Tag Archives: Violence and Abuse

On sexual harassment: Revisiting Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’

14 May

Helen Garner The First Stone

Published in 1995, Helen Garner’s account of the scandal surrounding the then Master of Melbourne University’s Ormond College, Dr Colin Shepherd, after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him by two female students, is agonisingly current all these years later, and ought to be read and re-read by anyone interested in feminism, sexual harassment, and power in human relationships.

The book opens with the transcript of Dr Shepherd’s first police interview, after the women lodged complaints of indecent assault against him. Ultimately, the charges against him were dismissed, it being concluded that it was a question of “oath against oath.”  Shepherd subsequently lost his job, became “too hot” for anyone to employ, and his wife and children suffered appallingly as a consequence of the media circus.

Throughout the book, Garner asks the question, why did the women take this matter to the police as a first resort?  Melbourne University did at that time have procedures in place to address complaints of sexual harassment. Garner interviews the outgoing Women’s Officer of the Student Union:

“I asked her my forlorn but crucial question: how and why did the police get involved in this case? She answered me with a firm statement.

‘The procedures here didn’t lead to justice…The procedures at the moment,’ she said, ‘are structured so that you get an apology and you get the behaviour to stop – and that’s all.’

‘Isn’t that already quite a lot?’

She looked at me narrowly. ‘I’m against people having to go through conciliation before there can be retribution.’

‘Retribution?’ The Old Testament word took my breath away. 

‘If you want some form of justice,’ she went on, ‘for the harasser to be punished, you’re seen as asking too much. You’re being “nasty.”‘

‘What sort of punishment would you envisage?’

‘In the industrial award for academics,’ she said, ‘there’s a clause that deals with serious misconduct. Dismissal is appropriate if the charge is found to be proven – and if it’s harassment that constitutes an assault.’

‘Assault?’ I repeated, confused. ‘Dismissal.’

The Women’s Officer, Christine G-, explains “icily” to Garner that young women don’t have the knowledge or power to control exchanges between themselves and harassing lecturers and tutors.

‘As you get older,’ [says Garner] you begin to understand that a lot of men in harassment situations are weak. You realise that behind what you saw as a force, all those years, there’s actually a sort of terrible pathos. Blokes who come onto girls are putting themselves out on a limb – their self is at risk. You start to learn that women have got a particular power of their own, if only they knew it.’

‘A girl in her first tute,’ she [Christine G] said stubbornly, ‘doesn’t know that.’

‘That’s true – but our job as feminists is to teach them this, surely. To a woman of my age, blokes who behave as Colin Shepherd was accused of doing aren’t scary, or powerful. They’re just poor bastards.

She bristled. ‘They may be “just poor bastards”, but they’ve abused their power. Sexual harassment is ultimately not about sex. It’s about power.’

Of course these problems are real, Garner writes. Every woman knows it. But this constant stress on passivity and weakness – this creation of a political position based on the virtue of helplessness – I hate it.”

Garner incurred great feminist wrath on the publication of her book. She encountered great feminist wrath throughout its writing: doors were slammed in her face by women close to the situation, and she was never able to interview the two women at the heart of the matter. As Garner makes clear many times, she wanted to understand the experiences of the two complainants. She wanted to hear their side of the story, and why they had acted as they did, for example, refusing to take the matter to the Equal Opportunity Commission until after it had been dealt with in the courts and dismissed, rather than before. At every turn, she is met with hostility, rage and icy dismissal. She writes:

“What sort of feminists were these, what sort of intellectuals, who expected automatic allegiance from women to a cause they were not even prepared to argue?”

During the writing of the book, Garner takes a job with Time Australia, reporting the trial of a man accused of having murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. She writes:

“The horrors I heard in the Supreme Court each day threw the Ormond story into merciless perspective…it seemed the site of an absurd, hysterical tantrum, a privileged kids’ paddy.”

Garner is unable to obtain an answer to her question as to why the complainants:

“…charged past conciliation into the traditional masculine style of problem-solving: call in the cops, split off the nuances of character and relevant context, and hire a cowboy to slug it out for you in the main street at noon, with all the citizenry watching.”

Garner’s book sprang into my mind yesterday, after thinking about how the matter of the offensive tweets I posted yesterday was handled, and after reading commenters’ responses to that post. The situations hold different positions on a continuum: Dr Shepherd was charged with indecent assault after allegedly fondling a young woman’s breast. Garner reports that the young woman:

“…told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to, here?”

Perhaps what needs to be said today was said by Garner at the end of her book, in 1995:

“…I know that between ‘being made to feel uncomfortable’ and ‘violence against women’ lies a vast range of male and female behaviours. If we deny this, we enfeeble language and drain it of its meaning. We insult the suffering of women who have met real violence, and we distort the subtleties of human interaction into caricatures that can serve only as propaganda for war. And it infuriates me that any woman who insists on drawing these crucial distinctions should be called a traitor to her sex.”

