By TPII Editor Dr. Maggie Levantovskaya
As an editor at The Professor Is In, I have closely followed #MeTooPhD movement started by Karen Kelsky. She coined the hashtag and opened a crowdsourcing survey to give the opportunity to people who experienced harassment and assault in academia to share their stories. Despite their triggering content, I read many of the stories on the survey, which received over 1378 submissions in its first week.
Therefore, I was not surprised that one of Karen’s conclusions was that the document exposed “the sheer force of patriarchal solidarity in keeping powerful men insulated from consequences, and thus able to continue harassing tens or hundreds of victims over decades (and as bell hooks says: patriarchy has no gender, meaning, powerful women often support abusive patriarchal academic structures that victimize junior women).”
When Karen presented this analysis on her blog, in December, 2017, the case of Avital Ronell was not yet in the news.
Kelsky could not have known the extent to which the Ronell incident would lay bare women’s complicity in maintaining academia’s hierarchies by protecting the accused who occupy positions of power, regardless of their gender identification.
When coverage of Ronell’s case exploded in the blogosphere, it focused on a leaked draft of a letter of support authored by Judith Butler and signed by such prominent scholars as Catharine Stimpson and Emily Apter. It is now well known that the letter made appeals to the NYU administration, citing Ronell’s “grace,” “wit,” and “international standing and reputation,” all the while admitting a lack of familiarity with the Title IX case. Not surprisingly, bloggers and journalists were eager to frame this as a story about feminist hypocrisy. Indeed the language in the letter echoes the kind of defense seen in cases of famous men in and outside the academy. A headline in The New York Times read, “What Happens to #MeToo when a Feminist Is the Accused?” As a contingent faculty member, I could not help but want to rewrite it as “What Happens to #MeToo when a White Elite Female Academic with Famous Friends Is the Accused?” wordy as it is. The signatories of Butler’s letter teach at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Berkeley, Cornell, Northwestern, Emory, Rutgers, Texas, and NYU, among other highly ranked institutions. None of those who signed identified themselves as adjuncts. The roster alone suggests to me that the defense of Ronell was not merely about feminist hypocrisy but also about the failure of knowledge transference by those in power.
I expect theorists like Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak and Cathy Caruth to carefully think about a letter before penning it or signing it. I expect them to see how problematic it is to try and influence an institution based on one’s rank and network of established academics. I expect them to critically examine how race, gender, sexuality, class, and employment status, shape one’s allegiances and political battles. In her letter to The Chronicle, Butler almost acknowledges these things, but does not get there. She admits that “attribut[ing] motives to the complainant” and evoking Ronell’s “reputation” were problematic rhetorical moves. Butler also regrets using her status as president-elect of the MLA, but it is important to note that she does so in the context of a circulating petition calling for her resignation. What Butler seems to miss is the problem of writing such a letter in the first place: of using a network of prominent scholars to influence a university in meting out punishment for a Title IX violation without knowing the facts of the case. Butler’s letter to the Chronicle, in this way, fails to acknowledge the patriarchal solidarity asserted by her initial petition to NYU.
Questions of solidarity – whom it includes and for what causes – are pressing ones in today’s academia. As Benjamin Balthaser writes in a comment on my FB page, “I’ve been thinking about all the forms of faculty solidarity we desperately need right now in the face of budget cuts, casualization, attacks on affirmative action… and I’m frankly disappointed that scholars I respect such as Butler and Spivak frame solidarity as the defense of a celebrity scholar against a graduate student.” In other words, there is a problem of knowledge transference if feminist scholars and activists are eager to rally around the cause of one tenured academic at a prestigious, private institution on the basis of friendship in the context of adjunctification and the systematic dismantling of public education in the US. That this is a story about power and the failure to engage in intersectional feminist analysis has now been underscored by a number of intellectuals, some of them voicing their critiques on social media. As Kyla Wazana Tompkins states in a Twitter thread, “I care that amid the defense of white female queer theorists, I spend half my life talking to women of color academics who are f*cking exhausted and stuck in jobs or situations that are abusive and they are trying to manage their rage, and stay productive and intact, and deal with health issues and family and the everyday psychic violence of it all and in the midst of it, this dynastic drama, of friends defending friends is hard to see.” In a piece in The New Inquiry, Keguro Macharia notes that this is a story about rank and in-group bias and the question of who gets folded into the “we” evoked by Ronell’s defenders.
Butler and other defenders still seem unaware that, in this instance, power and institutional privilege are working together to create familiar “with us or against us” divisions. Ronell’s defenders have publicly admitted to signing Butler’s letter “to support a friend I’ve known for 30 years” and “to testify to the respect I have for Avital and her work.” Ironically Spivak has said “[l]oyalty gets in the way of the law,” while refusing to explain her signature. Elites are closing ranks in exactly the way they’re supposed to condemn. The students, contingent faculty, and tenure-track faculty who depend on them for tenure letters, and much more, are compelled to join, stay silent or risk careers in academia. And so it becomes clear yet again that patriarchal solidarity is not only for cis men. Scholars protected by celebrity status and tenure can leave theory at the door when powerful friends are in trouble, which is why we urgently need #MeTooPhD.