Cutting Yourself Off

Talking to those who have made complaints about abuses of power within universities has already taught me so much.(1) Complaint is feminist pedagogy. Listening to those who have been through a complaint process – not all of whom have been able to complete that process – has taught me what might seem obvious (and the obvious is often obscured by being obvious): the reasons making a complaint is difficult are the same reasons that making a complaint is necessary. A complaint brings you up against the culture of an institution; and a complaint is often necessary because of the culture of the institution.

In my first post on complaint, I offered the framework of a “complaint biography” as a way of addressing the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or group of persons. A complaint biography is not simply what happens to a complaint; a story of how a complaint comes about, where it goes, what it does, how things end up, that is, it is not simply about the institutional life (and death) of a complaint. The idea of a “complaint biography” is a recognition of how a complaint in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else; a complaint comes from someone, who is living a life that is compromised in some way by or in the institution in which they are doing their work; a complaint might be the start of something, things follow because a complaint has been lodged, but it is never the starting point. How would you give your own complaint biography? So many incidents, so many encounters, are often recalled, times you said something; times you did not say something. Those who lodge a complaint might have made complaints or might not have made complaints before; the decision to make a complaint is a difficult one, and sometimes people decide not to make a complaint or to make a complaint because of their past experience of having made a complaint or not having made a complaint. I am learning how complaints are often about timing.

In my first post I drew on a small fragment of a complaint biography; the experience of a woman who as a postgraduate student become the target of sexism and sexual harassment by male postgraduate students. And I tried to show how her complaint biography did not begin at the moment she decided (with a group of other women postgraduate students) to make an official complaint; it began much earlier, before she said anything, in her experience of not going along with what was being said and done. When the male students began to articulate sexist statements, calling female staff and students “milking bitches,” there was an expectation that everyone would laugh. She does not find it funny. She does not have to say anything to show something. She describes: “it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing.” By not laughing, by not going along with it, she is targeted. You become an object of harassment when you experience behaviour as harassment: “you start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.”

The experience of a situation as something to be complained about is an experience of coming apart from a group. I want to think of the violence of this situation. The violence of such utterances is what you are required not to notice in order to participate in the group. You have to laugh – and laugh convincingly – in order not to stand out. You can stand out by just experiencing violence as violence. And then the violence you fail not to experience as violence is redirected towards you; the violence that was already in the room is channeled in your direction. This is probably why some laugh; to avoid the channeling. Laughing could thus be considered a form of institutional passing; a way of avoiding standing out, of trying to slide by undetected. The problem of passing is that if someone fails to pass, those who have passed are still participating in what has left someone stranded.

Being stranded is part of the experience of complaint; a sense that you have been cut off from a group that you had formerly understood yourself as part of; you come apart; things fall apart. Cutting yourself off can also be a judgement made about the complainer: as if you have caused your own alienation by not going along with something. This is how a complaint teaches us about culture; we learn what is required to participate in something. A complaint teaches us about we; how a bond becomes a bind. Those who complain are often judged as causing the problem they identify by failing to be part of a we.

This is why complaint is pedagogy; we are learning about the conditions of social membership. Take two related instances. Take the case of a queer child. A queer child might be cut off from the family, either by an act of being disowned (yes this still happens) or by just not being able to participate in the family in the same way when family life renders heterosexuality a shared routine. When the queer child is disowned – or tolerated – the child might be understood not as being cut off, but as having cut herself off: as having willingly gone in the wrong direction. This is what I would call queer snap, as if you have cut yourself off by not following the straight line. Note here that act of willing misdirection is often judged as a kind of willful destruction: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family by living your life in a different way. We might indeed have to cut ourselves off from a group that decides our desires are cutting ourselves off from a group.

Or consider what happens when a woman of colour talks about racism within a feminist community. She understands herself as part of that community; though she might also have a sense of not being part in the same way as white women. Some of the issues that matter to her are not treated as feminist issues. But when she speaks of racism within feminism, or even just talks about why racism is a feminist issue, she is heard as being divisive. She is deemed to cause a division by naming a division. This means that: those who are not part of something (because of racism) are supposed to pass over what makes them not part of something (because of racism). And then: if you bring racism up you are understood to bring racism into existence. Even to name a problem is to become disloyal: as evidence that you were not really part of something; that you did not have your heart in something (2).

