Gender Based Violence, Responsibility, and John McAdams

Update 02.09.2015: It should be noted that there are a number of online articles that give the wrong impression that Marquette University is seeking to fire John McAdams over just one blog post he wrote about me (the November 9th, 2014 blog post). For instance, The Atlantic just posted an article titled “Stripping a Professor of Tenure Over a Blog Post.” This is a very misleading article title because John McAdams has written a number of blog posts about me which contain lies and defaming statements (for instance, that I called my student homophobic, that I said “any objection to gay marriage is homophobic,” that I have “sexist antipathy towards men,” and so forth). John McAdams has also repeated such lies to various news sources on a number of occasions. John McAdams also has a history of doing this exact sort of thing to other women at Marquette University. I encourage readers to remain skeptical of any online articles that falsely state that John McAdams is being fired over one blog post–the authors of such articles evidently did not do their research or, if they did, they strangely chose to frame their articles in such a way that would mislead the public about why Marquette is taking such strong action against John McAdams. The attempt to fire McAdams is not about a “one time act of misconduct” on his part. From what I can tell (from reading the Dean’s letter), the attempt to fire McAdams is about his history of attacking vulnerable members of the Marquette community and his repeated lies about me on his blog (that he has also repeated, on a number of occasions, to various news sources). Here are two informed essays, which rightly acknowledge John McAdams’ pattern of harassing women at Marquette: (1) Beware of the Pedagogy Police: Cheryl Abbate v. John McAdams at Marquette  (by Professor Peter Kirstein) and (2) Marquette to Fire McAdams for Dereliction of Duty (by Professor Ira Allen). I recommend reading these two articles and ignoring any other articles that frame the controversy as a “controversy over a blog post.”

Gender Based Violence, Responsibility, and John McAdams
by Cheryl Abbate

**Trigger Warning: This post includes a number of reprinted violent misogynist and homophobic comments**

Gender based violence is violence that is directed at a person on the basis of gender. It is normally the case that gender based violence is directed at women but it is important to note that men can also be the target. I will refer to gender based violence that is directed at women as “misogynist abuse” or “misogynist violence.” While misogynist abuse can take many forms (rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, stalking, and so forth), one form of misogynist abuse that is becoming increasingly prevalent, and that I have recently been subjected to, is cyber-misogyny or online misogynist abuse (see Amanda Hess’s article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” for an excellent overview of the online misogynist abuse that many women face).

When a tenured faculty member at my own university (Marquette University), John McAdams, recently wrote a public, distorted account of events that occurred in my classroom and criticized me for upholding our university’s harassment policy (click here for a re-cap of the story), my inbox was immediately flooded with abusive messages from men (while I did receive a handful of e-mails from women (to be exact, 6) about the classroom controversy, these e-mails referenced a concern with “saving my soul” and/or consisted mainly of bible verses which supposedly illustrate that “God opposes gay marriage”). Some individuals even sent abusive letters to me at Marquette University, such as one individual who encouraged me to “abort” myself (see exhibit 2). A significant number of the men who emailed me used misogynist language, such as by referring to me as, among other things, a “cunt,” “bitch,” “pussy,” “dyke,” “stupid, stupid woman,” having “wet panties,” “emotionally driven,” and so forth (other men referred to me as: “intolerant,” “tyrant,” “first-class collectivist,” “faux educator in an artificial bubble,” “intolerant chauvinist,” “so-called instructor,” “insecure lefty,” “fag enabler,” “bigoted,” “EVIL,” “dope,” “ignorant, liberal frump,” “immature,” “asshole,” “anti-intellectual bigot,” “liberal freak,” an “unamerican fascist,” “a fascist who has no brain,” and “a seditious cultural Marxist”). See Exhibit 1 (below) for a sampling of these e-mails.

In addition to the abusive emails and letters I received, I became subject to misogynist attacks on public websites (see Exhibits 3,4,5, & 6). In response to the articles written about me, men began to leave comments about how I should be raped or killed. Some even went to Marquette University’s facebook page to express their desire that my brains be blown out. One person created a meme stating that I should “puke and die.” The most concerning and violent commentaries about me can be found in the comment sections of the websites IOTW Report and Auto Admit. These comments are, without a doubt, the most blatant expressions of overt misogyny— the comments consist of attacks on my personal appearance, claims that I should be raped (“Do bitchesNamed Cheryl Abbate need a goodRAPING?”), claims that I “suck cock,” claims that I “need dick,” references to men masturbating to a photo of me, statements about how men “Can’t wait to assfuck her [Cheryl Abbate] just like lying bitch,” and claims that I need to be “owned” or “made wet” in my classroom by a man. Clearly, the aim of these commenters is not to challenge my pedagogical choices (which is what the articles they were responding to are actually about), but rather, their efforts are aimed at “putting a woman back in her place” and silencing any woman who dares to challenge heterosexual male privilege. Evidently, what I did is every misogynist’s worst nightmare: I, as a woman, not only occupied a position of power and authority over men (which is, in itself, enough of an “offense” to misogynists), but I also denied a man his “right” to make comments that are harmful to members of a marginalized group.

