Monday, April 24, 2017

Power and Gravity

"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
La Rochefoucauld

"Don't be enamored of power."
Michel Foucault

One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.

This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.

Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.

And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.

Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?

We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?

Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.

When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.

But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.

Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does Sarah Ballard Want?

At the recent MIT Communications Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.

[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.

Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:

[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.

This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.

The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:

[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.

That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.

This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 2

[Part 1]

There must be something in the water. Laura Kipnis opened her talk at Wellesley by expressing not so much her admiration as her envy over Philip Roth's artistic liberties—his ability to write freely about sex (even when the acts in question are as strange as masturbating on a grave). Later, she mentioned a recent episode of Girls ("American Bitch") in which Hannah gets harassed (or allows herself to be harassed) by an author. Kipnis's interlocutor in my previous post also liked that episode (though she doesn't like Lena Dunham.) In the episode, Hannah and the famous author bond on their appreciation of Roth. To close the circle, the episode apparently also resonated with Sarah Ballard. It looks like I'm going to have to find some way of watching it.

Kipnis praises Lena Dunham for her honesty about the conflicting emotions that play out in sexual harassment situations. In the context of her other remarks, I think her point is that we can use these artistic representations to better understand such situations and, by extension, help us navigate them safely. Norman Mailer suggested, to my mind plausibly, that literature helps us draw maps of the social world that can guide our way through it. Kenneth Burke called literature "equipment for living" with, I imagine, similar thoughts in mind.

In this spirit, I want to propose for our consideration three scenes from the canon, all which of are arguably "major" contributions to American letters, and therefore the American experience. In an important sense, they are part of what America knows about sex. Actually, in a sense that I think Kipnis laments, they are more accurately part of what America has forgotten about sex and therefore no longer teaches its college-aged women. The first was published in the early 1920s, the second in the late 1950s and the last at the beginning of the 21st century. They are by Hemingway, Mailer and Roth respectively. I will provide some capsule summaries here but I will insist that any further discussion should proceed on the basis of reading them.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein telling him that "Up In Michigan" was a good story but that it was ultimately "inaccroachable", by which she basically meant "obscene". It includes a quite explicit sexual encounter that it would not be very controversial to describe as a rape. But even so, it also includes a lot of the ambiguities and conflicts that might, more controversially, be seen as distributing, if not blame, then responsibility, or desire, or perhaps more neutrally, agency to the victim: "Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her."

As if to anticipate the case I discussed in my last post, however, I don't think Jim thought of it as an assault, though Liz clearly told him no: "You mustn't do it, Jim. You mustn't." (Perhaps, then, it does help me to imagine what I said I would have a hard time getting my mind around.) I think we can agree that it tells us something about what a 20th-century woman could do to avoid having sex she doesn't, finally, want to have. By extension it can, perhaps, be part of the curriculum for teaching men not to rape, as some Title IX activists like to put it.

By the time Norman Mailer wrote "The Time of Her Time", explicit sex scenes were no longer inaccroachable. And Mailer certainly tried to do something with that freedom. The story is about a Village stud, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, who sets his mind to bringing Denise, a young woman—nineteen years old and a college student no less—to orgasm. This turns out to be a very demanding task, and, in desperation and frustration, and with an almost plainly declared desire for retribution (he calls his penis, "The Avenger"), he finally commits what, on paper (as it were), looks disconcertingly like an anal rape. It certainly seems to anticipate the kinds of encounters that Title IX officers have been asked to adjudicate, with "mattress girl" perhaps the most famous example.

Neither character in Mailer's story, however, seems to think of it in those terms, even though the woman leaves in anger over what he has done. As in Hemingway's story, there is enough detail and enough perspective to help us think clearly about the agency of the participants, and the contingency of the situation. While Hemingway, it must be noted, wrote his story in the third person and peeked into the heads of both characters at key moments, Mailer chose the first-person perspective of the man alone. But in both cases we are able to see, not only how things could have been different, but who could have done something differently.

Finally, let us consider a story that provides a rich and nuanced view on perhaps exactly the kind of the situation Kipnis is most interested in. In The Dying Animal, Philip Roth imagines a relationship between a sixty-something university professor, David Kepesh, and a 24-year old university student, Consuela Castillo. For many of today's campus feminists, the relationship might be considered sexual harassment almost by definition. Even though Kepesh is careful to make sure the affair happens after the course is over and the grades have been given, there's no question that he deliberately "targets" her, nor that the power imbalance remains throughout the story.

