A Response to the Colorado Undergrad


Wes Morriston, who retired this past summer after 42 years as a member of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado, has written a letter to the editor responding to the column by alumna Allison Blakeney (previously) asserting that the department has a “rape culture.”

There are several very basic things your readers need to know. No one in the department has ever been accused of rape, or of being a passive bystander to a rape, or of promoting or excusing or otherwise winking at rape. No one in the department has ever suggested that a woman with a sexually promiscuous past cannot be raped, or that a woman who has consented once has given her consent in perpetuity.

There has been one (and only one) allegation of sexual assault. The accused person was not a professor, and there were no bystanders in the case of this particular incident.

I cannot see how any fair-minded person could think this adds up to a “rape culture.”

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Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Actually, there is no way that Prof. Morriston could know whether there had been additional sexual assault/rape accusations in his department. The Office of Discrimination and Harassment at Colorado operates in secrecy. When they make a finding in a case, they only inform the person who filed a complaint and the accused (and the chair if some action is taken that requires the chair’s knowledge, e.g. the person is put on leave or some other restriction is placed on them). It is true that they will often interview members of the department about cases, but much of the time they do not tell interviewees exactly what the charges are. And one can imagine that there might be cases in which they do not interview members of the department (aside from the accuser and the defendant). This is just to point out that most people, if accused of or found guilty of rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment, I suspect would probably not tell their colleagues about it. I won’t enter down the rabbit hole of discussing particular cases at CU, but I feel the need to at least register this. (For what it is worth I am not endorsing the piece that Morriston is responding to, which I strongly disliked.)Report

Matt Drabek
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

In addition to the apt criticisms of Morriston’s remarks found above, it’s also usually the case that claims about “rape culture” are much broader than simply the suggestion that rape or sexual assault has taken place or that people have made very specific suggestions or claims. The idea, as far as I can discern, is that there’s a set of broader cultural norms, usually enacted casually or in an everyday environment, that undermine women’s authority over their bodies and undermine women’s authority and ability to give consent to sexual activity. And the idea is that these broader cultural norms produce more social tolerance of sexual assault and rape. In other words, there can be a “rape culture” in a specific environment even if Morriston’s claims about UC-Boulder are true.

None of this, of course, is to specifically endorse Blakeney’s article. It’s just to point out that Morriston seems to have missed the mark in his critique.Report

gopher
gopher
Reply to  Matt Drabek
6 years ago

That is very interesting; I’d heard the term of course but had only a vague idea of what it meant.
So, cultural factors that do not undermine women’s authority to give consent but make it more likely that men will be raped do not contribute to rape culture. Theoretic terms can be very misleading.Report

Oscar
Oscar
6 years ago

Well, this is a mess. The original piece was somewhat irresponsible, because it strongly insinuated that people in the philosophy department at CU-Boulder were both committing sexual assault, watching it go on without saying anything, and excusing assault on the basis of promiscuity. The author showed no intention of backing up these claims with any kind of evidence.

But roughly the same can be said of Morriston, who is literally claiming to *know* that none of this problematic behavior has ever occurred at CU. Ever. There is no chance that his epistemic position is that strong, especially given the well-documented ways in which being powerful and male can isolate a person from just this sort of information.

I sure hope that whoever is looking into this is doing so with the very diligence, sensitivity and care that is lacking in this exchange.Report

Devon Belcher
Devon Belcher
Reply to  Oscar
6 years ago

Having now looked very closely at Dr. Morriston’s letter, I am at a loss as to why you think he claimed to know such a proposition.Report

Oscar
Oscar
Reply to  Devon Belcher
6 years ago

Which proposition, sorry? I tried to faithfully paraphrase his own assertions. And since knowledge is (in all ordinary cases) a presupposition of assertion, I inferred that he thought he knew such things. To which step in my inference do you object?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Right. In addition to not having access to ODH files, and hence not being in an epistemic situation to know what people in his department have been accused of (or even found guilty of), Prof. Morriston is not in an epistemic situation to know everything about what every member of his department has “suggested”.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

With respect to Professor Morriston’s epistemic situation, there are many ways in which confidential ODH files could be revealed, which could in turn give him good reason to make the claims he does. For example, a faculty member with knowledge of a situation might take it upon herself to reveal confidential information at a graduate student meeting. Or perhaps the administration might reveal the information to a visiting committee reporting on the climate of the department and information could trickle out from there.