A complaint can indeed be treated as a form of disloyalty; a disloyalty not only to a department or institution but to some we or another. Individuals within a group then experience the requirement to justify their behavior as an imposition from someone who is judged to have made themselves an outsider by virtue of creating such a requirement. Being targeted because you are identified as the source of a complaint (sometimes wrongly) is common. That targeting can come from official sources (in other words, those who communicate with the complainer during a complaint procedure can target or bully the complainer to try and stop a complaint from going further) and also unofficially, from peers who understand themselves to be loyal to a we and threatened by the complaint insofar as they have an allegiance to that we.

My opening example was about sexist conduct. I am thus suggesting that accepting sexism might be a requirement in becoming part of a department or cohort. Even if a sexist utterance is made by an individual, it has a life or a career, somewhere to go, because of how it is picked up by others. When there is a pick up, the utterances are held, often by the institutions in which they are made. We might call this institutional sexism.

Institutional sexism and institutional racism exist even after institutions are committed to gender and race equality. We learn from this too: universities have official commitments to equality that ought to stop the use of sexist and racist language. A policy can be about what ought not to exist. I noted in my lecture, Institutional as Usual, that something can come into existence without coming into use. The idea that something should not exist, or even that something does not exist because it should not exist, might be how something remains in use. What is used more is often framed as prohibited (what is not supposed to exist), which is how racist and sexist utterances can be made as if they are rebellious. The “norm as rebel” is how the “norm is norm.”

An official response to what is not supposed to happen but is a norm often takes the form of denial.

The student describes what followed her experience:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on.

A complaint: leaving the table. As I noted in my earlier post, that there is an effort to stop the student from complaining about the situation in the situation. She is told not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. This is how banter is used; to justify use as if words can be stripped from a history, such that to hear a wrong is to hear wrongly, to impose something on somebody. A use is sustained by a fantasy that a use can be suspended. The staff member in warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take. Indeed, when she refused the instruction not to say anything by making a complaint, the complaint sent out an alert; when the students who had conducted themselves in this way found out from the head of department that a complaint had been made, they initiated a violent campaign (including threats of physical harm) to those they thought had initiated the complaint.

Cutting yourself off is a judgement. It can also be a punishment.

In another case, a student talked of how she had participated along with a number of other students in a complaint about harassment from a member of staff. These students were accused by other students not only of cutting themselves off from the cohort but of depriving other students of what they needed for their education:

We were accused of having caused the disruption in their studies. They valued their desire to have him as a professor over those who were suffering psychologically because of his harassment. I was told I should have consulted the whole class before going ahead with a complaint. We needed to be in “solidarity” with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.

To complain about harassment is to be judged as cutting yourself off from a collective. And then you are cut off from that collective. In other words, what follows the action is what gives confirmation to the judgement. Note that the other students are not disputing that the harassment happened. The implication is that to be loyal to your peer group is to accept the harassment as part of the deal.

The deal: you have to get used to it, or get out of it. Those who complain refuse that deal.

This implication is not only that a complaint is a standing apart but those who complain do so out of self-interest as opposed to group interest. (3) It is this implication that we need to interrogate further: how group interests are assumed to coincide with the acceptance of abuses of power.

In cases when a member of staff is recognised as having abused power (and in all the cases I know of such recognition only happens after a long and painful battle for recognition, most often led by students) another version of cutting off occurs. The member of staff is quickly re-positioned as a stranger, even as a foreigner, as not expressing the values of the organization; rather than as being enabled by what the organisation enabled.

We need to think about what organisations enable; who they enable. One academic told me about how she set up a reading group and a writing group in her department. Those groups quickly became occupied by senior men: “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” Those who have power can influence and direct discussions often by undermining the confidence of others: “The first session someone was being just really abusive, about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.” A racist comment is made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room; again, laughter as holding. As she puts it, “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These are the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.

She decided to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded” and because “this culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department who shared her objections to how the space had become occupied. A complaint can be a feminist collective. Even then she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A feminist we can be heard as me; as how she is getting ahead of herself. A complaint is treated as self-promotional. Even when we combine our forces, it is hard to get through (4).

