Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Tolerance of Ambiguity

"The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so old venerable sterotype. As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

I've been having some interesting exchanges over at Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa's blog. It think I've located an important fault line, that runs through both the discussion and what is sometimes called "sexual negotiation" (i.e., the communicative process by which consent is established). Jonathan recently summarized one of his disagreements with Kipnis as follows:

Kipnis has strange ideas about sexual agency, thinking that tolerating harassment and assault is a more genuine exercise of agency than is filing a complaint about it.

Kipnis's ideas about agency may seem strange to Jonathan, but I think it is unfair to characterize her view as suggesting tolerance of harassment and assault over filing a complaint. She is saying that stopping harassment and assault in the moment is a more genuine exercise of agency than letting it proceed (for perhaps weeks and months) and then filing a complaint (perhaps years) later. She is saying that a woman who is able to assert her boundaries and defend herself if necessary has more agency than a woman who depends on the intervention of an authority to maintain her personal space.

She not even saying that this agency also includes tolerating behavior that is merely annoying but falls short of harassment or assault. Getting a man to stop "merely" annoying her is an exercise of the very same agency that she is talking about. Indeed, exercising this agency is a way of avoiding the escalation of the behavior to something where the authorities might relevantly intervene. Note that the woman is not protected by the authority at this point, i.e., she does not have the "agency" to file a complaint if no actual harassment has taken place. [She doesn't have a "case".] But she very definitely might have the agency she needs to stop a guy from hassling her. So Kipnis is making a substantial point: the Title IX regime is (implicitly) encouraging women to tolerate mild annoyance, about which no complaint can be made, until it escalates to harassment, when the complaint-filing agency kicks in.

One of Jonathan's commenters has suggested that Kipnis is sometimes "smeared" by her critics as promulgating "rape myths". I think Jonathan is doing something like that in this way of characterizing her position. (I called him "slick" at one point for insinuating that Kipnis approves of Trump's "grabby" behavior.) Kipnis is clearly not saying that women should tolerate being assaulted. She's saying they should express their intolerance directly, not through the intercession of a higher power. I think that's important to keep in mind.

One of the things that the Tim Hunt scandal taught me was that some of today's feminists seem intolerant of ambiguity. They don't like to play on what Rosmarie Waldrop once called "the lawn of excluded middle". Ironically, she asserted the importance of this space of ambiguity with distinctly feminist intent. I recognized it again in the "difficult conversation" about harassment in astronomy. I think Kipnis is trying to indicate the importance of this space of human interaction too.

What this requires is a "comfort zone", if you will, that can be challenged without violence. That is, it requires us to "allow" or "tolerate" discomfort without immediately considering this to be harassment or assault. It means we have to take responsibility for establishing and maintaining boundaries in particular situations and allowing them to move in real time, sometimes "too far", but then back again. What is "intimacy" if not the moving of the boundaries of one's personal space with respect to some particular person? The idea that every move here can be made with the unambiguous "affirmative" consent of the other is unrealistic and, I suspect, completely foreign to most people over 40. (And most younger people without a college education, too, no doubt.)

This has a rhetorical, perhaps even logical, corollary. "The law of excluded middle is a venerable old law of logic," Waldrop tells us, "But much must be said against its claim that everything must be either true or false." There has to be a space in which we don't immediately conflate tolerating behavior that someone (and even a Title IX investigator) has found to be harassment with "tolerating harassment" itself. It may be a denial of the assumption that the behavior was indeed harassment. That is, I may simply be arguing, in a particular case, that it is false that someone harassed or assaulted someone else, given the facts.

But is may also be inexorably ambiguous, even to the two people who have direct access to memories of the experience. It may simply remain unclear whether the pain (if such there was), emotional or physical, was the result of violence or accident. That's why it's so important to work it out in the moment that unfolds, and in the moments that follow, in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps, on one outsider's interpretation, a woman was assaulted, but, on her own interpretation, she successfully defended herself against, i.e., averted, an assault. Or perhaps it was never an assault but whatever was going to happen didn't. Perhaps we must accept, then, that there is no simply true or false proposition about what was going on there.

"The four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle," Waldrop tells us, "where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." To say, as Kipnis does, that we should educate men and women in the art of letting the meaning of their encounters mature, rather than seeking its unambiguous adjudication by a Title IX panel, is not to say they should tolerate assault and harassment. What we need to learn, Kipnis is trying to tell us, is to manage the ambiguities of desire. In my view, we need not law but literature here, not policy but poetry. "The gravity of love," says Waldrop, "encompasses ambivalence."


