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Margaret Atwood, #MeToo, Due Process and a Professor

Column by author who is a feminist icon asks if she is a “bad feminist” -- and revives debate over whether a university inappropriately fired a noted novelist.

January 16, 2018
 
Steven Galloway

Margaret Atwood is a feminist icon, best known for writing The Handmaid's Tale, which is attracting a new generation of fans through the recent television series.

Last week, she published an essay in The Globe and Mail asking, "Am I a Bad Feminist?" The idea that Atwood could be a bad feminist might stun many of her American fans, but she has been subject to considerable criticism from some women's advocates in her home country of Canada because of a stance she has taken on the case of Steven Galloway, an acclaimed novelist who was until 2015 a tenured professor and chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. He was first suspended and then fired by the university.

The university announced his departure but has never detailed allegations against him or released findings of an investigation it commissioned. Through lawyers, Galloway said he was accused of sexual assault and cleared of that charge. Galloway has acknowledged that he had a two-year affair with a student, in violation of university rules.

“Mr. Galloway profoundly regrets his conduct and wishes to apologize for the harm that it has caused,” his lawyer said in a 2016 statement. (For background, an article about the case, including numerous quotes from both defenders and critics of Galloway's conduct, may be found on the website The Walrus.)

The reason Atwood has come under fire is that she signed an open letter in 2016, called UBC Accountable, that called on the university to provide Galloway with due process. The letter faults the university for publicizing the investigation of Galloway before he had a chance to respond (a criticism faculty leaders also made), and for refusing to make public the university's findings -- including findings that have been widely reported to clear Galloway of the most serious charges against him.

The university also, the letter said, required Galloway to remain largely silent about the charges against him through a confidentiality agreement it pressured him to sign. "The university’s conduct in this matter is of great concern," the letter says. "We, the undersigned, respect the principle of protection for individuals who wish to bring complaints. We also respect the right of an accused to fair treatment. There is growing evidence that the university acted irresponsibly in Professor Galloway’s case. Because the case has received a great deal of public attention, the situation requires public clarification."

The letter immediately prompted a counterletter that criticized UBC Accountable's statement for focusing on Galloway and not on the harm that may have been done to those who accused him of wrongdoing. That in turn prompted Atwood to issue a statement stressing that she was supportive of those who bring charges of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

"We’re sorry we hurt any survivor people out there by seeming lacking in empathy for your experiences. Our letter was not intended to wound you, but it seems to have done, and for that we apologize. We do not intend to discourage anyone from speaking up in future, and hope the university will put in place a workable support system. To survivors of abuse, we were, are and will be your allies," said Atwood's subsequent statement.

The initial debates over the Galloway case and the various letters on it predated the current #MeToo movement, which has become a force in Canadian academic and literary circles much like it has in the United States.

Of late, some of those who signed the UBC Accountable letter have been asking that it be taken down or that their names be removed from it. They charge that the letter is having the impact -- even if not intended -- of discouraging women from coming forward with complaints about how they have been treated inappropriately by men with power over them.

Mitchell Parry, a poet, told The Globe and Mail that "over the past year, the letter that I had signed had turned into something entirely different."

Atwood has drawn particular criticism on social media for suggesting that there is similarity in the way Galloway has been treated and the Salem witch trials.

In her essay last week, Atwood defends the comparison.

"There are, at present, three kinds of 'witch' language," Atwood writes. "1) Calling someone a witch, as applied lavishly to Hillary Clinton during the recent election. 2) 'Witchhunt,' used to imply that someone is looking for something that doesn't exist. 3) The structure of the Salem witchcraft trials, in which you were guilty because accused. I was talking about the third use. This structure -- guilty because accused -- has applied in many more episodes in human history than Salem.

"It tends to kick in during the 'Terror and Virtue' phase of revolutions -- something has gone wrong, and there must be a purge, as in the French Revolution, Stalin's purges in the USSR, the Red Guard period in China, the reign of the Generals in Argentina and the early days of the Iranian Revolution. The list is long and Left and Right have both indulged. Before 'Terror and Virtue' is over, a great many have fallen by the wayside. Note that I am not saying that there are no traitors or whatever the target group may be; simply that in such times, the usual rules of evidence are bypassed."

Relating the issue to the #MeToo movement, Atwood writes, "The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn't get a fair hearing through institutions -- including corporate structures -- so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call. But what next? The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it. Institutions, corporations and workplaces can houseclean, or they can expect more stars to fall, and also a lot of asteroids."

Atwood writes that she signed the open letter about Galloway "as a matter of principle" because she was convinced he was being denied due process. While not saying he did nothing wrong, Atwood writes that the university (which did not respond to a request for comment for this article) clearly used flawed procedures that denied Galloway his rights.

Ultimately, she adds, women's rights depend on rights for all. "I believe that in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period, including the right to fundamental justice, just as for women to have the vote, there has to be a vote," Atwood writes. "Do Good Feminists believe that only women should have such rights? Surely not. That would be to flip the coin on the old state of affairs in which only men had such rights."

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