Some Things Aren’t Complicated

When calling for nuance—as when a powerful female professor is accused of harassment—becomes another way to blame the accuser.

Avital Ronell shrugs, while speaking from a podium.
Avital Ronell. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Deutsches Haus: The Telephone Book @ 25/YouTube.

One of the #MeToo movement’s lasting effects has been to highlight the strategies routinely used to delegitimize accusers. We know now that people—mostly men—accused of sexual misconduct will typically take several steps: They’ll clamor for “due process” that they privately try to game, usually with secret help from powerful friends. They’ll cry mob rule or “trial by media” when accusers finally come forward (particularly if they find support) after having been held silent. Or they’ll insist they simply didn’t understand what they were doing—or that they had any power at all. How could they? Perhaps they’re the real victims, being unfairly persecuted. Or perhaps, after noting that sex is complicated (and so are people!), they’ll ascribe malice or gold-digging or some other unsavory and reductive motive to the complainant.

Complexity, in these sorts of accounts, tends to be granted to only one party. The accused gets to be wounded, complicated, and confused, whereas the alleged victim is a liar or worse. It’s worth acknowledging that this last bit also happens in the reverse case: That is, when someone alleges abuse, the perpetrator can quickly become a pretty uncomplicated monster. (No one argues much for Harvey Weinstein’s rich humanity.) Uncomplicated monsters are no more useful than uncomplicated victims: If abusers were simply “evil,” we would be more surprised that a person who was traumatized might in turn inflict trauma on others. This is all to say that if we want to understand how abusive dynamics develop, complexity is generally a good thing to strive for. There are real reasons to plead for and value nuance as our discussions of #MeToo mature and progress.

But there’s something more at work here worth noticing. Quite often, pleas for more “complex” discussions wind up functioning as a way to defend the accused and delegitimize accusations, all while preaching the value of “nuance.” Before we lean into good-faith pleas for complexity, we need to develop an eye for its counterfeit.

That brings me to the Avital Ronell case, in which Ronell, an NYU professor, was disciplined for sexually harassing a doctoral student, Nimrod Reitman, who is now suing her and the university. One senses in ongoing discussions of the case that the reversed genders in play (the alleged harasser is female, the accuser male) somehow make the whole business much more complicated. And indeed, there are some complicating factors: Ronell and her accuser, for instance, are both queer. But there are simplifying factors too: She is an academic star with high-profile defenders. And several of them signed a letter to NYU on her behalf in response to what they evidently saw as an unjust investigation of her conduct.

The letter, which you can read here, is a laundry list of testimonials referring to Ronell’s supporters’ “enduring admiration,” her “remarkable” mentoring of students, the “damage” the investigation is causing her, and the signatories’ “objection to any judgment against her.” It was addressed to NYU administrators and has been defended on the grounds that it was private and a draft—yet was nevertheless “confidentially” circulated to dozens of faculty, many of whom might have been in a position to hire Ronell’s alleged victim. Having smeared Reitman in eerily familiar terms, called him malicious—twice—and suggested that “any judgment against [Ronell]” would be intolerable (even though the signatories admit to not knowing the facts!), the letter concludes with a demand that she receive exceptional treatment: “We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation. If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.”

The injustice that would go widely recognized and opposed would be, instead, the letter itself. It has been widely seen as an effort to torpedo a Title IX complainant’s case and the only “due process” to which the victim had access. True admirers of these thinkers and scholars (many of whom have written seminal texts on gender and power—complicating things) have been shocked by the retrograde attitudes the letter revealed. Demanding exceptional treatment for a colleague—and calling any failure to deliver a predetermined outcome “injustice”—is as disappointingly generic as it is ethically unsound. At least Junot Díaz’s defenders in the academy wrote an open letter that made their intentions and position clear to the wider academic community. This group—which includes several academic stars with enormous institutional power—tried to keep Reitman’s character assassination semiprivate. It was circulated, with some care, to the very people whose good opinion Reitman needed in order to professionally succeed, and in a manner that made any defense on his part impossible. This was the academy’s version of Hollywood power players calling an actor “difficult.”

And this is what I mean by asymmetrical complexity. The letter suggests that Ronell deserves to be read with infinite generosity and nuance even as it flattens her accuser to a malicious smear. It reproduces, with eerie exactitude, the reductive patterns of strategic victim blaming with which I began this essay—blindly parroting the playbook that has during #MeToo almost exclusively been used by men. Gender theorist Judith Butler has since apologized for signing that letter, noting, without apparent irony, that it “appeared online without our consent.” And yet, despite the fact that the investigation was undertaken by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, she grimly warned against a disregard for “due process.” Does that sound like a brilliant thinker digging into difficult and complicated questions? Or does it sound like a familiar script? “I’m a believer in due process,” said Catherine R. Stimpson, an English professor, defending her signature on the infamous letter that attempted to tell administrators, without evidence, what they ought to conclude. “I believe the timing was in response to a fear of possible revocation of tenure.” Some might argue that losing tenure under certain circumstances is appropriate.

