Exploring the Ethical and Pedagogical Value of the #metoo Movement


Kristina Fennelly

When The Yale Law Journal published its collection “#MeToo and the Future of Sexual Harassment Law” in June of 2018, its editors and contributors could not have anticipated the way in which Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale Law School alumnus, would find himself at the center of the #metoo movement facing sexual assault allegations a few months later. Intense media scrutiny was heightened by the outgrowth of hashtags in support of Kavanaugh’s accuser Professor Christine Blasey Ford (i.e., #WhyIDidntReport and #DearProfessorFord) and in defense of Kavanaugh himself (i.e., #Kavanaugh and #LockHerUp). The explosive nature of this case was not only rooted in the anticipated political repercussions of appointing another conservative judge to the Supreme Court. The urgency of this case also focused national attention on the way in which the #metoo hashtag, and its related hashtags and comments on social media, now function as a rhetorical tool for identifying and challenging systemic gender inequity. As Monika Johnson Hostler and Moira O’Neil explain in “Reframing Sexual Violence: From #MeToo to Time’s Up,” “The #MeToo hashtag has brought public awareness to the prevalence of sexual violence in ways that data alone has not accomplished” (Johnson Hostler and O’Neil 2018). While the specific case between Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, as well as other cases related to the #metoo movement, will undoubtedly yield influence in legal and corporate spheres, they also serve as prime learning opportunities for faculty and students given their intersection with social justice efforts. These cases can teach us how to identify systemic sexism and harassment, resist gender-based violence, and enact both tangible and rhetorical change.

Identifying Systemic Sexism and Harassment

The fact that Dr. Blasey Ford is herself a professor focuses our attention more broadly on the intersection of the #metoo movement and academia. As Johnson Hostler and O’Neil assert: “Institutions, not individuals, are the target of this movement’s social change strategy” (Johnson Hostler and O’Neil 2018). Survivors and academics alike have harnessed the rhetorical power of sharing their stories of sexual misconduct via social media in order to publicly name and identify sexism and harassment within such institutions. In academic-oriented forums, for example, we see increasing examples of these narratives. Keiran Hardy, a writer for The Guardian, cites one significant example: “#MeTooPhD is a hashtag for university staff and students to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Stories abound of unwanted sexual advances at conferences, lewd comments in the workplace and the lack of appropriate punishment for offending male academics” (Hardy 2018). Indeed, such narratives reflect the systemic sexism that has existed for decades within institutions of higher education, but which has heretofore been dismissed by those in power. Hardy points to the recent report on sexual assault in Australia’s universities as a way for us to reflect on our own culture: “We’d like to think this doesn’t go on in [American] universities because we know and teach about human rights, feminism, and discrimination” (Hardy 2018). Academics, she suggests, take comfort in the convenient myth that “Sexism is something that happens in other circles, usually by arrogant movie stars and football players.” Nick Anderson, a writer for The Washington Post, cites the “2,400 anonymous accounts of sexual misconduct [which] have been posted online” in order to give victims and bystanders the opportunity to name and detail sexist episodes with academic faculty and administrators. According to Karen Kelsky, the academic career consultant and former anthropology professor who formalized the reporting of these accounts, describes the forum as a “‘crowdsourced survey of sexual harassment in the academy’” (quoted in Anderson 2018). While no one individual is identified in this forum, we can demand personal and institutional accountability if we build on Kelsky’s efforts and “call them out” (Hardy 2018). Hardy’s insistence “to look more closely, and #CallItOut when it happens” is thus an urgent and timely one. This directive signals the personal, political, and rhetorical power of giving voice to injustice and inequity on college campuses with a wider, public audience available online.

Indeed, it would serve academia well to take note of those faculty brought into the national spotlight by social media forums. Take, for example, the recent case of Avital Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University. The case of Ronell and her accuser, a graduate student named Nimrod Reitman, highlights the ways in which social media gave voice to the accuser and also to those defending Ronell. In fact, the most fervent supporters of Ronell wrote a letter to New York University President Andrew Hamilton and identified themselves as “long-term colleagues” of the accused professor. Featured on Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, as well as in mainstream and alternative news outlets, the defense letter is authored by renowned feminist theorists including Judith Butler. Among the 51 signatories are high-profile academics and feminists, including Emily Apter, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, John T. Hamilton, and Manthia Diawara. This defense has called into question the ethical dimensions of supporting the accused when that person is both a prominent scholar and a woman.

