This editorial translated from the French and originally published in Libération.
by Laure Murat
At the moment of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Affair, this historian became aware of her Americanization and of the usefulness of certain codes of conduct that seem so politically correct in the eyes of the French.
Try as I might to talk about something else, I just can’t. About the shock waves. About the proliferation of allegations. About the explosive scandal provoked by the actresses of Hollywood. The most recent news that I’ve heard: former president George H. W. Bush, aged 93, has just apologized officially to the actress Heather Lind, 34, for having touched her behind and for whispering lewd jokes in 2014. The gropers, the libidinous, the attackers, the rapists are producers, directors, government ministers, elected officials, presidents, white, and of Judeo-Christian heritage. What a surprise! What an appalling scandal! Hollywood and Tahrir Square: the same fight? It’s as if the whole world is in a state of shock. Except for women all over the world. Today, I had lunch with three researchers, three women from Sweden, Germany, and Romania. In their countries, there is a similar outpouring. Actresses have opened up a breach. Beware that it doesn’t close again. For what can this opening mean?
Nothing less than the changing of mindsets in a society that rests on the oppression of women and structures of domination. Dream on. Unless men start to get involved, in a big way. But why would they? Why would they let go of their privilege?
Over the last ten years that I’ve taught in the United States, I have had before me a field of observation that is second to none: the university campus, a privileged setting for cases of discrimination, of sexual aggression and harassment. Violent acts, both verbal and physical, perpetrated by educated white men, are committed every year in these temples of knowledge, with their manicured lawns. Appearances, however, are more than deceiving. Never have I felt threatened on the UCLA campus, where the atmosphere is exceptionally courteous and cordial. The attention paid to ensuring that rhetoric is always inclusive, the respect for the diversity of cultures, religions, and sexual orientations, the self-control of body language: all of this contributes to the creation of an ambiance of trust and respect, to an extent that I never experienced in France. This is the result of Americans’ obsession with morality and democracy and of their political correctness that is so denigrated in our country: a respectful environment. And yet. Every year brings forth its share of scandals, duly documented, calling into question this professor, that dean. To fight against sexual harassment, the administration imposes on all of its employees a required training session every two years, in the form of a two-hour test on the computer, in which one must engage in a role-playing of specific scenarios between professors and students or employees, of all genders: real-life cases, legislation, recourse to help, examples, solutions, etc. I remember the first time, I found this ridiculous. I hardly understood the aim of the exercise. I responded any which way and amassed an adequate score. Over the years, I’ve come to better understand the importance of this modeling of standard practices—even if I’ve never had to use them.
And then, in 2011, there was the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Affair. Between the “It’s not as if anyone has died,” the “tumbling the chambermaid” (troussage de domestique), and the reactions of my feminist friends who clung to the presumption of his innocence, I realized the extent of my Americanization. It was no longer the test that I didn’t understand, it was the horrors that I was hearing. What has the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Affair changed in France? And the Baupin Affair (Denis Baupin, an elected official accused by several women of sexual harassment and sexual aggression in 2016)? What will be the repercussions of the Weinstein Affair? For the time being, as the title of a recent article in the newspaper Le Monde explains: “Three out of four French men cannot differentiate between harassment, lewd jokes, and seduction. Can you?” Three quarters of creeps, that’s a lot for the land of chivalry.
One might retort, rightly so, that, if Americans are so mindful of these questions, why are there so many cases of harassment that emerge across the country that elected Trump? I wanted to take a closer look at the available statistics on the university, particularly the public system in California, composed of 10 campuses, including Berkeley and UCLA. Between January 2013 and April 2016, 113 cases of sexual harassment (ranging from “inappropriate comments” to “sexual aggression,” which accounted for 7% of cases) were counted on all of the 10 campuses. Let’s clarify that, among the victims, 58% were employees, 35% were from the student population, and the others wished to remain anonymous. Two-thirds of the persons responsible are no longer affiliated with the university, though the numbers don’t specify if they were fired or if a settlement was reached. We can reasonably suppose that these 113 reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, that the majority of victims refrain from reporting out of fear of repercussions. Out of a total of 250 thousand employees, this makes a ratio of 0.04%. Certainly, that’s 0.04% too many, especially since this doesn’t consider the silent majority. But what would happen if this current policy of vigilance were not in effect? By how much would the percentage rise? Yesterday, in a happenstance of the calendar, I had to take the test, as I must every two years. Even if I am still not in agreement with all of the choices, I retain a code of conduct, justified by an ethics that is adapted to the world of teaching. It is this code, on a greater scale, that makes everyday life on campus so pleasant and so polite—this politeness, said Deleuze, keeps the other at a distance. Perversely, this code casts, by the same token, a veil of restraint on behaviors that, fundamentally, will not change. The tools for understanding serve to better conceal oneself. Predators have learned their lesson and know what they must say, how they should control themselves in public, only to practice their lecherous excesses out of view and in spite of the law. Then, it will be the word of a female student in distress, vaguely hysterical by nature, against theirs, the established scholars. The route is long.
Published in Libération, Thursday, November 2, 2017.
Translated from the French by Elizabeth M. Collins.