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.
The Notion of the Creative Genius
There’s another subtext bubbling beneath the surface of the Galloway case, and that’s the notion that creative genius ought to be granted indulgence. It’s the same sentiment that continues to generate sympathy in the artistic community for people like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen — talented creative persons charged with committing vile, exploitative and abusive acts.
It’s evident in some of the discourse surrounding Galloway’s case. To be fair, many of those who signed Boyden’s open letter emphasized (many of them after the backlash) that they were not speaking to Galloway’s guilt or innocence but to the fairness of the process. Yet what ties them to Galloway is precisely his role as a creative writer; it’s unlikely any of them had protested on behalf of other professors indicted behind similarly confidential sexual harassment tribunals. Coverage of the case has sometimes emphasized Galloway’s idiosyncratically nerdy and creative personality. Kerry Gold, writing an article for The Walrus that sounds subtly biased in Galloway’s favour, cites his colleague’s depiction of a mercurial genius: “A friend who watched Galloway’s rise through the program described him as “the Steve Jobs of creative writing: entrepreneurial, driven, occasionally abrasive.” He ran the department instinctually — “management by chatting in the corridor,” says the same friend.”
Galloway himself has indirectly claimed the right to creative exceptionalism in his own literary work. He published his award-winning novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, without bothering to obtain the consent of the actual cellist of Sarajevo himself, sparking angry outrage from the man on whom the novel was based — Vedran Smailovic — when he discovered his story had been stolen and co-opted (even altered) by Galloway.
“It was like the explosion of an atomic bomb, emotions of anger and pain,” he told David Sharrock with The Australian. “How is this possible? They steal my name and identity. Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It’s quite clear that it is me in the book … I expect damages for what they have done, an apology and compensation.”
Galloway’s quotes in response are revealing.
The problem is that Smailovic took a cello on to a street in a war and that’s an extremely public act. I can’t ignore that as an artist… I don’t think that I crossed any lines about writing fictional things about a living person. I got most of my stuff off the internet… I don’t see how fiction writers can start paying their sources of inspiration. I would become a pariah of the literary world if I were to do that. I don’t even know if I owe him anything on a fiscal level.
The question of whether writers should create fiction about living people without their consent is a whole separate subject for debate. But Galloway’s comments reveal one thing: that he values his right to artistic license over his obligation to seek consent.
It’s not only in Galloway’s case that writers have rallied to support their fellows. There are other examples of writers speaking out in support of other writers in cases of sexual violence and similar forms of exploitation. In 2008, Irish author Desmond Hogan pleaded guilty to the aggravated sexual assault of a 15-year old boy. Award-winning author Colm Toibin submitted a statement in support of Hogan’s character, which was read in court, describing him as a writer “of immense power and importance who dealt with human isolation and whose work should not be underestimated.” That may very well be, but what does this have to do with his sexual assault on a young boy?
Toibin’s intervention was criticized by the organization Children At Risk Ireland (CARI), as having contributed to the leniency of Hogan’s eventual sentence (a four-year suspended sentence along with a €15k fine). “The perception is that if someone like Colm Tóibín writes a letter for you, you can end up with a suspended sentence. The perception for children is that ‘I can’t go up against someone who has a reputation,’” said CARI National Director Niall Muldoon.
But the creative genius defense was articulated most expressively last year by Bard College president Leon Botstein.
Ken Kurson, in an extensive feature for The Observer, investigated the case of a Bard chemistry professor who was disciplined for creating a hostile work environment following the complaint of a lab technician. In his feature, Kurson is critical of the closed-door processes through which the professor was investigated, and more broadly of what he calls “the silliness of the microaggression movement”. I would disagree with his conclusions, but his interviews with key participants are eye-opening.
