Opinion

When Famous Academics Would Rather Condemn #MeToo Than Support Queer Victims

The seeming inability of rigorously trained, highly educated professors to identify what should be an obvious example of abuse on the part of Avital Ronell signals a fatal flaw in academia.

Screenshot of Avital Ronell giving concluding remarks at the Telephone Book @ 25 Conference at New York University (image via Deutsches Haus/YouTube)

There is a stark distinction between critical thinking and conspiracy theories, but that hasn’t stopped a group of august academics from condemning the thoroughly investigated accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Avital Ronell, a very highly regarded professor of comparative literature and Germanic languages and literature at New York University and professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School. Ronell was suspended from her position at NYU after an 11-month Title IX investigation found her responsible for sexually charged physical and verbal coercions against her former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman.

Despite having no access to investigation documents, many of the world’s renowned living philosophers signed an open letter vilifying Reitman as an individual supposedly determined to mount a “malicious campaign” against Ronell. Ludicrously, the letter exhorts investigators to provide the accused with deferential treatment because of her many achievements and awards. “We … ask that [Ronell] be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation. If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.”

Which scholars would dare utilize their reputations to pounce on an alleged victim of sexual misconduct without any evidence by which to properly evaluate his claims? Get ready, because many of your faves are now problematic. Ronell’s supporters include Judith Butler, Chris Kraus, Slavoj Žižek, Jack Halberstam, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Before launching a discussion about the apparent hypocrisy of these scholars, it’s important to detail the timeline of the publishing of the open letter and Reitman’s case. The letter first circulated academic circles through email chains before a draft version was posted in June by the philosophy blog Leiter Reports. (Some signatories claim that the draft was written without their full knowledge of its contents.)It has recently come under greater scrutiny after The New York Times released its report on Reitman’s 52-page complaint against NYU, which outlines his lawsuit seeking damages from the university for failing to check Ronell’s unethical behavior after he notified the school’s vice provost.

The complaint has some extremely disturbing details for an account of what should be a professional (or nurturing) relationship between an academic advisor and her advisee. There are numerous examples of inappropriate emails, texts, and voicemails from Ronell where she calls herself Reitman’s “cock-er spaniel” or asks to meet him at her “orifice” instead of her office.

One particularly horrifying anecdote in the complaint recalls an incident in 2012 when Ronell requested that Reitman stay with her in Paris to get a head start on his dissertation research. He acquiesced to her insistence that he stay in her apartment in the city and even read poetry to her in bed — which soon crossed into unacceptable territory. “She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto my crotch,” Reitman told The Times. “She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso.” Another evening, a similar scene played out again.

It’s important to note that Ronell has not denied Reitman’s accusations; rather, she has recast them in academic parlance. In a statement to The Times, she says:

Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities … These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.

In the past week, a litany of other accusations against Ronell emerged from two-decades worth of graduate students who tolerated the professor’s alleged verbal abuse and overbearing demeanor for years. Former students say that she would exact punitive revenge on people who would not obey her wishes, removing them from conferences or otherwise making their lives difficult at NYU. One former student, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic that Ronell would even call her students incessantly on the weekends, chastising them for partying instead of working. (One source at NYU who wishes to remain anonymous confirmed that Ronell would punitively remove students from important conference panels when she deemed them insubordinate to her unorthodox wishes.)

Academia’s proclivity for defending known abusers is so well known that it’s a trope. And like so many other cases, it’s apparent that Ronell’s unorthodox tactics were an open secret at NYU and in other institutions for a very long time. The seeming inability of rigorously trained, highly educated professors to identify what should be an obvious example of abuse — or at the very least give a person who seems to have credible claims to being a victim of sexual harassment the benefit of the doubt — signals a fatal flaw in the philosophical framework of the old Left. One could argue that their actions damage the legacy of Deconstruction beyond repair in an age where alt-right academics are already using the language of social construction to justify the “alternative facts” of white nationalism.

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“Superiority cannot abide contradiction,” Keller Easterling wrote these words about the stubborn psychology of bullies amid the 2016 presidential election, but her words resonate with the #MeToo movement’s legion of academic detractors. The Yale University architecture professor continues:

Some cerebral constructs … ossify into cast-iron closed loops of logical thinking that demand to be “the one and only.” A dictator, professor, spiritual leader, parent, or co-worker all practice daily meditations or tireless litigations about the reasons why they are right … Yet this stray symptom of stubborn self-regard holds sway over the entire organism, causing it to constantly circle a very limited repertoire of behaviors … Humans even make the mistake of thinking that this restrictive habit of mind is a gift that sets them above the rest.

