I’ve been rather appalled at the Hugo Schwyzer story that has been unfolding unpleasantly lately, but since Ms. Daisy Cutter brought it up and Comrade Physioprof has a good post on it, I thought I’d throw in a few words to the pigpile.
Schwyzer is a professor who lectures on feminism…he’s also a professor who had sex with his students and who tried to murder an ex-girlfriend. We could stop right there; just those acts alone make him contemptible. But for some unfathomable reason, he now makes money lecturing women on feminist ethics and patriarchal culture; would you believe that the title of one of his lectures is “Holding Men Accountable”? And now many people are arguing that he should be recognized as a useful ally for women, that we should forgive and move on, and recognize him as a changed and better person.
The ideas that forgiveness and redemption are things we should be granting, that we have the power to grant, that all they require is confession and repentance, that they are things we have a duty to grant each other–those all seem to me to come out of a system of cultural values deeply invested in Christianity, with its emphasis on redemption and repentance. There is, of course, some good to be said of those ideas, but they are also ideas that should be interrogated, because they can be used as an excuse to celebrate abusers and silencing their victims. There are people whom I feel no need to forgive, both personally and in a political sense. Many people felt no need to forgive Christopher Hitchens. Nobody has a right to forgiveness from anybody, and forgiveness in and of itself is not necessarily a virtue.
(I’ve always found the whole Christian emphasis on forgiveness really strange, given their other emphasis on ETERNAL TORTURE FOREVER in the pit of hell for sinners; the ancient Egyptians just annihilated you if you were found morally wanting after death, which seems far more merciful to me.)
I do not forgive Schwyzer, nor do I feel any obligation to try to forgive. He screwed up unconscionably, he violated trusts once, and right now his work on feminism reeks of continuing exploitation. His confession does not reassure me.
My behavior with students from 1996-98 was unacceptable for a male feminist and, for that matter, an ethical person. The question is whether the penalty for that ought to be a lifetime ban from teaching gender studies, or writing about the subjects I write about. Some feminists feel yes, it should be. I disagree, but only because so many wonderful feminist mentors of mine have encouraged me to stay in this work.
At the time that he was exploiting his students for sex, he also knew that his academic mentors regarded that as an extreme violation of ethics — it’s one of those behaviors that can warrant stripping tenure from a faculty member, and we all know that we have a great deal of power over student careers, power that it would be unjust to take advantage of, yet he went ahead and screwed his students anyway. So now he listens to what his mentors say when they tell him what he wants to hear?
I don’t understand why he still holds a job in academia. I especially don’t understand why he’s permitted to teach in a field in which he’s surrounded every day by women students. If he were looking for real redemption, if he really wanted to atone for the abuse of his position, he ought to remove himself from the profession he violated and try to earn respect elsewhere. Maybe he should be the best plumber he can be, or the very best surfer, or a most excellent construction worker, all respectable professions. But he’s already burned all of his bridges as an academic.