Early on in the relationship (p. 30ff), as a continuation of a consensual encounter (again, much like the story we considered in the last post), Kepesh takes control of a sexual encounter and forces oral sex on the student in a manner that has much of the violence of Mailer's story. In both cases, the man is doing something that the woman "does not like" in order to "make something happen to her". O'Shaugnessy describes the woman as "thrash[ing] beneath [him] like a trapped little animal"; Kepesh says he "kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair." Roth suggests that this act of violence "freed her", though she "looked not just horrified but ferocious" afterwards; Mailer has Sergius say, "I gave you what you could use" after Denise tells him he did a "lousy thing". Like I say, the objections of the women notwithstanding, I think both Mailer and Roth would balk at the idea that an assault took place.

This aspect of sex, in which our partner pushes us across our boundaries, beyond, in an important sense, the limits of our "consent", is increasingly frowned upon in our culture. It is a boundary that Title IX officers appear to be only too happy to patrol and police. Indeed, in order to find O'Schaugnessy and Kepesh guilty of sexual assault, I think we'd have to project our 21st-century "academic" concept of consent into those situations. In those bygone times, the woman might be angered, and even genuinely hurt, by such actions, but she would see it more like the pain of the boxer than than that of a victim. I'm not here, not yet, taking a position on it. I'm saying that we have a literature that can provide us with what Ezra Pound called "the data for ethics".

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 1

If you want to see some really frank talk about the regulation of campus sexuality, Laura Kipnis's talk at Wellesley last month is well worth the time. I want to draw attention in particular to the exchange between Kipnis and some students at the end of the Q & A. She is being asked to comment on the experiences of the friends of these students, which is difficult terrain in this sort of forum, but one that the conversation, in my opinion, has to cover if we're going to make progress. Kipnis apparently shares this view; she rightly tells one student not to apologize for pushing the point. "You're getting to the real nitty-gritty of it," she says.

The exchange had an interesting arc. Kipnis at first takes the sketches of the experiences at face value and suggests that, since these were negative experiences, we do well to think about how they could have been avoided. (I think Kipnis is right when she says—more clearly in answer to an earlier question—that some women need to learn how to say no assertively and how to defend themselves.) This elicits some pushback from another student who proposes to consider cases that, she asserts, are definitely assault.

During the course of the conversation the scenario she is describing becomes clearer. Apparently we are talking about a steady couple who begin to have (consensual) sex (as usual) but at some point it takes a violent turn. He holds her down and forces her to engage in something she does not want. At this point, Kipnis tersely remarks that that is just illegal and the conversation could perhaps have ended there.

But there is one important discordant element in the student's description of this episode. She says that the man would "genuinely not think of [it] as an assault", nor, as I understand it, was any attempt made to make him see it as such after the fact. That is, the assault is an uncontroversial fact among a group of female friends, but would be highly controversial as such if presented to the man who is supposed to have committed it. This sits oddly with something else the student puts into her description of the case later: the woman had said no. It is unclear to me how a man, faced with these facts, could both grant that they accurately represent what happened and deny that it was assault.

This is what the conversation seems to hinge on, although Kipnis (I think wisely) doesn't force the ambiguity to a resolution. The student who had put the example forward demands a response; she demands to know what Kipnis thinks should be done here. And she rejects a number of suggestions, both from Kipnis and another student, that go to the need for better communication between the sexual partners, and perhaps better judgment in the choice of sexual partners. It's clear that while Kipnis is not blaming the victim, she is raising the question of how she got herself into this vulnerable situation. (Kipnis rightly points out that sex just is a vulnerable situation.) "What 'situation'?" the student balks. While they might be appropriate in other situations, she insists, the case as described is not open to those responses.

At this point, Kipnis, granting, I suppose, the student the right to specify the facts of the case (it's of her choosing, after all), asks what she thinks a proper response would be: prosecute? And here the student becomes very categorical. "Yes ... if someone penetrates you forcibly after you've said no—which is what I said [happened]—[then] yes [he should be prosecuted], because that's what rape is."