Leon Botstein, Bard President, defended the college’s actions yet also commented on why more stringent action was not taken, and it is that which is most revealing. He states:
Later in the interview, he expands on this point:
America is a very conformist place, we want everybody to behave the same way and you cannot ask that of the University. In the University you are going to bring people who don’t do ordinary things. They study quantum mechanics. They study the nature of the universe. They ask questions ordinary people going to work every day don’t ask. They are writing poetry. They are writing novels. They are doing research about arcane aspects of medieval theology … looking once again at the texts of Sophocles. That’s not what ordinary people do. They are not ordinary people and you can’t necessarily ask them all to behave like your ideal, average citizen. They are not average citizens. You’re not going to get Pablo Picasso or Virginia Woolf or, Lord knows, Georgia O’Keefe. Forget the gender. Gertrude Stein. You’re not going to get them to play by some kind of extremely puritanical restrictive rules… The University is finding a way in the current climate to protect the fact that we are in the business of institutionalizing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge and inquiry that requires exceptional talent and eccentricity.
Here’s the argument stated baldly: an argument in favour of exceptionalism based on talent, on genius, on brilliance. But where do we draw the line? How do we decide who gets to ignore or bend our society’s rules and standards; our society’s collective determination that it is not acceptable to use racial slurs, to demean queers, to sexually assault women and children? If the creative eccentrics and wise men get a free pass, do the wealthy as well? The royalty? The elected politicians? The police? Our employers?
Exceptionalism based on creative genius or intellectual ability is just as egregious an assault on our society’s social and democratic values, and moral sense of right and wrong, as exceptionalism based on any other criteria would be. If sexual assault and harassment are wrong, it’s wrong no matter who does it.
It’s time for an end to the notion of creative exceptionalism.
Yes, universities should be tolerant of eccentricity and non-conformity. But a consensus is emerging that this tolerance does not include certain forms of oppression, including misogyny and sexual violence.
Much of the criticism of UBC’s handling of the Galloway case has — like Kurson’s critique of the Bard case — centered on the use of confidential investigations. Kurson writes that during Bard’s investigation, things “occurred that would never withstand the heat of a cross-examination.”
I signed the letter because of two words: due process,” wrote Yann Martel on the UBC Accountable website. “A student who has a complaint is entitled to due process, that is, to a process that is clear, transparent, impartial and thorough to deal with that complaint. A professor who faces an accusation is also entitled to due process. And last but not least, an institution is entitled to due process. UBC dealt with the Galloway affair in a manner shrouded in secrecy. There did not appear to be due process, and there certainly was no transparency.
Martel goes on to say that he has “no love for the patriarchy and no interest in defending over-privileged white males.” Yet so much of the language he deploys — ‘impartiality’, ‘due process’, ‘transparent’ — reflect a conventional understanding of ‘due process’ that’s inflected with patriarchal overtones; reflect faith in a legal system in which a complainant who cannot “withstand the heat of a cross-examination” (to quote Kurson) is invariably judged unreliable. As countless feminist activists have shown, this is not a paradigm that leads to justice in the context of sexual violence, which is a crime grounded in power relationships.
To be honest, people are right to be suspicious of closed-door university processes. The corporatization of the university has led to an erosion of many of its traditional democratic practices in lieu of corporate managerialism, and yes, this is a trend to be decried and resisted. Unaccountable, closed-door decision-making laced with confidentiality clauses is part and parcel of the corporate neoliberalization of the university, and there is a strong and compelling case that it should be resisted.
But that’s not what’s happening in the case of sexual harassment processes, and it’s important not to blur the distinction. Closed-door managerialism is resisted by proponents of the open university because it concentrates power. Closed-door harassment investigations, on the other hand, are employed in an effort to undermine existing power imbalances in our society (i.e., sexism, patriarchy, misogyny); imbalances which can be exacerbated by exposing them to the mass judgement and mass opinion of a society which is still indelibly shaped by sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny. Even though the tactic is the same — removing the influence of the mass public — the goal is fundamentally different. There’s no reason, therefore, why one cannot object to closed-door managerialism while at the same time supporting closed-door harassment proceedings. The latter seeks to empower the disempowered — women and other survivors of harassment and assault; the former seeks to further empower those already in power.
As one commentator with a labour background has noted, demanding the sort of transparency which writers like Boyden and Atwood are calling for “dismisses labour and privacy law. It insults the democratic due process of unions. It sets up a court of celebrity and demands a dangerous precedent: the release of private information that would erode Canadian rights and freedoms.”
’Believe Women’ — But on Whose Terms?
