Saturday, February 13, 2016

Zero Tolerance

[Note: I'm actually not sure its promoters are really using the phrase "zero tolerance" accurately, i.e., as a policy of enforcement. I think it's just rhetorical bombast. This post explains why I hope I'm right about that.]

[Note 2: Ken White is always worth listening to. Much of what he talks about in this presentation is relevant to the issues in this post.]

[Update: I was surprised to discover how "sexual misconduct" is defined in the Title IX context. I found Penn State's definition through this statement (tweeted here). I had assumed that "misconduct" was the lesser (or vaguer) offense, as is the case in medicine, where a doctor-patient relationship constitutes misconduct even when it is initiated by the patient, or in the case of social work. It turns out that in academic settings "sexual misconduct" is often defined as "nonconsensual sexual activity", i.e., as sexual assault, and is therefore the greater (and clearer) offense, when compared to harassment. It's going to take me a while to sort out the consequences of this issue. Ave Mince-Didier clarifies the "narrow sense" of sexual misconduct I was thinking of at "sexual misconduct may not be illegal, but it may violate a workplace policy. For example, a university professor who engages in sex with an adult student may be violating the university’s internal policies and could be disciplined at work."]

"when Americans stop being themselves
they start behaving each other"
e.e. cummings

As reported by Science, on February 9, William Kimbel, Katie Hinde and Kaye Reed began circulating an online statement urging "zero tolerance of sexual misconduct" and arguing that "the reporting of misconduct by victims and bystanders should be recognized as courageous actions that are key to making our communities safer and stronger." The next day, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement declaring "zero tolerance for sexual harassment." I'm not sure if the distinction between "misconduct" and "harassment" is deliberately made in either statement. But it is an interesting way into the subject of this post, namely, the peculiar enthusiasm for zero tolerance policies among people who are presumably intelligent and knowledgeable enough to know that they are a bad idea in virtually every other domain they've been implemented.

The Wikipedia article on the subject is quite good. I haven't had time to go back and find a more credible survey of research and opinion on zero tolerance, but, as far as I can tell, Wikipedia is basically in line with what I think is the prevailing view among social scientists: "Little evidence supports the claimed effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies." More importantly, zero tolerance often causes direct harm, worsening the problem it is claiming to address, creating new problems in the affected communities, and providing opportunities and incentives for abuse of power and corruption.

How an association of social scientists could establish a zero tolerance policy is baffling to me, especially when the declared aim is "making our communities safer and stronger." As Wikipedia notes of zero-tolerance policing, "Critics say that [it] will fail because its practice destroys several important requisites for successful community policing, namely police accountability, openness to the public, and community cooperation (Cox and Wade 1998: 106)." If the policing of, say, drug offenses do not allow for authorities (police and courts) to use discretion, they lose the respect they need in the communities that they are tasked with making safer.

The analogy to the present case might be to think of sexual harassment like drug dealing and (mere) sexual misconduct like drug possession. In either case, zero tolerance means not distinguishing between minor and major offenses, and having a single, non-negotiable punishment when the policy is violated. Limiting ourselves to sexual matters, sexual harassment occurs when an advance is unwanted, whereas misconduct may occur even when both parties are willing, i.e., in the case of an inappropriate consensual liaison between teacher and student. What the anthropological community has to ask itself is whether it really wants to enforce "zero tolerance" of all sexual misconduct. This is the sort of policy that has filled American prisons with minor, non-violent drug "offenders", even when judges believed such punishment was unnecessary and unjust but had their hands tied by sentencing guidelines.

The atmosphere of "zero tolerance" also pervades the discussion of sexual harassment in astronomy. In a recent tweet using the #astroSH hashtag, Michael brown pointed out that UCL held an astronomy conference last year that had an explicit code of conduct. It states:

The organizers are committed to making this meeting productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion. We will not tolerate harassment of participants in any form. Please follow these guidelines:
-Behave professionally. Harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary comments or jokes are not appropriate. Harassment includes sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, sexual attention or innuendo, deliberate intimidation, stalking, and photography or recording of an individual without consent. It also includes offensive comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race or religion.
-All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate.
-Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees.
Participants asked to stop any inappropriate behaviour are expected to comply immediately. Attendees violating these rules may be asked to leave the event at the sole discretion of the organizers without a refund of any charge.

Some of this is common sense or basic decency, and it's a bit sad that some of the most intelligent people on the planet think they need to tell each other these things. It is strange that they don't think they'd be able to resolve conflicts like ordinary adults at a conference without such rules in place.

What's more important, as Wicked Sepia immediately pointed out, is that some of the rules are clearly excessively intolerant. In classic zero-tolerance style, the policy targets the smallest infractions and threatens the harshest penalties (the harshest thing a conference can do is throw you out, after all.)

"We will not tolerate harassment of participants in any form," the code says. What does this mean? Well, this one stuck out for me: "All communication should be appropriate ... Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate." As did this one, "Do not insult or put down other attendees." It seems that if you find yourself making an off-color joke or like to wear vintage Star Wars T-shirts (with iron bikinis, for example) you may just not be tolerated. Or if, exasperated with an interlocutor's failure to understand your brilliant new theorem, you declare them to be an "idiot" or (forgetting how doubly inappropriate this is) a "moron" you may be asked to leave.

Obviously, those would be extreme applications of principle, but it's a bit scary to know that your conference attendance is "at the sole discretion of the organizers" in this sense. Remember that when you return from the conference you'll probably have some explaining to do to your department head, who will not, as they make clear, be getting a refund.

