Question Time

“I think that the anthropology of morality and the morality of anthropologists are two interrelated subjects that cannot really be separated. In this sense, I think that someone who does not have a moral stand is not in a very good position to explore and understand the morality of others. We need a moral compass. For example, if we knew that somebody has intimidated, bullied or even sexually harassed others, how should we behave? I think we should do everything in our power to prevent those actions from happening again and to undermine the social status of the perpetrator. But, in practice, what can an undergraduate or postgraduate student in anthropology do? An early-career anthropologist of morality, like myself, what can I do? A senior anthropologist, what can they do? Thank you.”

I asked these questions at a symposium, “Where is the good in the world?” on May 18th 2016. I have been thinking about these issues, in these terms, since the beginning of my association with HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

For 2 years, from March 2013 to March 2015, I was the treasurer of HAU. I progressively became aware of its internal disorders. I was never a victim of the abuses (although I came very close just before I left) but some of my close friends and colleagues were. I could not remain indifferent, for I know that being subjected to abuse changes you, and not for the good, especially when no one cares to help. I tried to give my friends and colleagues some support, but I realized there was no way I could do much: there was a general fear that seeking justice was going to have negative consequences on their careers. Some were also afraid of having to defend themselves in court, without the financial means to do so. In short, it was an issue of power and money.

The power and money imbalance was the result of the way HAU was constituted and realized. Power was concentrated in the hands of the Editor-in-Chief because of two main factors: the perception of public support by famous academics and respected institutions, and the HAU constitution. The victims lacked money, because, quite simply, the majority of junior anthropologists live in precarious working conditions. The power resulting from the perception of public support is perhaps the most effective and the most inexplicable factor. The way the constitution enabled Giovanni Da Col to maintain his position of power, instead, is easy to illustrate.

Journals need a constitution to prevent concentrations of power so strong that it unilaterally intimidates scholars. It should contain an article stating that the position of Editor-in-Chief must be subject to terms, to prevent the accumulation of excessive power and influence over successive terms. Such an article was absent from the HAU constitution. We also need another crucial article, one that gives the Editorial Board the power to remove an Editor-in-Chief, or any other member, who breaches academic ethics. Such an article was also absent in the HAU constitution. Hence, even if members of the Board wanted to remove the Editor-in-Chief, they could not.

A more precise statement of the opening question is: what can we do when the constitution of an institution in which unethical deeds have become a public secret does not enable us to intervene? We should probably resign. Then, if everybody else does the same, the institution will lose its power and, by extension, so will the person whose deeds are problematic. But what if we are not sure that everybody else will resign? What if we cannot be sure that there will be enough support to turn this individual action into a collective action? That is exactly the situation in which many of the victims, as much as some members of the Editorial Board, found themselves: maybe they wanted to take action, but the context made them doubt whether it was a good idea. Hence, individual consciousness and courage to intervene is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that we work in a culture in which speaking up against unethical deeds perpetrated by powerful members of our academic network may turn out to be completely useless, and instead punish the ingenuous whistle-blower(s).

We need a system of incentives that encourage victims to speak without fear of professional retaliation. This system should have simple procedures that are clearly explained in the constitutions of journals and societies. It should be obvious that victims of abuses will be supported, they should have no doubt about the support they will get, no matter what. The fact that a media storm was necessary to encourage the victims of the abuses to declare, still anonymously, what they went through, is perhaps the clearest evidence that a system of incentives is currently lacking or non-existent. The lack of a system to encourage ethics of care and inclusiveness means a greater risk of their opposites to concretize: exploitation and exclusiveness, which is what happened.

The situation remained an open secret for many years and those who knew what was going on did not intervene early enough. I think it is fair to say that no one involved is entirely exempt from at least some degree of responsibility. A widespread but ill-managed sense of guilt might perhaps explain the vitriolic tones of many comments circulating on social media in the past few days. Personally, I perceived a lot of fear, presented in a variety of ways, as suspicion, hate, and panic. The Statements of the Board of Trustees, the tweets of @haujournal, and the supposed “leak” of emails, show the authors acting like important chess pieces frantically moving to the corner squares of a chessboard. Although this is perhaps an apt metaphor for a productive confrontation of arguments, we cannot hope to build a better ecology for our discipline in this climate.

Every one of those who have had something to do with this regrettable affair now needs to sit for a moment with their own consciousness and think about the people they have interacted with.

There are people who were afraid to say “help me.” They were able to come forward last week and is important to continue to give everybody the space to do so. At the same time we have to pave the way for people to say “I am sorry.” We should not be too concerned about accusing, defending our reputation, finding culprits and punishing them. We should be much more concerned with listening to our own inner voice and asking ourselves, “have I hurt someone?”, “have I failed to intervene?”, “have I done enough?”, “am I afraid to say sorry?” If we feel we have someone we should apologize to, we should probably just do it. Now. It might surprise you how easy it is, in retrospect.

What I am trying to say is that the HAU Affair is not the result of a single person’s deeds, but that of a context, a culture, a climate of fear. If we want to recreate the Society of Ethnographic Theory we need to change the atmosphere in which such a society will be able to grow and thrive. How do you feel about your colleagues? Trust? Fear?

Calling for anyone who dares to care to come forward, in private or public, give an apology, receive it, and maybe reciprocate it, might perhaps appear to be too idealistic. But I’ll do it anyway.

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