Evidently, the e-mails I received and the comments written about me are not instances of “free-speech advocates” expressing a criticism of or an objection to how I handled an after class discussion about the appropriateness of anti-gay marriage comments in a class about John Rawls: this is about certain men attempting to silence, scare, intimidate, and punish me, as a woman, for daring to challenge the widespread belief that men have an absolute “right” to express any opinion they might have, even if these opinions are sexist, homophobic, or racist. Furthermore, the online comments about me serve as a threat to women as a group: if a woman dares to challenge heterosexual male privilege, she will be subject to the wrath of misogyny. Best be silent, women!

As you will note, none of the men who e-mailed me or left a violent comment about me directly stated “I am going to blow your brains out,” “I am going to rape you”, or “I am going to physically assault you.” Yet, although these men were careful not to frame their messages in the form of a direct threat, their comments and emails should not be dismissed as just “harmless comments.” First of all, it is often the case that there are violent intentions that motivate these somewhat carefully constructed comments (they are careful in the sense that they do not express direct threats). To write-off these abusive comments by saying “he didn’t say he is going to rape you; he just said he hopes you are raped!” is to wrongly trivialize the real threats of harm that very well might be contained within these comments.

Furthermore, even if these comments do not express actual threats of violence, these comments are harmful in the sense that they are intended to engender fear in women by reminding them of the very real and prevalent violence women experience. The reality of violence against women, especially sexual violence, is alarming. The fact that 1 in 6 women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape demands that we acknowledge that there is significant meaning and triggering effect behind this sort of violent commentary that is directed specifically at women.

What has happened to me, unfortunately, is not an isolated case of online misogynist abuse, nor is it, by any means, the worst form of abuse that a woman has faced. Outspoken women, such as Jessica Valenti, Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson, Jennifer Hepler, Laurie Penny, Felicia Day, and Melissa McEwan, have dealt with astronomical levels of misogynist abuse. Anita Sarkeesian experienced misogynist abuse at such alarming levels that she characterizes her abusers as a “cyber mob.” Yet, as Sarkeesian points out, every single instance of misogynist abuse needs to be taken seriously because“whether it’s a cyber mob or just a handful of hateful comments, the end result is maintaining and reinforcing and normalizing a culture of sexism — where men who harass are supported by their peers and rewarded for their sexist attitudes and behaviors and where women are silenced, marginalized and excluded from full participation.”

Beyond being silenced, marginalized, and excluded from certain spaces, women who are subjected to online misogynist abuse must pay what Melissa McEwan refers to as the “Misogyny Tax”: the cost of one’s personal time and emotional energy. Women who are subject to this sort of abuse are forced to devote a significant amount of their time to reporting the harassment they receive and/or documenting the harassment in case the online abuse escalates to physical violence. Women are also forced to use their time and energy determining how to best protect themselves, whether it be by minimizing their online presence or by removing blogs that they have written (such as I chose to do) and/or by spending their time following the articles and comments written about them in order to ensure that their personal information (such as home address or phone number) is not being distributed. In my case, for about a month, I spent most of my time tracking and reporting misogynist abuse. While many of the comments about me were predictably harmful to my psyche, given their vitriolic nature, I persistently followed them out of concern for my own safety. I wanted to ensure that my personal information was not being divulged online and I wanted to be aware of any serious threats that might be made against me so that I could take action immediately, such as by reporting the threats to my university or to the police. Unsurprisingly, all of the reading and reporting consumed a significant amount of my time and mental energy and, for a while, I was unable to focus on my PhD dissertation.

How to respond?

Expressing an opinion, especially an opinion that challenges patriarchal norms, puts women in very real danger. Women who choose to challenge the abuse they face often experience an increase in abuse, which is perhaps why many women remain silent about their victimization. While it is, by all means, understandable why many victims choose a tactic of silence, there is a question about whether women who do choose to respond should respond. The standard advice women receive, and that I received, is to ignore the online abuse in the hopes that it will go away. After all, the more you speak out against it, the more likely that misogynists will perceive you as a threat or as “provoking” them and thus the more they will continue to invoke violence against you.

