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Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018

Judith Butler's Statement about the Letter in Support of Avital Ronell

August 19, 2018

I can only speak for myself since the signatories of the letter addressed to the NYU administration regarding the sexual harassment charges brought against Avital Ronell are not a group with a single view, and different authors helped to craft the draft version of the letter that appeared online without our consent. When the signatories learned that termination of employment for Ronell was under consideration by NYU, we were bewildered by the severity of this possible sanction.  We understood she was accused of conducting a “romantic friendship” and that her emails had been scrutinized for evidence of a sexual relationship.   Our aim was not to defend her actions – we did not have the case in hand – but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair given the findings as we understood them.  In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.

Moreover, the letter was written in haste and the following are my current regrets about it.  First, we ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter.  The claims of sexual harassment have too often been dismissed by discrediting the complainant, and that nefarious tactic has stopped legitimate claims from going forward and exacerbated the injustice. When and where such a claim proves to be illegitimate, it should be demonstrated on the basis of the evidence alone.

Second, we should not have used language that implied that Ronell's status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.  Status ought to have no bearing on the adjudication of sexual harassment.   All faculty should be treated the same under Title IX protocols, that is, subject to the same rules and, where justified, sanctions. 

Immediately after the confidential draft letter was published online, I was in direct communication with the MLA officers (the Executive Director, the President and the First Vice-President) to apologize for the listing of my position within the organization after my name.  I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name.   I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology.  I extend that same apology to MLA members.

We all make errors in life and in work.  The task is to acknowledge them, as I hope I have, and to see what they can teach us as we move forward.

4 comments:

Catherine Borden said...

Indeed, we all make errors. Acknowledging them is the first step. With an error of this magnitude and harmful effect, next is to attempt to ameliorate the harm. Needless to say, the MLA is not the primary victim of your actions.

Wayland Smith said...

Prof. Butler writes to explain the letter written by her and others in support of Avital Ronell. She says of the letter ‘…the following are my current regrets about it.’ Even though her list of regrets is extensive, the letter has even more ‘regrettable’ aspects, as follows:

1. The element of threat: The letter states ‘If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.’ This threat is particularly egregious given that several of signatories are from NYU.

2. The secrecy. In her explanation, Prof. Butler appears to regret that the letter ‘appeared online without our consent’. It seems she would have preferred that she and her colleagues should have been allowed to continue putting their thumbs on the scales of justice in private, as is apparently common practice in academia.

In regard to points 1 and 2, since the harassment adjudication was a quasi-judicial proceeding, it is worth considering how those who attempt to secretly influence a judge’s decision, or threaten him or her, are commonly viewed.

3. The fact that it worked. Apparently NYU were going to fire Prof. Ronell, and after receiving the letter downgraded the punishment to a year’s suspension. An organization with integrity would have thrown the letter in the trash, and perhaps issued a rebuke to the NYU signatories pointing out the inappropriateness of their attempt to intervene. But they did not, and in a year Prof. Ronell will be back at NYU. From accounts of other graduate students (understandably anonymous), it appears very plausible that the harassment investigators got it right the first time. Bullying and enforced hero-worship were apparently major problems in the department, of which the dysfunctional situation with Reitman was just one symptom. This is neither ‘normal’ nor acceptable, though it may unfortunately be common. Nothing in Prof Ronell’s response so far indicates that if she returns, this leopard is going to suddenly change her spots.

The most troubling question is: how did these academics, professional communicators of mostly liberal views, come to write such an appalling letter? Because there is not a single sentence in it that is not deeply objectionable. No decent person would think any of these things, even for a moment, let alone commit them to paper.

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