At a recent PhD summer school I attended, in the middle of responding in a critical way to the discussion (as requested by the seminar leader), a male fellow PhD student in the group abruptly and aggressively waded in to shut down what I was saying, not through intellectual argument, but by telling me that I was making ‘autistic comments’ that were ‘irrelevant’, that I was being ‘arrogant’ and that I should ‘stop talking’ – and apparently read more Aristotle… (who felt that women and slaves were inherently inferior beings – was that what I was supposed to understand?) Looking directly at the male Professor who was leading the seminar whilst speaking as a way to exclude my presence, this student insisted that the class ‘please carry on to engage with the text at hand’ (I thought I was…). When I, and others in the room who leapt to my defense, told him this was a totally inappropriate way to interact he said ‘I don’t care, I don’t care about her, she is wasting my time!’ gesticulating in my direction, followed by telling a female colleague who defended me that she should ‘be quiet’. Only when told by other male members of the group that he was being disrespectful and inappropriately personal and rude did he quieten down.
The organizer of the seminar was not present in the room, but the guest seminar leader, a male Professor whose work we were discussing, did not intervene. He simply laughed and watched passively as the group tried to deal with the situation. I had only met my attacker for the first time the day before and had not spoken to him individually. He was able to remain in the seminar, and for the rest of the week he largely remained quiet, yet was, at times, invited to voice his own comments by the course leaders – which he did in a confident, critical and questioning manner – no shame – whilst I, and others, remained quieter, more hesitant, and fearful of this harshly judging presence.
What is wrong here? I could not help to think a number of things all in a rush at once. Would he have told a male colleague that they were being ‘arrogant’ for voicing an opinion that differed to his in a confident, even direct, manner? Would he have told a male colleague to be ‘quiet’ for intervening and disciplining him? In fact – when this happened – he did not. It was only then that he checked himself. What did he mean by ‘autistic comments’ and was he not aware that this was offensive on many levels, implying both that myself and people with autism are not intelligent beings worthy of respect. Should he have been ‘allowed’ to stay in the room and participate in the discussion, let alone being invited to contribute, having violated norms of conduct? Who had the right and power to make that decision? And how is it that four other women commented to me that they felt uncertain and reluctant to speak up after that outburst for fear of being likewise attacked, whilst shame was not apparent in his ongoing engagement? This abrupt interaction not only succeeded in shutting me down but silencing others. The violence still hung there in the air the next day and there was a tension in the group that had not been apparent beforehand.
Whilst this is perhaps an extreme example of chauvinist behavior in such a mild context, it points to wider structural issues that remain unaddressed and usually hidden, except in moments when they burst through so plainly like this. Where do we draw the line around gender-based discrimination, even violence? Are words, bodily postures and attitudes not part and parcel of the everyday practice of sexism, even violence itself? On the last day of the week-long course he again attacked a fellow female student, tearing into her personally by heavily implying that she was stupid and ignorant. As a result I walked out. In a follow up email with the seminar leaders, they stated that they felt that he had ‘not openly discriminated’ against other students, and that ‘we have to accept that some students behave badly’. I think they did their best – but it was not enough. I do not agree that we should accept that some students behave badly. He will most likely pass the course – is that the correct message? That intellectual ideas are divorced from the ethics and accountability of interpersonal relations? That is a deathly creed – yet, again, the rational/emotional, individual/relational dichotomies it rests upon are masculinist in essence. Is this not part and parcel of the same creed which protects male professors who sexually harass female colleagues because of their genius? I only wonder what clues and crumbs of crumby behavior were apparent earlier on in their careers that were enabled to continue through no resistance.
As a female starting out in academia I often feel caught between two binary modes of professional behavior – gearing myself up to be confident, speak up and speak strong in order to be taken seriously and be heard, or alternatively… stay silent and mute as a safe alternative. I do not seem to know how to navigate or practice a middle or re-defining ground. If I speak confidently I am arrogant. If I have a strong opinion, aggressive. Yet it is well known that male counterparts are considered worthy of respect, intelligent and probably in line for a promotion if they act similarly. I have a constant sense that some sort of particular behavior is expected of me, and my fellow female colleagues, yet I do not know what it is. At the same time I seem to spend mental energy trying to figure it out – indeed I am required to. It appears that staying silent, or perhaps speaking with more uncertainty, hesitation and a gentler tone works ‘better’. For some, that is their preferred register. Yet for me, quite a vocal lass, I feel that I regularly fail at this game. Each time I ‘fail’ is another time I learn that who I am is not good enough, is not ‘right’. I am not being woman enough. I am not being feminine enough. I am not doing it right.
Yet it is true that this experience shook me up in other ways. It made me question (yet again) my own manner of engagement. Something I, and I know a number of my female friends, do often. Perhaps he was right, my mind said. in some way – was I being too vocal, too critical, too direct, too outspoken, too hard? Too too…? Perhaps I do not know what I am talking about after all – he’s right, he’s right, I should keep quiet until I’ve read Aristotle… until I’ve read… EVERYTHING THERE IS TO READ…. Not possible… Whilst this mental-chatter overdrive was typically overdone, I couldn’t shake an acute feeling of shame at my own contribution to the set up. Of course nothing justified the manner of his outburst, but it was perhaps true that I had been too forceful in my critique of the work of the guest academic who had had the courage to sit in the firing line and open himself to comment. Later someone said ‘he probably felt he needed to defend the academic, you were destroying him! No, it was good!’ That word ‘destroy’ vibrates with a harsh telling. It is the masculinist mode of competitive and individualized engagement academia largely endorses and socializes one into. Was I just reproducing that? Were my own critical words doing a violence to the vulnerability of any person presenting their words and work to a new audience? Was my shame a form of self-violence, social disciplining, or a basis for agency?
What, then, if instead, I employed a feminist way of speaking up? What might a feminist form of academic communication and intellectual engagement look like? Perhaps for too long women, once allowed into the ivory tower, have seen the only way to be truly accepted is to adopt the tower’s own modes of interaction and augment them, turning up the volume, sharpening the intellectual knife, in order to be seen and heard. I’d like to be able to practice compassionate, yet astute, emotionally resonant yet respected, gentle but determined, personal and entangled engagement. I’d like to contribute to shifting the manner in which communication is conducted in the first place, to something more expansive, care-ing and diffractive. Something non-violent. Not easy. At the same time, I do not want to be an apologist for female assertiveness, in the affirmative sense. I look forward to the day when a female impassioned voice that says ‘I disagree and here’s why’ is not considered ‘brave’, ‘shrill’ or ‘conceited’ by anyone in the room and where gendered violence, where and when it happens, is recognized, called out, and rejected in all forms and at all scales, including in that microcosm that is the precarious and politically-charged space of the classroom, where academic life begins.