Ten Myths About Harassment

pieterhpieterh wrote on 10 Nov 2015 19:56


Today I watched a revealing video of Yale students with a professor. The mob insult and harangue someone with decades of experience defending free speech. It goes on far too long and leaves us disturbed. These young people act like a pampered, idiot mob. And yet you cannot deny their deep anger. Who is the harasser, and who the harassed, in this video?

Comments are welcome

I'm going to propose one answer at the end of article. First, a typical definition: "Harassment is any form of unwanted and unwelcome behaviour which may range from mildly unpleasant remarks to physical violence." You should immediately see a problem: it is broad and subjective (violence apart). Next, let me suggest ten myths about harassment. These are claims or assumptions people often make when discussing harassment.

1. Harassment equals discrimination

Discrimination is prejudgment of individuals based on recognizable yet irrelevant criteria: ethnic origin, gender, religion, appearance, etc. It is often accompanied with harassment, used to implement discriminatory policies. Yet these are not the same. Much, even most harassment has no element of discrimination.

2. Harassment is a gender/race issue

This is the same myth, restated in terms of the feminist and "minority" struggles against discrimination. The danger with this myth is that it misses the bulk of harassment, misunderstands it, and ironically, makes it harder to fix. Worse, the myth splits us. We solve harassment together, not divided.

3. Harassment is rare so it's irrelevant

In fact slow, methodical harassment is widespread. It is often covert and indirect: violence against our time, space or belongings. Lies and distortion of events. Attacks on our reputation. Neglect of us and our environment. Intrusions into our privacy. We are so blunted by this that we shrug and dismiss harassment as inevitable.

4. Harassment is an inevitable part of life

While harassment is common, it is not inevitable. Many groups are free of it. Yet others are riven by it. I've seen both cases in my work with communities. It shows in people being broadly happy, or broadly miserable. Consider it a form of infectious disease that can hit anyone, and the goal to be 100% eradication. It takes science, knowledge, and patience to cure a disease.

5. Harassment is obvious when you see it

Since we've learned to unsee harassment, we assume it must be dramatically visible when it happens. In fact, most harassment is a chain of small, almost invisible acts spread out over time. The drama comes at times, yet it hides the far larger burden of costs. Looking for drama is counter-productive. We must instead look for damage.

6. Anyone can be the harasser

Like the best myths this is half-true. We're all capable of joining a mob, as in that video. Temporary power over others can be addictive: see how predatory that mob is. Yet most harassment is a long term, focused activity. Anyone with empathy is jolted when they realize they are hurting someone else. It can take a while for empathy to react. We can all make mistakes, yet most of us self-correct.

7. Harassment is a motiveless act

Harassment is driven by a hunger for power, unencumbered by empathy for others. It is the tool of a small slice of people who use it to capture victims, attack rivals, discredit critics, and divide opposition. Such people learn the techniques young, and practice them all their lives. They are almost invisible, except by the damage they do to others.

8. Adults will police each other

Sometimes this works, yet it is not reliable. People tend to accept the word of the most dominant, charismatic individual in a group or couple. Charming lies survive for years. Did you learn the tongue taste map at school? It is 100% bogus. If the harasser is assertive, they can turn a mob into their tool. Most of us are too polite, afraid, and timid to police others.

9. Outlawing harassment will stop it

There are those who follow rules and social mores. And there are those who disrespect others, and harass them when it suits. Bullying is banned in every civilized school, yet is widespread. Rules without fair and accurate enforcement is worse than no rules. Harassers are the first to exploit poor rules and weak authority.

10. We don't need rules, we have manners

Look at anti-harassment rules differently. They are not to tell the harasser what not to do. Rather, they are to tell the rest of us when to ask for help. Weak rules say, "Don't do A or B." Good rules say, "X and Y are not acceptable. If this happens to you, follow procedure Z."


I'm a reluctant authoritarian, assuming everyone has the freedom to walk away from corrupt authorities. I've seen groups riven by harassment (like the FFII I was president of for two years), and groups almost entirely free of it (like the ZeroMQ community). The difference is not accidental.

In my experience, the cure for harassment is a mix of a clear contract, impartial and neutral enforcement, education, and freedom. The most plausible punishment is exclusion (banishment), giving a perpetrator time and chance to self-correct, apologize, and prove their goodwill. Education means teaching people about the underlying models of harassment, to recognize distress in themselves and others, and to respond to it appropriately. Freedom means the ability to leave and form new groups, if authority is corrupt.

In the video, I guess the harasser is one of the louder students attacking the professor. He or she is using the situation to build up power over their peer group, and over the faculty. They're using the professor as an easy common enemy, to create emotions. They already have a slice of the crowd as followers. Tomorrow, a bunch more. Their goal is to use the entire campus as a power base. It's practice. They'll graduate to business or politics.


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