Power and impunity

One of the things that outrages most about the invasion of Ukraine is the sense of impunity. 

It was an invasion initiated with the complacency of a person or people who thought that they could do as they liked without fear of adverse consequences. A violent invasion, backed up by the threat of violence against anyone who dared to intervene. A big country with nuclear weapons and plenty of hardware picking on a smaller country and daring others to complain, or try to stop them.

There are many appalling things about Ukraine war, but this one cuts through easily. The unfairness of it. The arrogance of it. The asymmetry of it. The sense of impunity that comes from an asymmetry in power. 

And it’s not the first time. There was Grozny, there was the Crimea, there was Syria (as BBC reporter Quentin Sommerville noted, if this looks unfamiliar, then you haven’t been paying attention). The same every time, and no severe consequences. The trail of bodies. The difficulty of getting hard evidence. The denials of atrocities. The sense that they can do what they like, without fear and without remorse, and the consequences will never touch them. We forget that what we are seeing is the way that a stronger party can behave towards weaker parties, towards subordinates, and the longer it is allowed to go on then the more the stronger party will believe that they have the impunity to do as they please.

Harvey Weinstein was the same. The abuse of one young actress after another after another, and done because of the same asymmetry of power, because past experience told him that he could get away with it. Nobody would complain enough and even if they did, they could be ignored or silenced. He was a great producer, feted for it, and the power that professional success brought meant that he could continue his disgusting behaviour at will. 

Academia is the same. The abuse of one young academic after another after another, and done because of the same asymmetries of power. Look at Eric Lander, reluctantly resigning over his treatment of subordinates but long after things came to light, and long after people deploring his appointment had already highlighted his track record in this regard. Look at Alan Cooper, belatedly sacked after running a lab with a toxic work environment. Look at Johanne Brunet, with not one of her eight graduate students receiving their PhDs under her supervision. It goes on everywhere, and these are just the cases that come to light. When I was a postdoc in Vienna, there was a junior group leader who had seven PhDs and postdocs quit his group inside three years (and it didn’t stop there). Nothing happened. Everybody saw what was happening, and many sympathised with the victims, but ultimately all found it easiest to look the other way. Maybe it was really the students’ responsibility. Maybe there was a personality clash. Maybe the students weren’t that good after all, not good enough to meet the exacting standards of an outstanding scientist. And people leaving or not completing theses tend not to be recorded*.

It’s easy to understand why this happens. We always want an easy life. We always want to avoid conflict, and to intervene may invite retaliation against ourselves.  

So it’s always easier to tell a weaker party to be meek and patient, than it is to tell a powerful party to stop or change course. It’s always easier to look the other way. Easier to sacrifice a weaker person than risk conflict with a more powerful one. Better to endure the shame and guilt of doing nothing than to take a stand on behalf of others. And the more we look the other way, the more we embolden. 

The problem with looking away is that it is moral cowardice of the worst kind. No matter whether it’s geopolitics, sexual harassment, or corrosive mentorship, the bystanders prevaricate in the full knowledge that something wrong has occurred. They shudder and look away while the bad thing happens. But to do nothing is to ultimately be complicit, a message that Ukrainian president Zelensky has admirably driven home time and time again to his international audience. 

And the tragedy is that when a victim does speak up, does call someone out, does defend themselves, they pay a terrible price. The victories are always pyrrhic. Win or lose, they will be consumed in the effort. They get respect, but winning the moral victory and sometimes even the final one tends to come at the cost of being destroyed, whether it be emotionally, professionally, or physically. Because they almost always have to stand alone.

Ukraine is set to be become a rallying call for Europeans but the ones doing the fighting are going to see their country pockmarked with craters and inherit a rebuilding job that will take decades to be completed. Russia’s reputational scars will last just as long, maybe longer, but their buildings and (most of) their families will still be intact. Even if Ukraine’s ultimate rebuilding is on a par with the Wirtschaftswunder of Germany in the 1950s, they will inevitably be reconstructing their country from the ground up, because it’s being pounded into rubble right now.

That is an indictment on all of us. Because we, and our elected representatives, failed to take a stand when we should have. So the least we can do is to start taking a stand now. For all the victims. All the ones who have been made victims of impunity. 

* In academia, the easiest way to effect a culture change would be for institutions to actually track any premature departures of PhDs, postdoc and technicians. Each one will be different, but trends will stand out from the noise of individual cases. Any group exhibiting an unusually high level of turnover should trigger an institutional response. Young academics who are having problems with their group leaders should be able to request a meeting with the group leader, a person from their mentoring committee, and a person of their choice, with the meeting documented and signed by all parties. It is bureaucracy, yes, but it would help. In this post-MeToo, post-BLM era, institutions should no longer be able to conceal the activities of bad mentors. 

This posting developed in conversation with Tim Skern.

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