Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Tiniest Offenses

The recent news about sexual harassment in philosophy has been bringing exposure (so to speak) to the problem--not to mention providing an awful lot of intentional and unintentional amusement.

Myself, I have not experienced (prolonged episodes of) sexual harassment at work. Even if common, it's not ubiquitous. Harassment, though, appears with regularity--either of myself or observed harassment of others. Gender is often a component, defining the target, the methods, the vulnerabilities.

But sometimes a great long span of time goes by--months, even--when I'm not harassed, and I don't hear reports of harassment of students and colleagues. But even in these intervals, there are the micro-insults, the patronizing gestures, the imbalance between duties and privileges.

I'm knowledgeable, aware, and sensitive, and I usually spot the insults, jibes, barbs, slurs and slights that are directed my way. Every now and then someone around me notices one I miss: "Did I hear so-and-so say that to you?" someone asks. Or I report on a frustrating encounter with a male student, and a male colleague says "No, I've never, not in 20 years, had a student say that to me."

An episode today. Dean asks a question of a committee I'm likely to chair in the fall, copies the full committee and the department chairs--and also copies Prof. Graybeard, past committee chair but no longer a member. I respond to the question. Dean acknowledges response. Prof. Graybeard, copied to all, supports the correctness of my response. I'm grateful.

Until a department chair asks me: "Why was Prof. Graybeard copied on that? And why did he respond? What did his response add?" Was it supportive? No, undermining.

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