The 944 comments generated by Zoe Greenberg’s New York Times piece, “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” give voice to the outrage many social media users felt over Ronell’s defense. Among the “Reader Picks” is this comment which speaks to the radical power imbalance that persists in academia: “The letter defending Ronell is terrifying in its use and display of raw power to influence, to intimidate and to silence. The signatories to the letter represent the Who's Who in the field of literary theory, chairpersons and decision makers in hiring and tenure.” Another comment, posted by a user interestingly named LadyProfessor, offered this commentary and piece of advice: “I'm not sure where Professor Ronnell put together her own ethical code regarding relationships with students but as a feminist, and as a Lady Professor who has been teaching for more than 20 years, here is my advice… DO NOT SEND FLIRTY EMAILS TO A STUDENT. EVER.” Finally, another reader named Melissa Duffy, pointed out the need to see victims of abuse as both men and women: “Reality: Patterns of abusers don't always fit society's presumption of male gender as perpetrator.” Identifying the ethical dimensions of these cases can encourage victims to seek help and resources, both within institutional confines and outside of them via social media forums that lend themselves to a public ear. This private and public identification of harassment is also critical to those in the LGBTQ community given how Ronell and Reitman identify as a queer woman and gay man, respectively.

Olivia Goldhill, a writer for Quartz, points to the ethical quandary that results from the Ronell/Reitman case and from Judith Butler et al.’s letter of support: “Its writers malign the accuser, suggest the accused’s prominence should influence how they’re treated, and claim—without conducting an investigation of their own or providing evidence—that the accused cannot be found guilty. It also portrays the act of investigating as actively harmful to the accused” (Goldhill 2018). In a close reading and analysis of the letter, Brian Leiter (author of the oft-criticized Leiter Blog) points to the writers’ use of the word “malice” to describe Reitman’s motives and, also, to note Ronell’s supreme record of mentoring graduate students. He surmises that “many faculty members found guilty, correctly, in a Title IX proceeding have also mentored lots of students, chaired a department, and produced notable scholarship.” The letter’s defense of Ronell thus mimics the defense of Kavanaugh, which elicited far greater condemnation among academics and citizens alike, in both news media and social media forums. An illustration of such rebuke can be found in an op-ed for The New York Times written Dr. Bonnie Mann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. In analyzing President Donald Trump’s tweets supporting Kavanaugh, Mann notes: “privileged white men get to do with impunity what other men at least have to think twice about, and for women who dare to speak of them, the punishment is swift and devastating.”

Resisting Gender-Based Violence

A tweet from Christine Fair, Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, serves, perhaps, as one of the most egregious examples of publicly condemning the Kavanaugh hearings via social media. Her tweet reads: “Look at thus [sic] chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes." As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, Fair’s goal “was to make people—white men, in particular—uncomfortable” (Mangan 2018). This example, albeit extreme, calls on academics to confront the purpose and value of such a goal that explicitly calls for gender-based violence. While we can and should applaud any fair critique of a public figure, particularly when that goal is issued from the position of a public intellectual, we should be wary of supporting those goals professed in public social media forums that incite violence.

Responses to Fair’s tweet, which are highlighted in Mangan’s article, speak to the ethical consequences of academics engaging in “hate speech” under the guise of “free speech” and “academic freedom” on social media (Mangan 2018). One tweet, issued presumably by a professor, described Fair’s tweet as “disgusting” and insisted, “she should be ashamed…We’re professionals, educating future generations.” A tweet from another presumed academic read: “She is a disgrace to our profession and should [be] fired for her hate filled outrageous over the top rhetoric” (quoted in Mangan 2018). As we watched in awe of Dr. Blasey Ford’s courage in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, we were reminded of how the power of a single voice can sharply disrupt patriarchal systems of power that routinely silence and punish women. Now, however, as illustrated by this example of Christine Fair, academia also faces the ethical responsibility of bringing all accused faculty to task, not only for alleged sexual misconduct but also for the related rhetorical acts (acts read as violence-based) they engage in as public intellectuals on social media sites. Such cases are crucial to examine since they invite us to question: Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech on social media, particularly when analyzing such rhetoric by public intellectuals? How should we “call out” women academics who are institutionally and theoretically aligned with feminist goals and principles? How can and how should we use these cases to teach our students about systemic inequity? Supporting such conversations in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies classrooms is certainly one step towards formulating constructive responses to such questions and serves to bring social justice and change to fruition.

