Disbelief, Inaction, and the Persistence of Harassment and Assault


Helen Beebee (Manchester) and Heather Widdows (Birmingham) have co-authored an essay at IAI, “Weinstein, Westminster, and Philosophy: Structures of Abuse,” on the recent spate of accounts of sexual harassment and assault.  

The authors make two suggestions.

The first concerns belief: “Don’t ask her for proof; instead ask yourself whether you have a credible reason for thinking that she is lying to you. If you can’t think of one—and you almost certainly won’t be able to—believe her.”

The second concerns action: “If nobody calls [those who are engaged in the misconduct] on it, they’ll just carry on—and on, and on, until someone makes them stop. So make them stop now—or at least try. Similarly if you directly witness someone behaving inappropriately: don’t just inwardly wince; go over to them and call them on it.”

Both are discussed and contextualized in the following excerpt from the essay:

Unsurprisingly, the groves of academe—and in particular our own discipline, philosophy—are not immune from all this. Far from it. Just check out the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog. There are high profile allegations and lawsuits relating to harassment and assault too, as documented in depressing articles in Buzzfeed, Daily Nous and the Huffington Post. These three cases all involved young, very junior women and much older, very senior—indeed famous in philosophy circles—men. Sound familiar?

Why do we let men get away with it? Sometimes—especially when we were young—nobody was telling us it was wrong or unacceptable, and so we just thought: that’s how things are. That student who made a crude comment about you in a seminar? He’s just an idiot—ignore him. That colleague who actually said to your face that he just can’t take women intellectually seriously when they’re wearing lipstick and heels? See above. Wait, did your senior colleague really just put his hand on your thigh? Maybe it was an accident. Oh, no, he’s done it again. Maybe he does that to everyone and he’s just trying to be … friendly. That senior professor who spent ages at the conference bar talking to you about your work like he was actually interested, and then invited you back to his hotel room? Maybe he just misread the signs and took your enthusiasm as a come-on. These things happen. (‘Oh, that senior professor’, your friends say later. ‘He’s always doing that’. Well, I guess some people are just really bad at reading the signs.)

Often, though—especially when the man in question is your boss or has power over you—you let him get away with it because you believe, and—let’s be honest—probably rightly so, that nothing good can come of shopping him. Professor X—your PhD supervisor—is hitting on you? Well, who are you going to tell—your Head of Department, aka Professor X’s best mate? You could make a complaint to HR. But what are they going to do? Maybe start an investigation—but you have no witnesses, it’ll be your word against his, and you won’t win. And whether you win or not, most likely Professor X—and quite possibly his best mate the Head of Department—will find ways of getting back at you that reek of plausible deniability. Forget the glowing reference and basic standards of collegiality; you’ll be getting the half-hearted reference, the teaching nobody else wants to do. Not to mention a reputation as a trouble-maker. Or so you’re likely to believe, and, it must be said, with good reason: in making your allegations you create a whole heap of work and hassle for people who don’t want it, and you threaten the reputation of your department. No wonder nobody’s listening….

So there are two problems we have to confront if we want to stop all this. One is that women are just not confident that they will be believed. And why should they be confident? In 2015-16, police recorded 23,851 reports of adults being raped, and there were 2,689 convictions. So about 11% of cases reported to the police ended up with a conviction. Of course, the standard for criminal prosecution is proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, and that’s a high bar. It’s not the bar we should be using when a woman tells us she has been abused or harassed. It’s not even the bar for civil trials, which only require the ‘balance of probabilities’.

