At the recent MIT Communication Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.
[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.
Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:
[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.
This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.
The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:
[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.
That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.
This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a changing.