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On violence against women

25 Nov

Nothing we have done so far has reduced violence against women.

Nothing.

Does this suggest that we are missing something?

Gillard government guidelines say women don’t commit domestic violence: in On Line Opinion today.

5 Jul

In On Line Opinion this morning, I press on with my solitary mission to bring some reality into the Gillard government’s National Plan to reduce Violence against women and their children.

It’s a dark and lonely job but someone has to do it.

Every time I take this on, especially on the Drum, I’m called anti feminist (that’s an insult these days?) an apologist for rapists, a”man fondler” who is determined to attack feminism any way I can; of having a prick in my head and various other slings and arrows shot at me by women who call themselves feminists.

Yet I remain strangely unaffected.

Workplace Bullying: Blowing the Whistle on Conspiracies of Silence

14 Jan

Stewart Hase

 

By Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

There is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to workplace bullying. In the many thousands of words recently written about bullying at work in the local press the conspiracy has been maintained.

A conspiracy of silence occurs when everyone knows that bad behaviour is occurring but there is a tacit decision not to talk about it and certainly not to do anything. It was first used to describe incest in families and, more recently, other forms of abuse. People don’t do anything because they don’t want to rock the boat, to avoid conflict, and because it is just too hard. Sadly, by not speaking up or doing anything the observers validate the perpetrator and invalidate the victim.

As I have often seen in clinical practice, the effect of these conspiracies on the victims is monstrous. The victim feels as if he or she is somehow at fault, they are confused, and feel alone and unsupported. Most importantly they come to feel powerless and it is this that results in anxiety and depression, the most common effects of being bullied.

In all that is written about bullying at work there are two major conspiracies of silence that result in enormous pain and suffering for victims. It also seems that workmates who see the bullying can also be badly affected resulting in significant symptoms on their part too.

The first gaping silence is that senior managers in organisations prefer not to do anything about bullies. This conspiracy of silence occurs despite the fact that bullying is against the law and CEOs and boards of directors are in fact culpable by not acting. It is interesting to watch an organisation move a victim of bullying to another branch or even another job, and leave the bully in place: even after admitting openly that the bullying has occurred. Sometimes, it is easier to call a case of bullying a personality conflict and call in a mediator. The damage these behaviours do to the victim is enormous.

It’s also common to blame the victim. This is easy because the bullied worker has repeatedly made complaints, as instructed by the legislation and the bullying literature that is laying on the coffee table in the CEO’s waiting area. The victim, who has become increasingly distressed over time, can be simplistically labelled as unstable or over-sensitive: a troublemaker. Let’s not forget too that bullies often pick on already vulnerable people who might have a reputation already for being oversensitive.

There have been some notorious bullies in organisations in and around Lismore that have been allowed to get away with bullying behaviour time and time again: I have seen many of their victims at the clinic. Many of these bullies get promoted. There are also large numbers of senior managers that know that their staff are being bullied but do nothing. Under the legislation they are just as culpable as the bully and their organisation can be fined many thousands of dollars. But they still engage in the conspiracy and more often than not put the fox in charge of the chook shed.

The preferred personality profile of a successful manager (or one on the way up) appears to be someone who is aggressive, dominant, single minded, achievement-oriented, and task focused. Throw in a little pinch of narcissism, low empathy for others and an unsatisfied need for power and this is a nasty recipe for bullying behaviour. These are not easy people to deal with which makes it so much easier to turn the blind eye. Bullies often appear so good at their job and they create the right relationships with the right people to protect themselves.

And it happens every day in organisations in which we all work. In a recent case a colleague of mine was told by the human resource manager of her organisation that it would be better to let a case of bullying drop because it was against a very senior manager. The reason being that the consequences would not be worth it in the end.

The other conspiracy involves an unholy alliance between the organisation and the insurance company. Despite the pretty advertisements insurance companies want to avoid liability. To do this they will find any excuse to blame the victim rather than make the workplace deal with the problem. Everyone’s a winner: the insurance company doesn’t have to pay out and the organisation’s premiums are protected.

The main way this is done is to find a pre-existing condition in the victim such as a history of previous abuse, anxiety, depression, previous bullying or any other negative behaviour. This is then used as a means of blaming the victim. This is easy to do by running an unbalanced investigation and being highly selective with ‘the evidence’.  For someone who has genuinely been bullied at work this outcome is extremely damaging.

It is time for the conspiracies of silence to be broken. Those with the power to act need to make the hard decision and deal with the perpetrator rather than leaving it up to the victim who is already disempowered.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

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