Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

“Reasonable” People

(Yes, you might need to blink and look again at these headlines.  They’re from The New York Times, not The Onion or McSweeney’s.)

It’s like a terrible joke.  How many movie stars does it take for someone to believe they were sexually harassed and assaulted?  Or, maybe, how many USA gymnasts does it take?  We all know the possible answers:  All of them.  Way too many.  Or, don’t worry they will only be believed for a second until the pendulum swings back to establishing their attacker(s) as credible, measured, reasonable.

Just imagine how many unknown women of far fewer means it takes to be believed.  I don’t think mathematics has yet created the beyond-infinity number (right?), but this question might point us all in that direction.

Over these past few weeks, I have been thinking about an article I wrote a couple of years ago that cited Donna Haraway (*see this 1988 article, for example) and Evelyn Fox-Keller (*really interesting 2014 interview here) on the Enlightenment-generated image of the scientist—that 18th-century white man, in a white coat, working in a white lab with other white-coated assistants, doing white experiments and coming to white conclusions.  This scientist—the quintessence of light, illustration, illumination, reason—would become almost invisible as the reasoned results of his lab were disseminated and taken as true, as objectively generated and disseminated.  Haraway and Fox-Keller talk about women entering the lab as a “germ,” the other.  Their results would be marked by their otherness and thus doubted, disbelieved, considered contaminated.  The privilege of being seen as objective and reasonable, practically invisible in the extreme objectivity of it all, contrasts sharply with the constant existence as the one who is supposed to assimilate, or just can’t assimilate, or won’t assimilate, or who didn’t assimilate well enough—a lifelong germ invading the space of the supposedly “reasonable.”

The Society for Human Resource Management website tell us: “In workplace harassment situations, the perspective of a “reasonable person” is one aspect of the criteria used to determine whether a work environment is hostile. The reasonable person standard aims to avoid the potential for parties to claim they suffered harassment when most people would not find such instances offensive if they themselves were the subject of such acts.”  As I have stated throughout the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here), the law and its applications build on precedent and, therefore, decades, even centuries, can pass before we undo implicit and explicit racism and sexism embedded in our laws.  The “reasonable person” standard established in Equal Employment Opportunity law still has not been examined thoroughly enough to measure how much harassment white male legislators over the centuries have deemed is “reasonable” for someone to accept.

In a talk at Washington and Lee last week, Devon Carbado brilliantly linked the “reasonable person” standard to vulnerability to police violence.  This 2016 article by Carbado treats thoroughly the “Reasonableness Doctrine” as it applies to the Fourth Amendment, “reasonable search and seizure,” and escalating interactions with the police imposed on African Americans.  Carbado provides a type of flow chart, with detailed examples, of how “traffic stops function as gateways to more intrusive searches and seizures” (151). Carbado takes issue with the term “reasonable” to demonstrate that it is imbued with the racism and sexism that our laws and law enforcement systems have inherited through the centuries.  He cites Crenshaw on the “say her name” campaign to understand police violence specifically against black women. This “reasonable person” standard for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation is embedded in Title VII and Title IX law.  In a nutshell, the more often the “reasonable” standard is invoked against people of color and women, the more it naturalizes the stop-and-frisk phenomenon, which I see as both literal (actual police stops of African Americans, in incredibly disproportionate numbers) and metaphorical (allusion to real touching—sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault in all types of workplaces, including the education workplace).  Let’s not forget, Republican candidate from Missouri Courtland Sykes just a few days ago said that radical feminism has “a crazed definition of modern womanhood,” and he added that, “They made it up to suit their own nasty, snake-filled heads.”  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, “Mary Beard’s Manifesto,” to understand more about retrograde obsession with the head of Medusa.)  We have to improve our ability to question and name these unreasonable candidates so easily masquerading these days as reasonable.  (Don’t make me bring up Roy Moore to re-make this point.)

