Whose Job Is It to Support a Harassed Scholar?
by Donna Zuckerberg and Sarah Bond
(You can read this article, which was crossposted, on Eidolon)
Donna: My harassment began in the final days of 2016. At its worst, I was receiving a steady stream of emails and tweets filled with misogynistic, anti-Semitic bile. Some of these missives helpfully included links to longer and even more vitriolic rants about me, my work, and my family.
Sarah: My harassment began in earnest in early June of 2017 after I wrote an article on polychromy. At its worst, I too was getting emails, tweets, blog comments and, later, fliers placed around campus and phone calls sent to colleagues. These missives were generally filled with hate, threatening language, and anti-Semitic comments. More than a few called for me to be fired.
And yet, speaking to a number of faculty of color and people from the LGTBQ community here at the University of Iowa and elsewhere, I found that such harassment was nothing new. There was a theater professor who received death threats for protesting the homophobic painting of a locker-room and a female professor of color who was harassed for her work on black women in the horror genre. I wrote Donna and leaned on her for help, for therapy, and for empathy--and she was always there. I also leaned on my editor, Hrag, who answered messages in the dead of night and called to talk me down when I didn’t think it would stop. Despite this, other academic friends of color or from marginalized groups carefully pointed out the privilege I had as a white lady and the sympathy I got as a result of it during my ordeal. Theirs were all silent tales that I only discovered once I bothered to ask. Why hadn’t I asked before? And, by the way? They were right about that privilege. Turns out I wasn’t the first or even the worst case. According to our university threat assessment team I was just one of the rare ones who had told the press about my experience.
Donna: I'm not going to share the details of my harassment here, partly because I consider those details irrelevant and partly because I don't really like to talk about them. I talk and write about my experiences in venues like this one not because I enjoy doing so or because I think I can leverage it into some kind of professional advancement – a disgusting accusation made of many women who speak out about harassment, as Lauren Duca recently discussed in Teen Vogue – but because I hope to start an honest, productive, and durable conversation throughout the discipline about what the harassment of classical scholars means and what our ethical responsibility is toward our colleagues who experience that harassment. Because I know that what I experienced is just the beginning.
In order to have that honest, productive, and durable conversation, however, we first will need to face some difficult and painful questions. Even after reflecting on these questions for the past nine months, I don’t have many answers. But they are questions that must drive us to establish a set of best practices for the next time this happens. Because it will happen again.
Should who a scholar is influence how and whether we support them?
Donna: Most harassment is framed in deeply personal terms, as an attack on an individual's scholarship, appearance, and behavior. It can therefore be difficult to extricate the characteristics of the individual from the overall circumstance of the harassment.
I am a relatively recent Ivy League PhD (2014), unaffiliated to any academic institution (although at the time I was connected to the Paideia Institute), a woman, a Jew, and a close relative of a wealthy celebrity. Some of these factors mark me as privileged, while others do not – but all of them contributed to how my harassment was framed by the perpetrators, and I am convinced that they also shaped the discipline's vicarious experience of my harassment. I've been told by colleagues that I didn't need formal support because 1) I "asked" for what I got by engaging in public scholarship and speaking out against the alt-right; 2) I didn't have enough of a scholarly record to merit support; 3) I didn't have a traditional academic job that I could be fired from; and 4) surely I had ample personal resources at my disposal to protect myself. As a field, we can't really do much to stop external harassment from happening – but we can challenge and confront these kinds of ideas and keep them from poisoning our collegial relationships, and we can reflect on how intersections of privilege and oppression play into our misconceptions. Support isn’t a zero-sum game: withholding it from someone you consider privileged doesn’t mean you’ll have more to give to someone less privileged.
As a rule our profession hates talking about money, but to the last point I would say that, rather than hesitating to support someone because they come from a wealthy family or are married to someone with a well-paying job, we should all reflect on the fact that a substantial proportion of classicists fall under that umbrella. We still have a long way to go in tearing down the boundaries to access to our discipline, which has historically been the province of the wealthy – so rather than speculating about each other’s personal net worths, let’s all focus on making our discipline more inclusive and accessible to all. Moving from the financial to the professional, it isn’t true that I have experienced no negative professional repercussions from my harassment, regardless of my purported inability to be fired. That argument is also disingenuous: would we not support those with the job security granted by tenure? From what I’ve seen, support seems to be more readily granted to those with tenure or on the tenure line. We must all support the unaffiliated, "independent" scholars who are among the most professionally vulnerable members of our profession. If a scholar does not have an institution to stand up for her, then it is the responsibility of our professional organizations to do so. In fact, they should do so regardless of her institutional status.
Sarah: I got my PhD in 2011 and immediately left for a post-doc at Washington and Lee University. From there, I can only say that I was one of the lucky ones. I had a post-doc that allowed me to write and to be financially supported, and then got a tenure-track job. I feel guilty about being one of the few to get a tenure-track position, and certainly it has allowed me privileges in my work and more protection for my writing. I blogged, tweeted, and wrote small pop pieces for many years before becoming a regular contributor to Forbes, which happened in part due to help from Kristina Killgrove. Only my husband knew the extent of the hate mail and negative feedback I would occasionally get from pieces, that is until this summer’s incident. But when the blowback occurred, I had the full backing of my department, the university administration, the SCS, and the AIA. Once again, I was thankful for the outpouring of support and yet felt guilt for my privilege. Donna is correct that if I had been unaffiliated or an adjunct, I would have been more vulnerable and easily marginalized. Although I spent weeks scared that my tenure file would be affected or that the university president would give into the calls to have me fired, that never happened. I encourage every institution and scholarly organization to throw support behind a scholar who is getting harassed---no matter if they are a student, an instructor, a high school teacher, or a professor.
Does the nature and degree of the harassment matter? How much, and why?
Donna: In the conversation about harassment, the trump card seems to be death threats. Certainly many of the titles of articles about Sarah Bond’s abuse emphasize that part of her experience. I can't speak for Sarah, but I think that the disproportionate amount of attention and rhetorical weight given to death threats is warping the conversation about harassment in unhealthy and unproductive ways.
I received a few death threats, including one where the threatening individual knew my home address. As part of my response to the threat, I contacted a friend who has worked in security to ask what kind of threats I should take seriously. The response I got was, essentially, that it was impossible for me as an individual to know; one of the largest indicators that a threat may be genuine is activity by the threatener across multiple platforms, and I simply don't have the will or the bandwidth to monitor the social media presences of all of my trolls. In other words, something that looks like a death threat is very likely intended just to frighten, and the bigger dangers may lurk in less obviously scary messages.
Sarah: This is the truth. I had received death threats via Twitter before. This was on a new level only in terms of frequency. These users easily deactivated their accounts after tweeting to me. These are called shell accounts. One user went to multiple platforms where my articles were posted to note that he had killed before and he would kill again. While these things were indubitably scary, the fliers calling for me to be fired were much more frightening. It meant there was someone in Iowa who cared enough about me to go to a Kinkos and make bad photocopies of my headshot from the Forbes column. Those who have never been on Twitter or waded into a comment section were surprised to find out how often I and many others were harassed, but the truth is that Twitter in particular allows a level of anonymity that, when combined with the lack of accountability for harassment, can be terrifying. The response is mixed when I tell people these stories. More than a few scholars have told me: That is what you get for wanting to be a public scholar. What a thing to tell somebody! That the price for making their field accessible is fielding invective that attacks my gender, my sexual orientation, my intellect, and my job.
Donna: Regardless, the focus on death threats actually removes the onus of responsibility from our colleagues. Aside from a few simple measures that departments can take to protect the safety of their faculty, there's not a lot that anybody can do to protect the physical safety of other members of our discipline. What we can do, however, is try to protect them from the profoundly demoralizing effect of a deafening chorus of internet frogs bre-kek-kexing about how they're the biggest fucking morons who ever lived. No matter how many times I try to tell myself that those people don't matter, and that I'm not writing for them, it helps a great deal when the people I am writing for speak up to support me. If you like anything that the harassed scholar has written, write them a note to tell them about it and express your sympathy and support. It will mean a great deal. Helen Morales has written about the need for a culture of microaffirmations; that culture is more necessary than ever in a world where harassment has become a near-inevitability for those venturing out into the wild world of public scholarship. Speaking of which...
How should the near-inevitability of harassment change our discipline's approach to public scholarship?
Sarah and Donna: Put simply: if you believe that public scholars are doing something that is necessary for the continuing health and popularity of our discipline, then you owe them your support when their work brings an abusive backlash. Crucially, it does not matter whether you yourself want to engage in public scholarship, or even if you agree with the argument that the scholar received the backlash for. Once the response crosses the line between vigorous professional disagreement and outright harassment, you should denounce the harasser. If you do not, then you are tacitly contributing to the devolution of the academic discourse you claim to prize. Silence is itself a statement.
At the risk of hyperbole, we believe that this is a crisis moment for our discipline. We are at not one, but several crossroads: will we take a stand against the appropriation of our field of study in service of oppressive and bigoted ideologies? Will we stand by our colleagues when they need us? Our answers to these questions will have profound ramifications for the future of Classical Studies. In antiquity, the creation of collegia empowered and supported many who were not of elite status. They provided communal support and services that people could rely on. The SCS is our collegium, and that means that we must support each member in the collective equally: e pluribus, unum.
More September 2017 Newsletter Content
Here is Ted H. M. Gellar-Goad's piece on gender differences in harassment and institutional response.
Dorothy Kim wrote about her extensive training in combating harassment and the state of the medieval field.
Read a message from the SCS office on what we have in place currently to combat harassment on our online platforms and what members can do as well
Photo Credits for September, 2017, Newsletter