I have detected two recurring threads in the critical reactions to my texts on the Avital Ronell case. I think they are indicative of the mess we are in, which is why they deserve a brief comment.
First, the clam is that, if, in a case of sexual harassment, they are no material proofs or third-party witnesses, so that there is just word against word, the victim is to be believed. As a result, an act is harassment if the victim claims it is harassment, independently of the perpetrator’s intentions. There are, of course, good reasons to take this claim seriously: the victim is structurally in the position of weakness, and the ruling ideology imposes on us the prejudice not to take too seriously the complaints of “hysterical” women. However, there are also some good counter-reasons, besides the obvious one that the self-professed victims can also lie and manipulate. The paradox is that, in some sense, the most brutal victimhood is the one in which the victim is not even aware of its victimhood, being so identified with its subordinated role. Is a woman who herself looks forward to her cliterodectomy, since it will signal her full admission into the community, not in some sense more victimized than a woman who resists it? No wonder we quite often get cases where a woman didn’t see anything problematic in her relationship with a man while this relationship was going on, and only began to protest after the fact (sometimes years later), when she gained feminist awareness.
Limiting harassment to the perpetrator’s intent (as opposed to how the victim experienced the perpetrator’s act) is also problematic, and not only for the obvious reason that the perpetrator’s excuse “Sorry, but there was no evil intent in my acts; I didn’t know they would hurt somebody!” can be pure hypocrisy. Brutal domineering behaviour towards women is also as a rule part of traditional ideological patterns (in the sense of ideology which permeates our daily life and its practices). Nonetheless, a problem arises here: in what precise sense can a perpetrator who effectively thought he was just acting in accordance with the patterns of the culture be considered subjectively responsible and guilty for his acts? If we impute full guilt to the perpetrator, are we not getting all too close to the Stalinist notion of “objective guilt”?
The same complicated relationship between the perpetrator’s intent and the victim’s experience is clearly discernible in the ongoing debate on the anti-Semitism that is allegedly operative in the British Labour party. Here is the Observer’s stance on it as presented in an editorial:
“Labour’s argument is that the IHRA definition risks precluding legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. That does not hold water. The IHRA says that manifestations of antisemitism ‘might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’ / Labour’s alternative definition says criticism of Israel will not be treated as antisemitic unless ‘accompanied by specific antisemitic content (such as the use of antisemitic tropes) or by other evidence of antisemitic intent’. This is in breach of the Macpherson principle, drawn up in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence – that a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim. Intent should never be the litmus test.”
(Incidentally, it appears that the Labour party now accepted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.) I agree that the reference to intent is not enough; however, the claim that “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” is also anti-Semitic raises many problems. If we accept this claim, we can easily see how, precisely, a legitimate critique of the politics of the State of Israel can be dismissed as anti-Semitic.
Till recently, the two-state solution was officially endorsed by the UN, USA and Israel. What is replacing it is more and more openly signalled by big media. Caroline B. Glick (the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East) recently claimed in a NYT column “There Should Be No Palestinian State” that those who propose to recognize Palestine as a state
“know that in recognizing ‘Palestine’ they are not helping the cause of peace. They are advancing Israel’s ruin. If they were even remotely interested in freedom and peace, the Europeans would be doing the opposite. They would be working to strengthen and expand Israel, the only stable zone of freedom and peace in the region. They would abandon the phony two-state solution, which /…/ is merely doublespeak for seeking Israel’s destruction and its replacement with a terror state. / With strategic blindness and moral depravity now serving as the twin guideposts for European policy toward Israel, Israel and its supporters must tell the truth about the push to recognize ‘Palestine.’ It isn’t about peace or justice. It’s about hating Israel and assisting those who most actively seek its obliteration.”
What was (and still is) the official international policy is thus openly denounced as a recipe for Israel’s ruin and as an expression of brutal anti-Semitism. And it is clear that, far from standing for an extremist minority view, this stance just renders explicit the strategic orientation of the gradual colonization of the West Bank in the last decades: the situation of new settlements (with a large number of them in the east, close to the Jordanian border) makes it clear that a West Bank Palestinian state is out of the question. Furthermore, if we accept that “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” is per se anti-Semitic, should we also renounce every criticism of the recent new legal measures which introduce a kind of apartheid, clearly treating only Jews as citizens with full rights, since any such criticism in some sense effectively targets “the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”…
As for the final argument in the Observer’s editorial, the evocation of the “Macpherson principle” (“a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim”), one should simply ask: if anti-Semitic incidents are those perceived by Jews as anti-Semitic, does the same not hold for Palestinians and their protests? Should we also not say that the racist measures against Palestinians are those perceived by them as such? So, what about the denial of Palestinian nationhood as the standard procedure of Zionists? Plus, the final obvious argument against the principle “a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim”: anti-Semites perceive themselves as the victims of Jewish domination (Jews secretly control the world, etc.), but, in this case, for sure, the “victim’s perception” is false!
The second and – for me, at least – the saddest thread is the reference to career which is evoked to render non-problematic the behaviour (of the accuser, in this case). I don’t know the accuser, I never met him and didn’t read anything written by him except his publicly available emails. Let’s suppose all he says is true: he was disgusted and oppressed by Avital, etc. So why did he fully reciprocate her messages and sometimes even heighten their emotional tone? His repeated answer is a reference to his career, as if this is self-evident.
Is this justification by career really so self-evident? At this point, I am predictably accused of not understanding how power functions in the US academia. Nothing could be less true: since the 1970s when, after graduating, I was unemployed for years (yes, for NOT being a Marxist) till recent times, when I am almost exiled from the US academia and public media because of my “problematic” positions (critique of Political Correctness, etc.), I was able to observe how power works in all its guises. I don’t expect people to be heroic; I just think that there are certain limits, both professional (betraying one’s theoretical vocation – if one has it, that is to say) and private (writing passionate love-emails to a person one finds disgusting, like the accuser did), that one should not violate.
I want to emphasize that I am making here a general observation based on my experiences in the US academia. Around two decades ago, I was engaged in a (private, not public) conversation with a well-known gender theorist who claimed that Lacanians are the ideologists of the ruling patriarchy (the role of the name-of-the-Father in Lacan, etc.), while gender theorists are marginal and subversive. I challenged him to name one Lacanian theorist who occupies a strong academic position, in contrast to many gender theorists who exert strong power in the academia, and the only name I got was Drucilla Cornell. Surprised, I replied that I was a short time ago at a colloquium in New York where her paper was a strong Derridean critique of Lacan. I was even more surprised when the gender theorist snapped back: “She is a Lacanian; she just had to do it for her career…”
What bothered me were two things: (1) how my interlocutor assumed the power to decide who is Lacanian even when the person concerned declared herself anti-Lacanian (and criticized Lacan consistently in her writings), just to make the point that Lacanians are powerful in academia (and, to avoid a misunderstanding, this reproach in no way concerns Cornell herself who is simply an honest Derridean); (2) how the reference to career worked without raising any ethical doubts: “she had to do it for her career” was mentioned as the most obvious thing, causing no shame… Furthermore, this argument throws a strange light on the US academia: it implies that “mainstream patriarchal” Lacanians have to pretend to be “marginal” deconstructionists to boost their careers, even in the case of someone as powerful as Cornell.
And, by the way, in the last weeks, more than a dozen friends and “friends” warned me that my career would suffer because of my texts about the case of Avital.