Philosophy Profs Propose "Shunning" Sexual Harassers

Illustration for article titled Philosophy Profs Propose Shunning Sexual Harassers

A group of philosophers say serial sexual harassers routinely advance and prosper in their field, and official university methods are ineffective at stopping them. Their solution: "informal shunning."

According to a post on the blog New APPS (via Inside Higher Ed), "sexual harassment in the philosophy profession is intolerable, yet all-too-common" and "there are many important figures in the profession whom their colleagues and students know to have engaged in various forms of sexual harassment on multiple occasions." Inside Higher Ed links to a variety of anonymous posts describing such harassment, including this especially upsetting example, which shows how sexual harassment can impact men and women, and has victims beyond those being directly harassed:

My friend told me that when Professor A arrived, the first thing he said to my friend was "Show me a graduate student I can fuck." My friend was, needless to say, quite taken aback and somehow got himself out of the situation.

Notice that this behavior was despicable in more than one way. Apart from the obvious issue of how Professor A regarded female graduate students, there is the issue of how he treated my friend. My friend was a minority male junior professor who was now being pressured to do something he could not approve of in order to curry favor and secure male bonding with a more powerful (white) senior philosopher who was in a position to advance his career or not.


New APPS bloggers Mark Lance, John Protevi, and Eric Schliesser argue that such harassment frequently goes unpunished. They propose the following remedy:

We believe there are informal sanctions that could make a difference. The Feminist Philosophers blog recently suggested not inviting serial harassers to conferences. One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc. We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect.

Their proposition inspired a lively discussion in the comments, some of which Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed summarizes thus:

In the online discussion at New APPS, some have expressed fear of people being shunned based on false information, and others have said that more of an effort should be made to reform university judicial systems so victims will feel more confidence in filing complaints. Several of those who posted in favor of shunning said that they saw this not as an ideal solution, but as one that reflected the lack of better options.


A formal system for reporting and punishing sexual harassment would obviously be preferable to shunning — formal investigation would hopefully protect faculty members against false claims, and formal sanctions might well be more effective than informal ones. But the New APPS blogger Mark Lance has a point that shunning is already common in a variety of situations — he tells Jaschik, "We make judgments on far less — we decide that so and so is an asshole and you wouldn't want to invite him to your dinner party." And maybe it's time for a change in the culture of philosophy, a movement toward treating harassers more like assholes and less like respected colleagues. New APPS commenter Kate Abramson recommends some specific changes:

"We" as a profession simply have to decide that this, and other forms of discriminatory behavior, are unacceptable. That means: stop making excuses, of either the sort meant to excuse entirely or to mitigate. Stop minimizing the damage done to real people with real careers and real lives. Stop treating that damage as though it were the result of the weather, rather than of a *person's conduct*. Stop pretending (to others or to oneself) that people who do not engage in such behavior will be able to 'shield' the vulnerable from those who do, without actually doing anything to hold accountable those who ill behave. Stop treating such behavior as conduct that could somehow be 'balanced against' the person's "intellectual contributions" to a conference, or organization, or department.

Just stop.

If philosophers could agree to stop these damaging behaviors, then maybe the formal systems in place to stop sexual harassment would work better — or departments would be better able to muster up the political will to improve them. Perhaps the most effective way to combat sexual harassment would be a combination of informal cultural change — a general understanding that such behavior isn't okay — along with carefully codified formal policies to prevent and punish it. Commenter Carla offers an interesting example of a sort of combination of these two approaches: a program at MIT aimed at training bystanders to help stop sexual harassment. Recommended "active bystander strategies" include techniques like "name or identify inappropriate behavior so it isn't just glossed over or ignored" and "help someone who has been hurt or offended, and/or prevent further injury or offense." These are pretty basic recommendations, but maybe if more universities focused on creating an environment where sexual harassment was socially frowned-upon (as opposed to requiring the occasional, anemic "sexual harassment trainings" that are de rigueur at many institutions), they could actually eliminate the problem.


A Call To Shun [Inside Higher Ed]
What Is To Be Done About Sexual Harassment In The Philosophy Profession? [New APPS]

Image via Jan Kowalski/

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One: other faculty/staff should be reporting this formally, and condemning their behavior to their faces.

Two: "Informal shunning" should already be fucking happening, in ADDITION to point one. Honestly, this is not a concept that required a group of philosophers to discover. This is a concept that most people since middle/high school have figured out and routinely exercised, because people don't want to interact with creeps. Proposing this idea now is not a sign of ethical advancement, it's catching up to the rest of civilized society.