160 women testified that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them.  Some of the women were as young as six years old when Nassar committed such felonies.  These assaults happened over decades, permeating just about every corner of USA Gymnastics and, quite apparently, Michigan State University.  The world is ready to believe in the integrity of a single male doctor before it is prepared to believe hundreds of women and girls with an entirely credible claim.  Nassar’s non-apology statement and self-defensive testimony combine to re-harass and re-assault the 160 women who had already, miraculously, survived his abuse.  Nassar’s most salient statement, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  It is just a complete nightmare,” serves to do what so many non-apology defenses have done in so many others of these recent cases—to deny wrongdoing, cast doubt on those who have filed suit, assert some kind of moral high ground, and minimize the gravity of the actual crimes committed.  Nassar believes himself to be the objective white man in the white coat in the white laboratory.

The New York Times reported on January 20, 2018, that Pennsylvania Republican Representative Patrick Meehan had settled his own sexual misconduct case using taxpayer money.  Ah, yes, the highly reasonable Meehan was even a member of the House Ethics Committee, which has been seeking solutions to what the article rightly calls “secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate, and silence their victims.”  The fact that it took Meehan five more days to realize the jig was up—that the woman whom he insisted was his “complete partner” did not see the situation in the same light and that he would not be a viable candidate for re-election—speaks to the extent to which he, and probably many people around him for decades, still bought into his “reasonable,” objective, rational character.  United States culture reveals a tendency to bend over backwards to forgive felonious men and a leaning forward to blame victims.  One glance at the second headline in the image above reinforces that it’s not just the United States.  The person considered the most progressive leader of one of the most powerful religions in the world practices the same “reasonable” person standard: defend the criminal and blame the victim.  This is as tiresome as it is dangerous.

(A book available at a local pub.  Yes, please.)

Trump Must Go (and Take Thomas With Him)

(Meme from social media; Access Hollywood quote)

The assaulter-in-chief continues to be busy, as he ejects Haitians by the tens of thousands from the United States, proposes a tax plan that benefits only him and his cronies, launches more money-making products and schemes from his White House perch, and moves on North Korea to grab its metaphorical pussy and put us all in danger.  In the meantime, we citizens must plan for his impeachment, indictment, and/or imminent invisibility.

The post-Cosby, post-Weinstein, post-Louis C.K., post-Spacey, post-Franken, post-Rose, post-Moore era tells us that there is nothing “post” about any of this.  We are living with and among men who use their power and position to serially harass and assault women (and men and transgender individuals).  As I wrote in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel book (and often have to remind people who write to say, “But, Bill Clinton, but, Bill Clinton…”), I have never viewed sexual harassment and assault as the domain of only Republicans, and I do believe we have to understand politics and entertainment as real workplaces, subject to Title VII and Title IX.

If we have learned nothing else from the #MeToo era, it is that many men use their power and privilege to stalk, bait, hunt, harass, assault, and rape women.  The only saving grace of some Democrats is that they at least don’t also (or at least always) punish women through brutal legislation that denies us our humanity.  Both sides of the aisle swim in hypocrisy.  The Democrats run on being the party strong on women’s rights. See Susan Brison’s article on Al Franken to understand the depth of Franken’s hypocritical stance on women’s rights.  On the other side, the Republicans boast of being the “family values” party.  Ohio state lawmaker Wesley Goodman ran an anti-gay, pro-“family values” campaign, only to resign last week when it was discovered that he has had relationships with men, at least one alleged as non-consensual.  Roy Moore is the symbol of the entrenched Christian-values right that is completely bereft of values, except for crime, greed, and stupefying self-interest.  If these power-laden individuals spent more time thinking about others’ needs, they would be less criminal and more effective legislators and governors.  As it stands, they are assholes and, in some cases, felons.