The ivory tower creates a system of power and punishment not unlike the ones critics like Butler and Žižek have accused the state of perpetuating, though clearly on a different scale. Jacques Derrida pursued a similar topic, albeit from the more specific vantage of language’s inherent limitations.

There is little doubt that Derrida would have been another brilliant casualty of the #MeToo movement if he were still alive due to his well-known tendency to sleep with his younger female students. One of the biggest names in postwar French philosophy, his work has had a major impact on the current generation of theorists who hold positions of power in academy. In fact, many of Derrida’s personal acolytes have signed the letter supporting Ronell. Nancy, for instance, on whose work Derrida wrote his seminal and spiritual manifesto, On Touching, (published in French in 2000) is a signatory. According to Benoît Peeters’s authoritative biography on Derrida, Ronell herself had intimate relationships with both the philosopher and his then 16-year-old son, Pierre. Learning from the master, Derrida’s followers seem unable to distinguish between his insights and his instructional methods.

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Lisa Duggan, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU has stretched herself thin defending Ronell on a recent blog post. She describes the #Metoo movement as partially a “neoliberal publicity stunt” because it focuses “primarily on bad individuals, rather than structures of power, and because the modes of accountability is primarily corporate investigation and firing, and banning from the means of publicity.” This is an odd critique when people are the primary agents of sexual assault, not structures.

What’s personally concerning for me is Duggan’s seeming inability to differentiate sexual harassment from emotional affinity or affection in her own field. The professor talks of “practices of queer intimacy” between Ronell and Reitman that heteronormative spectators could never understand being unable to get outside of their faulty image of hypersexualized queerness. Elsewhere, Duggan posits that queer faculty are disproportionately accused of sexual harassment, “often by homophobic or sexually confused students, sometimes by queer students whose demands for ‘special’ treatment are disappointed.” For a professor who has previously been nominated for a GLAAD (previously the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award  for Outstanding Magazine Article, it’s disappointing to see her point fingers at queer students without substantive logic or evidence.

Duggan sidesteps more pertinent questions of body politics and personal responsibility through this kind of muddled philosophical conjecture. It seems that academics with similar profiles rarely interrogate why academia should allow any type of physical intimacy between advisors and advisees. Rarer still do they question if this “practice of queer intimacy” has any measurable effectiveness. As a former graduate student who spent considerable time studying queerness in academic settings, I can definitively say that I have never witnessed any such practice in any professional context.

Naturally, my clarity on the subject from a student’s perspective wholly contradicts that of Ronell’s supporters who fear that their version of the radical left is being attacked by politically correct moderates. In response to criticism for him supporting the accused, Žižek exerts himself to depict Ronell as merely eccentric and Reitman as maniacally duplicitous. In a follow up to his follow up, Žižek continues his tirade, accusing Reitman of faking a personal friendship with Ronell to promote his own career. I ask: Based on what evidence?

For all the tropes about manipulative professors, academics still seem to believe that graduate students are often their greatest enemies. There is little empathy for students who feel unable to defend themselves against a professor’s advances. “And [Reitman] is now where he obviously wants to be,” writes Žižek, “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.”

While academics like Žižek have mounted a virulent defense of Ronell in spite of controversy, Butler quickly folded in a lukewarm apology mainly addressed to the Modern Language Association (MLA), of which she is currently President Elect. Instead of asking Reitman for forgiveness, the famed gender theorist apologizes to the MLA in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reads as passive: “I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name. I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology. I extend that same apology to MLA members.”

Following subsequent backlash, Butler issued a fuller response to The New Yorker. She partially rebuked Duggan’s complaints about Title IX investigations that require confidentiality for both parties by stating:

I note with some irony that most people on the liberal-left abhor the lack of due process in the indefinite detention of migrants, that we underscore the importance of due process in the civil rights movement because it provided a legal mechanism to protect black men unfairly accused of acting in a seductive way toward white women.”

In the article, Butler also denies Reitman’s claim that she knew anything about the assault. Reitman shared a voicemail with The New Yorker that he claims is from May 2013 where Ronell says she told someone named “Judy” about their relationship in order to get advice on how to manage her jealousy. (It should be noted that Butler is on faculty with Ronell at the European Graduate School as the Hannah Arendt Chair, so Reitman’s inference has some basis.)