Ethan Siegel's suggestions for how to behave in a work environment are also highly intolerant of "misconduct". In "How Did Geoff Marcy Happen?" he addresses a number of objections to condemning Marcy for sexual harassment. He calls this one "the most maddening objection of all": “But how [if you call what Marcy did "harassment"] can you prevent anything from being called harassment at all?” Unfortunately, instead of showing how Marcy really did seriously cross some very clear lines, Siegel proposes draw the boundary in such a way that the objection isn't really so outrageous.

Here’s a couple of tips that I think might help you out. If you’re of equal power to someone you’re romantically interested in, even though you’re in the workplace, you are free to ask, once, if the other person is interested in you. If you get a “no,” that’s the end of it; you don’t get a second ask.

If you’re of superior power to someone you’re interested in, you don’t get to ask. That doesn’t mean you never get to pursue it, but you don’t get to start it. If you’re a grad student acting as a TA and you’re interested in one of your undergrads, if you’re a postdoc interested in a grad student, a professor interested in a postdoc, etc., you need the person of inferior power to approach you.

That’s not law, that’s just the rule of being a decent human being.

Notice that last line. Siegel is saying that, yes, indeed, we should draw the line well before any legal definition of harassment becomes relevant. We should demand that scientists be "decent human beings". He makes this sound like it's the least we can ask, but what he's actually saying is that if you ask a colleague out on a date and, when she coyly says no, you wait a week and ask her again, you're no longer a decent human being.

That's pretty harsh. But the general problem is even more disturbing. He's suggesting that "indecency" should not be tolerated among scientists. Again, it sounds unquestionable at first, like something no reasonable person could oppose, but do we really want otherwise promising scientific careers to end because of a moment's indecency?

I may be exaggerating. But there's a certain amount of hyperbole in this whole discussion, and I really do hope that "zero tolerance" is an example of this hyperbolic rhetoric. For me, Tim Hunt is the symbol of how badly wrong things can go when we refuse to be tolerant. As Cummings put it, we stop being ourselves and start behaving each other. I'm genuinely worried that we're going to ruin the good humor of all our scientists by this means as they all try to hold to this new rule of "being professional". Next they'll also have to dress like bureaucrats. Or at least have their shirts cleared by the equal opportunity office.


Wicked Sepia said...

What the #AstroSH movement has really failed to address is the dividing line between harassment and other behaviors that may simply be offensive or annoying. The reason we have sexual harassment laws in the first place is to ensure women have equal access to the market, not to free them from any offense or annoyance in the course of their work. This expansive definition of harassment does a disservice to real victims of harassment and makes the problem look much more prevalent than it actually is.

Wicked Sepia said...

What would be the better approach to deal with minor offenses? Go talk to the person and tell them that you didn't like what they said or did. Perhaps it will open up a dialogue in which you find out that you are guilty of misinterpretation and/or they will find out that a little more empathy was warranted. This is how grown ups deal with these issues, not by running to Mom and Dad (ie the university, boss, etc). The infantilization of women that has creeped into undergraduate education seems to now be finding its way into the upper rungs of academia.

Thomas said...

Yes, it's probably precisely a consequence of the coddling of undergraduates who go on to graduate school.

Anonymous said...

Spot on Thomas and WickedSepia.

Orwellian, this zero tolerance approach. The era now is for groupthink to prevail. Everyone will be watching everyone else and if there is even the slightest slip, you'll be carried off to the Ministry of Love for your punishment--which is death--followed by beatings of the dead body (see Lynda Williams' last #astroSH post about Marcy, who has been truly killed). And if, by chance, you escape death, you will forever be branded, even if your sins are far in the past. Forgiveness is not permitted, ever.

Conferences? No way! Female grad students? Very dangerous. What if someone perceives that you have a thought that they interpret as harassment? How do you know? You don't--you're just done.

Wouldn't it be nice if people could have a bit more humanity? Not happening now, best to avoid the humans.

Federico Prat Villar said...

When not mixed with zero-tolerance, I find Siegel tips very commonsense. At least, the 2nd one, which refers to avoiding superior-to-inferior advances towards romance.

Am I becoming a SJW? Is it serious, doctor?

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Thomas; very cogent. In reality, "Zero Tolerance" could never be applied across the broad spectrum of behaviors construed to be of a sexual nature, from a casual wink in the hallway to out-and-out rape. Those who advocate for "Zero Tolerance" are simply engaging in hyperbolic bombast, as you so correctly suggested; whoever they are, they want to be in league with the "good guys", those who are "protecting" the "poor victims".

As Anonymous so correctly pointed out, we're now in the era of Groupthink. Groupthink is a concept being taught to many undergraduates in many institutions (and maybe at the root of why "group mentality" is becoming so rampant now). It is a philosophy, a mode of thinking and method of teaching prevalent in many academic institutions (I know, it is broadly imposed where I teach) and, by its nature, would be more prevalent in a given department than in another; for example, Business Departments are more inclined to impose it on their students and require their instructors to teach according to its precepts than in a science department, for example. "Groupthink" is, ostensibly, an appeal to a "Democratic" ideal when, in fact, it is the elimination of independent thought. When applied in situations such as SH in any of the various academic disciplines (Astro, Anthro, Bio, etc), the discussion and any remedy quickly spirals out of control to become mob rule with those who hold a dissenting view bullied into submission - anything but democratic! Bad ideas that that have broad appeal to "the group" (appeal, in this case, is really an emotional or visceral response to a given situation) are imposed on every member of the group, like it or not, regardless of just how bad the ideas are. These bad ideas then become policy for "the group" or a remedy for a particular situation, cause, behavior or event, regardless of just how bad those ideas or remedies are.

As I discuss here:, those of us who are scientists and academics should get back to the business of doing science and teaching, the sooner, the better.

And the media isn't helping either. Does every case have to be published in the NY Times?

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Wicked Sepia; both points spot on!