This provocative and well-written volume promises to liven up your book club
Early into reading this book, it occurred to me that it would be an excellent selection for a good book club. I say good book club, because when I think of a good club I think of a lively discussion where those in attendance are willing to consider and debate controversial issues and dangerous ideas. The other kind of book club would be where people are afraid to ask provocative questions or say anything remotely controversial for fear of offending someone — this would not be a good book for that kind of book club.
I didn’t think the other kind of book club would have really existed, back when this was published, because I didn’t think that there was much serious debate about how much we needed to protect others from being offended — especially in an academic context. Gallop seemed to believe that too, until she encountered resistance to a conference she was organizing — from members of her own faculty:
“I was dumbfounded to hear my colleagues speak against the pursuit of knowledge. As if, in a university there were more important things than learning. They seemed to feel it was their duty to suppress the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of the students.
“…Those who opposed the conference thought it their duty to protect students…from anything that would make them unhappy or remind them of painful experiences.” (pg 61)
Her argument in opposition to this is welcome:
“We who were planning the conference considered it out primary duty to foster knowledge. Inasmuch as we were teachers, it was our responsibility to expose students to as much learning as possible. Protecting students from knowledge that would make them uncomfortable seemed ultimately a failure to teach them, placing some other relationship above our duty as their teachers.
“All around that table were feminists; the students we were concerned about were women. Their stance implied that the women we teach are delicate and in need of protection. We on the other hand assumed that women students are tough enough to learn.” (pg 61)
The book is primarily about her experience of being accused of sexual harassment by two students; in delving into this situation she explores many broader issues, such as the nature of sexual harassment and pedagogy, the policing of consensual relationships, and the emerging trend in academia to suppress debate and inquiry.
There are multiple passages in this book that could stand alone as a basis for a rich and heated discussion. Her position, for example, that sexual harassment is an act of discrimination rather than an abuse of power, was interesting and (at least to me) unexpected.
But even more compelling was her survey of university policy with respect to amorous relationships and sexual harassment. Keep in mind that the parites involved in these discussions are all adults – it is interesting, then, for various academic institutions to determine that students are not capable of giving their consent in entering certain relationships. More concerning is the idea that the university decided that it is capable of deciding under what circumstances adults attending their institution can give consent.
“One of our most esteemed universities explains: ‘What might appear to be consensual, even to the parties involved, may in fact not be so.’ The contrast here between ‘appearance’ and ‘fact’ suggests that so-called consensual-relations policies are not in reality about consensual relations, but about relations that are only apparently consensual. The policies assume that there is, in fact, no such thing as a consensual relation between a teacher and a student.
“Students do not have full freedom of choice; thus their consent is not true consent but merely the appearance of consent…. Because students cannot fully, freely, and truly consent, all teacher-student relations are presumed to be instances of sexual harassment.” (pg 35)
I’m inclined to take issue with this level of arrogance, as was Gallop:
“Prohibition of consensual teacher-student relations is based on the assumption that when a student says yes she really means no. I cannot help but think that this proceeds from the same logic according to which when a woman says no she really means yes. The first assumption is protectionist, the second is the very logic of harassment. What harassment and protectionsim have in common is precisely a refusal to credit women’s desires. Common to both is the assumption that women do not know what we want, that someone else, in a position of greater knowledge and power, knows better.” (pg 38)
For me, this argument is extremely well-put. The ethics of adult faculty dating adult students is entirely beside the point. The crucial issue is that an organization has endowed itself with the authority to determine what their subjects ‘really want’ and have taken it upon themselves to unilaterally choose what’s best for them. Who would willingly grant an employer or government the power to revoke their right to give consent?
Gallop offers the counter-example of her experiences as a student:
“I remember the feminist student I was, what I wanted and what I didn’t want, and I remember that it was precisely my sense of knowing what I did and didn’t want that made me feel strong.” (pg 39)
And in discussing relationships she’d had with professors when she’d been a student:
“And they taught and challenged me, criticized and praised me; they let me see them as men and never stopped taking me seriously as a student. I felt that in their eyes I was both a desirable woman and a serious scholar. And thus I believed I could be both; I didn’t feel I had to choose one at the expense of the other.” (pg 42)
She then puts forth the following interesting argument:
“It is ironic that relations between teachers and students have been banned as part of the fight against sexual harassment. We fight against sexual harassment precisely because it’s dehumanizing, but the ban on consensual relations is dehumanizing too. Telling teachers and students that we must not engage each other sexually ultimately tells us that we must limit ourselves to the confines of some restricted professional transaction, that we should not treat each other as human beings.” (pg 51)
At this point it is worth noting that Gallop did not, nor was she accused of, having sex with the students who accused her of sexual harassment. It is also worthwhile to keep in mind that she is not advocating for sexual relationships between teachers and students; she’s defending a boundary — of under what circumstances her employer can interfere with her personal life. She is vehemently defending the principal of having the right to enter whatever consensual relationship she wishes, as she sees fit, and is adamant that she should not have to worry about reprisals for such choices from her employer.
Gallop is very cognizant of the precidents being set here, and she explicitly presents these observations as a set of warnings. Perhaps most alarming were the ‘resolutions sought’ by her accusers, the first of which was the demand “That the respondent understand that making the complaint the subject of intellectual inquiry constitutes retaliation.” The second accuser went as far at to deem “any aspect of intellectual inquiry” would constitute retaliation. Gallop points out:
“Part of the university’s affirmative action policty is a promise to protect complainants against retaliation, to protect even those whose complaints are found to be baseless. So when these complaints define research as retaliation, they put the universtiy under an obligation to prohibit research.” (pg 78)
Also worth noting:
“The affirmative-action office helped the complainants fill out these forms. And the office accepted this attempt to constrain my research as a legitimate possible ‘resolution’ to the case. In effect, these requests extend the jurisdiction of the affirmative-action office to include intellectual inquiry.” (pg 78)
She expands on the significance of this:
“But it was not until the investigation was concluded that I realized how dangerous these demands were. They were not just asking the university to restrict my writing, not just asking that it inhibit my speech. The universtiy was ultimately being asked to police my thinking.
“In no way was I to take the case as an object of intellectual inquiry. That is to say, I was not to study it nor derive knowledge from it; I was, in other words, not to think about the case.
“As it turns out, the university decided not to forbid my taking the case as an object of intellectual inquiry. But then I was not found guilty of sexual harassment. Had I been, it is conceivable that the university might have taken it upon itself to ban the very book you are reading.” (pg 79)
If you’ve been following the trends in academic (and especially university) culture for the past couple of decades, you’re probably aware that her concerns were valid and the warnings well-placed.
Gallop’s writing style is concise. Her arguments are clear and provocative. At just over 100 pages, it is impressive that she’s been able to provide so much material for consideration and discussion. This shouldn’t feel like a rare thing today, but it does — perhaps as a direct result of the ‘protective’ trends and forces she was warning us about over 25 years ago.
It would behoove us to consider the possibility that those very same trends and forces are also responsible for why it seems harder and harder to find people who are willing to freely and openly discuss books like this, and why there exists any kind of book club other than good one.