Sunday, October 16, 2016

Difficult Conversations

"The four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

In her presentation when accepting the Harold Masursky Award at the 2015 DPS meeting, Christina Richey proposed to have a "really difficult conversation", an "uncomfortable conversation that we need to have", "probably the most uncomfortable conversation to be ever had as a DPS prize talk." I have been trying to participate in that conversation, not as an "ally" or "advocate", but as a critic. Recognizing the importance of the topic, I have tried to clarify terms and correct errors. I've been trying to develop an accurate picture of sexual harassment in astronomy.

What motivates me is mainly the fact that people are getting hurt. I am as outraged as anyone else when a woman's career is destroyed by a man who can't take no for an answer. I am in somewhat smaller company when I express my outrage over the destruction of a man's career because a woman couldn't articulate a clear no and handle the temporary social discomfort that this inevitably occasions. To pretend that the first sort of thing is "rampant" in astronomy and the second never happens is not helpful.

Or, worse, to think that there are countless absolutely unambiguous cases of harassment in astronomy and almost no ambiguous relationships is simply to misunderstand how meaning forms in social life. The ambiguous cases must vastly outnumber the unambiguous ones. We need procedures that help men and women determine whether something actually bad happened in situations that were probably wholly innocent, not a culture in which mistakes and misunderstandings are themselves seen as harassment. We need to treat each other like human beings, even when, as human beings sometimes do, we behave badly.

The conversation of science is at risk too. I am profoundly concerned about the professionalization and corporatization of science and higher education. I worry that an overemphasis on the power that scientists wield, both in society and among each other, will eventually make all personal relationships between scientists suspect, illegitimate. Since there is no cure for love, this will put ordinary people in ordinary situations at constant risk, forcing their emotional lives underground, and producing a stilted, formal style of "interaction" (a stilted, formal generalization for the manifold ways human beings engage with each other).

I believe that public, social life is changing, and the changes worry me. I think we are burning what Rosmarie Waldrop calls "the lawn of excluded middle". There is no longer room for ambiguity. We are becoming intolerant of behaviors that aren't easy to interpret. We do not accept clarifications and apologies or even retractions—not graciously. We don't allow each other to express ourselves badly or change our minds. We no longer let the meaning of our words mature.

I took another shot at it these past few weeks, and once again I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall. When ideologues say "we need to talk", they don't mean what I would like them to mean. They don't mean, "Let us sit down and pick the morsels from the bone." Maybe I don't either. Maybe I've spent too much time in the blogosphere.

I'm going to rest awhile. While I was discussing these issues on the blog, I informed most of the people I was talking about by email. I haven't heard back from very many of them. (I am grateful to those who have acknowledged my efforts.) They are, of course, still welcome to contact me and see if we can find some common ground. Like I say, I'm not sure they are interested in finding any. And the prospect of a world without common ground on these issues does, in fact, frighten me.

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