The Globe and Mail calls it a “civil war” in the ‘CanLit’ community. The sexual harassment and assault complaints against award-winning writer Steven Galloway have erupted into a national debate in Canada, one that speaks powerfully to the persistent and lingering presence of misogyny and patriarchy in our creative and scholarly spheres.
A Brief Re-Cap for Those Just Tuning In…
The case began unfolding in November 2015. Galloway (author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and The Confabulist, among others) was suspended from his position as head of the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia (UBC), located in Vancouver Canada, pending an investigation for “serious allegations” which were later revealed by media investigations to involve sexual harassment and sexual assault. The university tasked former BC Supreme Court judge Mary Ellen Boyd to conduct an investigation. The investigation was conducted confidentially and Boyd’s report has never been publicly released. However, following its completion in April 2016 the university fired Galloway in June on the basis of that report. Although the report has not been released, nor the allegations made public, Galloway himself has admitted that one of the accusations was for sexual assault, and has also claimed that the only allegation which Boyd’s investigation substantiated was that of a two-year affair with a student.
In November 2016 fellow author Joseph Boyden wrote an open letter attacking UBC for its treatment of Galloway and accusing the university of denying Galloway “due process”; the open letter has been signed by over 90 of Galloway’s prominent colleagues in the literary community, including Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Madeleine Thein, and others. The letter was posted on the website UBC Accountable, which purports to be “Seeking Clarity & Fairness In UBC’s Handling Of The Steven Galloway Case”.
The letter, and its signatories, were in turn attacked by other writers and commentators, who argued the signatories’ support of Galloway promoted rape culture and undermined efforts to combat sexual assault. (”Prominent authors face backlash over letter to UBC over Steven Galloway firing” / “Writers, Do Better” / “Margaret Atwood & Others Draw Criticism for Signing a Letter Supporting a Writer Accused of Sexual Assault”) The open letter in support of Galloway even sparked a counter-open-letter in opposition to it. (”Open Counter-Letter About the Steven Galloway Case at UBC”)
It’s been widely pointed out that the dispute bears the marks of a generational rift, with a preponderance of older, established writers rallying around Galloway and a wave of younger writers denouncing them. It’s divided progressive icons against literary icons, too: national progressive magazine Briarpatch terminated Boyden’s role as judge of its annual creative writing contest after he penned the open letter.
Galloway and his faculty union are grieving the firing. On 23 November he issued an oblique statement, in which he again claimed that the only allegation to be substantiated by Boyd’s confidential report was one of a two-year affair with a student and that Boyd found “on the balance of probabilities” he had not committed sexual assault (remember, the report has not been made public, so we have only Galloway’s word for what it contained). The statement said he “profoundly regrets his conduct and wishes to apologize for the harm that it has caused.”
In response, the former student who filed a sexual assault complaint against him and who remains anonymous issued a statement through her lawyers, saying her complaint was not about a consensual affair. “Mr. Galloway has issued an apology. But he wouldn’t appear to be apologizing for the finding he has admitted was made against him by Ms. Boyd, which was misconduct for ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour with a student’: conduct which is an abuse of trust and his position of power.”
Save the Writer?
While the case continues to unfold—the grievance filed by Galloway’s faculty union is now going to arbitration—the involvement of Canada’s literary community has sparked a powerful and controversial national debate, with many younger and emerging writers rallying against those in the literary establishment who have closed ranks around Galloway. It’s worth scrutinizing why so many established writers would put their own reputations on the line to defend him. Atwood in particular has drawn criticism, partly because some of her fans now feel the author of the feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale (among many other works) has betrayed the feminist principles they respected her for, and partly because unlike some of the original signatories who removed their names from the open letter following the backlash, she has actively defended her support for Galloway on social media and in unrepentant public statements.
It’s not surprising that a group of writers has rallied so quickly to the defense of one of their own. There’s a long heritage of writers being persecuted for their ideas, and ostracized for pushing the boundaries of convention. Writers throughout history have challenged norms of gender and sexuality, opposed racism and colonialism, and expanded space for marginal viewpoints. Those writers and other creative producers who made it possible to hold progressive ideas and act upon them often paid a dire cost for challenging convention or defending unpopular ideas, from imprisonment to poverty to death.
So rallying to the defense of an embattled writer is an almost instinctive response for many of us. So much so that these writers have missed an important distinction. Galloway is not being criticized for his ideas, or for defending a persecuted viewpoint. He’s being criticized for what he is purported to have done—for his actions. The allegations are not that he inappropriately stood up for the persecuted, but that he deployed his enormous privilege as a wealthy white male celebrity in inappropriate and abusive ways. He’s not a romantic, poverty-stricken Victorian-era poet being persecuted for queer love. He’s a rich white man being investigated over whether he abused his position of power in an elitist, white, masculine, heteronormative institution.
The distinction is crucial.
When authors have faced persecution historically, it’s been for challenging structures of power: the Church, anti-Semitism, monarchism, heteronormativity. When authors face accusations of sexual harassment, they are being accused of something totally different: using structures of power to exploit others. The two are entirely different. The closer analogy would be that of a writer accused of being apologetic for a fascist regime. Because misogyny and sexual violence are part of a regime of power that has held sway for far too long.
In the Galloway case, two of the spheres most prone to abusive and exploitative behaviour have collided: the university, and the creative field. This is not to say that other fields are profoundly more equitable or safe—the dearth of women in professional trades, computer programming, municipal governance, or so many other fields, attest to that—but that the university and the creative fields cling to particular values that make it extremely difficult to combat abusive and harassing behaviours. They are both fields where making inroads and success are incumbent on subjective approval of designated gatekeepers and informal support networks. Much like esoteric guilds of old, the blessing of an aged white patriarch—for they are still mostly old, still mostly white and still mostly men—can mean instant success; the withholding of a blessing can mean you’re consigned to an uncertain and unlikely future.
In the university, much as we try to convince ourselves success is based on merit, it’s mostly not. Only a handful (a fingerful, in some disciplines) of substantive scholarships exist; these are key to having the time and leisure to pursue meaningful research, or to being offered a publishing opportunity with your name next to a senior professor’s. These, in turn, are key to getting the slim chance at a lectureship; all of this is key to getting a slim chance at a tenure-track job. None of these rewards which open the gates of opportunity are really awarded based on merit, since no objective method for measuring merit in the higher levels of academia exists (some would argue that no truly objective method can or should even exist); they are all awarded based on the subjective approval of other, mostly senior scholars.
Likewise the creative field. In literature, the chance approval of mentors gives you an ‘in’ with published journals or collections; a word of approval with a publisher gets you a book contract; a positive review means the book might actually get distributed. Again, established gatekeepers (and again, mostly white and male) play a key role, controlling the gates based on their very subjective tastes.
Both fields purport to ground success in merit, and yes, there are occasions when this is true: when a runaway bestseller emerges on the strength of the text alone, or where a student stumbles into a scholarship on the basis of grades or equity considerations, rather than currying favour with a prof. But they are still exceedingly rare, and both fields have tended to institutionalize reliance on gatekeeping mentors rather than work to create new systems that remove broad discretion and power from the hands of wealthy white men.
All this generates a terrain that’s extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by those at the top. By rallying around him in the name of ‘due process’, Galloway’s colleagues are more likely to have the effect of entrenching a system of power that disempowers the vulnerable. Galloway already enjoys the considerable protections and benefits of this system of power—he’s a wealthy and successful writer who’s merely lost one of his titles—and the bulk of the media attention swirling around him has stemmed from his colleagues’ outspoken and controversial actions in his defense.
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