Pressing Politics: The #Metoo movement and the IR Discipline

19 June 2018, 1214 EDT

This is guest post from Nina Hall, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS (tweets @ninawth) and Sarah von Billerbeck is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading (tweets @SvBillerbeck). The authors would like to thank the other Pressing Politics panel co-organizers: Christine Cheng (@cheng_christine), J. Andrew Grant (@jandrewgrant), and John Karlsrud (@johnkarlsrud). We hope to host another Pressing Politics panel at the 2019 annual convention on a topic ISA members deem most pressing.

This is the first post in a series on #metooacademia.

How an ISA Pressing Politics Panel Tackled #Metoo

The International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention is one of the largest academic conferences for International Relations scholars, it attracts approximately 6,000 attendees from all over the world each year. This year the ISA conference decided that the most pressing politics issue to discuss was the #metoo movement in academia. In an innovative roundtable, six panelists from India, Sweden, the US, Canada, and the UK, discussed how the #metoo movement affected them and the academics institutions to which they belong.

This panel was the first of its kind at ISA: a small group of us had worked with ISA to establish a Pressing Politics panel for which the topic was held open until approximately a month before the convention, after which members voted for the topic in an online poll. Our aim was for ISA members to select a pressing, recent, issue that had come up since participants had submitted their conference proposals. We wanted an issue that would not be discussed otherwise at ISA, but that needed academic attention.

Our inspiration for the panel came from the 2017 ISA annual convention, which took place in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on individuals from several Muslim-majority countries. Numerous scholars were prevented from attending the ISA annual convention, which provoked outrage and some ended up boycotting the conference. For those who did attend, discussions in hotel lobbies and hallways and at receptions and post-panel happy hours focused heavily on the ban. This is hardly surprising among a group of individuals who dedicate themselves to better understanding how the international system works, where and when cooperation happens, and why relations between states are good or bad. However, because the deadline for submitting paper and panel proposals is approximately 10 months before the actual conference, there were no formal panels or other fora available to assess, analyze, and debate this late-breaking event, something that many found frustrating. We wanted to establish the tradition of at least one Pressing Politics panel at ISA, to ensure we as the academic community debate and engage with the major issues of our times.

In Spring 2018, there were several topics that could be characterized as ‘pressing,’ ranging from the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh to nuclear developments on the Korean Peninsula. However, the clear frontrunner in our poll was the #metoo movement in academia. The overwhelming preference for a topic that is not about international politics per se, but instead about ourselves and our professional community is, we think, telling, and suggests a moment of introspection, self-reflection, and change within academia.

The input of our panelists was wide-ranging, something we explicitly sought to encourage by inviting people from a variety of backgrounds, nationalities, and career stages. Four common issues arose from the panel debate, which we summarize below. These will be further elaborated over the next week in daily blog posts by some of our panelists and other academics, which we invite you to read.

  1. Defining #metoo

The first common issue is definitional. What is #metoo? Who is it for? While the hashtag itself was originally used to demonstrate the magnitude of sexism and gender-based violence against women, the phrase has subsequently been used to cover an incoherent range of phenomena, ranging from egregious crimes like rape, to professional discrimination that sees women in more junior and greater numbers of service roles, to ‘everyday’ sexism, in which crude jokes, diminutive speech, and paternalistic actions, whether intentional or not, have belittled or diminished women in academia.

Addressing issues from rape to unconscious bias in citations and student evaluations within a single panel was, of course, challenging. While we ultimately encouraged panelists to choose how they would like to focus their own contributions, it was clear that the movement’s definitional ambiguity makes it difficult to both discuss #metoo, understand what it means for changing social norms, and develop recommendations for ways forward.

  1. Data on sexual harassment

A second key issue that arose is the paucity of good data on the various phenomena that fall under the #metoo umbrella. There have been numerous studies that attempt to rectify this, shedding light on the gender ratios within departments, uneven citations (see also this and this), and bias in student evaluations (see also this), but when it comes to the more serious crimes against women, such as rape and assault, we have little reliable data. In addition, the data we do have may be biased, depending on how it is collected and the definitions of those collecting it, and under-reporting is likely (see the forthcoming blog post in this series by Katherine Wright on sexual harassment statistics in the UK).

  1. Accessibility of the #metoo movement

A third issue and one that is closely related to the first two, is how accessible the #metoo movement is. Is it simply the purview of relatively wealthy and highly educated individuals, who can access social media and take part in public discussion? Is it open to all women everywhere, equally? Clearly, if at least one of the aims of #metoo is to highlight the prevalence of sexism, discrimination, and violence against women, then ensuring that all voices are heard is critical.

  1. Adjudicating #metoo claims

A fourth issue is the difficulty of adjudicating which actions, words, and behaviors are inappropriate. There is a spectrum: from actions that are clearly wrong (and illegal), such as rape and sexual abuse (e.g Harvey Weinstein) to actions that are entirely fine, such as consensual sex between adults or flirting at a bar. Between these two extremes, there are many actions that women are now holding up and that are questioning whether they are in fact ok. These could include wolf whistling, bad or inappropriate jokes, inappropriate comments about someone’s appearance, unsolicited attempts at flirtation, and unwanted physical contact. The tricky question which the #metoo movement raises is: who decides what is appropriate behavior and how?

This is a complicated question because social norms vary across cultural contexts, and there has been a strong backlash against the #metoo movement from those who see it as going ‘too far’ and persecuting men over minor issues. For instance, many Italians and French see the #metoo movement as an Anglo-Saxon attempt to police and patrol sexuality. As Catherine Deneuve and more than 100 other Frenchwomen wrote in a high-profile letter in January this year: ‘Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.’ Defenders of the #metoo movement have responded strongly against the claims in the letter and criticized its authors.

So how can and should society – and academic institutions – make decisions about what behavior is acceptable, and what is not? Should it be in the eyes of the perpetrator, the survivor, or a larger audience (such as the public)? The #metoo movement claims it is correcting for centuries of sexual abuse and harassment where men made the call on what was appropriate for men to do with women’s bodies. The proliferation of anonymous surveys and lists of perpetrators (such as in India for academics or in the UK for politicians) has given greater voice to women and other survivors of sexual abuse. But who will then arbitrate these claims and ensure justice? These questions are highly relevant for universities and the academic world. Universities and professional associations of academics are self-governing institutions that often have perverse incentives to protect their reputations and hush up negative stories (as in the case of Terry Karl at Harvard). Furthermore, regular perpetrators of sexual harassment often groom their colleagues to ensure they’re seen as a ‘nice guy.’ When allegations emerge, colleagues may then be prone to side with the perpetrator.

The contributors to this blog series offer global perspectives on the #metoo movement from Sweden to India to the UK. They examine how institutions of higher education and the IR and political science discipline have responded. Some also share deeply personal perspectives, and have a number of recommendations including that academic institutions develop the policies to ensure survivors have their cases heard, and there is due process. Some point out that survivors may or may not want to share their stories publicly, given the costs of doing so, and should be supported by their peers either way. Over the next week we will share a post per day and invite you to comment and engage in this debate.