Many of those I have spoken to thus far have talked of how a complaint is treated not only as potential damage but as actual damage: as damaging the reputation of a university, damaging the reputation and life chances of an individual person if an individual person is the object of complaint, and also as damaging projects, “ruining the department” or “spoiling the student experience.” If a complaint is treated as damage, those who complain end up having to pay high costs. This is another way cutting yourself off works: a warning about costs. I will return to warnings in future posts. A warning works by trying to dissuade the would-be complainer by declaring in advance what the costs of the action will be: when cutting yourself off is a warning, you are being told that you will not receive the benefits you would otherwise receive (such as references, funding). If you proceed with a complaint, it is then as if you are damaging yourself or depriving yourself of the connections you would need to progress (5). And: if you proceed with a complaint and it is damaging, it is then understood that you brought that damage upon yourself.

A warning is a projection of a future. It is a future that no-one wants: institutional death (6); the end of the line. A warning is thus also a threat: do this and that will follow.

A complaint also involves an interpretation of the past. One student who participated in a complaint with other students about misogyny in her peer group describes how “cutting yourself off” is used to explain their complaint. She gives an account of a meeting with the head of department: “She said even before you put in this complaint, and now you’ve put in this complaint, you’ve really separated yourself from this department. She said even by having a knitting club (and men and women were in the knitting club) that was already a sign of separating yourselves from the department. She said what do you want, do you want your own women’s space, trying to make it was some kind of militant feminism. Obviously it was a feminist project but what we asking for was equality and safety and people to feel welcome in that space.”

Past activities are swept up as symptoms of some having “separated themselves”: as if some complain because they are not better integrated into a department. Even a mixed knitting club can become a sign of a subversion-to-come. I think we need to hear what is at stake in how complainers are identified as militant. One way a complaint can be dismissed is by magnifying the demand; a demand for “equality and safety” is treated as wanting to bring an end to what or who already exists, or as separatism, as not wanting to share a space or a culture. This is how a complaint is treated as vandalism; “a willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.” (7)

A complaint is thus framed as a failure of integration: as not being willing to put aside your differences, as a failure to love, a professor say, or a department, or a university. Integration can mean in practice the expectation that you should put up with forms of behaviour that negate your existence.

Integration, that heavy word, is often used, overused, to describe a national project. It is the migrant or the would-be-citizen who has to integrate; those who are deemed to “come after.” Coming after means having to accept what is understood as national culture or even just culture. In other words, culture becomes priority; it is how some are given priority. As we know national culture in the UK is often articulated through the language of diversity and equality. We are getting to the heart of the matter here. Diversity and equality are not just ideals the nation has or is supposed to have; they are ideas we have of the nation. What is in existence is not always in use. In fact, integration can really mean: not being able to identify how a we has already failed those ideals. To speak of racism or sexism, to name the harassment committed by those who have been given priority, becomes a failure of integration. And racism, sexism, harassment: they are directed more toward those who identify them more. You just have to say words like racism and sexism and you will be heard as making a complaint. We know what follows such a hearing.

Inequality masked as equality: complaints reveal a mask and threaten to show an image of we that a we is not willing to consider. In the accounts I have been collecting, the mask has been slipping. Complaint as feminist pedagogy.



(1) I am aware that I am using “abuses of power” as a shorthand here and will be explaining rather than assuming what I mean by this expression in the study. Thus far I have heard about complaints relating to sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism and ageism as well as sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and bullying. I have also heard stories in which an abuse of power occurred because of a dispute that did not seem, in the first instance, to do with an abuse of power. My project is framed around the university, as a body I know, to show how complaints are embedded within the institutions in which they are lodged. In my work I have understood the institutional as a form of directed human traffic (we can call this social traffic, the way we are directed toward the more used paths). If a complaint is “in” an institution we also need to recognise that complaints about abuses of power might still tend to go in the direction of social traffic: this mean that a complaint might be more likely to be successful, or get uptake, if a person has more power (if a complaint requires being convincing there’s a politics to whose more convincing). This also means that those with more power can use complaint as a technique of power. This is complicating and I will address the complications, but we need to be very careful. A related example: recognising that equality can be used as a technique of audit culture (ticking boxes) does not mean dismissing equality; however people (including governments) can use that use as a dismissal. The misuse of complaint could also be used to dismiss those who have to complain if they are to have any chance of inhabiting a space or progressing within an organisation. Given that responses to complaints tend to amplify the power of the complaint and of the complainer (these responses are defences) these uses of the misuse of complaint can constitute another misuse of complaint. Yes: it is complicated! We need to take much feminist care in handling this.

