What should feminists say about the Ronell case?

August 22, 2018

The case of a male student accusing a female professor of harassment is notable for its similarities, not differences, with other sexual misconduct cases.

A TITLE IX investigation that found New York University (NYU) professor Avital Ronell guilty of sexual harassment has sent shock waves across universities and the media, especially the left media — prompting questions about sexual harassment and assault in academia, and the gender politics of such accusations.

Ronell was initially accused of sexual harassment, assault and stalking by a male grad student, Nimrod Reitman, throughout the period that she was his adviser.

While the Title IX investigation by NYU found Ronell guilty of sexual harassment, it didn’t find her guilty of assault, and she was ultimately suspended for a year, with a provision mandating that future meetings with students need to be supervised.

Reitman has also since filed a lawsuit against NYU — the complaint can be read in full here.

WEIGHING IN several months ago — before information on the specifics of the accusations had been released publicly — a letter, signed by a number of prominent academics, stated:

Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar...We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.

We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.

New York University

If you came upon this letter out of context, you could be forgiven for assuming it was written to defend a powerful man being accused of sexual misconduct, and its authors were sympathizers who wanted to discredit a female accuser.

But this letter was, in fact, written and endorsed by influential left-wing and even explicitly feminist scholars, including Judith Butler, Catharine Stimpson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, to defend Ronell.

As the authors of a petition calling for Judith Butler to step down as president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) point out, writing and endorsing such a letter sends a terrifying message to other victims.

In the face of such words, they must not only fear retribution from their abuser and the difficulty of actually getting a hearing, but also confront the reality that other prominent scholars came out publicly to defend the abuser, essentially ensuring that they will be ostracized from their field.

BUTLER HAS since apologized for parts of what was in the statement:

Our aim was not to defend her actions — we did not have the case in hand — but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair, given the findings as we understood them. In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.

No kidding.

While an apology is certainly a step in the right direction, the damage of the statement has been done, and what Butler doesn’t explain is on what basis were the signers so confident that termination was an unfair punishment.

Another signer, Slavoj Žižek, a widely known philosopher, Hegelian theorist and visiting professor in the same department at NYU, hasn’t even conceded as much as Butler.

Žižek wrote an article defending his decision to sign on to the defense letter, in which he uncritically echoes right-wing talking points about political correctness, as if harassment is simply a misunderstanding of the intellectually weak:

In her dealing with colleagues and friends, Avital definitely is a type of her own: acerbic, ironic, shifting from funny remarks to precise perceptions of an injustice, mocking others in a friendly way...In short, she is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.

Žižek goes on to portray the case against Avital as part of a larger campaign against so-called eccentric behavior in academia, echoing many of the arguments against #MeToo that cast the movement as a sex panic and framed accusations of sexual misconduct as the backlash of a prudish society, rather than a challenge to the violence of harassment and assault:

If we abstract from the particular features of our case, what makes me really sad is that the procedure against Avital is effectively targeting a certain psychological type, a certain mode of behavior and speech for which there is less and less place in our academia. Sometimes, this type is mercifully tolerated as an eccentricity, but it always stands in the shadow of threat.

It would be absurd to imagine that this “eccentricity” defense would fly among the same academics if the professor was male and the grad student was female. It is the bread and butter of misogyny in our society to label these sorts of behaviors as “eccentric,” focus on the reputation and standing of the accused, and speculate about the motives of the accuser.

These sorts of defenses — whatever the gender of the accused — serve the same aims: they search for anything to redirect the conversation away from the allegations, and more than that, from the power structure that produced them.

WHILE MOST of the media attention in this case has focused on the seeming contradiction of a male grad student accusing a female professor, the similarities to other cases of abuse are far more glaring than the differences.

Reitman was dependent on Ronell as his adviser, so he was forced to endure the abuse, and not speak out because he was afraid of retribution. Ronell used the fact of her power over him to attempt to control his life and even his other relationships with family, friends and romantic partners.

In Reitman’s statement, he recounts how the power relations extended far beyond what she personally inflicted upon him. He shows how Ronell used her power and status to marginalize him in his field.

She acted to prevent other professors in the department at NYU from working with him. Early on, when the harassment became apparent, Reitman sought to escape to a PhD program at Yale. But Ronell’s relationship with the faculty there meant he feared retribution, should he decide to leave.

