Understanding Sexual Harassment — or Why This Stuff I Write About is Useful

salzburg castle

Hohensalzburg — Salzburg, Austria

A couple of interesting stories came across my FB feed, courtesy of Professor AG Rud, of the College of Education.  AG is the former Dean of the College, and writes about a variety of subjects, including the role of Reverence in Education.  This is of particular interest to me, as I view Reverence as an empathetic ladder, particularly applicable to elevating those in Authoritarian systems toward a more appropriate, kinder Legalism.

The headlines of the two stories were:  Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light on Science’s Dark Secretand University of Miami Sued Over the Handling of Colin McGinn Harassment Claims.  In both stories, a professor (both male) is featured that severely sexually harassed a female student.  The protagonist in the first story is an astronomer — Geoffrey Marcy.  In the second, a philosopher — Colin McGinn.  After reading (or listening) to either story, you’ll likely easily conclude that they are guilty of the behavior described.  It’s just nuts.  Both are, in academia-land, very famous — Marcy has been touted for the Nobel Prize.  McGinn, a famous philosopher, was even courted for a position, after his resignation at the University of Miami for ostensible sexual harassment, at East Carolina University.

Journalists (and other academics as well) hunt for answers referencing the discipline.  “It’s the sciences that have the problem,” or something special about the liberal arts.  What in science, per se, is so unique that would cause this kind of pathology?  On the surface, even this type of hypothesis is enough to make one blush.

What these people could use is a big dose of ole timey v-Meme theory.  People in academia are largely organized in Authoritarian power structures.  As part of our job, we are PAID to be an authority.  It should come as no surprise that a certain percentage of us display the pathologies of the v-Meme, including corruption, and an assumption of the right to impose our will on those beneath us.  So many aspects of academia are constructed to facilitate such acts of abuse.  Remember that Principle of Reinforcement stuff way back when on the blog? There’s virtually none of us that share office space, for example.    And our offices are lined up, with closed doors that have the privacy and social order of the solitary confinement section of a prison.  Fine if you’re healthy, and integrally constrained.  But for those with an empathy disorder?  Eh, not so much.

The definitive study hasn’t been done, but it’s hardly surprising if male-> female sexual harassment is more common in the sciences.  The statistics of the distributions of people in power (science obviously has more men in power than women — it’s a well-known problem) vs. the people not in power lend itself to this kind of manifestation.  Add in the factor of how a pathological Authoritarian male would view sexual domination as a privilege of elevated status, and, well, it’s not too hard to figure out how things work.  Authoritarian males have had concubines for literal ages.  Old habits die hard — including those of the younger women, even at the outset, not questioning why they are receiving special access and privilege.  Both victims in both cases noted that from the beginning, they were receiving special treatment.  Didn’t they stop for a minute to question why?  And this isn’t blaming the victim.  They are NOT responsible for the professors’ behavior.  It’s merely a point that we all play into the dance inside our social structure.  Self-awareness is key.

Nothing I’ve said above would be any surprise to someone studying power dynamics in social systems.  But what’s even more interesting to me, though, is why the woman highlighted for investigating sexual harassment in the sciences in the NPR piece, Katie Hinde, an assistant professor at Harvard, contextualizes her analysis to women in the sciences.  As part of a fragmented, authoritarian social structure herself, she reaches out to pin things on men in the sciences — it’s where she has her data, after all — and practices some level of egocentricity.  It’s HER v-Meme set as well.  Instead of generalizing and contextualizing the issue in a larger frame of non-empathetic power structures, it must be worse where she is.   To be fair, I haven’t tabulated any numbers myself.  But maybe what we fundamentally need is to confront how we’re organized, and evolve our communities.  Note to readers — consider the v-Meme set of any given observer.

On a personal note, I can understand how this works.  A while back, I heard a piece on NPR talking about how overweight people had a problem with disconnection and loneliness.  The thesis was that ‘because we’re fat, no one will look at us or greet us.’  The thesis seemed reasonable, and feeling like this was something I could make a small dent in with an act of kindness, on my bike rides, I started saying ‘Hello’ to all overweight people I saw walking on the trail.  But what I noticed was that on the Chipman Trail, most people didn’t reply.  It didn’t make any difference what they looked like.  I was the only one saying ‘hi’!  I still say ‘hi’ to everyone on the trail.  But I also understand a little better the nature of egocentric analysis.  It’s not that people don’t greet overweight people.  According to my very limited experiment — no one was greeting anyone.

What’s the moral to the story?  Instead of looking at surface-level reasons, we might look a little deeper at the fundamental empathetic dynamics of the social/relational systems we set up.  It might yield more profound solutions than pinning things on a discipline, or an assumed code of ethics that are not reinforced by either the environment, or the empathetic evolution of the people in the system.

Further Reading:  This is an interesting table on the statistics of sexual harassment.  The majority of complaints are by women, not surprisingly.  But note the relatively constant, monolithic increase over time of men’s complaints.  Have things really changed, or are we starting to see a larger receptivity toward men feeling culturally comfortable to file a complaint?  Or is this a manifestation of women moving up in power positions in society?

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