The bizarre justifications of Ronell’s supporters is at its ugliest in Chris Kraus’s recent screed against the professor’s detractors. A coeditor of the influential art publication, Semiotext(e), and the author/filmmaker behind I Love Dick, Kraus undoes a lifetime’s worth of credibility by aggressively victim-blaming Reitman without any evidence. Hers is a conspiracy theory that would be best placed in a soap opera or reddit forum. “Reitman — or any PhD student at NYU — is hardly an innocent,” she writes. Although Kraus admits that she has never studied with Ronell, she’s somehow adamant that the accuser intentionally sought out the accused for her provocative style of teaching. In other words, Kraus believes Reitman was asking for it. She goes on to blame the #MeToo movement for apparently ending “all but the most technocratic pedagogy.”

“Like those in the art world who attacked Knight Landesman,” she obsequiously ends her letter, “Reitman is an empowered and privileged actor. His feigned helplessness after the fact is transparent to anyone who cares to consider the situation.”

Here, I think it is important to note that the vast majority of Ronell’s supporters are older white academics who also confirm their age through their staunch paranoia of the #MeToo movement. The idea that a queer woman (let alone a feminist) could be capable of sexually harassing a queer man is virulently resisted by these scholars who see gender as an unflinching marker of agency. Ronell’s supporters have even questioned whether a woman can be accused of sexual misconduct within a patriarchal society.

These academics are people who should be thinking about body politics in relation to systems of knowledge precisely because they are primarily drivers of scholastic thought. But they have put aside the political principles of personal space, of sovereignty over one’s body in an age when the bodies of queer people and people of color are consistently violated by government authorities and violent vigilantes. It’s disheartening that one of the most socially relevant corners of philosophy is in this instance refusing its mandate to protect vulnerable people. It’s especially depressing that these scholars cannot properly interrogate the structural mechanics behind their own rationales. But then again, it’s almost always easier to see problems at a distance than in your own backyard.

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It should speak volumes about the state of academia that virtually no NYU professor critical of the university’s handling of the Reitman-Ronell case would speak to Hyperallergic on the record. However, one professor at the school’s College of Arts & Science recommended that we follow the money trail. That path forks into two directions: the Office of the Provost and the university’s affiliated Deutsches Haus program.

When Reitman initially contacted a vice provost with his complaint in 2015, it should have automatically triggered a Title IX investigation while he was still a student. There should have been no cause for Reitman to make a more formal complaint two years later. According to Hyperallergic’s source, the letter of support for Ronell reached the university days after the Title IX investigation had already concluded. Although a decision had been reached, our source says that the university reduced Ronell’s punishment to a suspension after receiving the missive. Coincidentally, it was around this time that the university’s administration demanded all NYU faculty undergo Title IX training — though staff members were not given a reason as to what prompted this sudden decision.

It’s important to think about the timeline of this situation in context. 2015 was the same year that Columbia University was experiencing its own set of sexual harassment woes when student organizations like No Red Tape and Emma Sulkowicz’s “Mattress Performance” caught international media attention. Rather than deal with its own issues of misconduct bubbling to the surface, it appears that NYU preferred to sweep its allegations under the rug for a time. Hyperallergic’s source at NYU claims that there are a multitude of allegations at the university that have not yet been reported because undergraduates and graduate students alike feel unable to report their professors without substantial repercussions.

Since 1977, the Deutsches Haus at NYU has been one of the premier destinations for Germanic studies in the United States. (Full disclosure: I took a German language summer course there two years ago.) Located in its own separate building on a private mews off Washington Square Park, the Haus is probably best-known in academic circles for its star-studded conferences and workshops with people like Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Werner Fassbinder, and Heiner Müller. For the last two decades, Ronell has been a key organizer of many such symposiums. Hyperallergic’s university source hypothesized that NYU’s administration may have been loathe to punish Ronell because they might have lost access to the prestigious artists, writers, and academics that she courted.

The results of this investigation leave me with a final image, a scene which Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer visited in their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment, which ushered in a generation of postwar philosophical pessimism. The German theorist revisits Odysseus’s voyage past the island of the Sirens, during which the Greek mythological hero orders his crew to bind him to the mast so that he may hear the Sirens’ song without fully succumbing to its seduction. For Adorno, the allurement of the Sirens represents losing oneself in one’s past. Odysseus must be bound to his ship because the urge to salvage the past is so powerful. Yet even during his struggle, the ship continues forward on its path to progress, to resolution. The group of academics fiercely supporting Ronell despite mounting evidence of her indiscretions must feel something akin to Odysseus’s desire for a past time when salacious behavior was tolerated and even encouraged among the professoriat. And like Odysseus, they struggle, bound to the mast of a ship nonetheless hurtling toward the future.

Editor’s Note: It was brought to our attention that the author made some factual errors concerning the identification of the writers of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment and the nature and publication date of Derrida’s book On Touching. These errors have now been corrected.

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