Thursday, January 11, 2018

PSR and Sexual Harassment: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

Political Science Rumors made the academic news at Inside Higher Ed with some quotes from anonymous moderators.  In its lifespan, PSR had only one non-anonymous moderator: me.  I dropped out last summer mostly because the signal to noise ratio had changed over the years, making the place less valuable and thus the time spent on it less worthwhile.  Oh, and trying to delete the worst stuff just took far more time.  The topic of sexual harassment was a tricky one, so here's how it evolved for me as a moderator of that place.

The starting point for much moderation, besides stuff that was blatantly sexist/racist/homophobic which were easy deletions for me (I got increasing flak over the years for cutting this stuff, but it seemed like a no-brainer for most of it), is that attacks on individuals should be deleted.  At first, this was a rule about attacks on grad students and junior faculty, with the notion that senior faculty were less vulnerable, but much of the community at the time pushed back saying that no one should suffer attacks, especially the way this place tends to pile on.

But what is an attack?  Accusations of sexual harassment were a lightning rod, with a noted philosopher getting much attention (not in our field, but close enough, I guess).  I tended to delete stuff about non-political scientists because of the PS in the PSR.  But the larger question was challenging--does one allow anonymous accusations to stay?  I never could figure this out as I could see the merits of folks outing sexual harassers, given how difficult it is to pursue complaints within universities and the backlashes that can ensue (see the Rebecca Gill case in the article above).  But it seemed problematic as well to let anonymous accusations stay on the board.

And then I posted on my own blog about a sexual harasser at my old place.  This led to a long discussion at PSR about many things, including my apparent hypocrisy of posting an accusation while deleting those at PSR.  Because I knew beyond a reasonable doubt the case in question and because I was not doing it anonymously, I left comfortable (that word has a special meaning for my place at PSR that goes back to its origins) doing one thing on my blog and another thing at PSR.

I think I would behave some differently now as the #metoo movement has educated me a bit about the tradeoffs and challenges.  I would let the accusations stand, and I would delete those who seek to trash the accuser when they are known.  There are, apparently, threads attacking Gill, and I am not surprised.  I would have deleted those posts and threads that attack her personally and tried to keep those that address the challenge of how to deal with sexual harassment in the discipline.

I don't go to the site much anyone, although I do look in from time to time to see if the testable hypotheses hold up (would the place lose credibility and disappear without me, would the marketplace of ideas work without my interference).  And what I find is that I am glad I left--the place has not disappeared, but I do think that the current moderators are not quite as aggressive as I was in getting rid of the crap.  It was always a losing battle, but it seems to be worse now.

In the twitter discussion this morning, folks have called for APSA to provide its own discussion board.  Well, one does exist:   And it has not gotten any traction.  I don't have any solutions, just my experience that this stuff is really hard.  Anonymity does provide some protection for those who want to out those who do harm, but also gives much protection for those who want to do harm.  Definitely a dual-edged sword, and after several years, I never did figure out how best to shield the community enough but not too much. 

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