me that's just a coincidence, right?

  • Zuska says:

    One of my relatives once had his hotel room robbed while attending a wedding. Things of value and of sentimental value were taken. Another relative consoled him thus: "Cheer up, it could be worse, you could have cancer." The robbed relative later said "I thought to myself, yeah, it's true I don't have cancer, but this seems pretty damn bad enough."

    Whenever sexual harassment is reported, minimizing is always a popular strategy to dismiss it and avoid having to deal with it. But the "cheer up, you could have cancer" strategy delivers its gall in a special cup. I acknowledge that Something actually did happen, but I deny that it is Worthy of our attention. We both know that Something happened, but I am eminently more Rational and aware of Serious problems in the world at large. You, on the other hand, get all swept up in Minutiae, lose sight of what Matters and let your Emotions get the better of you.

    And yes, of course, telling someone they are getting all worked up about the Wrong Problem is a good way of never doing anything about any problem at all.

    • Cynric says:

      And there's no end to the escalation: a relative of mine recently developed cancer, and a well meaning friend observed "at least it's operable".

      Yeah, save your whinging till it's inoperable, lightweight.

    • Patrick says:

      People have a tendency to offer the coping mechanisms that they themselves find comforting.

      This can say more about how they process negativity than any ordinal judgement upon the negativity they're bloviating about.