I will not attend the big geography shindig this year, but if I did, they say I would be sheltered from abuse by a new “Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy.” That such a policy was written might lead you to suppose that uncouth louts routinely run amok at these conferences, and that learned debate often breaks down in a tumult of scurrilous shouts, snarled invectives, and intimidating jabs with a sharp map pointer.
As this is not my first year to skip the shindig, it may be that things have changed, but the worst behavior I saw over the course of many years was some maudlin insobriety, and that only in the evenings. Fill a geographer full of drinks in a big city far from home, and he becomes a fountain of sentimentality and Weltschmertz. He is full of love and sadness (and beer), and is about as frightening as gerbil with a toothache.
I do not doubt that this maudlin insobriety has sometimes ripened into maudlin lechery, and that winsome graduate students have sometimes received beery invitations to “consult the atlas” in the hotel rooms of their beery inviters. I do not doubt that warm words have been exchanged, tempers have been lost, and feelings have been hurt; but the general tone of these conferences is a rigid and somewhat fatuous courtesy.
One will, of course, hear the patriarchy roundly denounced, along with neoliberalism, capitalism, positivism, and what George Bernard Shaw called “middle-class morality.” But these denunciations are “critical,” and so are understood to be as far as it is possible to be from the pox of “discrimination” and “harassment.”
Here is the first line of the new policy, which seems to me a model of what you get when laymen imagine themselves lawyers. It begins by setting mutually exclusive goals.
“The American Association of Geographers advocates a positive culture of inclusion and respect for the dignity of each individual.”
An organization can be inclusive, in which case members must be prepared to suffer some indignities in the company of their motley fellow members. An incongruous assemblage will be incongruous. Or an organization can show “respect for the dignity of each individual” by excluding incongruous members and protecting those who remain against the indignity of offenses by people who think and act differently than themselves.
Either/or, as Kierkegaard would say.
The body of the new policy lists many criteria that are now explicitly forbidden as grounds for discrimination. Before reading this list, recall that opportunities for discrimination at an academic conference are effectively limited to decisions to talk to this person instead of that person, to attend this talk instead of that talk, to drink beer (and later share maudlin confidences) at this party or that party.
“AAG opposes all forms of discrimination against and harassment on the basis of an individual’s race, age, religion, creed, color, ancestry, citizenship, national or ethnic origin, language preference, immigration status, disability, medical condition, military or veteran status, social or socioeconomic status or condition, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or any other classification protected by applicable local, state or federal law.”
If I decide not to attend a talk because it is given in a language I do not understand, I am in violation of this policy. If I act on inferences drawn from the fact that a speaker is 19, or 99, I am in violation of this policy. If I skip the GLBT mixer because it is the GLBT mixer, I am in violation of this policy. If I avoid papers read by geographers informed by the “creed” of Marxism, or feminism, or intersectional supremacy, or post-colonial bellyaching, I am in violation of this policy.
Harassment originally meant vexation and annoyance by repeated attacks. We find the word used in this original sense by the great historian Francis Parkman.
“No sooner had the men faced about, than the savages came darting through the mist upon their flank and rear, cutting down stragglers, and scalping the fallen . . . . The detachment pressed on, greatly harassed by the pursuing Indians” (1)
Since people are seldom cut down at geography conferences, and are almost never scalped, we may suppose that this is not the harassment the AAG has in mind. They oppose a figurative harassment. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, quite proper to describe the most exquisite vexations and annoyances as “harassment.” Who could be more proper (or exquisite) than Henry James, and he said of the no less proper (and exquisite) George Elliot:
“What moves her most is the idea of a conscience harassed by the memory of slighted obligations” (2)
One never knows, but I doubt the AAG is prepared to police and punish harassment by one’s own guilty conscience. I believe the figurative harassment they have in mind is more in the way of what Samuel Johnson called the “scornful jest.”
“Of all the griefs that harass the distressed,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful jest” (3)
Johnson is paraphrasing Juvenal, who in his Third Satire wrote,
“Think what occasion and excuse for merriment the poor man gives to the world, with his shabby, ragged cloak, or his slightly soiled gown, or a hole in one of his shoes . . . . This is the hardest thing that wretched penury brings with it—it makes a man a laughing stock.”
If you have ever been seriously down on your luck, you know—perhaps still feel—the truth of this line. You could live with that old coat, or that rattletrap car, or that can of Jack Mackerel for dinner. But to be ridiculed for your misfortune was unbearable, and the merriment of your tormenters was wrong. About this you will hear no quibbles from me.
But no one reading an arcane paper at a learned conference is in wretched penury, the likelihood they will be made a laughing stock approaches zero, and their paper would certainly have been better if it had been written with a lively dread of some “scornful jests.” After all, one of JMSmith’s many Iron Law of Society states,
Any class that cannot be ridiculed will speedily become utterly ridiculous.
But there are figurative “poor men” to go along with figurative harassment. In many cases these “poor men” are not men, and in almost no cases are they poor, but they are sheltered from the ridicule of scornful jests because, we are told, the constant “distress” of their low social status has made them exceptionally delicate. Men should learn to take a joke, and be glad when well-deserved feminist criticism comes with a stinging punchline. But woman is a fragile flower, so misogynist jokes are not funny and will not be tolerated. Exercising one’s wit on the absurdities of suburban family life is all in good fun, and probably good for the environment. But sexual deviants are as delicate as hospitalized invalids, so homophobic cracks are way out of bounds.
In fact, when it comes to women, sexual deviants, and other “distressed” classes, it would be best if we all just limit our remarks to pity and praise. If you cannot do that, I am afraid I will have to call Security and ask them to escort you from the building.
And that, my friends, is what the “Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy” is for.
1) Conspiracy of Pontiac, 1851.
2) “The Novels of George Elliot,” 1866.
3) “London,” 1738.