Franken and Rose both formally stated that they don’t remember the encounters the same way the women did.  Exactly!  This is the problem.  They have approached, groped, and/or assaulted women to remind themselves of their own power.  These very actions remind the women, both in the moment and for years beyond, of their own lack of power in public and private spheres.  There is no way these accounts can or will ever line up—not until the harassing men learn to check their privilege, and likely not even then.  Louis C.K.’s non-apology statement re-enacted the allegations of his pulling out his penis in front of unwilling women and forcing some kind of interaction with it.  The more this individual used the word “dick,” in the very statement that was supposed to demonstrate recognition and contrition, the more he emphasized again that he gets to put his penis wherever he wants to, no matter the willingness or unwillingness of his audience.  These statements and non-apologies serve to attempt to discredit those who have registered the felonies and misdemeanors and to re-harass the already harassed.

Ronan Farrow’s “Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Settlements” (The New Yorker, 11-21-17) very capably lays out the power play inherent in non-disclosure agreements and the enormous disservice these documents do to our society. The documents silence those who have suffered sexual harassment and rape and ensure that serial felons can strike again.  Farrow makes explicit that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, at the age of 22, was bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement, but that she also insisted on trying other remedies.  In addition, Zelda Perkins appears to have attempted also to impose legal vigilance and restriction on Weinstein, but she was shut down at every turn.  Our legal system is poorly equipped to institute real remedies and operates only for the almighty dollar, thus reinforcing the sheer power and financial and social capital of these serial harassers.

Yes, it is appropriate to go back and understand our nation’s indulgence of Bill Clinton, who, at the very least, was not molesting girls.  Still, two other things are even more urgent: (1) for our nation to revisit the question of Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment and to end his long term as Supreme Court Justice; and (2) for our nation to gather information and testimony from the 16 women who went on the record against Donald Trump, the sitting President of the United States (it’s still hard for me to refer to him using this term), in order to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

Let’s put it bluntly: Anita Hill is a hero.  For over 26 years, Hill has shared her profound legal expertise on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation through her writing, teaching, and talks.  All the while, Clarence Thomas has set silently on the most important bench in the land, benefiting from the all-white-male panel’s aggressive dismantling of Hill’s testimony.  Even Joe Biden’s “apology” removes blame from himself and emphasizes Hill’s victimhood, rather than her truth-telling and bravery.  Biden soft-pedals admission of participation in the attack in his use of the passive voice (e.g. “Anita Hill was victimized”).  Until I start hearing first-person singular apologies with real admissions of wrongdoing and a plan for rightdoing, I will reject this ridiculous genre of harassment apologies.  What will it take, all these years later, to reckon with 26 years of Thomas on the bench?

The current events surrounding sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault should make us regret the Clarence Thomas case and address the cases before us now.  We could look back on this era and proudly declare that we cleaned up our act.  The most significant case before us, of course, is that of Donald J. Trump.  *See Amanda Marcotte’s call to investigate Trump, published yesterday in Salon.  I wholeheartedly agree with Marcotte’s recommendation: “There is one solution that hasn’t been, as far as I know, floated yet: The Justice Department could appoint a special counsel to open an investigation into the years of accusations against Trump.”  YES.  Exactly this.  As Marcotte astutely notes, the investigation is warranted and will keep the public’s ever-straying attention on this issue.  Two special investigations (Russia and sexual harassment/assault) are a drop in the bucket for this sitting “president.”

Those of us who live in the United States should share the above meme every day, in every way possible.  We must write to senators and congresspeople to insist on this special investigation.  We have done this for healthcare, travel bans, DACA, and the tax scam, and we need to respect women’s and transgender individuals’ rights enough to advocate for Title VII and Title IX protections to be applied to the groper-in-chief.

While Trump’s “Al Frankenstein” tweet served to slam Franken, it actually worked harder to re-enact the harassment of Leeann Tweeden.  Add this action to the list for the special investigation.

A Twisted Tale of Two Harassers (Welcome to the White House)

Last week I learned that titles like “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” don’t grab readers.  Maybe this week’s title will, and certainly one of the people to whom it alludes has spoken famously about grabbing.

Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media, from People and Cosmopolitan to The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have been crackling this week due to the revelation from a resurfaced 2002 Mike Pence interview that the only woman with whom Pence will dine alone is his wife, Karen Pence.  (*Here are links to more coverage of this issue:  The Guardian, Slate, and Canada Free Press.)  As you know, Mike Pence was governor of Indiana and is now the Vice President of the United States.  His level of world awareness and understanding of gender essentialism boils down to one word: cooties.  Pence seems to believe that all women are temptresses and that he has limited ability to hold himself back from such temptation and infection.  Therefore, he will not have a meal with any women who aren’t Karen (that’s a lot of women) and won’t hire women staffers with whom he would potentially have to meet alone in the evening hours (that’s all staffers).  Jia Tolentino remarks in her The New Yorker article on the piece, “That Pence was able to do so speaks to an incredible level of inequity in the workplace; no successful woman could ever abide by the same rule.  How could you sex-segregate a thrice-daily activity and still engage in civic life?”

(Pence with the only women with whom he trusts himself to interact)       (

What Pence is doing technically is not harassment, but discrimination.  He is discriminating against all women and limiting their professional advancement because he is afraid that he will harass them.  Actually, that gives Pence too much credit.  I’m guessing he is just afraid that he is too weak not to have sex with all of these women who so obviously will be throwing themselves at him because he is so desirable.

Tolentino states that Christian evangelicals often invoke the “Billy Graham rule,” which, Tolentino writes, is a refusal to “eat, travel, or meet along with a woman” and which “stems from a story that the famous pastor told about walking into a hotel room and finding a naked woman, bent on destroying his ministry, sprawled across his bed.”  While Tolentino appropriately detects some hyperbole in this account, it might be helpful to imagine the gender roles reversed.  What if a famous woman minister returned to her hotel room after a night of preaching to the masses and found a naked man sprawled on her bed?  I hardly think she would have the luxury of separating herself from all encounters with men in order to avoid scandal.  This version of the story would likely have her limiting encounters with this individual man out of fear of assault, not out of fear of scandal.  Of course, the Billy Graham rule also seems to limit contact with any non-Christians, thus violating Title VII based on not only gender, but also religion.

Pence’s ego drives the decision to discriminate, just as Trump’s drives him to harass and assault.  (*See The New York Timestranscript of Donald Trump’s comments about women.)  As you can see, we have here not the Tale of Two Harassers, but a White House of virulently white, pro-Christian, pro-male men.  Pence castigates women (limits hiring, work access, and promotion of women in high-level government) because he doesn’t trust himself, and Trump speaks of violating women because they are mere objects for his consumption.  Again, Pence alienates women with a weird version of pedestal politics: his wife Karen is somehow pure through her singular connection to him, but all other women are just Biblical temptress bots.  Trump alienates women by verbally and physically harassing them individually and en masse, thus training women to raise red flags around him, while also cementing their place as the non-hireables.  These two powerful men distance those who are unlike them (non-white; non-man; non-Christian) and, in particular, privilege their power in the public sphere over everything else.

As I write in Gender Shrapnel, these behaviors have broad implications for people of color, non-Christians, and women as individuals and as members of specific groups.  Individuals who experience the Pence-type discrimination and/or the Trump-branded harassment are limited in their horizontal movements, that is, their movement through the work day.  These individuals won’t be invited to power lunches or golf games, where networking and decision-making take place, and they might have to actively avoid a harasser whose physical presence threatens, looms, and impedes work production.  Discriminatory and harassing behaviors also suppress vertical movement, or the ability to advance in the workplace through good work, collaboration, and professionalism.  Members of groups offered protections under Title VII law can sense themselves as further limited by a group identification (or, importantly, a perceived group identification) that is undervalued or even actively discriminated against.  The Title VII protections are often difficult to enact, especially in conservative judicial districts in many areas of the United States.  Nothing like having the White House be the beacon of bad (and illegal) behavior.

It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.

(But at least we have late-night comedy and The Onion: