Commentary | Against the Post-Graduate Secret Society

Mismeasuring reputation and shifting shame

At the May 1 Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) council meeting, the Board of Directors (BoD) issued a report calling for the removal of Equity Commissioner Gretchen King, a result of its months-long investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made by one member of the PGSS Executive Council against another. PGSS Council rejected the recommendation by a narrow vote. During deliberations, the Board repeatedly reminded PGSS representatives that its recommendation was not based on the efficacy of King’s tenure (which it complimented), nor was it a reflection of the veracity of the allegations (which it deemed false). Rather, the Board sought King’s removal because she had notified The Daily of the harassment claims.

Noah Billick, the External Director of the PGSS BoD, stated that there is no question McGill’s reputation has been damaged. We need to ask: how has our reputation been damaged? The Board alluded to national news coverage of the harassment allegations. One PGSS council member spoke incredulously of being asked about the allegations while at a conference in British Columbia. But what are we meant to be embarrassed about? Are we ashamed of the possibility that harassment occurs within our institution, or of being an institution whose harassment charges are public? The Board’s preoccupation with media coverage privileges PGSS’s public image over its integrity.

Let’s consider how conveniently the Board’s report dispatches with both sources of its embarrassment – it punishes the person who brought public attention to the question of harassment even while it concludes that no form of harassment has taken place. Brendan Keith, PGSS Mathematics and Statistics Representative, responded to the report by citing the statistical improbability of a false harassment claim. Keith had the foresight to reframe the Board’s report by asking whether PGSS’s rejection of the allegations could further hurt its reputation, particularly should the allegations be found true by a court of law.

We must ask whose reputation the Board seeks to protect: its own, PGSS representatives’, or the PGSS student body’s? The Board may like these interests to be one and the same, but what happens when they conflict? The Board stated that making harassment allegations public damages the alleged perpetrators as well as the victims – a dangerous supposition when leveled at victims of abuse to shame them into silence.

In attempting to punish King, the Board sought to transfer the shame associated with sexual harassment away from the organization and onto the person who speaks out about cultures of abuse. Shame is a key emotion for scholars who study public feeling, because it incorporates both the personal and social; public shaming is a punitive exercise through which a social body expresses disapproval of its members. Affect theorist Elspeth Probyn connects ‘shame’ to ‘sham,’ reminding us that both words derive from the Gothic Scham, meaning ‘to cover up the face.’ The Board’s efforts to have King punitively removed was indeed a sham; her removal would have signified definitive action taken by the Board without actually rectifying the PGSS Council’s climate of incivility – a climate which has led not only to charges of sexual harassment, but to the dismissal of those charges by a body of authority.

Rather than rectify this pervasive climate at PGSS, outlined in the Art History & Communication Studies Graduate Student Association’s letter to The Daily (“Denouncing PGSS’s anti-democratic culture,” Commentary, May 8), the Board’s report confirms it. While the Board stated that no one involved in the allegations behaved well, it sought the expulsion of only a single member whom had caused the Board difficulty. At the May 1 meeting, board members repeatedly stressed the inconvenience that the investigation had caused them, as well as their indignity at having to speak to the media, appearing to regard it as a nuisance. More distressingly, despite its own admission that it is unsuited to conduct a proper investigation (with neither appropriate legal power nor institutional protocol), the Board had no qualms rejecting the veracity of the allegations.

The mark of a reputable organization is a healthy internal culture, not a media blackout on potentially damaging issues. When interpersonal conflicts arise, we need respectful and transparent protocol for addressing them. Citing shame that has accrued to the institution’s public image, the Board has instead opted for hierarchical secrecy and finger-pointing.

We are not ashamed of PGSS’s public image – we are ashamed of its petty leadership.

Li Cornfeld is a PhD student in Communication Studies, and Saelan Twerdy is a PhD student in Art History.


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