At the heart of some of the controversy also lies a simmering conflict over the ‘Believe Women’ movement. This movement arose in response to what advocates argued was a legal system structured to give men accused of sexual violence the advantage. At its heart it is, as Stassa Edwards recently put it on Jezebel.com, “a shorthand to implore listeners to disengage from a long history in which sexual assault victims were discredited, shamed, and denied.”
While the movement has garnered tremendous support, it has also generated opposition. Atwood’s comments in The Walrus illustrated the more crass and unsophisticated side of this argument. “To take the position that the members of a group called “women” are always right and never lie — demonstrably not true –and that members of a group called “accused men” are always guilty — Steven Truscott, anyone? — would do a great disservice to accusing women and abuse survivors, since it discredits any accusations immediately,” wrote Atwood in response to the Galloway case.
Atwood misrepresents what proponents of ‘believe women’ argue, which is not that women never lie, but that (a) the number of women who do lie pales dramatically next to the overpowering majority of men who are indeed guilty of the crimes they’re accused of; and (b) that it does a disservice to point out that women lie when the demonstrably greater problem is women who fail to get justice when sexual crimes are committed against them. As Kate Harding wrote in her manifesto Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It, “the chief strategies we employ to avoid trying and convicting innocent people accused of rape — distrust of women’s testimony, victim blaming, trivialization, and denial — neither prevent false convictions nor offer survivors of sex crimes any real hope of justice.”
A more provocative and nuanced critique was raised earlier this year by Jia Tolentino. In a brilliant and deeply thought-provoking article on Jezebel.com, she explored the case of Thomas Sayers Ellis, a poet and former professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Anonymous accusations of assault and harassment against him were collected and posted on the website of the women’s literary advocacy group VIDA. The pieces were uncorroborated but powerful and damning.
Tolentino’s concern lies in blurring the line between journalism and activism. If a journalist were able to corroborate claims of harassment and assault, she argues, it offers an incredibly powerful blow for justice. Posting uncorroborated reports like VIDA did, she suggests, is a case of activism trying to claim the persuasive power of journalism, but without the more widely accepted standards of journalism. Therein lies her concern.
Our awareness of the prevalence and magnitude of sexual assault has outpaced the systems that expose and adjudicate it. It’s incredibly difficult to match these two things up. But for activism to carry the authority of journalism — or for journalism with an activist conclusion to work — there are basic practices that can’t be set aside. Noble goals can be quickly rendered immaterial: Rolling Stone should’ve been enough to teach us that good intentions — that “believing women” — can end up hurting them dramatically in the end.
And believing a woman, anyway, isn’t the same as supporting her. Supporting a woman means strengthening her position, and the women who spoke to VIDA have been presented on shaky ground.
Tolentino produces a masterpiece of reporting, investigating the Ellis case and demonstrating through her own powerful work the type of journalism she suggests can be more effective in combating misogyny and sexual violence. But what ultimately emerges, as she notes herself, is a difference in perspective on how and on whose terms women ought to confront harassers. That, she notes, is where she and VIDA differ.
We agree on almost everything: that the legacy of bad men in creative fields is onerous and near-universal; that it’s terrifying that whispers about an important and inappropriate man can circle for decades without anyone doing anything; that any man who repeatedly takes advantage of his power over women should be called to account.
We agree, even, that institutions have failed women so dramatically that we’ve reached this particular state of things — where a deeply flawed but pragmatically essential hierarchy of systems is beginning to be reversed. We believe that the police system fails women, that the courts fail women, that institutions fail women. But on the next step, we differ, and significantly. VIDA, and many of the women who spoke to VIDA, believe that this “guerrilla activism” is the only option; that asking women to present their stories in any other way than the way they’ve decided to — any other way than what makes them feel most comfortable — is infantilizing, and re-traumatizing, and asking too much, and wrong.
Tolentino raises the very pragmatic concern that such methods, which blur the line between activism and journalism, could backfire in a broader sense.