Now, it’s worth noting that defenders may be objecting to Title IX proceedings themselves as constituting “due process.” Many—including Joan Scott and Laura Kipnis—have written about a system they have come to see as a threat to academic freedom. (You can read a report Joan Scott co-authored for the American Association of University Professors here.) The argument is, in part, that Title IX processes oversimplify complicated dynamics and flatten distinctions; for instance, they risk conflating academic discussions of sex with actual sexual harassment. But what flaws there may be in university-based mechanisms for “due process” don’t change the fact that the letter’s goal would have left the alleged victim with no recourse within the institution at all.

The demand for complexity has arisen with particular urgency in this case on the grounds that Ronell and Reitman are queer. This is offered as a kind of mitigating consideration that, properly understood, might make the correspondence between Ronell and Reitman less damning. Scholar and fellow NYU professor Lisa Duggan has suggested that perhaps what has transpired is a “culture clash” between different discourse communities. Referring to emails in which the parties describe each other as “sweet companion-prince” (Ronell) and “Baby” and “Sweet Beloved” (Reitman), Duggan wrote, “The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders.” (The “outsiders,” here, are those of us startled by the excerpts of the email exchanges.) “A queer woman and a gay man in a romantic relationship? Romantic language that does not signify sexual desire?” Duggan writes, presenting these as concepts likely beyond the ken of outside observers. There’s just one problem: Reitman, a queer man presumably conversant in queer conventions—and the recipient of this “romantic language”—disagrees with Duggan’s interpretation. And appears to have registered his discomfort to Ronell and to others, contemporaneously.

Reitman’s lawsuit alleges, in fact, that he felt pressured to perform much this florid language: Ronell demanded it of him and called it “rhetorical cushioning.” The lawsuit includes several examples allegedly taken from Ronell’s emails, some of which do seem to explicitly request that he warm up his tone: “Please next time add some layers of warmth,” she writes (indicating that Reitman was not volunteering the affection Duggan seems to characterize as consensual). She tells Reitman she “cannot really bear hearing for another round a break in tonality and strange reprove.” She writes that “ ‘I love you too’ does not cut it darling,” and “Maybe we can find a way for this not to happen, for me not to feel unnecessarily abandoned, I’m sure a slight rhetorical shift would do.” These emails show Ronell repeatedly instructing Reitman to express more affection than he had volunteered. Is this really “queer kinship”? Or is “queer kinship” being used to mask a coercive dynamic?

Ronell herself contends that Reitman, far from objecting, in fact initiated much of the language of their exchanges. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the institutional power she held over Reitman and, despite the distress he explicitly claims, portrays herself as harmlessly effusive, and even a victim herself. “I’m heartbroken that my fast and loose and exuberant and stupid and childish use of language can somehow be gathered up to be a viable weapon against me,” Ronell said to the Chronicle of Higher Education, hand-waving away the possibility that she herself could do harm: “I don’t impose my zany, affectionate, over-the-top kind of sheltering gestures on people who don’t seem to require or ask for that from me.”

Ronell—a brilliant theorist of language—positions herself, in effect, as a linguistic bumbler unaware of her language’s effects. What’s more, she calls the response to the case “sexual paranoia,” suggests that it’s motivated by misogyny rather than genuine concern for graduate students, and, with a touch of fearmongering, suggests that her case will somehow fuel male malfeasance: It “allows for patriarchy to say, ‘See, there’s a predator woman—they have libidos, too—so now leave us alone so we can go around and have our encounters with 18-year-old girls.’ ”

So much for complexity.

Laura Kipnis has suggested both that Ronell’s case might reflect our aversion to “sexual mother-monsters” and that it might not have been about sex at all. “There’s no indication that Ronell wanted sex with Reitman; there’s no indication sex took place,” Kipnis writes. “Is the emphasis on sex required because other ways of framing the story might raise human questions too complex to be settled via a lawsuit?”

This seems like one of those exciting invitations to complex thinking, so I want to take a minute to track its operative logic. There’s a “gotcha-with-statistics” quality to Kipnis’ observation that “variations on the word ‘sex’ are deployed more than 90 times” in the course of Reitman’s lawsuit despite the fact that no sex took place. Having reproduced her search myself, I note that she’s including phrases like “sexual harassment” (which accounts for 26 of those instances). Is this nuanced analysis? Does Kipnis sincerely believe that the absence of actual sex requires that we fundamentally reconceptualize sexual harassment claims as being too “complex” to be settled via a lawsuit?

It’s also unclear what Kipnis is seeing in the substance of Reitman’s complaint, which details things like: “[S]he pushed her buttocks into his groin. Ronell also kissed Reitman’s neck and mouth, several times attempting to engage in an open-mouth kiss. … During this time Reitman’s body remained tense, and he repeatedly attempted to move away from Ronell.” Or: “Ronell also grabbed Reitman’s hands and put them on her breasts, holding them in place with her own hands.”

