Bring on the Reckoning

I am tired of calculation. If we're having a reckoning, let's have a full reckoning.

--Lindy West 

Like so many, I have been deeply touched and horrified by the personal stories of gender-based violence and abuse shared in the public sphere, across social institutions, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein debacle. My hope is that these narratives contribute to structural and cultural transformation. Hope, however, remains a dangerous tool in light of its close relationship to fear and fear's intimate connection to impotence (pun very much intended). As Derrick Jensen wrote,

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there's a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they--those in power--cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself...You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died...And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. In case you're wondering, that's a very good thing.


Credit to Jon Dorn


I therefore want to advocate for drawing on these individuals' powerful stories to envision, rather than hope for, different relationships in our homes, workplaces, and additional institutions with which we regularly engage. After all, we have to imagine where we want to go to get there, to paraphrase trauma therapist Bessel van der Kolk.

Since I have spent the bulk of my professional life in higher education as a graduate student, staff member, junior faculty member, and mental health therapist, I am going to focus my imagination on this particular institution. K.A. Amienne's recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education directly addresses a root contributor to gendered abuse in higher education. As such, she provides powerful fodder for the visioning process:

Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.

To return to the above argument, to hope people will not exploit each other in such a competitive, hierarchical, biased system is delusional at best. Too often, I have witnessed interventions aimed at shifting the oppressive dynamics in universities completely ignore structural power imbalances in the name of honoring everyone's contribution to the project. Do I believe we as human beings are all equal? In the spiritual realm, absolutely. In the realm of institutions rooted in European, capitalist, patriarchal, and heteronormative ideologies--which fits higher education to a T and names only a few of its many additional oppressive ideological roots--I call bullshit.

I have eternal gratitude for the therapist who helped me to realize that my consistent minimization of the public humiliation I experienced at the hands of cisgender, male, tenured professors as a junior faculty member was not helping anyone, especially not me. But here's the rub. Our default in this hyper-individualistic culture is to point fingers at perpetrators, not systems. When we do that, we risk missing all the ways that people, policies, procedures, and daily practices collude in maintaining dehumanizing institutions. In my case, for example, the senior female professors and dean from whom I sought help to address these male academics' abusive behavior did not do a damn thing except encourage me to suck it up, inferring that they got as far as they did by suffering in silence and then remaining silent even when they had a lot less at stake professionally than I did. The current disaster at the University of Rochester also puts into stark relief the university leaders and processes that enabled not only inaction but also active retaliation against the community members who spoke out against Professor Florian Jaeger's downright disgusting behavior. It's so much easier to make ousting "bad apples" the focus of our attention than shifting a culture that allows the individuals exhibiting such rotten behavior to rise to the highest rungs of its hierarchy in the first place.

So blaming individual men in power is not going to get us very far in the visioning process. We of course need to focus some attention on individuals since they do the work of maintaining the status quo of these virulent systems. However, I would like to focus less on demonizing individuals and more on fleshing out conceptions of accountability and dignity that can serve as guideposts for meaningful action. The palpable urgency that so many of us are feeling at this moment risks spurring horror- and rage-driven reactions if we do not find our center before acting. Horror and rage are an important part of the equation, to be sure, AND they are trauma responses that often reproduce the very harm we're trying to mitigate when they are in the driver's seat. Since I am interested in diminishing the harm that these complex systems cause everyone, I want to make sure all parts of our brains are on deck as we seek to find our path forward, not just the parts designed to fight and flee from threat.

From my center, then, a full reckoning begins with holding people accountable for their harmful behaviors. The simplicity of the statement belies the significant individual and systemic transformation required to realize such accountability. For one, we are masters of excuse-making when it comes to the abusive behavior permeating our country and world. I recently had a powerful experience at a trauma training in which I realized just how deep in my own psyche the conditioning is both to normalize the personal harm inflicted by external forces and to minimize the lack of safety, both emotional and physical, that permeates my daily life. The mining of our individual stories--and I mean everyone's stories, not just those directly victimized by these systems--is part of the inside-out reckoning necessary to stop excusing the shitty behavior that is intimately connected not only to systemic misogyny but also to additional forms of institutionalized oppression and domination. I do not see an alternative here for the ongoing, necessary decolonizing of all our minds.

I have found Donna Hicks's dignity model to be a particularly powerful tool for delineating the behavior that violates our dignity, which she defines as our inherent value and worth. In some ways, her description of the essential elements making up dignity are even more profound than the violations if we integrate them into our daily lives and institutions. Imagine, for example, what life would be like on university campuses if their various actors, units, and policies actually insisted on her definition of safety as a birthright, not an entitlement: "Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them to feel free to speak without fear of retribution."

Such a mind-blowing imaginative activity because it is so fucking far from what any member of a marginalized community experiences on most if not all university campuses! And this essential element requires boatloads of courageous action, especially by university leaders, if it is to be anything but words on paper. After all, legitimate fear of legal, financial, reputational, and additional forms of reprisal by those in power is what silences so many of us in the first place.

Since I am writing a blog post on a topic worthy of a book series, I will close by reiterating that the work of imagining liberatory systems cannot be reduced to excising rotten actors, who it turns out have their own dignity buried underneath all those layers of intergenerational, toxic conditioning. The really great news is that so many of the people excluded from positions of power in these noxious systems have fabulous ideas about how to bring about change that grows justice, peace, and everyone's dignity. Their wisdom is rooted in empathy, compassion, and the intimate study of their own experience, not narcissism or the will to power.

It also feels important to note that a full reckoning is going to involve a whole lot of grieving for the vast talent, beauty, and creativity that never saw the light of day within these harmful systems. As Rebecca Solnit so poignantly wrote,

We live in a world where uncountable numbers of women have had their creative and professional capacity undermined by trauma and threat, by devaluation and exclusion. A world in which women were equally free and encouraged to contribute, in which we lived without this pervasive fear, might be unimaginably different. In the same way, a United States in which people of color did not have their votes increasingly suppressed, in which they did not also face violence and exclusion and denigration, might not just have different outcomes in its recent elections but different candidates and issues. The whole fabric of society would be something else. It should be. Because that is what justice would look like, and peace, or at least the foundation on which they could be built.

So let's quit relying on hope and work through the individual and collective trauma standing in the way of imagining what for far too long has been unimaginable.