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

The case I was reacting to in the quotation you've reproduced is this one, which comes verbatim from Kipnis's book:

I don't want to sound cavalier about sexually gross professors, but I've heard my own mother describe once being chased around a desk, literally, by her astronomy professor, for whom she was working part time and who was trying to kiss her. This would have been the 1950s. Her hands were covered in mimeograph ink, and she left a mimeograph handprint on his forehead when she pushed him away, she recalls laughingly.
[S]he was in no way traumatized; in fact, she wasn't even particularly outraged. "What ever happened to an old-fashioned pass?" she exclaimed when I filled her in on the responses of today's grad students to similar episodes. ... (Today's campus statistics gatherers would count her as an "unacknowledged" sexual assault victim.)
... [I]t seems worth asking why a woman of the pre-feminist 1950s felt so much more agency than grad students of today, so much more able to see a professor's idiocy as comic fodder, not an incapacitating trauma. (155)

I am happy to countenance that there ambiguous situations that are neither clearly sexual harassment nor clearly not sexual harassment. But this case seems nowhere near the grey area. Not even close. As I said in my post, if Kipnis's mother's ability to "put a stop to" her harassment consists in being agile enough to run around the workplace fast enough and to use her hands to physically push away her boss's mouth, which is trying to kiss her, and to laugh about it afterwards, then she has much less agency with respect to sexual harassment than do today's students, who have much more legal protection.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's the substance of the dispute. I think it's wrong to say that Kipnis's mother "tolerated" this "harassment". It didn't rise to the level of harassment and, yet, she clearly would not stand for it. She put a stop to it before it became "severe or pervasive" enough to constitute hostility. Presumably, he did not fire her or make her life difficult afterwards (or she wouldn't be laughing). She drew a line and he ultimately respected it.

The fact that you see an "old-fashioned pass" as an unambiguous ("nowhere near the grey area") act of harassment is exactly the intuition that Kipnis is trying to get us to think about. She's saying there are ways to draw these lines that don't require a policy or legal framework.

Suppose her mother had done nothing in the situation. Just froze and stood there and let him grope and kiss her. And then a year later, after talking to friends and maybe a psychologist about the trauma that made her quit her job, she filed a complaint. Are you really suggesting that this would indicate she has more agency than the story as Kipnis tells it?

Anonymous said...

There is a relevant commentary on Kipnis' Title IX cases here, written two years ago, 04/05/2015.

Since it's on the Huffington Post, you can bank on it being accurate, competent analysis written articulately and succinctly. The author claims to have first-hand knowledge of the particulars. She is well positioned to give that claim plausibility: she is a graduate student in philosophy at Northwestern, specializing in Epistemology and Feminist Philosophy. In her essay she has this to say about Kipnis' writing (my bold-face in the 3 quotations):

1) But Kipnis’ op-ed was alarmingly inaccurate. And immediately after its publication, several individuals reached out to her directly to correct the myriad misrepresentations of fact that she harmfully published as gospel.

2) But her piece was wildly factually inaccurate, and in ways that were obviously harmfully misleading, ...

3) This is not only intellectually lazy and academically irresponsible, it’s professionally reprehensible. And obviously so...

In my opinion, the essay linked above, thoroughly, completely, rigorously, exhaustively, conclusively, unambiguously, and utterly DESTROYS all of Kipnis' claims. It even anticipates all of Kipnis' errors in her new book, sloppily, inaccurately and lazily titled "Unwanted Advances". Indeed, if Kipnis had taken heed of that author's first point above, I suspect Kipnis wouldn't be where she is now.

But don't take my word for it. A competent and thorough researcher will seek original sources, not just secondary sources, like Kipnis' book or essays. It's actually quick and easy.

Anyone who might take Kipnis' book at face value would do well to read more than that one-sided story. Use a Google web search or image search of the author of the piece linked above to seek the truth yourself.

Jonathan said...

So this essay in Huffington post must also be accurate:

What if two articles on the same site point in opposite direction? Then we must our minds to decide, not simply trust the publication.

It is interesting that nobody is pointing to any specific inaccuracy. Aren't the issues being debated here those of opinion, not of fact? I'm wondering how a book can "inaccurately" be titled "Unwanted Advances." Seems like a good, accurate title to me.

You should learn to use adverbs better. They don't require bold face type.