Saturday, April 10, 2021

Permission Structures Redux: the CAF and Academia

Thanks to a podcast I heard four years ago, the phrase "permission structure" has been on my mind.  It came out of MeToo and the various cases--that in any moment, there is a set of attitudes, norms, and institutions that give permission for certain actors to act in a particular way and deny that permission to others to act in a different way.  In the Hollywood example, for a long time, the "Casting Couch" was normalized--that it was expected and accepted that producers would prey upon actresses (and actors) and that the targets of this behavior had little recourse but to be seen as crazy or "bitchy."  The MeToo movement shifted the permission structures--that the survivors of such abuse could report their experiences and be believed and that there might just be consequences for the predators.  It was both a moment in time where people realized that they could tell what happened to them and a structural shift in the norms as abusive people continue to lose their jobs.  The change in permission structure does not end the predation and other problems, but it raises the costs and probabilities of being awful, and it lowers (but does not eliminate) the costs for the survivors to report on what happened to them.

The Canadian Armed Forces is having a MeToo moment that may shift the permission structure.  A series of women and men have come out and reported that they were assaulted by senior officers.  We knew that the CAF had a sexual misconduct problem--there have been reports and policies and much academic study--but we did not know how far it reached to the top.  One of the consequences of the broader MeToo movement is that we generally believe these women more readily (although I have heard some folks in the military raise doubts).  We have seen a retired Chief of the Defence Staff be investigated, his replacement sidelined, and the Chief of Personnel put on ice.  Week after week Mercedes Stephenson has been interviewing a series of women who suffered awful behavior from their superiors and who did not get any help from their chain of command.  This has shaken the CAF and perhaps the public's confidence in it.  While the survivors now feel a bit more comfortable speaking out, it is not clear yet whether the permission to abuse subordinates has declined.  One would think so after five or six years of Operation Honour and now the Path to Dignity efforts, but, well, not so much.  

This week at the virtual ISA, my profession had a bit of its own shift in permission structures.  A well-known scholar, Mia Bloom, engaged in social media abuse of a younger scholar, one of color, for having the temerity to criticize some of Bloom's work.  I won't get in the details as they are documented quite well here.  In response to her outburst, one person refused to sit on a panel on mentorship(!) that Bloom was on later in the week.  Others came forward on social media to tell their Bloom story.  Bloom has been doing this kind of stuff for years, but was not confronted.  She had, essentially, permission from the profession to be awful, despite earning a reputation for being awful.  Whisper networks only go so far.  

As someone who used to be Mia's friend, I knew about some of this, but didn't say anything.  When this stuff broke out this week, I first referred to it obliquely:

 But after Amar's series of tweets, where he said that junior people and people of color tend to be the ones that talk about this, that senior white folks are absent, I realized I should discuss this more directly.  Hence this post here and a series of tweets.  With the ice breaking on this and with Mia's crappy apology, the permission structure has changed partially.  We don't know if there will be consequences for her, but we do know that people feel freer to talk in public about her behavior.  Because she does not have a large posse, the danger of retaliation is modest, limited mostly to the vagaries of reviewing processes.  I have and will encourage scholars (especially junior) to use the part of the forms for article and grant submissions and tenure letters to say that they don't want Mia Bloom reviewing their stuff. 

However, the big question is whether this changes anything for anyone else.  Mia is not the only person who engages in bad behavior in the discipline.  Will others get outed?  Will other people's targets go public?  Will those with power feel less comfortable engaging in bad behavior?  I am not so sure. 


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