I think there are a number of reasons why women who choose to draw attention to this sort of misogynist abuse should be supported and encouraged. First, it is important to inform the public that online misogynist abuse is increasing exponentially. Many of us are aware of the outrageous amount of misogynist abuse that Anita Sarkeesian has faced in response to her feminist critique of the video-gaming industry, but it is often assumed that this sort of abuse only happens to people like her who are well known, public figures in the feminist movement. The public should be made aware that misogynist abuse often is directed at women who are not “public feminist figures”—misogynist abuse can be directed at a graduate student in philosophy whose scholarship is not even devoted to feminism, but to nonhuman animal ethics.

Secondly, victims, especially victims who are not public figures, need to know that they are not alone. It is important for women to realize that there are others who are able to relate to what they have been experienced and who can perhaps offer advice about how to protect themselves against such abuse.

But most importantly, we must acknowledge that these overt displays of misogyny are not going to just disappear if we ignore them. Online misogynist abuse is occurring at epidemic levels and it is important to acknowledge its existence because we cannot have a discussion about how to confront or end this abuse if we aren’t even aware that, or where, it is happening. Many individuals have started to hold internet services and social media sites accountable for empowering misogynists by failing to remove abusive comments (or by making it difficult and time consuming for women to report these comments). As a result, certain social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have made some improvements regarding the way they handle misogynist abuse, thanks to the persistent complaints of feminists. I am not sure why certain websites, such as Auto Admit and IOTW Report, which are devoted to providing a space for misogynists to gather together to incite gender-based violence, have not yet been shut down, but clearly we need to draw attention to these centers of hate before any action can be taken against them.

Finally, when else are we told to turn a blind eye to harm in the hopes that it will just “go away”? If I see someone torturing a kitten, I am not going to “ignore it” in the hopes that the animal abuser will just stop. I am not going to ignore the abuse out of fear that my calling attention to it will “encourage the abuser to torture more kittens.” To say that women should ignore the harms they face is to suggest that the harms they experience are not really harms (or if they are harms, they are too insignificant to matter) and to encourage silence and complacency is to normalize violence and protect harmful systems of power.

Concluding Remarks: Responsibility and John McAdams

Interestingly enough, the individual who publicized the events in my classroom, John McAdams, went out of his way to ensure that his conservative readers were aware that I am a feminist or, as McAdams puts it, someone who fosters “sexist antipathy toward males.” Despite the fact that McAdams claims that his blog posts about me were motivated by a concern for how I supposedly “stifled” a student’s right to free speech, on his blog, McAdams references, not once, but twice, a blog post of mine that is a feminist critique of western rape culture (on November 13th and November 24th). Below are screen shots from his blog posts.

Mc1

M1

While it is true that I wrote a blog post arguing that men in western society, as a social group, are responsible for rape culture (which, by the way, is very different from claiming that all men are rapists), what needs to be addressed is why McAdams drew attention to this one specific blog post of mine in the first place (to be clear: the majority of my blogging is devoted to animal ethics). Specifically, we need to look at the context in which he referenced this particular blog post.

Either John McAdams believes that the fact that I once blogged about a feminist response to rape culture is somehow relevant to how I handled a discussion with a student about John Rawls’s theory of justice or else he intentionally referenced this blog post to fuel the fire of those followers who foster misogynist sentiments. Yet, I can see no reason why McAdams, an educated academic, would honestly believe that this particular blog post provides any indication of how I might handle an after-class discussion with a student about John Rawls’s theory of justice. There is no necessary connection between one’s blogging (which is often used by academics to informally express some of their underdeveloped thoughts and ideas) and how an instructor might conduct herself in her classroom. After all, John McAdams refers to one of his former students as a “prissy little feminist” in his blog posts, yet, I suspect that he would not refer to this student as a “prissy little feminist” in his classroom.

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FP

Nevertheless, John McAdams went out of his way, twice, to ensure that his readers were aware that I am a feminist who fosters “sexist antipathy toward males” and that I have written a blog post that demands that we hold men accountable for the sexual violence (and threats of sexual violence) that women face. By including these seemingly irrelevant comments about my feminist blog post, it is no wonder that some academics have argued that McAdams is, to some degree, responsible for inciting misogynist harassment against me. The comments John McAdams made about my blog post were: (1) irrelevant to his “critique” of the after-class conversation I had with one of my students about whether it is appropriate to engage in an anti-gay marriage discussion during a class on John Rawls’s theory of justice, and (2) situated in a public blog post that is, undoubtedly, read by a number of men who foster misogynist sentiments. After all, who else finds it stimulating to read blog posts devoted to marginalizing the threat of sexual violence that women face? The answer: groups like a Voice for Men, which are notorious for their attempts to intimidate and harass women, hail McAdams as a great role model for men.

