We are living through a time of crowd-surges. Someone, or something will set one off. Then Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms will whip it along. And a significant proportion of the general public are always delighted to lace up their shoes and join the stampede.
This week, a particularly vociferous one was set off in the UK when a backbench Conservative MP chose to scupper a bill that would have (without any Parliamentary discussion) made taking a photo up a woman’s skirt a specific crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
In some ways, this crowd-surge – motivated by the actions of Sir Christopher Chope MP – was a classic of the genre. Nearly everybody is opposed to people taking out their mobile phone and trying to take photos up a woman’s skirt. Absolutely everybody wants to present themselves as publicly opposed to such perverse and invasive action. But there is very little point in trying to discern whether there are any reasons to object to the creation of new laws being passed unopposed. Or whether the offence in question may not, in fact, already be an offence.
The Chope crowd-surge even included the allegation that his holding-up of the bill was down to his fondness for the offence in question. Within a couple of days, he had to publicly deny this and attempt to rescue his career, at which point secondary attacks were launched on anybody who had ever looked favourably on this object of hatred. The Prime Minister, for one, was quizzed as to why she had put such a person forward for a knighthood.
A dramatic new front in the culture wars
This sort of unsavoury blood-sport comes is rarely enjoyable. Although, on occasion, it can be instructive. I’m thinking about the moments when people who you’d normally expect to be outspoken choose suddenly to reverse their view, or engage in an untypical moment of silence. Such behaviour, and we saw an example of it last week, shines a fascinating light on the contours of this new game and its rules.
In the sexual harassment cases of the post-Harvey Weinstein era, the one thing that has been almost unanimously agreed upon is that victims must be believed. The accusers must be respected. After all, as the comedian John Oliver memorably put it in tackling Dustin Hoffman, there are no obvious reasons that spring to mind as to why any accuser might lie.
These cases are used (like the ‘upskirting’ case, as it happens) to whip along a wider narrative in which all women are victims or potential victims, and all men are perpetrators or potential perpetrators. So it is interesting when a case comes along which bucks this trend.
Avital Ronell is a philosophy professor at New York University. She is currently being investigated by the university over an allegation being brought by a student. Yet on this occasion, many of those people who might ordinarily be expected to believe the accuser and criticise any person in a position of power who is accused, have decided to deploy a different rule-book.
In reaction to the investigation being carried out by NYU, a letter of complaint has been sent to the university. The authors admit that they have not seen the confidential dossier containing the allegations against Ronell. But they nevertheless have the confidence to state that “the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence”. They go on to claim that the claims in fact”‘support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare”. The letter goes on to extol the virtues of Ronell as a teacher and colleague.
In some ways what is most striking are the signatories to this letter. The most prominent of them include the philosopher Slavoj Zizek and the gender theorist Judith Butler. There are also multiple professors of ‘comparative literature’ and Elizabeth Weed, the editor of differences [note the lower-case ‘d’] magazine, ‘a journal of feminist cultural studies’.
It is probably fair to say that if Avital had been Avi, and a man rather than a woman, then the chances of the editor of a journal of feminist cultural studies signing a letter in his defence would have been slimmer than the journal in question. And it is probably also fair to say that no professors of comparative literature, ‘radical’ philosophers or gender theorists would have dared to declare so definitively – before an investigation was complete and without having seen the evidence – that the accused was innocent and the accuser motivated by malice. And it is less likely still – if the accused had been a man and the accuser a woman – that a letter in support of the accuser would have said that the person making the claims against the professor was waging a “malicious campaign”.
But, then, as Ronell’s defenders point out:
“There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell whose intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues has established her as an exemplary intellectual and mentor throughout the academy. As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.”
Of how many powerful men brought low in the last year could a variant of the same not be said. Let us try it:
“There is arguably no more important figure in American film-making than Harvey Weinstein. His fierce commitment to the acting industry has seen him receive every award on offer and established him as an exemplary film-maker in the eyes of the American Academy of Motion Pictures.”
The allegations against Avital Ronell, then, are the untypical moment. But that is precisely why this episode is worth dwelling upon. For it reveals a set of presumptions – and indeed prejudices – that are very easily slipped into. The overriding one is that only men can hold or weaponise power. And that while men can only be perpetrators, women can only be victims.
Beneath these are a whole set of other cultural assumptions. Such as the assumption that while somebody wielding power in one field might be able to abuse that power, somebody in a position of power in another field (say, in literary studies) either does not have power to wield or would never think of wielding it even if they did. It suggests, in short, that harassment is the sort of thing other people do. But not our sort of people. Not our tribe.
This assumption is precisely the one that most prevents people from getting to the roots – and dealing with – the harassment that can undoubtedly go on in any area of life.
And yet none of this will be addressed if we keep such a hold on the unchallenging and strangely comfortable cliches that we have slipped into. Among them, the presumption that while Conservative backbenchers can be comfortably accused of anything, professors of literary studies cannot be. Especially when they hold a Jacques Derrida chair.