Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Whole Human Beings

"...every girl child is conceived as a whole woman but from the time of her birth to her death she is progressively disabled. A woman's first duty to herself is to survive this process, then to recognize it, then to take measures to defend herself against it." (Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman)

"Scientists are human," Kate Clancy* reminds us around the 24-minute mark in yesterday's interview with Niala Boodhoo of Illinois Public Media. She goes on to say that harassment is "somewhat common" in science. Interestingly, she "wouldn't say that [it is] more common in science than in other places," thus recognizing that professions can be compared, and that non-zero rates of harassment in a given field are as normal as non-zero rates homicide in a given city. Human beings are neither all good nor all bad, so once you get a number of them working together on anything you're going to see some amount of questionable behavior. It's good to see that Clancy recognizes this obvious point.

It's unfortunate, however, that she compares science so vaguely to all "other places". Surely, we would expect some places to be much worse than science on this score. A reader of this blog recently suggested I read about how things are done in the jewelry business, for example. Indeed, once we begin to imagine the "other places", a long list of professions (waiting tables, stripping, acting, banking, legal work, policing, flight attending) seem intuitively to be much, much likelier contexts for sexual harassment. It slowly dawns on us that "not more common in science than in other places" is a rather serious understatement. Off the top of our heads, we're hard-pressed to think of a place where it might be less common!

Nonetheless, she draws what I think is a reasonable conclusion. Sexual harassment is not a problem that is particular to science, nor does sexual harassment take a unique form in the sciences. Rather, the problem is a general, societal one: "We don't recognize women as whole human beings." But here I don't think she is being general enough in her anthropology.

Indeed, I wish feminists would recognize that this is actually not just a feminist, or even an "intersectional" issue. We don't recognize anyone as a whole human being. To riff on Greer's eloquence in my epigraph, let's say that each of us is conceived as a whole human being but from our births to our deaths we are progressively disabled. Our first duty to ourselves is to survive this process, then to recognize it, then to take measures to defend ourselves against it. What is this process called? Corporatization. Professionalism!

I'm being a bit hyperbolic, perhaps. But readers of this blog know that I'm very concerned about the pale cast of "corporate culture" that increasingly sicklies over the spirit of inquiry at universities. Not more so, as Clancy might say, than "in other places", like legislatures and office buildings, but perhaps nowhere more antithetically to the traditional mission of the site in question. What is more "wholly human" than the satisfaction of curiosity in the free exploration of and experimentation with the natural world? What is more opposed to this than the staid language of interdepartmental committees and institutional review boards? Scientists are conceived, we might say, as whole human beings but end up "show[ing] up for work [in] a mission t-shirt or a suit and tie", lest they be shamed for their sense of style.

To be sure, a certain amount of "professionalism" is required in the orderly pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, I rage for order frequently—order both in our writing and our lectures. Let there be a little decorum, I say. Let us compose ourselves in prose. But the irony of Clancy's invocation of "whole human beings" is glaring. She and her fellow feminists insist that the sexual being of women, at the very least, should be ignored in the workplace.

Gone are the days when Erica Jong chastized men for their intolerance of the needs of women—"red needs that telephone from foreign countries ... red as gaping wounds." The feminist argument for "professional" conduct in laboratories and observatories, seminar and conference rooms—even at after-hours parties—is the opposite of a celebration of the "whole human being", with its mess of emotions and desires—its "romantic inclinations", as the professional moralists** of the American Astronomical Society put it. Carl Sagan once wrote of "the romance of science". Today, it is run in the manner of a corporation, governed by entities like the Division for Planetary Sciences and their Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture.

*Kate Clancy is an anthropologist at the University of Illinois. She collaborated with Christina Richey on the CSWA workplace climate survey, which is where my interest in her views stems from.
**I had originally just written "moralists". I added the word "professional" because of the play on words. The moralists in question are, in a certain sense, doing it for a living, but they are also moralists of professionalism. The pun was particularly apt here because of the explicit way Kevin Marvel (whose piece the phrase is taken from) is running interference for the "volunteers" on the CSWA.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for linking to the Clancy-Boodhoo interview.

