Many of you will have come across a version of this story on the front page of The Guardian a couple of weeks ago (‘Sexual harassment of students by university staff hidden by non-disclosure agreements’, Friday August 29th). I wrote to the authors at the time and have been in contact with other national newspapers to ask whether they might be interested in the flipside of events, ie., in the way NDAs are being used to dispose of and silence ‘undesirable’ academics, denying them the chance to defend themselves against accusations of misconduct. For whatever reason, none of them got back to me. But I would have told them what has now been put into writing here, on a ‘McCarthyite and cruel tendency within academia’ (and doubtless beyond academia, too). And I’d have added the following on the well established tactical use of NDAs, which we have seen on multiple occasions across multiple institutions, and runs much as follows:
1) Mount an internal disciplinary procedure so you can suspend someone for as long as it takes to find dirt on them;
2) Bind them with an egregiously constrictive insistence on confidentiality, including clauses that mean they can’t even know what you are accusing them of doing;
3) Sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that when your dirt-digging doesn’t turn up enough evidence to get rid of them, or even justify a trial, you can rely on them having to breach confidentiality at some point, whereupon you can go ahead and force them out anyway.
We might add an extra point, here, whether it’s deliberate or a mere unintended consequence:
4) Watch as the vigilante mob leaps in to exploit the enforced silence of the accused, using social media to orchestrate a witch hunt on those they have the temerity to accuse of having ducked the judicial process. Since confidentiality means that the mob doesn’t know the accusations in question either, they’ll mostly just have to speculate and will therefore inevitably come up with all kinds of assumptions about rapists and murderers being on the loose, but you needn’t worry about that, either.
Many of us working in the field of philosophy and critical theory are instinctively inclined to take the side of anyone pushing the causes of feminism and justice. But claims to be doing so cannot be taken as given, and without applying the same levels of critical scrutiny we’d expect to apply to every other statement we come across. Established fora for trial and conviction aren’t perfect, but they are a lot better than public shaming on the basis of whipped up rumour and suspicion.