Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I don't know if this is worth a post, but a tweet by Lauren Duca gave me pause just now.

It's especially the reaction that made me think. At the time I'm writing this it's only five hours old. It has almost 600 retweets, over 3000 likes, and 162 responses, many of them echoing Duca's visceral reaction. But very few people (including Duca herself) seem to be reacting to anything but the headline. Indeed, Duca's original tweet doesn't even include a link to the story in Slate. The headline is of course already clickbait. But Duca's tweet isn't linking to the story. Her tweet is merely offering what I guess can be called likebait.

Some of the people responding don't seem to even get the primary meaning of the headline, rolling their eyes at the idea of asking men whether women like being harassed. That question is obviously not an attempt to figure out if women like being harassed. It's presented, in the headline, as a survey of men's attitudes about harassment.

But that's actually a misrepresentation.

First of all, it's a survey of four countries in the Middle East. The people who are feeling sick (or, like Duca, cancerous) about this do well to keep that in mind. This is not a survey of Western males. Moreover, it's not just a survey of men. "In Morocco, for instance, 71 percent of men said women enjoyed sexual harassment, but only 42 percent of women agreed. Only 20 percent of Egyptian women said women enjoyed harassment, but 43 percent of men said they did."

Let's reflect on what this really means and what an accurate headline should have said. Notice that as many women in Morocco as men in Egypt think that women like being harassed. While (not surprisingly) more men think women like it than women do, none of these numbers are absolute. Some women say they like it and some women say they don't. Some men think women like it and some men think they don't. Let's imagine the headline:


Like I say, I don't really think this deserved a post. It tells us mainly about the lack of nuance in social media on issues of any importance. This survey showed something completely unsurprising: most men who cat call do it for fun and a significant amount of them assume the women also think it's fun. Not only does that suggest that their perhaps misguided hearts are sometimes in the right place, it turns out that they aren't completely mistaken. Some women actually do enjoy the attention.

But, strip all the nuance out of this, banish it completely from the lawn of excluded middle, and Western liberals can have a collective catharsis of the gag reflex.

I imagine they sort of like the feeling.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Last Word?

Paul Griffiths' farewell to the university is worth reading. He has experienced something that many of us have been watching unfold with concern from the sidelines in now countless other cases. He expressed his views and faced disciplinary proceedings as a consequence. This also happened to Laura Kipnis and, I dare say, to Tim Hunt. In all cases, one can accept that people are upset or angered by what one says. One can even accept that those who are offended call for one's dismissal or disinvitation. What we cannot and should not abide is university administrators that, knowing full well that the complaint was occasioned merely by something that was said, and said very clearly as an expression of opinion, actually move against the "offender".

Griffiths writes that

words, in universities, have been what I’ve used to make my way. I’ve used them to elucidate, to explain, to understand, and to argue. The word-life, which is the same as the life of the mind, has been for me one of struggle to accentuate and sharpen intellectual differences with the goal of increasing clarity about what they come to and what’s at stake in them.

I respect Griffiths' decision, though it saddens me and I wish he would stay. Someone who has been living, and thought he could continue to live a "word-life" cannot continue to work happily in an environment where the words he chooses are subject to administrative oversight. Critical oversight is another matter. We want our peers and colleagues to argue with us when they disagree. But the increasing legitimacy of the act of going to administrators for help in settling intellectual disputes takes the life out of our words. Academia becomes a place to negotiate ideological positions grounded in power, not knowledge. It stops being a place to make up your mind about what the truth is.

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."