(2) In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how investment in racism (rather than racism itself) is narrated as the primary obstacle to inclusion. I am now realising how my earlier argument could be understood in terms of complaint (as what you must give up in order to participate in the national game). I wrote then: “The figure of the melancholic migrant is a familiar one in contemporary British race politics. The melancholic migrant holds onto the unhappy objects of differences, such as the turban, or at least the memory of being teased about the turban, which ties it to a history of racism.  Such differences become sore points or blockage points, where the smooth passage of communication stops. The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.” Complaint could also be understood as labouring over sore points.

(3) In my work on happiness and the will, I have noted how those who challenge social norms are often judged as putting themselves first, as acting like individuals in opposition to a collective good. There is much to learn from this. I am still trying to learn from this.

(4) A number of the complaints I have learned about are collective complaints; when a group works together to put a complaint forward. I will return to collectivity and complaint in future posts.

(5) Note the shift here from complaint as self-promotional to complaint as self-damage. In both cases, complaint is made self-referential. I am developing the argument I made in the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life (2017), where snapping is understood as self-harm, as depriving yourself of what you would need for a good life.

(6) If this seems somewhat dramatic, one of the common ways of describing complaint is as a form of career suicide. I will return to this description in later posts. Please note being threatened with institutional death does not inevitably lead to institutional death. But it does mean that feminists need to participate in the institutional life of those who have been threatened with institutional death (by supporting those who are cut off from official networks). However my research thus far has taught me that there is no guarantee that feminists will do this work. Some students and staff who have made complaints have relayed to me their shock at not being supported by other feminists within the organisation. I will come back to this issue, but I have some thoughts derived in part from my own experience of this problem:  If we want to transform institutions we have an institutional project, which might also be a diversity project, a feminist project. We use the more used path. Even if we proceed on a path in order to disrupt it we can end up not disrupting it in order to proceed. This paradox is often presented as a utilitarian choice, a fantasy choice, join or die, which is another version of get used to it or get out of it. Join is a nice word; to join as to be part of something. Being seen as choosing not to die, choosing not to have your projects cease to be (the double negative), choosing your projects (turned into a positive), can mean you sign up to so much when you join up. When you sign up it becomes harder to speak up; or speak out about the violence of the institution, without compromising your own projects. The imperative to join can have deadly consequences: you might not speak out about the abuse of power within your own institution because to speak out would drain resources from your projects; it would be to lose it, not use it. This is my view: if we are silent about abuses of power within institutions where we do our feminist work, to enable us to do that work, feminism is not working. We need activism here. We need dismantling projects here.

(7) I will discuss how decolonizing the curriculum is treated as vandalism in a future post.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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8 Responses to Cutting Yourself Off

  1. SAChoirgirl says:

    I value you work so much.
    I’ve been trying to put words to an experience I’ve had more than once now when speaking out. It’s an experience of being cut off by being dismissed as not real or not telling the truth, and also being dismissed for not having done the right thing to prevent it. I understand that our impulse to go over what we could have done differently or what we believe we would have done differently is one of the ways that we reestablish a sense of safety. But it also results in us distancing ourselves from victims by making them culpable or not real because they aren’t believable, or not fully human because we want to believe that our human response would have been different. That exclusion is so isolating, and it’s really hard to speak your complaint when that type of cutoff means that you become inaudible. Because if you’re not real or truthful or human, the sounds you make are not speech and therefore can’t be heard.

  2. Ellen Mayock says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Many universities use the legal strategy and rhetoric of “removing the thin-skinned plaintiff.” This of course codes the person who makes the complaint as overly sensitive and deliberately removes her (and not the perpetrator) from the community. In case this is of interest:

  3. Pingback: The Figure of the Abuser | feministkilljoys

  4. Pingback: Complaint as Diversity Work | feministkilljoys

  5. Pingback: Dangerous normality | Clare Flourish

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