This is a method of “believing women” that will contribute to a wider disbelief of women. Forget journalistic standards, even — if we move towards establishing anonymous accusation as a moral gold standard, it will weaken our position in the end… When the goals are crucial, the execution is even more so. We finally have people listening; we are finally in front of a set of wider cultural values that make it possible to end the era of the important, inappropriate literary man. And it’s not fair in a larger sense that women bear the procedural responsibility I’m asking for. It’s horrifically unfair that so much more is asked of victims than rapists, who, as one blogger pointed out, get to be “anonymous guerrillas” no matter what.
But there is no righting that wrong through blurred methods, through asking informal testimony to bear an institutional burden. There is too much at stake here for a woman who comes forward to be put in the position where anyone could say — as people tend to, and as we continue to make possible, through a scrim of good intentions — that it’s not quite clear what she’s talking about.
Tolentino makes a far better and more thoughtfully articulated case for greater transparency than Margaret Atwood does. Yet it’s important, too, to consider a point by Kat Stoeffel that Tolentino quotes in her feature. Stoeffel wrote a powerful article in The Cut in 2014 on rape scandals in the ‘alt-lit’ community. Toward the end, she poses a key question: What is it the women who present public accusations aim to achieve? If they were seeking to ruin the lives of the men they accuse, she says, they would press charges instead of just making public accusations. “But what it seems most women want is to warn other women about a category of jerk courts have no name for: a guy who can’t be trusted not to exploit his power over her.”
Stoeffel’s comment is particularly resonant in the context of the Galloway case. Tolentino and Stoeffel both highlight important aspects of the present dilemma: the legal system hasn’t caught up to society’s growing demand for an end to masculine and sexualized power. Indeed, the fact that our legal systems are so incapable of meeting the challenge posed by masculine, sexualized power indicates the degree to which they were shaped by men who accepted the exertion of that power as natural and acceptable. A revolution in social attitudes has occurred, but the revolution in our legal structures has not kept pace. What, then, are we to do?
This brings us back to the Galloway case, and to the plight of campus sexual harassment tribunals such as that which took place at UBC. Because the one thing we can do is try to develop new methods of tackling masculine and sexualized power. Sexual harassment processes at universities are trying to do that. They’re doing it slowly, stiltedly, and stumbling as they go. Some are doing it better than others. Too many are not doing it at all. But at least what we are seeing on campuses is the beginning of an effort to fill the gap around sexualized violence from which our legal structures currently suffer. University sexual harassment processes aren’t perfect, but they at least are an experiment — an effort — to come up with a new way of tackling this problem that the legal system is so ill-prepared to tackle.
Herein lies part of the damage Boyden, Atwood and the other writers are doing by attacking UBC’s handling of the Galloway case. By rallying to the defense of their friend and colleague, and demanding some vaguely articulated Hollywood stereotype of courtroom ‘due process’, they are attacking University of British Columbia’s effort to do the right thing. This is no paean to UBC — it’s an enormous, corporatized, monstrosity of a neoliberal university with atrociously high tuition fees and a campus that’s sometimes been called the biggest construction site in Canada. But whatever its other faults, it’s most determinedly not doing what the writers are accusing it of, i.e., behaving in a Kafka-esque fashion. What it is doing is trying, finally, to take seriously a problem for which no easy, widely agreed upon judicial solution exists.
UBC’s actions need to be considered in light of a broader backdrop. In November 2015 the school was the subject of a CBC special documentary about the institution’s failure to respond adequately to sexual harassment complaints. At the time, it even lacked a sexual harassment policy. In this CBC is not alone. A 2014 investigation by the Toronto Star revealed only nine out of 78 Canadian universities surveyed had sexual assault policies. A survey by the Globe and Mail earlier this year showed that less than ten percent of harassment complaints on campuses even lead to formal investigations (less than one percent at some institutions). In early 2016 the CBC reported on the shocking case of a student at Brock University in Ontario who was sexually assaulted by a professor and warned by her university not to go public about it.
The point is, UBC’s taking the Galloway case so seriously is, sadly, the exception when it comes to Canadian universities, not the norm. The knee-jerk reaction of the literary establishment is not going to have the effect of protecting other writers from persecution which those writers seem to think it’s about; rather it’s likely to have the effect of causing universities to think twice before taking serious action in the face of sexual assault complaints.
That is a far greater harm than the dented reputation of a rich and powerful white man.