Last week, the Advisory Committee on Cross-Border Behavior, appointed by the Cultural Council, published its report Over the limit from. The Advisory Committee mentions several risk factors for cross-border behavior in the culture and media sector. For example, the power of so-called ‘gatekeepers’, who distribute scarce jobs and tasks among often young people. Temporary workers in particular risk seeing the chance of the next task disappear if they report unacceptable behavior and so the machine continues to run.
Where job insecurity and flexibility characterize the mutual relations, there is therefore a great chance of cross-border behavior and a great chance that it will not be reported. The rapporteurs therefore suspect that the number of official complaints is the tip of the iceberg. These are recognizable observations for the undersigned who work and have worked at universities in the Netherlands and Belgium. We have witnessed cross-border behavior that was not reported or where no sanctions followed the report. Also in universities, the ‘flexible shell’ is large, the hierarchies are strong and seven out of ten times the professor – who can open doors but also keep them closed – is still a man.
Therefore, we are anxiously awaiting the advice that the Advisory Committee will provide on these issues. We read better grievance procedures, access to confidential advisers, and discussion of power relations through ‘an open discussion’ in the workplace. The latter made us fall off our chairs. This is in fact contrary to the analysis made by the Advisory Committee. Moreover, the belief in a just result of ‘open conversations’ in very hierarchical and precarious situations is a naive and one-dimensional idea of power.
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Gets worse. The Council sees two types of cross-border behavior: legally illegal behavior and behavior related to social insecurity. The second, according to the report, is “subjective and relates to the victim’s experience.” In doing so, the Advisory Committee proposes that it sees cross-border behavior as a communication problem: a matter of different interpretations. “Someone may unknowingly be guilty of unwanted behavior. That explains why people’s experiences of the same situation can vary so much. ” This view of cross-border behavior is contradicted by social science research into the abuse of power in the workplace.
Exercise and abuse of power come in various forms, such as verbal abuse – shouting, verbally pushing someone into a corner – but also inviting drinks, commenting on appearances, invading the private world, forcing them to perform sexual acts. It often targets subordinates, and in addition, the victims are usually women. In the case of sexually transgressive behavior, men are predominantly perpetrators, rarely the victims.
Study after study shows that abuse of power is not about communication problems. Criminals know very well what they are doing, even though they claim lack of knowledge: ‘I did not know it came that way’ and ‘I was shocked’. Recent research even shows that cross-border behavior is used very consciously and selectively. It’s not a gray area, it’s a strategy. It almost always addresses a colleague who is hierarchically lower and who cannot fight back. Mai Spijkers abused his staff emotionally, not his star writers.
Power is not one-dimensional, it is a multi-headed monster that a victim must face. In addition to feelings of shame, self-doubt, there is fear of retaliation, and that makes open conversation non-existent. Recently, acclaimed author Connie Palmen defended the publisher, about whom 16 former employees told horror stories as “more caring and loyal than anyone else.” At the institutional level, the interests of the department are paramount. This means that the protection of the reputation of the perpetrator and the institution is a priority. In addition, journalists are regularly asked to maintain confidentiality, because what if the allegations are false? But Dutch and international legal research shows that only about 5 percent of reports of all sexually abusive behavior are generally false.
A good conversation is an open conversation, based on equality. The conditions for such a good conversation are lacking in hierarchical institutions characterized by job insecurity. We have long since passed the station ‘a good conversation’. Cross-border behavior must therefore in the first instance be understood as abuse of power. ‘Contradictory’, ‘Socratic dialogues’ and ‘non-violent communication’ about common values between inequalities with unequal institutional (power) positions are therefore a fatal path.
We wonder why a naive idea of power resonates with the advice of the Advisory Committee on Cross-Border Behavior. Let us not tell each other that dishonesty is a communication problem. Instead of ‘good conversations’ between individuals, we call on the institutes to take structural action: this includes full transparency about the number of complaints, the number of procedures completed, staff turnover and a diverse recruitment policy. Transparent procedures, sanctions and a signed code of conduct also provide adequate legal guidance to link consequences to fraud.