Photo courtesy of Sara Ahmed
In May of 2016, Sara Ahmed left her position as a professor at Goldsmiths University in protest of the manner in which the school handled — or rather, failed to handle — the problem of sexual harassment. On February 13, Ahmed delivered a lecture to over 200 UCLA students and faculty members entitled “Complaint as Diversity Work”, outlining the ways in which sexual harassment complaints are often manipulated by the very institutions that house the abuse.
One of Ahmed’s most well-known mediums is her website, a research blog chronicling her work over the past 5 years. A self proclaimed “feminist killjoy,” Ahmed is an acclaimed scholar and writer dedicated to spreading and reconstructing feminist theory. Her most recent research explores the intricacies of complaints in the workplace. By Ahmed’s definition, complaint is “what we have to make because of how a space is occupied.” That is to say, we must put into the record that which we do not want to reproduce. Often, the behaviors and cultures that are referenced in complaints have to do with sexual harassment, an area in which most, if not all, institutions fall short in properly addressing.
Ahmed began her lecture by speaking about the concepts of use and institutional mechanics. She introduced the idea that use does not always necessarily correspond to its intended function; for example, in the context of institutions, formal complaints are just that — a formality. At a glance, complaints can be perceived as a welcome mark of progression: an outlet for the voiceless, a way to express discontent, a step in the right direction. However, this is usually not the case. Generally, explained Ahmed, complaints are allowed to be made so that they can promptly be contained. Substantial action is rarely taken, and the solution is often to subtly shift the blame onto the complainer for failing to amicably resolve the issue independently. Ahmed referenced a participant in her research who shared her own experiences with coming forward at her university, and, after bravely coming forward with a case of sexual assault, was asked to “talk it out” with her abuser over a cup of tea.
Unfortunately, it is too often the case that coming forward with sexual harassment complaints comes at a high cost. In a university setting, this usually means having to choose between filing a complaint and pursuing a degree. Many participants who contributed to Ahmed’s research noted feeling trapped in this double bind. Hesitancy to come forward with complaints is nothing new; in fact, it is only recently with the increasing traction of the #MeToo movement that many celebrities and high-profile individuals have felt empowered to speak up. However, time, money, stability, and esteem are privileges that make coming forward more feasible.
Ahmed called on institutions, specifically in the academic realm, to do better. As her research progresses, the useless nature of complaints is becoming more apparent. The inherent conflation of the goals of the institution and of the abuser — to put a lid on a complaint, so to speak — aligns the two. In other words, filing a complaint to an institution can be likened to filing a complaint to your abuser. So how are we to break this cycle? According to Ahmed, sometimes a damaged reputation is not only welcome, it is necessary. At the end of her lecture, she noted that public support and outcry, such as that which she received after leaving her position at Goldsmiths, is often the best way to spread feminist discourse — and that if an institution’s reputation would be damaged, perhaps it should be.