Granted, Kipnis’ claim that “there’s no indication that Ronell wanted sex with Reitman” might make sense if her position was that Reitman was simply lying—after all, Ronell denies every allegation of physical contact. But that’s not what Kipnis is arguing. Instead, she does what many scholars arguing for complexity are doing in practice: She signals extreme skepticism of the victim’s account, calls Ronell’s critics a “mob,” mocks them for taking Reitman’s allegations at face value, and then pretends that, out of extraordinary open-mindedness, she’ll grant, “for the sake of argument, that the Ronell allegations are true.” In other words, she declares herself to have provisionally accepted that the text I quoted above is 100 percent accurate. And on its basis, she pronounces, definitively, that there is “no indication” that Ronell wanted sex.

This is not a sophisticated acknowledgment of human complexity that advances the conversation; it’s a strange and distressing refusal of the case’s basic terms.

Another of Ronell’s defenders, Slavoj Zizek, has been less shy about calling Reitman a liar while also insisting that Ronell is complex and deserves to be deeply and intelligently read and understood: “[I]n today’s academia persons with sensitivity are more and more rare. Avital’s ‘eccentricities’ are all on the surface; there is nothing sleazy hidden beneath her affected behaviour, in contrast to quite a few professors.” Does Ronell’s accuser receive this capacious acceptance of human foibles? No. Complexity only goes one way, and here is Zizek’s final word:

The only reasonable explanation I see is that he engaged in (faking) a personal friendship with her to get her help in promoting his career, and then dropped her when he didn’t get the desired results because she was ethical enough not to privilege him over others but continued to treat him professionally in professional matters—it’s as simple as that.

The smear against Reitman shines through, but I confess I did not find this formulation simple, nor do I find Ronell’s treatment of Reitman, as described, particularly “professional.” But of course, what Zizek is hinting here is actually a little more pernicious than that: By adding in professional matters, what he’s really defending is Ronell’s right to make whatever personal demands she wished on her advisee. It was Reitman’s responsibility to compartmentalize the personal from the professional, as if refusing the former wouldn’t affect the latter. To Zizek, his failure to do so—Reitman’s expectation that an adviser in his profession who made constant demands on him day and night would help him professionally—reveals him, not her, as venal and corrupt.

This, as Corey Robin notes, might be the ugliest revelation about how a certain generation of academic superstars understands their roles and responsibilities: “[T]he sex was only one part of the harassment,” Robin writes. “Ronell’s largest claims were on his time, on his life, on his attention and energy, well beyond the legitimate demands of an adviser on an advisee.” The writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus, that sometime champion of human complexity in her work, says that—though she barely knows Ronell and doesn’t seem to know Reitman at all—the latter is “hardly an innocent” because (I am paraphrasing) no doctoral student is. “No one prevented him from changing advisors,” she writes—an incredible sentence to anyone who has actually been a graduate student in the humanities. She calls the student an “empowered and privileged actor” and the senior scholar a target whose only sin was avoiding “all but the most technocratic pedagogy” in her ministrations. How … complex. This is a shame, because complexity is needed in these discussions. And I’d have expected many of the people now reproducing the predictable structures of response—which #MeToo has thankfully made visible and familiar—to be innovating on this urgent front.

Luckily, there has been rich thinking on this subject. (I recommend Natalia Cecire’s valuable meditation on how this case intersects with pedagogy and learning and Keguro Macharia’s remarkable analysis of how even queer theorists of minoritized subcultures appear to have favored status networks over their own declared priorities.) I hope there will be more. Look: I don’t know whether it’s relevant that Ronell was herself treated bizarrely by Jacques Derrida, a mentor of hers who a) defended a scholar accused of improprieties with a graduate student and b) wanted Ronell to be his personal masseur when he was sick. But I’m glad to see someone bring this up. I don’t doubt that Ronell has encountered homophobia and misogyny.
That coexists with the equally inescapable truth that she held a lot of power over her graduate students. Complexity should be granted to both parties in these discussions. One reason I wrote about Junot Díaz is that Díaz is a victim too. And if #MeToo is going to change the way we think, and not just how we identify and punish, we need to learn how to deal with cultural cycles of trauma and pain and power. I don’t know how that conversation should go. Figuring out how to reconcile compassion, due process, repair, and justice feels like exactly the sort of thing these brilliant minds would ordinarily be tackling. Instead, we’re getting hollow invocations of complexity that functionally reinforce the status quo—and righteous defenses of “due process” that privately seek to dismantle it.

However complex Reitman and Ronell’s story might be, some things are actually simple. Perhaps we can agree, at minimum, that people who claim they’ve been abused deserve to be spared drive-by character assassinations by their alleged assailants’ more famous and powerful colleagues. Let’s start there.