Active Silencing

Aggressive. That’s such a useful put-down. As in

“I think there were several very vocal, dare I say aggressive residents that, in my opinion, regardless of what work was being carried out or not, they still would have had reason for complain.”

In this case, the aggressive folk being referred to are Grenfell Tower residents who were complaining about, guess what, fire safety. These words were apparently spoken by one of the leads for Rydon, the contractors charged with replacing cladding and looking after fire safety when he gave evidence to the ongoing enquiry. Aggressive, as in, we needn’t worry about what is being said, these people are just out to cause trouble so we can safely ignore them. An analysis of the way people making complaints can be silenced and ignored was recently posted on the Bennett Institute for Public Policy blog. Written by Gill Kernick, a Safety and Management Consultant, it is a searing indictment of what went wrong in the run-up to the catastrophe at Grenfell Towers, but the parallels with so many other sorts of incidents and silencing – not just in safety aspects – are manifest.

There is a list of damning tropes that are used to put down inconvenient people, male and female, black and white. Sometimes these comments do, specifically, refer to gender or skin colour. Think of the phrase ‘angry black woman’, possibly more commonly used in the USA, but certainly also used against women in this country, as model Naomi Campbell or campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge can testify. Michelle Obama discussed this in her leaving interview with Oprah Winfrey, carefully saying

‘”You think, that is so not me! But then you sort of think, well, this isn’t about me, this is about the person or the people who write it.”

That’s a useful way to try to distance oneself from the pain of the accusation, but hard to do. Eddo-Lodge, in her book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race spells out

“The ‘angry black woman’ phrase says more about whiteness and maleness than it does about black women. It speaks to a status quo that recognises its own simultaneous suffocating dominance and delicate fragility – of the reality of its increasing irrelevance over time, and a compulsive need to stop that looming change.”

But, until that dominance disappears, that trope will be used in an attempt to silence the women who should. in the accuser’s view, merely smile and submit.

Silencing of women – as Mary Beard has so powerfully argued in her book Women and Power ­­ – has a long history. It is still going on. Harvey Weinstein notwithstanding, when it comes to powerful men using their dominance to harass and bully, their victims, typically but not necessarily women, are usually too frightened to complain formally. After all, the aggressors are relying on being able to provoke that terror and response. It applies in academia too. I heard this week of yet another powerful (white) man who has a string of informal allegations against his name, but not a single person is willing to come forward and lodge a grievance with the authorities.

One can hardly blame the victims. They know full well that it is only too easy for them to be labelled as troublemakers – another convenient put-down which will have the effect of silencing them. But, possibly even worse, they may have their future careers blighted. Where there is a power imbalance or the possibility of a quiet word being said to the perpetrator’s cronies, it has to be a very determined or angry person who will speak up. As the National Academies’ Report on Sexual Harassment of Women reported, one victim was told by the person investigating her complaint that

“I sounded just like his ex-wife…maybe if I stopped whining so much I would have more friends…And then he started giving me failing grades…”.

Not a very supportive statement! The Report went on to list other fears

“perceived threats to tenure prospects; ability to freely pursue research and scientific stature opportunities; and threats to physical, emotional and mental health were significant factors for women who have been sexually harassed in weighing whether or how to disclose the incident.”

One of the women who spoke up against Berkeley’s (former) star performer Geoffrey Marcy – who was ultimately sacked – told how, in every faculty interview, she was asked about what happened. In her case, it did not stop her getting job offers – although not from Berkeley – but she was, as she put it, afraid.

Anyone who is in a senior position – such as a head of department – who does follow up on an allegation, may also find themselves harassed.  After I wrote an article for the Guardian about bullying and harassment in academia, I received emails, not just from those who had suffered at the hands of senior staff, but also from heads of departments who had not received support from their institutions when investigating such allegations. These people, who are doing what is manifestly the right thing, may also be labelled ‘troublemakers’, and themselves hounded out or forced to step down, as my correspondence proved. (At least when I spoke up publicly about one individual, I merely was made to feel as if it was me that was the guilty party, but I don’t think it hampered my career or standing, as I’ve written about at length previously.)

The most recent case I read about from the academic world – concerning the Provost at the University of Michigan –  is perhaps not atypical. When, ultimately, a university acts – in this case the professor was fired as Provost and, some months later, stepped down from all his roles – what comes out is a litany of historical complaints. Complainants discouraged from taking things further, or complaints that were either not handled correctly at the time, or got somehow mislaid en route to the appropriate authorities. Maybe there was no active silencing, but there will undoubtedly have been people who wanted to look the other way or sweep things under the carpet. Until, finally as in this case, everything comes tumbling out and a formal investigation details the catalogue of missed opportunities to put a stop to things earlier and – very often – the failure of the authorities to act appropriately.

The ultimate form of silencing is of course the NDA – the Non-Disclosure Agreement. These permit a pay-off in return for silence, and they have featured significantly in the Weinstein and, in the UK, the Philip Green cases. Academia is no different. One victim, Emma Chapman, has initiated a high profile campaign to stop the use of NDAs in the case of sexual harassment. In part this is to prevent the cover ups but, importantly, also to stop a perpetrator being allowed to leave quietly and move on to some other institution without a blemish on their formal record, when the harassment may start all over again. Furthermore, as Chapman has written

“Retaliation and reputation damage are also commonplace, with the enforced silence leaving you defenceless as close colleagues wrongly assume your complaint was malicious, minor or not upheld, or the perpetrator spreads false rumours about you or their false innocence. The career of the complainant, not the perpetrator, is too often forfeit.”

Silencing by NDAs in these cases harms the whole system. The only person who wins is the perpetrator. To quote Chapman again

“When you have university processes that result in women and minority groups being pushed out of academia for complaining, then this is not just unfair, it is a violation of the Equality Act 2010. Breaking the silence not only empowers victims and prevents perpetrators from falsely claiming innocence, but it also brings the spotlight back on the institution’s role by allowing whistleblowing. Universities should not be free to ignore warning signs, to settle complaints informally and, without victims’ involvement, to avoid paperwork and confrontation.”

We need to find ways in which victims feel safe to speak up and in which universities – and every other organisation too – know that investigation and action are the only way to go. Silencing is not an adequate response to complaint, formal or otherwise.



This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Active Silencing

  1. carmen says:

    This is true not only in universities but also schools! See for example ‘International schools, teaching, and governance: An autoethnography of a teacher in conflict’

  2. IanB says:

    Thanks for taking time to put your thoughts down on paper – valuable reflections. The pointer to Gill Kernick’s piece was especially thought provoking. Again, thank you.

Comments are closed.