June 26, 2013

Understanding Harassment: A Phenomenological Definition

I wrote a post called Understanding Harassment back in March. It proved to be controversial, largely based on some choosing to ignore the following sentence:
Because of the legal implications of harassment, I believe it makes sense to begin by examining how the law defines harassment. I am not suggesting that we must restrict ourselves to a legal definition, but it at least gives us a place to start.
By ignoring that sentence, some readers managed to convince themselves that I was claiming to provide the final word on how harassment should be defined. I was not. As the post clearly stated, I was examining legal definitions as a starting point. This did not matter to Ophelia Benson or Rebecca Watson, both of whom publicly complained after someone affiliated with the Atheist Alliance International retweeted a link to my post (the details about what happened next are available here).

A Very Different View of Harassment

smoke
Waters 承燁 韓
In this post, I'd like to do what I had planned to do all along and take a look another definition of harassment. Like I said previously, what I will address in this post is not the final word but merely another step in the process. Also, what I present here is not my definition of harassment any more than the first post was.

Since the first post examined legal definitions of harassment, I wanted to move as far away from that as possible for this post. To do so, I'd like to address a fascinating view of harassment that I will label the phenomenological perspective. It begins with the assumption that there can be no general definition of harassment because its meaning is purely subjective. Harassment can only be understood from the perspective of the person being harassed.

According to this perspective, a behavior is appropriately labeled as harassment if the individual on the receiving end perceives it as such. If the recipient perceives something to be emotionally aversive and interprets it as harassment, it is harassment. As you can see, this approach is purely phenomenological in that it considers nothing outside the subjective experience of the victim.

Does this view of harassment bring us any closer to understanding its meaning or arriving at the sort of definition that might be handy in settling disputes? No, but that does not appear to be what those who use it are seeking. According to this view of harassment, definitions will vary because they must vary. They must vary because the central focus is on the unique psychological makeup and life experience of the person who is on the receiving end of the harassment. It does not matter if the behavior would not be regarded as harassment by someone else (or even anyone else) because nobody else has had exactly the same life experience as the individual asserting harassment. Thus, the "reasonable person" standard we encounter so often in the law is irrelevant here. All that really matters is whether the recipient feels harassed; if he or she feels harassed, then he or she was harassed.

At this point, I imagine that most of you are saying, "Come on! Nobody defines harassment this way." I'm not so sure about that. Based on how I have observed some people in the online atheist community talking about harassment over the past couple of years, I'd have to disagree. I will acknowledge that there seems to be some resistance among some of those who appear to be using this definition to acknowledge that they are doing so. And yet, this does appear to be what some are doing.

One Concerning Implication

phenomenology
Anton Lepashov
I find many things troubling about this phenomenological view of harassment, but I will limit myself to one at this time. It sets up a scenario where one person may be given a pass for doing exactly the same thing as someone else who is labeled a harasser. You want an example, don't you?

When Rebecca Watson publicly referred to my previous post as "unbelievably shitty," I did not experience any sort of unpleasant emotion. Why would I? Getting upset over her opinion is not something that would occur to me. I certainly did not construe her statement as involving harassment of any sort.

And yet, what if the shoe was on the other foot and I had publicly said this about something she wrote. I'd likely find myself on the page she maintains dedicated to showing off how she has been "harassed." And from what I've seen from Ophelia Benson, it seems almost certain that my characterizing her writing as "unbelievably shitty" would have been labeled as harassment or worse. Labeling things others do that she does not like as harassment seems to be part of her modus operandi. With nothing but this phenomenological view of harassment to guide us, we'd be in the strange situation of having to say that Rebecca's statement to me was no problem but me saying the exact same thing to her or to Ophelia would be harassment. This seems problematic at best.

Where does this leave us? We've explored two very different ways of looking at harassment so far. Legal definitions are narrow by design and for good reason. However, they may be too narrow for some applications. The phenomenological view addressed here is about as broad as it gets, so broad in fact that it does not seem like a very workable definition. We will need something more useful if we are to come up with a workable "common sense" approach.

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