February 25, 2004

Protecting the powerful at Yale

Something about this story troubles me. As an episode of "sexual harassment," it isn't particularly egregious. But Naomi Wolf has accurately identified the bigger problem: Yale University's unwillingness to act on behalf of the less powerful members of its own community when they are abused by the more powerful.

Perhaps the reason why this story troubles me so much is that many of the rationales for protecting, as Wolf argues Yale has done, those with more power against those with less, are becoming more and more ascendant in our society generally.

Perhaps I'm troubled because I've been reading Richard Posner's attack on the idea of a deliberative and participative democracy in favor of rule by political elites, on the grounds that elite rule is both more realistic and normatively superior to what most of us mean when we say "democracy." Posner asserts, without argument (at least in what I've read so far), that people so consistently act in their own narrow self-interest that any pretentions of laws or political systems to tap into anything more noble is not only doomed to failure, but is also bound to cause more trouble than it's worth. Hence, the only valuable form of "democracy" is one which realizes that the "commercial man" of law-and-economics is the only kind of man that ever really matters.

The practical outcome of this kind of thinking is a thoroughgoing disdain for anything even remotely "aspirational." This is Posner's real target: anything that might presume to rely upon people actually doing, occasionally, what they aspire to do, or dream of doing, in their best moments.

I don't know if Posner is right. He may be. But I think that even if he is, it would be a terrible mistake to give up on the idea of acting as if we believed we could be better than we usually are. I think this surrender of the aspirational leads to institutions like Yale choosing not to side with students against famous professors, on the grounds that boorish behavior will happen anyway--we're all just boors, after all.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: tell someone they're nothing but a consumer often enough, and it will become true. Tell someone they're not interested in politics often enough, and it will become true. Tell someone that nothing can be done about people who choose to abuse their power often enough, and nothing will be done.

Here's some excerpts from the article to encourage you to read the whole thing. The emphases are mine.

In the late fall of 1983, professor Harold Bloom did something banal, human, and destructive: He put his hand on a student’s inner thigh—a student whom he was tasked with teaching and grading. The student was me, a 20-year-old senior at Yale. Here is why I am telling this story now: I began, nearly a year ago, to try—privately—to start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort weren’t still occurring. I expected Yale to be responsive. After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge. . .

Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing—because the teacher was valuable to them—they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I—and other young women who could be expected to remain silent—would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth.

All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you can’t legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy. . .

The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamatti’s beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yale’s meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.

Posted by Carey at February 25, 2004 11:24 PM

That's shocking.


Posted by: Jordan at February 26, 2004 12:08 AM

I would recommend the piece linked below via Slate on Wolf's article.

Meghan O'Rourke has an interesting take on Wolf and Yale (Bloom is just gross).

Posted by: matt at February 26, 2004 10:16 AM