Clancy (at 33:00) criticizes the position of administrators that take the position, "Everyone needs to get training so we're going to trot out the most boring, dumbest online training that is going to make everyone resentful of sexual harassment training and not take this seriously..."

Anyone else who would dare similar criticism of their own online harassment training will be labeled a trouble maker. If female, it will be assumed that she means well and wishes to improve the training: she will be assigned to a committee to study it. If male, he will be labeled a misogynist, a potential predator; he will be force-fed a larger dose of training.

Thomas said...

That is a good point. Although she does mention that she's "talked to" people at her university of about this compliance-oriented approach, it's not a very direct or strong criticism of her own university.

I do basically agree with Clancy that resources are better spent on enforcement than training. Establishing a good process, with proper protections for the accused, would minimize the chance of getting sued by "perpetrators". (The scare quotes are necessary, as the various suits by innocent men who have been accused of sexual misconduct and expelled shows.)

It's true that boring (and moralistic) compliance training just produces resentment, and makes everyone take the problem less seriously. But when a career is destroyed based on a "preponderance of evidence", it makes people outright afraid. I think Clancy, here, isn't pushing back against corporate culture, but intensifying it.

Jonathan said...

I don't think a professional organization has the legal or ethical right (or obligation) to regulate the otherwise legally permitted behavior of adults at its conferences. It is not a workplace or educational institution. It is an association that people voluntarily belong to. If two gay guys or two Lesbians want to hook up at the AWP ore MLA, or two heterosexuals, etc... why is that anybody's business? It seems like an odd way to address harassment.

Thomas said...

I'll have to look into the legalities, but I think that AAS or AWP or MLA events can be seen as "private" functions, which means that they can pretty much make and enforce any code of conduct that they please.

I agree with you that they have no moral obligation to regulate these things. But the corporate feminists that I'm worried about do think they have such an obligation. They believe that a, say, 28-year-old woman should never be propositioned at a conference (even a social function) by a, say, 44-year-old man. They will probably stick to their guns on this even if 9 out of 10 women say they enjoy the attention (at the social function) and don't mind having to say no every now and then. It's that 1 out of 10 woman who find the situation difficult to handle that they feel obligated to protect.

Jonathan said...

Really? So could the AWP say that people couldn't order wine with dinner after hours? Because they are a private function? I am highly skeptical. What other conduct do you think they could regulate?

Thomas said...

Yes, in principle, if the AWP had a rule against "drinking at conferences" and someone reported you for having a glass of wine with dinner, even off-site then, as long they made this clear in their rules, they could revoke your conference credentials, banning you from sessions.

No serious organization would have such a rule about drinking, of course. But, as I understand it, if you are an astronomer and you are at a restaurant having dinner with other astronomers during a conference (even if it is off-site), and a young woman catches your eye, and you talk to her for an hour and then invite her back to your room, you do so at the risk of her calling the "harassment hotline" and, in the worst case scenario, having your credentials revoked and being unable to present your paper (or even keynote). It's a "no pick-up zone", friend. Sorry.

Jonathan said...

You may be right, but I think it would be difficult to actually enforce any provision like that in legal terms. Can you actually ban social interactions that aren't harassment in the legal sense?

Thomas said...

I think the comparison to HUAC is the most apt. In "legal terms", people can have whatever politics they like. But once you've got a "red scare" up and running, you can destroy a good many careers and lives anyway.

Anonymous said...

A conference held by a professional society is a private event. They rent the venue, they can decide not to have alcohol on-site, and they can decide whom to eject for bad behavior. And if they find someone to be untrustworthy, or uncomfortable to interact with, they can exclude the person from the event.

That's what they can do. These "can" statements are statements of law. Now let's talk about what they should choose to do if they want productive interaction between adults. In that case, they should probably ask people to not flirt on-site during events, encourage people to use common sense in gauging whether an interaction is making someone uncomfortable, and indicate that they don't want to adjudicate behavior offsite and during off-hours. But if they get a serious claim of serious misbehavior then they should probably try to honor requests to minimize contact between the parties. Either they have a dangerous person on their hands or a list who likes to make false accusations. Either way it is bad news.