Now that the (select) details of the accusation against Avital Ronell have become public, some journalists and friends (or, rather, “friends”) asked me: do you still stand by your support for her? My immediate reaction to this question is: do you still believe in Avital’s guilt? If you do, then we don’t live in the same world. I didn’t learn anything new in the now available data, so there is nothing that should make me change my stance. From my perspective, two things immediately strike the eye in the latest stage of this affair.
First is the breathtakingly biased reporting in the big (and not so big) media. Not only were my (and others’) texts defending Avital serially rejected (I was only able to publish mine in The Philosophical Salon), but also the letter of support signed by 120 of her students went unreported – a clear indication where the power resides in this case. The way the media covered the affair follows a certain pattern. Here is the title of the report in The Sunday Times: “Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic,” where the specific accusation of “groping” which was not accepted by the court is highlighted as a fact. Later, it is usually mentioned that Avital denies this accusation, but this denial is itself relativized, as in the report in Salon which first highlights the accuser’s statement:
“’She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch,’ he said. ‘She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso.’ That evening, a similar scene played out again, he said.”
The report then goes on:
“Ronell has denied that any such incidents occurred, and NYU’s investigation did not sustain Reitman’s allegations of sexual abuse and stalking, largely because there were no witnesses and no physical evidence. (A familiar outcome, let us note, for many women who make similar claims.) His claim of harassment was sustained, based on a lengthy pattern of emails in which Ronell addressed him with sexualized pet names like ‘baby love angel’ or ‘cock-er spaniel,’ or described her desire to kiss him or cuddle up together on her sofa.”
So, Ronell’s denial is duly noted, but then it is immediately devalued: there were no witnesses or physical evidence, so it is his word against hers, and sowing doubt in the victim’s report is the usual strategy of harassers and their defenders. In short, the message is clear: although Avital denies it, we all know the accusations are true…
But what about the “lengthy pattern of emails in which Ronell addressed him with sexualized pet names like ‘baby love angel’ or ‘cock-er spaniel,’ or described her desire to kiss him or cuddle up together on her sofa”? Well, the first thing to do here is to situate these emails in their true “pattern,” which is provided by the entire corpus of messages, i.e., to include also his messages to her which, as we are getting to now, constantly use the same language: “Just sending you infinite kisses and love. Thank you for your being my most precious blessing”; “Mon Avital, beloved and special one”; “Sending you infinite love, kisses and devotion,” etc. etc. The eccentric pattern was followed by both parties involved, and when the accuser claims he “acquiesced because he did not want to anger his supervisor,” this is simply not convincing enough to explain his language. He didn’t just tolerate her messages, but was fully caught in the spiral of mutually reinforcing their tone.
Two questions arise as a result. First, was this just eccentric talk or a prelude to sex? This question is not difficult to answer, and not only because one was gay and the other lesbian. It was a pattern of eccentric rhetoric, which was so excessive precisely because it was based on the understanding that there is no actual sex involved. (Incidentally, I know dozens of people who interact in this way.) Second, how did this exchange function for each of the participants? It seems clear that Avital participated in it with no ulterior motives, just enjoying the game, while, as we know now, in his emails to third parties from the same period, the accuser referred to her as “the monster” and “a witch”. So what went on?
To explain the accuser’s participation in the game with Avital through her position of power is ridiculous. If he effectively felt oppressed and harassed, there were ways of signalling this, which would have definitely not hurt his position. The only reasonable explanation I see is that he engaged in (faking) a personal friendship with her to get her help in promoting his career, and then dropped her when he didn’t get the desired results because she was ethical enough not to privilege him over others but continued to treat him professionally in professional matters – it’s as simple as that. And he is now where he obviously wants to be: enjoying the media spotlight on a model victim, a position which gives him (and his supporters) all the actual social power to push Avital, the figure with “power,” to the brink of social impotence and exclusion.