Kipnis basically leaves it there, but here, really, is the rub. Because it will now be the woman's word against the man's. (Keep in mind that we're talking about two people who are alone together and naked and already engaged in sexual activity on an entirely consensual basis at the time that the alleged assault takes place.) Obviously, once the accusation of sexual assault is levied, he will insist that he had consent and that she did not say no or resist. Indeed, the student had previously said that his defense here would not even be dishonest. He would "genuinely" believe that he did not assault her. (Again, I find this hard to get my mind around unless he simply didn't hear her say no.) And yet there is supposed to be no doubt in our minds, i.e., the minds of people who are hearing this story from the point of view of the alleged victim (albeit third-hand), that this was indeed an assault. It is presented as cut and dried at one level, but also somehow still "problematic", an "issue". This obviously exposes the accused to the risk of being expelled (on one sort of standard) even where there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of rape. Kipnis is right to wonder whether we want these situations adjudicated quasi-judicially.

The problem with the case that the student is putting forward is that it is supposed to be an entirely objective assault to everyone but the perpetrator. The man in the story would not feel like he "got caught", but that there was something he just doesn't understand about women. I think this captures very neatly the idea of a new kind of subjective "rape" that the Title IX culture has fostered on college campuses. It also has obvious parallels to the problem of harassment, which is increasingly being defined in terms of the subjective experience of the victim, not the more objective judgment of what the law refers to as a "reasonable person". In Part 2, I want to suggest ways that literature can help us understand the subjectivity of these situations.

[Part 2]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Geoff and Sarah Show


I started out calling it "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". But this MIT panel made me imagine another device. I'll do a closer analysis of the panel in the weeks to come, but I wanted to note an immediate impression and ask those who choose watch it along with me whether they think the same. Does it not seem that everyone is talking in very vague terms both about what Geoff Marcy did and what happened to Sarah Ballard? It is assumed throughout that Marcy sexually harassed Ballard, and that Ballard was harmed by his actions, but it is never made clear what happened.

I, for one, have never quite understood what Marcy is supposed to have done wrong. Is Ballard claiming that Marcy had sexual desires for Ballard and tried to satisfy them by wielding the power he held over her career? Is she even claiming that Marcy somehow harmed Ballard's career? I don't think she's making such claims. There's a point in the discussion (22:20) where she seems to be saying (as I've noted before) that the damage consisted mainly in her coming to question whether science is a purely meritocratic profession. Perhaps, then, it was his friendship, not his sexual interest, that disconcerted her? I, for one, am not persuaded that Marcy hoped to have a romantic relationship with Ballard. And Ballard herself seems unsure about whether he did. Otherwise, couldn't she just tell the story as a clear attempt at seduction?

Notice that for all the references to the experience during the panel, neither Ghorayshi nor Ballard ever really tell the story of what happened between Ballard and Marcy. This got me thinking. Until the scandal broke, Marcy considered himself an ally of women in science. Indeed, it's my impression that many women continue to think of him as an ally, albeit very quietly and in private for the most part. By resigning, he seemed clearly to be thinking of how to protect his colleagues (and no doubt his graduate students) from getting caught in some very destructive pressures. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that he had the best interests of astronomy as a field at heart. It has never seemed like he was willing to take anyone else down with him in this debacle.

So why, I wonder, has his willingness to cooperate not been exploited (I mean that in a good sense) by gender activists? Why does Sarah Ballard appear on a panel like this and talk vaguely and guardedly about her experiences rather than touring the country's astronomy departments with Geoff Marcy, speaking directly and openly about their shared cautionary tale of interpersonal relationships in science? Why isn't this story being told in detail so that the very men that activists think can be taught not to harass women, and the vulnerable women that Ballard explicitly wants to help avoid such harassment, could learn from it?

It seems to me that a real opportunity was missed here. Ironically, the very people that pushed the hard line against Marcy, ultimately forcing him into retirement, keep saying that this isn't about individuals. It's a "systemic" problem, they say. It's about changing the culture and transforming the institutions. Surely, the best way to do this is to model conflict resolution between tootwo well-meaning people like Ballard and Marcy. Reading Ballard's story, I can't for the life of me understand why a healing process between them should be impossible. At this point, it's mainly Marcy's reticence to go anywhere near his accusers that makes sense. I wouldn't be easily persuaded either. I think that should sit badly with self-avowed gender activists like Ballard and Ghorayshi. With panels like this, they are not bridging the gender gap. They are deepening it.