However, suppose those two possibilities and similar scenarios are not the case and the department is indeed in the dark. Suppose further that there are in fact rape allegations that have not come to light because the administration has kept them confidential. In that case, it is hard to see how the department as opposed to the administration is guilty of perpetuating a culture that shelters alleged rapists.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Here’s a resource on what people tend to mean when raising issues with “rape culture”

http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I think it is important to take an undergraduate’s perspective seriously as a member of the philosophy department at Boulder, and I’m glad to see an undergraduate taking the time to write something. Taking it seriously, though, means that it is open to criticism and discussion. For me, this piece is not very helpful; part of that, again for me, is that blanket appeals to “the patriarchy” and “rape culture” are not that helpful, because these labels are too broad and generic, and in this particular context they invite the reader to substitute in their own ideas/fantasies about a place/group as opposed to thinking about concrete issues or problems (note both labels are in the title). Part of the problem is that its not as if she is adding to our store of information or helping us get a fresh perspective as a female undergraduate philosophy major at Boulder, which would have been nice. She makes some bold accusations, but she doesn’t back it up with any data or experiences that can help us to understand them beyond what we already know/don’t know from media reports, and then follows this up with some generic feminist talking points and very generic calls for action that match those talking points.

And here’s the thing about throwing around the word “rape culture” in non-academic contexts like this: people are likely to hear this in precisely the way the professor and others have heard it–i.e., fairly literally. And surely that is not very helpful in this context either.

In this undergraduate’s defense, I think she is clearly angry, and perhaps she has very good grounds for that anger. This context matters when thinking about her piece. And along the way here, she makes some good points. I think its too strong to say that the article is “irresponsible.” Still, it would be nice to see those graduating as philosophers to present ideas a bit more critically, constructively, and in a way that is less beholden to a certain ideological jargon. That is what I always look to see from my students, to speak with clarity and charity, which includes an appreciation of one’s audience and a limitation of jargon as much as possible.Report

Anon2
Anon2
6 years ago

It is surprising that people would argue that Morriston lacks sufficient knowledge to rebut rape accusations, yet not doubt that Blakeney has sufficient knowledge to make them. The evidential standard for responsibly making criminal accusations is, one might suppose, higher than that needed for denying them. In addition, professors typically possess much greater knowledge about what has been alleged about other members of their own department than an undergraduate student would possess. The idea that a long-time insider would have no way of knowing about any accusations within his department that one isn’t officially supposed to talk about, I think, evidences great naivete about human nature and the dynamics of social groups.

Concerning the suggestion that “rape culture” is a technical term that doesn’t mean what it appears to mean, this idea seems to be rebutted by the fact that the Blakeney editorial specifically states, “We should stop sexually assaulting people,” where the “we” referred to the philosophy department. It goes on to address what one should do if one finds oneself wanting to rape someone. If the author did not intend ordinary readers to take the message that the department condones rape, she would at minimum need to have, and almost surely would in fact have, added some disclaimers.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Anon2
6 years ago

Just to make this clear–while I (first comment in the thread) disagree with some of what you say here, I completely agree that we should doubt that Blakeney has such knowledge. I in fact agree with most of what you say here. However, it’s worth considering that it’s much easier to gain evidence/justification for an existentially quantified claim (e.g. if one is subject to the assault oneself, or witnesses it, etc.) than a universally quantified claim (“there are no cases of…”), but that one of the things about rape/sexual assault/attempted rape or sexual assault occurring in a small community like a philosophy department is that the truth of the existentially quantified claim (especially in conjunction with a lack of response from people in power in that community, or the wrong response) might be enough to generate a truly bad/unpleasant culture, and it also might be the case that very senior male faculty in positions of power in that community would be (whether culpably or non-culpably is a different question) ignorant of such a bad/unpleasant culture (since they would likely experience very few of its negative effects, and indeed might have things intentionally hidden from them if it was not completely clear that they would be good allies). Witness Michael Tooley’s now I assume well-known comments that suggested that he was completely ignorant of all of the ways in which both his own department, and the profession more generally, is hostile to women. As a woman in the profession, and indeed one affiliated with Colorado, I am certain that my own experience–which is good enough to justify the existentially quantified claim that there are, at least, some instances of very bad behavior, along multiple dimensions, of men towards women in the profession–defeats his claims. I thought that the Blakeney article was both just really bad, and terribly irresponsible. But that doesn’t justify Morriston’s response, which strikes me as sounding remarkably like Tooley’s response to the department’s problems originally being publicized, and being problematic in just the same kinds of ways. One has to be incredibly out of touch with what it is like being a woman in this profession to make statements like either of the ones they have made. There are many problems with those statements, but the fact that they reveal a remarkable ignorance about how sexual assault, harassment, and sexism are usually dealt with in philosophy–at least when they are committed by anyone powerful–which is typically by hushed networks of women and a few trusted men warning one another about who to stay away from at a conference, who to avoid when he gets drunk, which seminars to attend, which faculty to work with, where to go to grad school, etc. And even women (and our allies) who are outspoken advocates for the profession improving with respect to these issues will resort to doing this if, say, the man in question works in their own department and has far more power than they do. I know this because I have witnessed it all. Report