Harassment can take many forms. It can happen at work, at school, on the street, in your home and on-line. It can be your boss, your spouse, your colleague, a complete stranger. It will make you feel confused, angry, hurt, powerless. Confronting it can be hard; stopping it can be almost impossible.
Almost. I cannot speak for other peoples’ experiences except to say I know that as a middle-class white male I am less likely to be harassed than almost anyone else. But even so, harassment is such a perfidious part of our society – likely every society – that I have had my experiences too.
Because harassment is always about the exercise of power over another person. And we’ve all been in situations where power differentials are a central characteristic of the relationship.
When I was in University taking my Masters, I was very interested in understanding the relationship between mass and individual behavior. The two approaches to the respective behaviors seemed inconsistent. I was first and foremost interested in social psychology and such topics as ethno-methodology.
There was a course in the calendar that seemed perfect. The seminars were held off-campus in the professor’s house in lovely Cabbagetown. He was an interesting guy from South Africa. The venue was great and I even had someone who lived near me in north Toronto who would drive me to the classes.
We started off by studying the works of Sigmund Freud. Something new to me entirely. It was interesting. Freud was a good writer and his books were a pleasure to read even if I found some of his arguments and theories doubtful. After 10 weeks we were still studying Freud. My questions as to when we were going to move on were quietly deflected. I raised it with my travel buddy. He informed me we were never going to look at anything but Freud. When I asked him how he knew he told me he had taken the course before. Everyone but me had taken the course before. Plus most of the students were in psychotherapy with the professor. When I raised it in class, another student said I was displaying an Oedipal Complex.
I went to the head of the department. Nothing could be done. It was past the drop date. It would interfere with the academic freedom of the professor. What about my freedom? I asked. He just smiled.
I’ll write a letter I said. Please do. Here is the address of the University Senate. Another smile. No, I said, I’ll write the Toronto Star.
I was allowed to drop the course. It was expunged from my record. I took other quite different courses. Nothing more was said. I graduated with high enough marks I could have taken a Ph. D if I wanted. I declined.
Bullies will back down. Academic bullies will usually back down without threats of violence. On either side. I wish it was so easy with the rest of the jerks in the world who think their positions of privilege give them the right to do as they pleased.
But that’s ten minutes.