Sunday, April 03, 2011


I’ve been chewing on this piece from IHE for several days now. Apparently, many women in the philosophy field have grown tired of sexist jerks committing sexual harassment with impunity. Since nothing ever seems to happen to the perpetrators, these women are starting a semi-organized campaign of informal ‘shunning.’ The idea is to give the silent treatment on a larger scale, both to punish the most egregious offenders and to create incentives for others to behave acceptably.

The commentary on the piece last week was instructive. (At least, once you got past the usual culture war posturing.) Some of the commenters had an “about time!” response, cheering on an action that they considered long overdue. Others told stories of bad behavior that had gone unpunished. Still others took the side of the shunned, arguing that the danger of informal sanctions based entirely on hearsay is that the accused will never get a chance to defend himself. After all, in court you have the option of testifying on your own behalf; in the court of whispered opinion, you really don’t.

Both sides are right, as far as they go, but they both seem to take for granted that official sanctions are ineffective. The pro-shunning side seems to assume that official sanctions are hopeless, so frontier justice is necessary. The anti-shunning side seems to assume that official sanctions are ineffective, but such is life, and frontier justice is worse.

As an administrator -- one of the folks whose job it is to tend to those official channels -- I found the common assumption disturbing. Do official channels have to be so terribly ineffective?

It seems to me that official channels that actually work would offer the best of both worlds. The miscreants would be answerable for their sins, and the falsely accused could be exonerated. I don’t imagine perfection, given the inevitable gaps between “what actually happened” and “what can be proved,” but I can imagine getting close enough that calls for shunning campaigns would seem strange.

Academic culture is unique in many ways. One of its distinctive calling cards is a temperamental allergy to people with positional power actually using it. In most other lines of work, a taboo like that would be considered either bizarre or simply unthinkable; in academe, it’s a norm. It’s so normal that in a debate among highly educated people about sometimes-criminal conduct, the one shared assumption is that you don’t want administrators to get involved. In any other line of work, you’d want to bust the perps, and you’d call in the folks empowered to do that.

The taboo seems to be based on fear of abuse. But the idea that incapacitating those with positional power will somehow create a power-free zone is delusional. Instead, it empowers local bullies. When legitimate authority has been rendered irrelevant, then by default, the only option left against petty tyrants is some sort of frontier justice, whether overt or covert.

The choice is not between hierarchy and freedom. It’s between legible, accountable power, and illegible, unaccountable power. Both are problematic, but I’d take the former over the latter any day of the week. At least the former offers rules of combat.

To the extent that those legible, accountable institutions need to be reformed to be effective, by all means, bring it on. But to take their failure for granted -- to make their failure the assumed starting point of a discussion -- leaves nothing but unappealing options. Laws without police aren’t laws. The question of shunning doesn’t have a good answer, because it’s the wrong question. The right question is how to make legitimate, legible authority more effective.