Enacting Tangible and Rhetorical Change

When such cases are amplified by social media forums that reach a wide audience of diverse faculty members, potentially vulnerable students, and attendant administrative stakeholders, then faculty have an ethical responsibility, not just a perfunctory legal one, to expose and report such offenders in order to eradicate systemic inequity. Judge Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court despite Dr. Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony and the widespread support which followed. Twitter suspended Professor Fair for her tweet, while Georgetown University issued a more moderate reproach. And Avital Ronell was suspended without pay for the 2018-2019 academic year after New York University determined she did, indeed, sexually harass a graduate student. These cases teach us that instead of looking only to institutional structures and figureheads—the same ones steeped in power and protection—for guidance, it would behoove faculty and students to look directly at the classroom and the broader sphere of social media in order to effect tangible change.

We can take our cue from professors like Dr. Clayton Thyne who incorporated the Kavanaugh hearings into his political science classes. He showed students how to conduct a text-analysis program in order to track “key words and phrases on a spreadsheet, [which] can be used to quantify the tone of those asking questions and responding at such hearings” (Field 2018). This kind of content analysis work and attention to language help students and faculty alike in identifying themes and patterns necessary to gain a more in-depth understanding of gender bias, power dynamics, and systemic inequity. Similar work in content analysis by Brian Jackson and Jon Wallace also offers promising models of how faculty can conceptualize comment threads and other elements of social media as sites for “digital deliberation” (Jackson and Wallace 2009, 375). In addition, instructors such as history professor Todd Moye fostered an open discussion so students could voice their concerns: “‘One student,’ he said, ‘acknowledged that he was a sexual-assault survivor and shared tactics he had developed to cope with trauma. He talked about his experience in a way that was meant to provide hope to other people who have had similar experiences,’ Moye said. ‘And put him out there as a resource for his fellow students in case they needed someone to talk to’” (Field 2018, 3-4). Other faculty have demonstrated that silence can sometimes be used as a powerful form of rhetorical change. Dr. Colleen Clemens, an associate English professor and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Kutztown University, deactivated her Twitter account and declined an interview with Tucker Carlson after issuing this tweet: “Toxic masculinity is killing us.” The tweet was in response to the series of mass shootings in 2017 and prompted a media firestorm that brought Clemens numerous death threats. As Samantha Melamed explained in her article for The Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Clemens] experienced a dose of that toxic masculinity firsthand” (Melamed 2017). In an effort to reclaim her narrative and educate a broader audience (i.e., one which would arguably extend beyond viewers of Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program), Clemens spoke with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News about “the connection between gender constructs and mass violence, her experience with toxic Twitter, and what she believes we can do better” (Melamed 2017). By reclaiming her voice in this rhetorical situation, Clemens showed how we, too, can use our own words to educate and empower.

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs would thus benefit from more explicitly adopting these practices. Students and faculty alike can engage in and promote social justice by critically reading social media forums, thoughtfully crafting content analyses, and working both within and outside of institutional confines to identify, denounce, and subvert sexism and harassment. Such research and pedagogy are valuable in developing students’ skills in text analysis, reasoned argument, and public deliberation—skills which would surely answer an urgent call to navigate gender-based work that increasingly demands our ethical attention.


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Ellis, Lindsay. 2018. “Avital Ronell Blowback Has Entered College Classrooms. Here’s How Scholars Are Responding.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 6, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Avital-Ronell-Blowback-Has/244463.

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Leiter, Brian. 2018. “Blaming the Victim is Apparently OK when the Accused in a Title IX Proceeding is a Feminist Literary Theorist.” Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog. June 10, 2018. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2018/06/blaming-the-victim-is-apparently-ok-when-the-accused-is-a-feminist-literary-theorist.html.

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