Fear of being cancelled is the enemy of progress

The furore over the John Comaroff letter means discussions that could boost understanding of sexual harassment won’t occur, says Jonathan Zimmerman 

三月 4, 2022
An airport departure board with lots of flights cancelled illustrating an opinion article about cancel culture
Source: iStock

I don’t know John Comaroff. And I certainly don’t know whether Comaroff – a prominent anthropologist at Harvard – sexually harassed three graduate students, as they allege in a lawsuit.

But here’s what I do know: everyone at our universities is running scared. We proclaim our dedication to open enquiry, dialogue across difference and the quest for truth. But fear – not enquiry – is the most powerful force on our campuses right now.

One very big fear involves sexual harassment, which remains endemic in higher education. It’s hard to know the precise incidence because many victims don’t report it for fear (there’s that word again) of retribution. But a 2015 survey of 539 graduate students at the University of Oregon found that nearly 40 per cent of female graduate students had experienced sexual or gender-based harassment by faculty or staff.

Yet there’s also a great fear of reputational injury – or, in common parlance, of getting cancelled. Witness the quick retraction of a letter signed by 38 Harvard professors, which criticised the university for placing Comaroff on unpaid leave after an investigation reportedly found he harassed a lesbian student by warning her against “corrective rape” in countries where gay behaviour is illegal. That seemed like reasonable advice designed to protect the student, the letter said. It also asked why Harvard had opened a second investigation of Comaroff, whom it described as “an excellent colleague, advisor, and committed university citizen”.

Then the students filed a lawsuit against Harvard’s handling of their case, which detailed other charges against Comaroff: unwanted groping and kissing students, commenting on their physical appearance and more. A Twitter storm ensued, blasting the faculty who had defended him. By the next day, all but four of the original signatories to that letter had signed a new letter, entitled “We Retract”.

“Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case,” the retraction letter explained. “We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case.”

Actually, many of these charges had already been reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2020. And if the concern was transparency and procedure more generally, why did more information in this case make a difference? The answer is obvious: the lawsuit makes Comaroff seem like a total creep. And now everyone is afraid to be associated with him, lest they become pariahs, too.

It was a hugely brave act for these women to come forward against such a prominent figure. Yet the faculty reversal was hardly a profile in courage. The professors who had questioned the second investigation didn’t wait to discover what it yielded. In the face of an apparent monster, they cowered.

And when we’re scared, we don’t learn. Period. Students who are sexually harassed are often too distracted and frightened to get the education we have promised them. And the rest of us can’t learn about sexual harassment – or, most of all, devise remedies for it – if we’re afraid to raise questions about it.

For example, how can we improve the reporting and investigation of allegations and also automatically “believe the women”, to quote a much-heard campus demand? Sexual harassment is a huge problem, but it does not follow that every instance occurred exactly as it was reported. If that were true, we wouldn’t need to investigate at all.

And here’s another question: why do people who are often dubious about our wider criminal-justice system insist that charges of sexual harassment should uniquely remain beyond doubt? It has become commonplace at universities to cast a sceptical eye at crime reports, which are invariably marred by racism and other forms of implicit or explicit bias. Why should sexual harassment be different? Shouldn’t we take accusations seriously but also acknowledge that they can be as subjective – and as biased – as any other reported wrongdoing?

Let me repeat: I support the courageous women who came forward against Comaroff. In the he-said-she-said dynamic that typically marks these matters, too many people are disposed to believe the more senior and powerful man.

But we shouldn’t invert that error by assuming – before investigations and lawsuits have played out – that everyone charged with sexual harassment is a monstrous ogre who deserves the social-media equivalent of the Puritan stockades. That runs counter to the essential academic values of fairness and decency, just as sexual harassment does.

Most of all, we need a full and free discussion of the entire subject. That’s our foremost academic duty, or at least it should be. We need better services for victims as well as easier ways for them to report harassment, without fear of retaliation. But we also need to create campus climates where we feel free to debate it, without fear of cancellation.

My strong guess is that most professors believe both statements. They’re just too afraid to say so.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn (City of Light Press, 2021).



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