In June 2017 I began working on a project on complaint, which was inspired by my own experience of supporting students through multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Another way of saying this: my project was inspired by students.
The project involves gathering written and oral testimonies from those who have made complaints about experiences of abuse, harassment and bullying within universities as well as those who decided not to make complaints despite their experiences of abuse, harassment and bullying. The university here provides a research field; one with which I am familiar. I am concerned with what it means to identify and challenge abuses of power. I have a simple premise: the experience of identifying and challenging abuses of power teaches us about power. The project is thus concerned with the experiences that lead to a decision about complaint as well as the experiences of complaint. By complaint I am not just referring to formal complaints but to a range of informal as well as formal means by which challenges are expressed.
This project picks up from my discussion of how harassment functions as an brick wall in Living a Feminist Life (2017). I am also turning the idea of a "feminist ear" introduced in my chapter on feminist snap into a method: this project is concerned with feminist listening and feminist support (see below).
if you would like to share an experience with me, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also be interested to hear from administrators and managers who would like the opportunity to discuss complaints processes (with institutional as well as personal anonymity guaranteed) as well as academics who have supported students or other academics through a process of making complaints.
A Feminist Ear (adapted from Living a Feminist Life).
The film A Question of Silence, offers us many stories of sexism, interwoven, told together, creating a feminist tapestry. The psychiatrist Janine who hears these stories is transformed by them. In giving these women her ear, by listening to them, she becomes attuned to them. She begins to pick up what they hear. An ear can be attuned to snap: a feminist ear is attuned to hear what is out of tune, those jarring notes; those awkward stirring sounds of not being accommodated. The jarring jars against an idea of happiness. For the film had begun with a sequence showing Janine and her husband together at home; it is a kind of fantasy image, of an egalitarian relationship; an equal relationship. But as she begins to hear through the women who have snapped, who are “post-snap,” she becomes a silent witness to her own marriage, her own situation. It is not as happy or as equal as it seemed.
One time, again at a table, so much of life is assembled around tables, there is a dinner. And she and another woman -they are both wives - are listening to the men talking to each other, hearing how they are absent from the conversation; hearing their own absence. Janine cannot bear it anymore; she bangs the cutlery. Maybe it is an act of sabotage, maybe it is an accident: the men stop talking, she has their attention. Sharp, crash, bang. This sound, her sound: heard as disturbance. To become attuned to sexism, to begin to hear with a feminist ear how women are not heard, is to become out of tune with a world. When you find this world jarring, you are experienced as jarring. The men start talking again.
She has to smash it. To stop it she has to smash it.
A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech. But it is not just that feminist ears can hear beyond the silence that functions as a wall. Once those who have experienced harassment hear that you are willing to hear, they will speak to you. More and more people will speak to you. I referred earlier to how the work we have been doing on sexual harassment led me to my own act of feminist snap. I learnt from this work: those who experience harassment come up against a wall of indifference. They have nowhere to go. Or if they do speak they are heard as complaining. The word complaint derives from plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill. If diversity is damage limitation, as I described in chapter 6, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech, of trying to stop those who speak about the violence from speaking in places where they can be heard. To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged. So when she is heard as complaining she is not heard. And those who are willing to hear will end up hearing more and more; you are providing those whose sphere of influence has been restricted with a place to go. A feminist ear can be what we are for; we need more people to be involved in giving a hearing. When it is wearing, we need a hearing.