The scholars who have signed a letter supporting Professor Ronell are sabotaging the plight of victims and the #metoo movement in ways that are truly reprehensible.
There are many accusations thrown against feminists in today’s day and age–most notably the one that states feminists of today are on a witch-hunt against men, that they are vindictive, man-hating strident activists who will not be satisfied until they have their boots pressed on the necks of men. It seems some of their aversion at least, is justified. In a horrendous letter echoing every single form of apologism for sexual harassment that we’ve had the misfortune to come across, prominent scholars from across the world, including influential feminist scholars signed a letter in support of Prof. Avita Ronell who had been found guilty of sexual harassment in a Title IX proceeding in New York University.
The letter is as nauseating as it is infuriating–a meaningless series of platitudes, assertions about the work and contributions of Prof. Avita Ronell, which one presumes the University employing her is already familiar with. It showers some personal accolades derived from the experiences of the scholars who signed off on the letter and how they felt in their interactions with her. Every second line of this woeful excuse to excuse bad behaviour reads like a table of clichés, with the writers firstly acknowledging that they have no access to the confidential dossier, but are nevertheless confident that this is a malicious campaign waged by an individual against her. The only basis for this conclusion? That the accuser, Nimrod Reitman was someone known to some of the signatories.
“Every second line of this woeful excuse to excuse bad behaviour reads like a table of clichés, with the writers firstly acknowledging that they have no access to the confidential dossier, but are nevertheless confident that this is a malicious campaign waged by an individual against her.”
A philosophy blog, on which criticism of the letter first appeared fittingly eviscerates the horrifying logic followed by signatories of the letter, who thought it fit to testify to the “grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.” Incidentally, none of this is relevant. A person of grace and wit and intellectual mastery is entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded to anyone accused of an offence–no more, no less. That is the very essence of the rule of law. In what seems to be a veiled warning to the University, the letter continues that, “if she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny.” The sheer sense of entitlement that oozes is palpable, in that they seem to care less whether the truth is discovered and appropriately handled, but emphasise that certain outcomes would invite backlash and ‘rightly’ so.
The letter’s laughable contradictions and revelation of bad faith bode ill for the future of accountability. It starts out, depressingly, complaining about the damage that the mere proceeding has caused. “We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her,” they wrote, “and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her”. Irrespective of the evidence or the substance of allegations therefore, they have decided that they will oppose the judgment. In a truly ironic twist, the letter signs off that “she deserves a fair hearing, one that expresses respect, dignity, and human solicitude in addition to our enduring admiration”. Certainly no one is a fan of abbreviated procedures that abridge fundamental rights, and interestingly, there are no allegations that the process was in any way different. Reitman wasn’t able to prove that Prof. Ronell sabotaged him professionally, and in fact appears to not have been thwarted in his career. What would motivate him to file such a false allegation? One wonders then, what this letter is supposed to convey.
No single individual today can make a stand-alone claim to be the arbiter of feminism, or what is feminist. But this is not only anti-feminist, it is an alarming and condemnable abuse of intellectual stature and standing. It is true that we don’t have more information about the proceedings either, but coverage of the case so far indicates behaviour sufficiently disrespectful of boundaries to justify NYU’s move to suspend her. There is nothing in feminist thought, activism, or belief that justifies this terrible overture of support to an accused person who seems to have been afforded due process. As a feminist, I vehemently reject any notion that this overreach is in any way connected to feminism, or women’s rights, or the #metoo movement. If the allegations are found credible, that is another success for the #metoo movement.
“There is nothing in feminist thought, activism, or belief that justifies this terrible overture of support to an accused person who seems to have been afforded due process. As a feminist, I vehemently reject any notion that this overreach is in any way connected to feminism, or women’s rights, or the #metoo movement.”
In a further blow to their own credibility and reputation, a signatory has expressed that “she and her colleagues were particularly disturbed that, as they saw it, Mr. Reitman was using Title IX, a feminist tool, to take down a feminist (Prof. Ronell).” While paying lip service to the ideals of Title IX and #MeToo, and its efforts to prevent abuse by ending impunity, she throws out a vague and entirely unsupported allegation that the energy for justice #MeToo set in motion was being used against itself. It must be remembered however that they provide no evidence of this suspicion. Meanwhile, one of the prominent signatories, Prof. Judith Butler, repeatedly hailed as an influential gender theorist, had previously signed a letter in support of Prof. Dragan Kujundzic, the UC-Irvine professor sanctioned over allegations of sexual harassment.
It is tragic that this needs to be said, but it is apparently the need of the hour. Nothing about feminism or feminist movements is about merely hunting male perpetrators or advocating for female victims only. While the proportion of female offenders, and male victims may be comparatively smaller, it has to be very clear that feminism supports justice for all, including men. It would be torturous otherwise, for a movement that should be alive to the evil of sexual harassment to dismiss another’s suffering because of it. If Mr. Reitman, as appears, is able to substantiate his allegations, he should be fully supported, the investigations carried out impartially and Prof. Ronnell treated in accordance with precedent. Female harassment of male victims is no less serious or horrendous than the other way around. This letter, with its list of utterly unsupported insinuations, meaningless distractions, and absence of a coherent or justificatory basis is not feminist, or even acceptable.
“Nothing about feminism or feminist movements is about merely hunting male perpetrators or advocating for female victims only. While the proportion of female offenders, and male victims may be comparatively smaller, it has to be very clear that feminism supports justice for all, including men.”
I reiterate, this defence is not in our name. It is not in service of women, it has nothing to do with feminism except the unfortunate according of the label as ‘influential feminist scholars’ to some with disappointing priorities. This condemnable stance is not because of Title IX, or because of feminist activism. This travesty of a letter stands alone, and we, who have also been engaged in feminist activism all our lives, reject it. Mr. Reitman deserves the respect and sympathy due to any victim. The #MeToo movement is as much for his humanity as it is for female victims. Sensible and ethical feminists everywhere will support his right to a remedy, if allegations against Prof. Ronell are substantiated as will #MeToo activists. Let there be no doubt about that.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.