By referencing one single sentence I wrote (again, without providing any context to it) which foreseeably would rile up misogynists coupled with the claim that I foster “sexist antipathy toward males,” it seems that McAdams was encouraging his blog followers to confuse my claim that “all men are responsible for rape culture” with the claim that “all men are rapists” or that I “hate all men.” The foreseeable consequence? Men who feel threatened or offended by this blog post of mine would employ standard misogynist intimidation tactics in an attempt to silence me. **As a side note: John McAdams is clearly confused about the notion of sexism. Being sexist entails that one has institutional power over another group. Since women do not have institutional power over men, by definition, they cannot be sexist toward men.**

Ironically, John McAdams has defended his irresponsible and unprofessional choice to publicly attack (and make false claims about) a graduate student at his own university by claiming “freedom of speech!,” yet he knows (or if he doesn’t know, he should know) that his actions would predictably lead to my freedom of speech being threatened due to misogynist abuse and intimidation. The online misogynist abuse I experienced, which John McAdams arguably incited by both publicizing false statements about me and characterizing me as someone who fosters “sexist antipathy toward males,” is intended to suppress the speech of women; it is intended to silence. When all is said and done, there is an issue of free speech here, but it’s not the issue that John McAdams is concerned with. Rather, the issue is with individuals, like John McAdams, inciting a misogynist mob attack against women in an attempt to silence and deter them from speaking out against the oppression of marginalized groups.

Exhibit 1: A sampling of the over 100 emails I have received (and no, these e-mails are not from just a “few bad apples”; about 90% of the e-mails I received are of a similar nature. The other 10% consist of bible quotes.)

hate letters sent to cheryl abbateL12L11L10L8L7L4L3L2L1Hate Letters sent to Cheryl Abbate

E1 em2

Exhibit 2: A sample letter I received in the mail (yes, a handful of people actually took the time to mail hate letters to me at my Marquette University mailing address):

A

Exhibit 3: Comments about me from a website named IOTW Report (I never heard of it before, but apparently it is devoted to promoting racism, sexism, and homophobia):
Iotwreport

IOTW2

comments

Exhibit 4: Comments from a website named Auto Admit (again, I never heard of this website, but it is similar to the one above):

AA

AA3

AA4

AA4

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Exhibit 5: Violent comments even made their way to Marquette University’s Facebook page:

harassment

Exhibit 6: A Meme from memegeneratornet:

Meme

Exhibit 7: Comments found on twitter; notice that all comments are from men, and they refer to me as a “dingbat” and my academic work as “goofy” and “silliness” (presumably, because I listed feminist ethics and nonhuman animal ethics as research interests):
twitter

Despite that the threats of violence directed at me were a foreseeable consequence of his blog posts, John McAdams does not regret his decision to blog and spread false statements about me because he “rather likes a battle.” How very brave of him! I do wonder, would he enjoy the “battle” as much if he was the one being subjected to threats of rape?

McA

Update: 01/22/2015:
On 01/21/2015, John McAdams posted a letter he received from the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University that referenced the hateful abuse I received, which the Dean pointed out was a foreseeable effect of John McAdams’s blog posts about me. While John McAdams has not yet directly responded to this letter, he did supply readers with his lawyer’s response, part of which reads “Certainly Ms. Abbatte [sic], if she wishes a career engaged in public and academic discourse over matters of ethics, is going to have to get used to this. Judging from her personal website, she is certainly capable of fending for herself.”

It is truly deplorable, threatening, and frightening that someone dare say that a victim of misogynist violence needs to “get used to it” and imply that the violence is not concerning because the victim can “fend for herself.”

Update: 01/27/2015
On 01/26/2015, Gregory Scholtz of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) sent a letter to Marquette University in response to their decision to ban John McAdams from campus. Scholtz is critical of Marquette’s decision because, according to him, “Given the facts reported to us, it is difficult to see how members of the academic community would perceive Professor McAdams’s continuing to teach as constituting a “threat of immediate harm” to himself or others.” Apparently, Scholtz does not believe that women who are subjected to cyber misogyny and rape threats are faced with the “threat of immediate harm.”

Update 02/11/2015: A report from the Daily Nous provides the following information: The copy of the letter of intent to pursue termination proceedings for McAdams, from Richard Holz, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette, which McAdams linked to, was altered to omit some information. This information includes, among other things, the fact that McAdams was the official academic advisor of the undergraduate who illicitly recorded his conversation with Abbate. This (a) reinforces Holz’s point that McAdams knew, or ought to have known, that the student did not drop the course for reasons concerning personal or political beliefs, and was lying or reckless when suggesting otherwise, and also (b) shows that McAdams acquired the information on which he based his blog posts about Abbate in virtue of his role as an official of the university. The full version of the letter from the dean (which does not reveal the student’s identity), is here. Left unanswered is whose idea it was to record Abbate, or whether the idea was discussed, in advance, during one of the advising meetings between McAdams and the undergraduate.

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