Reframing Discourse on Sexual Harassment in Conferences
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New rules of discourse?
This a reflection on a complaint expressed in the newsletter of an international
professional society concerning sexual harassment at a previous international
conference. It needs to be acknowledged in a manner relevant to the preoccupations
of futurists. One approach is to accept the charge as made, to regret the phenomenon,
and to explore ways to counter it at future gatherings. The concern here is
whether, as futurists, it is not more creative to discover new "rules of
discourse" through which such charges can be explored in order to avoid
simplistic analyses which have not yet resulted in sustainable solutions. This
is a contribution to that process.
Viable alternative approaches
An initial concern is whether the phenomenon has been appropriately framed
to permit the emergence of viable alternative approaches. A starting point is
the old observation that the organization of conferences should be consistent
with the issues raised at such events. This suggests that there should not be
one set of rules for articulation of substantive issues and another for articulation
of the issues of structure and process in conferences -- including inter-personal
relations. But of course physicians do continue to smoke at many medical conferences.
WFSF has made some attempts to respond to such inconsistencies but there are
many that lie below the threshold of collective awareness, however sensitive
individuals may be to them.
How might such issues be viewed in the future in a multi-cultural setting such
as particular international conference events? It is good to be challenged by
an analogous phenomenon which is not subject to the prevailing rules of discourse
concerning sexual harassment -- through which some men, if not all men, are
necessarily completely to blame. Consider "disrespect for elders".
This is of fundamental importance in some cultures although increasingly quaint
in those cultures which subscribe to a form of equality which endows the young
with infinite wisdom and encourages them to challenge their elders as irrelevant
and obsolete. At one international conference a young student charged a panel
of elders with: "I have travelled a long way. You have not yet said anything
not already detailed in your own books which I have carefully read. Please justify
my travel expenses." How should provocation and blame be attributed in
such an interaction?
Variant attitudes to sexual harassment
The issue of sexual harassment is not perceived in the same way in different
cultures. Those righteously seeking to impose a universal code of values assume
that the guidelines emerging in the USA, for example, will eventually be seen
as the only "reasonable" code for the world as a whole. This neglects
many important dimensions in cultures such as Islam where the issue is dealt
with quite differently. Is it not remotely possible that the future will see
the current framing of sexual harassment as remarkably simplistic and mechanistic?
Venturing where angels fear to tread, is there not some possibility that a
number of inter-personal issues need to be seen in dynamic rather than static,
mechanistic terms? Participants at international gatherings are far from being
"equals" in anything other than as a purely administrative simplification
(which is perhaps at the root of many of the challenges of democracy). People
differ in experience, qualifications, competence, prestige, creativity, rigour,
productivity, self-esteem, as well as culture, language, sex, colour, size,
age, and dietary and other preferences. Like it or not, these differences all
affect interactions at conferences and our respect for each other. Many have
emerged bruised from some interaction believing that they have been inappropriately
treated. This does not excuse sexual harassment, any more than any other form
of discriminatory treatment (such as some extreme rudeness to support personnel
that I noted at previous events in the series). But it does suggest that differences
cannot be effectively handled by pretending that we are all equal. Predatory,
parasitical, symbiotic and other interactions are all characteristic of such
In dynamic terms such differences can be seen in terms of mutual "attraction"
or "repulsion". Without any effort on our own part, we are all attractive
or repulsive on many dimensions -- of which sex is only one clustering. For
some of us, interactions at a conference may be determined by a scale running
from alienation, through incompatibility, sterility and indifference, to fruitful
intercourse. It is only at the latter level that the much acclaimed "cross-fertilization"
occurs at conferences. At a professional conference there is a tendency to pretend
that we are all "talking heads" and that the only relevant cross-fertilization
is that of ideas. For many, other interactions are also important -- or else
conferences could all be held through correspondence, e-mail or other technologies.
There are actually other portions of our anatomy present at conferences, and
in some events there may be more "hearts" than "heads" (provoking
the classic battle between "heartless heads" and "headless hearts").
Conferences "of the head" can be endlessly tedious. Fruitful intercourse
is rare for many. As participants we relieve our boredom by sight-seeing, various
forms of substance abuse, interaction with non-participants (including support
personnel and "accompanying persons") and "playing" with
our differences. We play games with each other. Some of them, including games
of dominance and humiliation, are not nice games. But they may be the only interactions
that our limitations permit within a particular conference context. This is
still not an excuse for sexual harassment, but the future may judge us much
more severely for some of these other games.
Perhaps one way forward is to explore the nature of such complex dynamics through
catastrophe theory. This could have the merit of showing different kinds of
relationship between "attractiveness" and "non-attractiveness"
(not to say repulsion) between participants. It could show how attractiveness
can be built up without consequence, but leads to catastrophic repulsion beyond
certain boundary conditions. They types of harassment are then described by
the types of catastrophe. Catastrophe theory could indicate where any relative
enhancement of one's attractiveness makes one increasingly vulnerable to being
treated as a "tasty morsel" in somebody's gameplan. It could indicate
conditions where insights from surfing or dancing are more appropriate response
than simplistic rules. Maybe we need to take account of Eastern four-valued
logics in labelling conditions (attraction, repulsion, attraction-and-repulsion,
Challenge of engagement
My plea would be to recognize that to be innocent of some form of discriminatory
gameplaying at a conference can only be achieved by complete stasis. We all
play devious games with thresholds of awareness based on deniable culpability.
I say this having just returned from a beach holiday within a French culture
where the extent of body coverage was totally optional and of little concern.
But one game for women was clearly to make themselves as "attractive"
as possible, by exposing the maximum number of biological triggers to members
of the opposite sex, under conditions where any overt response was considered
inappropriate. To what extent is "sexual harassment of women" in the
West defined by the game in which men break the rules when they respond with
touch or voice to purportedly neutral messages conveyed through sight and smell?
The corresponding game of "sexual harassment of men" might then be
defined as that in which women break the rules when they respond with visible
or olfactory attractors to purportedly neutral messages conveyed by men through
voice or touch. Presumably other variants are played out in other cultures.
Maybe the future will invent more interesting games based on even more contradictory
or even paradoxical messages.
Game park solution?
If we do not favour the Islamic solution of concealing all attractors, or various
approaches to pretending that we are all equally attractive, then we must reframe
the discussion or recognize the limitations of the futurist discipline. The
next conference will offer many the questionable opportunity to visit a "game
park" as the prime tourist attraction. This suggests that careful thought
needs to be given to whether we want to turn international conferences into
environments where "predators" and "prey" are separated
(or where predators are "removed" and the prey need to be "culled"),
as is the case in some managed "natural" environments -- or whether
there is still a basic need for genuine wilderness areas where survival is a
matter of vigilance and avoiding the provocation of the local fauna. Can we
design a conference social system free of predator-prey interactions, without
having to make institutional arrangements for the predators to be fed "on
the side" as in a zoo?
Anthony Judge. Beyond Harassment of Reality and Grasping Future Possibilities:
learnings from sexual harassment as a metaphor, 1994 [text]
Sexual Harassment: information and guidance for Quaker meetings
on dealing with sexual harassment. Quaker Life, Friends House, 2008 [text]