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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

University goes batty

An academic in Ireland has been disciplined for sexual harassment because he supposedly showed an article to a female colleague in a spirit of sexual innuendo. The article was about the fact that fruit bats engage in oral sex. His defence was that it was part of an ongoing academic discussion about non-human sexual behaviour - but really ... even if there was a degree of innuendo or an attempt at nerdish flirtation, so what?

Antonia Senior says:

Why does it matter? What is wrong with modern womanhood that we insist on parity in all things, yet retain the right to behave like heroines in 19th-century novels who accidentally stumble across some copulating horses? It is bad enough that the modern office environment makes us pretend that humans don’t have sex; now we must all collude in the myth that animals are built like Barbie and Ken, all smoothed over genitalia and wholesome innocence.

Sexual harassment law is not supposed to be about totally de-sexing interaction between men and women. It is about enabling women to work in environments that are not hostile to them (whether because of sexual predation by those with power over them, or because of pervasive expressions of misogyny, or other reasons). It's intended to support, not undermine, women's equality.

There are sometimes fine lines to be drawn here, but we can usually recognise sexual harassment when we see it. Incidents like this demonstrate a lack of common sense. For its part, the university administration has acted stupidly. And a woman who complains about something like this, acting like a nineteenth century shrinking violet, does her sex a disservice and cannot be considered part of the feminist cause. The message she sends is that women cannot be trusted as colleagues in the workplace, because they will freak out over trivial incidents.

Feminism is not about taking all the fun from life. It is not about stamping out all sexual innuendo. It's not about rationalising prudish attitudes to sex. It's not meant to limit reasonable freedom of speech and expression, including academic freedom. It's all about women being given proper credit for being as capable as men. That includes their competence in taking part in ordinary and reasonable social interaction in the workplace. So don't support the "victim" in this case in a spirit of feminist sisterhood. This is not feminism in action, even if she thinks it is. She's set back the feminist cause, not helped it; she's made it look as if women are not good colleagues in the workplace, and it would be safer not to hire them.

The wrong person was disciplined here. The harm was done by somebody disrupting the workplace - wasting the university's time and resources - with a complaint about such a trivial matter. She should be counselled and warned not to do this again.

Go here to sign an online petition protesting the university's action.


J. J. Ramsey said...

This bit from one of the articles makes me leery of supporting a protest against the university:

She alleged that the incident came after repeated examples of his "inappropriate" behaviour, in which he kissed her on both cheeks and complimented her appearance.

It's the "repeated examples" part that's the red flag. If it were clearly only a matter of showing her the paper on fellatio in fruit bats, that would be one thing, but a pattern of unwanted behavior is quite another. I don't think we're getting the whole story here.

myrana said...

Warped thinking on your part, Russell.

Elephant said...

@J.J. Ramsey - The problem with that is that the investigators, who heard much more than we did, found no offence prior to the bat-sex incident, and even then that he did not intend to cause offence. All this is detailed in the link in the Telegraph article - http://felidware.com/DylanEvans/ - which we can assume to be genuine given that UCC is complaining about "leaks". (Evans is being disciplined for this leak as well. He denies it was him.)

Elephant said...

On academic freedom in Ireland, you might enjoy this gem from Kevin Myers, coincidentally published a couple of weeks ago.

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, it's true that we may not be getting the whole story. In an earlier part of my life, I spent much time advising employers -especially universities re just such cases. I would feel bound by professional ethics not to comment on cases involving most higher education institutions in Australia.

But yes, there may be some more dirt on him that we don't know about. That happens. There may also be more extenuation of him that we don't know about. That also happens.

The trouble is that future employers are likely to assume the former even without evidence. He's now stigmatised.

All we can do is react to facts as found in the investigation, as Elephant says. If the facts change significantly, I'll change my tune.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Elephant: "The problem with that is that the investigators, who heard much more than we did, found no offence prior to the bat-sex incident, and even then that he did not intend to cause offence."

I took a look at the documents from the link you posted, and the story seems far more mixed than you describe it.

Russell Blackford said...

I've now read the links provided by Elephant.

I'm astonished at the amateurish standard of the investigation and the poor (not to mention sanctimonious) quality of the president's response.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the documents leaked also hint at a part played by the offended colleague's husband. Who was also a member of the university's administration.

Robert N Stephenson said...

It is very easy to cry sexual harassment these days and to avoid ongoing trouble from the complaining person usually a quick guilty is found - but it does bare mentioning some men and women do harass the opposite or even same sex in an overt sexual manner.

In this instance I can see some of the woman's stance here. If the paper was presented as a paper on fruit bat sexuality it does require neutral delivery - why? because there are parts of society that actually get off on animal sexuality. Human sex and sexuality is always delivered in a very neutral fashion so as not to cause offense.

I would of course prefer this type of thing treated more carefully but I have been threatened with harassment charges for simply telling a woman she looked nice - which was true, and it was because she'd dressed up for an interview, so she looked different to the normal drab lab gown norm.

But the real issues of sexual harassment are within churches - smile Russell - but for some reason laws are stopped at the door of some of these institutions.

Right, enough said. Both parties need a talking to, not air time...

Unknown said...

This article came to my attentionn some days ago on facebook with links etc and I did go and "sign" the petetion. It occured to me that the professor was being penalised for a percieved sin by a moral arbiter as much as any breach of published ethics...

Unknown said...

Very hard to understand exactly what happened without knowing the whole background, but if the facts are simply as set out here, then of course the University's position is disproprtionate.

In any workplace with more than a handful of employees, there is a likelihood that different standards of appropriate behaviour, and different 'comfort zones' will come into conflict. Provided none of them are really in excess of what could be considered reasonable, it is surely incumbent on serious adults to try to find a civilised compromise.

That involves communication. Sure, raising such issues can be socially awkward, but I'm afraid recourse to steps that could ruin someone's career is not a reasonable means to avoid awkward situations.

By the sounds of this, the complaining party - despite having ample opportunity - did practically nothing to alert Dr Evans to the fact that she considered his behaviour (including conduct such as hugging and kissing in both cheeks, which many of us find perfectly innocuous and non-sexual in many situations) inappropriate.

Making an official complaint after months of silence strikes me as somewhat odd, to say the least. Reading between the lines (always a dangerous endeavour, admittedly), esp re the dinner, once could perhaps speculate as to who was really concerned about Dr Evans' behaviour towards the complaining party...

Elephant said...

What's interesting about most of the discussions about this case, including this one, is that they're not about academic freedom at all, but rather about the treatment of alleged sexual harassment in the workplace generally. The notion in the petition that UCC's policies are being used to "stifle debate" is preposterous.

There might possibly be an argument that academic freedom is so important that certain conduct which is not allowed in the rest of society should have special privileges within universities. But this case doesn't seem to be the poster child for that argument.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Colin: "Making an official complaint after months of silence strikes me as somewhat odd, to say the least."

Why does it strike you as odd? Consider that individually, each little infraction doesn't amount to much on its own, an overlong glance here or a slightly randy comment there. It's the cumulative effect of those little things that creates the uncomfortable environment.

Unknown said...

@JJ: So you are saying that it was only in retrospect that the complainant viewed most of the incidents as problematic? Well, that doesn't quite square with her testimony, does it? But ok, I guess that's possible; we all try to make sense of events retrospectively.

My main point, though, stands: at whatever point that she became uncomfortable, common decency dictates that she tried to bring this to the respondent's attention before making it an official complaint.

Nothing in her testimony suggested that she was intimidated or frightened by him. It doesn't spound like he senior to her (if anything, the opposite). And nothing in his behaviour was so completely excessive that we could unambiguously infer malice on his part.

That being so, wouldn't a grown-up approach would have been to have a quiet word and say something like: 'Look, I know you probably don't mean anything by it, but I find all the touchy-kissy stuff a bit awkward. And while we're on the subject: sex-jokes? Not really my thing, eh?'

Failing that, accepting Evans' offer of some form of unofficial mediation would have been infinitely preferable to going down the formal route. Surely. No?

But for whatever reason, she wanted to inflict more damage than that. As I say, without knowing the whole story, we don't know why she felt that way. But simply on the facts that we are told, the complanant's reaction, and that of the university, seems very disproprtionate.

As I say, hugs and cheek-kisses are normal for some, inappropriate for others. Likewise mild sexually-themed jokes. The solution - at least in the first instance - is dialogue, not discipline.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Colin: "So you are saying that it was only in retrospect that the complainant viewed most of the incidents as problematic?"

No, I'm thinking more along the lines of a "1000 paper cuts" scenario.

Unknown said...

Yep, that can happen. And I feel very sorry for those folk who have had their confidence shredded by a long series of independently trivial slights and put-downs. Complaining about any one would sound petty, but in aggregate, they can be devastating.(My partner was a union rep for years, so I've heard of quite a few.)

But is that what happened here? The Investigators' report found nothing wrong with any of the earlier incidents. The complainant admits tht she didn't make much effort to convey her discomfort. How, then, was Evans supposed to know that his conduct was piling straws on the camel's back?

J. J. Ramsey said...

Colin: "The Investigators' report found nothing wrong with any of the earlier incidents."

That's not quite accurate. The investigators decided that they couldn't uphold the complaints of earlier harassment on account that (1) Dr. Evans was unaware that he had caused offense and (2) that the complainant hadn't been sufficiently assertive in expressing her displeasure. However, they also found that the complaints were clearly not malicious. It looks to me like Dr. Evans' earlier actions were marginal, not quite enough to be ruled as harassment but not innocent enough for the complainant to be clearly in the wrong.

Unknown said...

@JJ: not necessarily. The complaints could have been groundless, but nonetheless non-malicious. It's quite possible that a situation of offence can arise without either party acting in an objectively unreasonable way.

The cultural or social expectations of reasonable people can just ... differ. That would be why dialogue or mediation should be the first port of call. Disciplinary measures should, I think, be reserved for people whose conduct is flagrantly unreasonable - i.e. not just according to the subjective standards of the complainant - or who refuse to desist from behaviour that they have been told is causing offence or discomfort.

Russell Blackford said...

The earlier complaints were nonsense. He did nothing humiliating or intimidating, and nothing that would have met a legal standard of "offensive". It wasn't even in the workplace, so it's none of the university's business (unless it was behaviour such as to bring the university into disrepute or something of the sort, which it patently wasn't).

But the most extraordinary thing about it all is that there were supposedly witnesses to all the incidents, including the fruit bat incident. The investigators should have interviewed those people carefully and reported on their evidence in detail, discussing their demeanour and credibility, in what they sent to the university President. There's no evidence that they even spoke to those people - quite the opposite if the two-page document that we've seen is their entire report. If that's right, they carried out a grossly inadequate investigation, and the President should not have acted on it. He should have either concluded that, taken at its highest, this was an unmeritorious complaint ... or else he could have asked for further investigation (preferably by someone else).

I don't know what redress is available in the Irish courts or industrial tribunals, but if there's a convenient way of challenging this process the university could be on shaky ground. It's certainly embarrassing for it that the investigation was so poor and that the President doesn't seem to realise this. He should have obtained legal advice before sending his letter - or perhaps he did but was poorly advised. Or maybe the law in Ireland lets you get away with murder!

Kirth Gersen said...

Really, it seems to me that the issue is not about whether he did or did not do anything inappropriate, or about whether his colleague overreacted, but rather whether it is ever appropriate to discipline a faculty member after conducting what seems was only a token and slipshod excuse for an "investigation." The principle at stake is not sexual equality, but rather presumption of innocence until proven guilty.