Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fact and Emotion

"A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seems actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard." (Ernest Hemingway)

Beyond the immediate, practical difficulty it constitutes in the daily lives of men and women, sexual harassment can be approached as both a scientific and a political problem. We can try to determine the general facts of sexual harassment, its prevalence and scope in a particular community, or we can engage in activism against sexual harassment, raising awareness about its harmful effects and influencing policy to mitigate them. I've been doing both here at this blog. But sexual harassment also has a distinctly literary dimension; there is the problem of how to write about it. This problem arises every day (as it were) in journalism, and episodically in the blogosphere. Its ultimate solution is no doubt still out there to be discovered by a competent novelist. In any case, it is what will be concerning me over the next few posts here.

In Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway offers an excellent statement of why writing is hard:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (p. 10)

It is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's definition of what he called the "objective correlative" in a work of art: "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of a particular emotion" (SW, p. 100). I think it is important to keep in mind that sexual harassment is not so much a fact that one is confronted with as an emotion one is subject to. This goes, no doubt, for the victim as much as the perpetrator. When Ezra Pound said that "the arts provide the data for ethics" he meant that they help us to recognize the emotions we feel precisely. They make us more emotionally accurate. To deploy a somewhat overused, but entirely apt, word in this context, the arts improve our empathy, our compassion, our ability to feel what others feel. Ideally, the accurate representation of sexual harassment in art would make us able to better feel how we are making others feel.

In the context of natural science, there is, today, a "literature" on sexual harassment. The subject has not, to my knowledge, found its way explicitly into a work of science fiction, but I certainly recommend it to a writer who is brave enough to tackle it. I think we can all agree that it would take some courage for a writer of vulnerable reputation to take on the subject of sexual harassment among scientists. Perhaps I can, not only inspire them, but also encourage them. Perhaps what I offer here can even be useful to them in a technical way.

Leaving aside official reports and the testimony included in them (which are difficult to hold to any particular literary standard), the written accounts of sexual harassment available to us for critical examination have been produced mainly by journalists, often science journalists, which in some cases means scientists who have become "science communicators". There is also at least one notable attempt to produce a literary representation of a "typical" case of sexual harassment in astronomy by the president of the American Astronomical Society. What is interesting is that many of these accounts are written in the first person, by people who are explicitly trying to capture "the actual things ... which produced the emotion that [they] experienced," as Hemingway puts it. The purpose of such writing is presumably also the one stated by Hemingway: "to project [the experience] in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it".

As journalism, however, it is clearly also "aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day." It is not often, as Pound described literature, "news that stays news." But even if it is merely news and not quite literature, it does in a certain sense attempt to provide Pound's "data of ethics". In most cases, we are being given the account of a woman who felt harassed by the actions of man; we are presented with a "sequence of motion and fact", and it is being offered as "the formula of [the] particular emotion" that "shall be" known in the community as "sexual harassment". Unfortunately, we are given only one side of the story. If the writing is successful, we are shown how it feels to be harassed. Interestingly, part of the experience is often the feeling that the perpetrator is unaware of his effects on the victim. The literature on sexual harassment rarely presents his side of the story, his experience. This, it is believed, would give him an undeserved "platform" to defend himself. I would counter that it would provide would-be harassers with data that might be useful in modulating their behavior. We are trying to learn how to treat each other with respect.

To that end, I'm going to embark on a project of literary criticism. I'm going to look, first, at one of the earliest cases of the current wave of sexual harassment awareness in science, namely, the shaming and firing of Bora Zivkovic for his treatment of several female science writers during his tenure as blog editor at Scientific American. I became aware of this case during my coverage of the Tim Hunt affair because, as people pointed out to me, many of the same journalists who were unjustly shaming Hunt had participated in the shaming of Zivkovic. I read the accounts of Monica Byrne and Kathleen Raven with great interest, and what I found was both puzzling and worrying.

As I've suggested in my posts on Sarah Ballard, the accusation of sexual harassment does not seem to find any straightforward ground in the facts of the case. Rather, it is asserted again and again that she had a number emotional experiences, feelings, which suggest that she at the very least thought she was being harassed. Or, rather, she had experiences, the memories of which would, years later, lead her to conclude that she had been harassed. But, as I've also put it, this emotion lacks any obvious objective correlative. Once we have listened, as the famous slogan would have us do, to the relevant objects, situations, and chains of events, we do not immediately find ourselves believing that she was harassed. We do not, as it were, feel her harassment as a reality, as "part of our experience", as we read the account.

This is true also of the "data" provided by Byrne and Raven. It's not that we (their readers) think they are lying, although that accusation has been made by some; it's that we can't locate the objective ground of the harassment accusation even on the assumption that everything happened as they say it did. This is the way I want to approach the stories told by Byrne and Raven. I want to critique them, not as inaccurate accounts of the facts, but as imprecise representations of emotion. I want to suggest that if we are going to have a serious conversation about what sort of behavior constitutes sexual harassment, i.e., what sort of things should not be done, or not be done in a particular sequence in particular situations, then we are going to have to write more lucidly, more truly, and perhaps, indeed, more honestly, about it. I also think we need to include in our data the experience of the alleged harasser.

These are just preliminaries. In the weeks to come, I want to start with Byrne, then look at Raven, and finally apply the lessons learned to understanding the case of Nicole Cabrera Salazar (which I've written about before). That is, ultimately I want apply the understanding of sexual harassment in the science writing community to understanding sexual harassment in the astronomy community. I want to get beyond "element of timeliness" and toward an understanding of harassment that might be "valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck ... always".

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