It also seems that his fears of retribution weren’t unfounded. In his lawsuit, Reitman claims that when another NYU student filed a Title IX complaint against Ronell for racial discrimination, she “refused to speak the complainant’s name and instead referred to her as ‘the skunk’ to other students and faculty, and openly stated to Reitman and others (in Reitman’s presence) that she would ruin the student’s career for having reported her.”

The findings of Reitman’s Title IX investigation didn’t find Ronell guilty of sexual assault, but this conclusion appears to hinge on a lack of witnesses — something any feminist would agree is a problematic standard of proof, since there are no witnesses in many, if not most, sexual assault cases.

ALL OF this should sound familiar: It is the stuff of the #MeToo stories we’ve heard over and over since victims of abuse began speaking out last fall.

Far from being confusing or unlike what we’ve seen in other cases, this is tired and familiar territory, unfortunately. Rather than this being a case of #MeToo gone too far, it’s a depressing reminder that victim-blaming arguments can still convince many people who should know better.

The important takeaway from this case isn’t the gender-role reversal — and it’s important to say that it isn’t the sexualities of Reitman and Ronell, either.

The idea that Ronell’s queer sexuality absolves her or provides some sort of justification for her behavior — an idea which she herself has perpetuated in her statement by referring to her harassment of Reitman as “gay-coded” — equates queer sexuality with harassment and abuse, a thoroughly homophobic characterization.

Rather, the real story here is about the extreme power differential between grad students and their faculty advisers, a problem that Corey Robin rightly focuses on in his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

If even one-quarter of what Reitman describes here is true, it suggests a more intense, more extreme, more abusive instance of a pervasive imbalance of power in academe. One that many graduate students have had to negotiate. And should not have to negotiate. For all the revelations of sexual harassment within academe that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave that imbalance of power to graduate students, as individuals, to figure out.

This certainly isn’t the first case to shed light on the toxic power dynamics and hierarchies in the academic world. A report by the Association of American Universities found that 10 percent of female graduate and professional students experienced sexual harassment from faculty members.

And the barriers to these students coming forward are immense — not just because of the structure within departments and universities, but also because of the tremendous pressure of an ever-shrinking job market and threat of continued precariousness in the workplace.

As Sara Matthiesen wrote in Jacobin in 2014:

As long as graduate students at Brown and other private universities lack protections that recognize the professional realities of academia — the long and increasingly elusive road to tenure, the surprisingly small networks, the official and unofficial hierarchies, the fact that, yes, graduate school is our job — the majority of us will rightly feel that speaking up too loudly will endanger our professional opportunities.

THIS IS the context surrounding the letter by professors defending Ronell. It’s true that “believe women” has been one of the slogans of the feminist movement, but embedded in that slogan is the understanding that one should believe the experiences of those whose voices are silenced in a power relationship.

Because we live in a sexist society, women are most often on one particular side of those relationships — but not always. Saying that we should “believe women” isn’t a pass for women in positions of power to abuse others — and cite their feminism in order to avoid the consequences.

In addition to the disturbing questioning of Reitman’s motives in raising the allegations, other reasons levied against him have been: waiting until after graduation to file the Title IX complaint; not refusing to work with Ronell sooner and continuing to communicate with her; and not reporting the harassment to various NYU official bodies while it was ongoing.

Actually, waiting until graduation was the only way to escape the power Ronell had over him. Reitman did attempt to set boundaries with Ronell multiple times, and he did report the harassment to multiple NYU officials, who did nothing (all of this is documented in Reitman’s lawsuit).

Regardless, it’s important to state that even if none of those things were true, these are all victim-blaming diversions used to discredit an accuser by perpetuating myths about what it means to be a facing abuse.

They always overstate the options open to the victim and the effectiveness of such channels, while downplaying the very real dangers of coming forward — in this case, retaliation that could have led to the loss of Reitman’s career, and thus his livelihood.

This is what women and people of all genders have been saying throughout the course of the #MeToo movement: Coming forward is, in itself, a difficult and brave act, one that many continue to face repercussions for.

The approach of feminists should be clear: to believe Reitman. To attempt to discredit him in the name of feminism is not only wrongheaded, it undermines the cause of feminism. Only through rejecting victim-blaming and standing up for those who speak out can we make the world a safer place for victims of all genders to come forward.

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