We generally rely on the testimony of others—we can’t get by without it. When someone tells you something and you have no reason to disbelieve them—no reason to think that they have made a mistake or are being malicious or have some other reason to lie to you—you take them at their word. If you didn’t, you’d be in serious trouble. Forget asking passers-by the way to the bus station, or asking the guard when the train leaves, or asking your colleague where the meeting is: they can’t prove to you that they’re telling you the truth, so why should you believe them? The short answer is that they have no reason to lie to you. We should have the same attitude when a woman tells us she has been abused or harassed—especially a woman we know and whose word we would normally take on trust, or a woman who has very little, if anything, to gain and quite a lot to lose by putting it out in the open. Don’t ask her for proof; instead ask yourself whether you have a credible reason for thinking that she is lying to you. If you can’t think of one—and you almost certainly won’t be able to—believe her…

The second problem is the problem of inaction: the problem posed by facilitators, enablers, and the turners-of-a-blind-eye. That’s a problem for all of us, once we’ve learned to take on trust what women tell us, because it places us under an obligation to do something about it. If a woman tells you she’s been groped by one of your colleagues, or that the guy at the conference who’s a friend of yours made a lewd comment, or whatever, the easiest thing to do is nothing (well, perhaps after making some sympathetic noises anyway). That’s not a good response. First, she probably told you for a reason—and that reason probably wasn’t merely to elicit sympathetic noises from you. Probably she wanted you to do something, or at least to help her figure out what she might do and support her in doing it. Second, it’s a pretty safe bet that this wasn’t a one-off, freak occurrence. Someone who pinches your colleague’s bottom is probably a serial bottom-pincher—unless they immediately look completely horrified with themselves and apologise profusely. Ditto many of the other behaviours on the spectrum. If nobody calls them on it, they’ll just carry on—and on, and on, until someone makes them stop. So make them stop now—or at least try. Similarly if you directly witness someone behaving inappropriately: don’t just inwardly wince; go over to them and call them on it.

We don’t pretend for a moment that this is an easy problem to solve. We ourselves have in the past been guilty of failing to take proportionate action. We’ve been talking and reflecting, and there are things we would now do differently, different actions we’d have taken, different discussions we’d have had at department level and higher (rather than between ourselves) and different policies we’d have advocated for. We did some of this, we tried, but … in hindsight we should have done more: there was so much more that could have been done, and we feel bad about this. But hindsight is important: figuring out what you could have done differently is an important step towards doing things differently next time.

The whole essay is here.

Cecilio Plá, “Verbena” (detail)

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fedup
fedup
3 years ago

It’s not just the flagrant kinds of abuse that are the problem. It’s your colleague and friend unexpectedly putting his hand around your waist after having a drink or two too many at the conference dinner, it’s your older colleague resting his hand on your shoulder while speaking just a bit flirtatiously with you to you. It’s the off-color jokes which will only be funny if you’re not a woman and/or a person of color and/or LGBT and yet, which you feel you must laugh at anyway, lest you be labeled uptight. It’s feeling enormous pressure to declare your grad program a “good place for women” to prospective female applicants/job candidates, even when you know it’s anything but. It’s the casual and gratuitous use of examples which pertain to sexual violence, when any other example would do–alongside a culture which openly mocks trigger warnings. It’s the casual reference to “what my grandmother would think” as short-hand for what some uninformed, non-philosophical person would think. (I’ve never heard “what my grandfather would think” used in this way). It’s the meta-meta-blogs and the other trolls, who make people afraid to speak out. It’s the talking over of women and marginalized others and the trivializing of their work. It’s the talking down to women and people of color about their own area of expertise, by those who lack basic competence in that area. It’s the continual and vociferous denial that our profession has a problem, despite all of these things.

Yes, sexual harassment is a deep and pervasive problem in our discipline, and I thank Justin for this post and for his willingness to have a conversation. But, I sometimes think it’s the ubiquity of these individually “small” things that is at least as much an explanation of our discipline’s toxic culture as the “large”, fire-able offenses. Having been on the receiving end of both the “large” and “small” offenses, I cannot tell which is worse.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

I am completely in support of the authors’ call to believe women’s testimony, and it takes an awful, blinkered person to instinctively doubt a woman who is taking such a huge risk in confiding in them.

However, as the authors admit, they don’t provide a solution to the second, big problem, which concerns power. As they say: “Often, though – especially when the man in question is your boss or has power over you – you let him get away with it because you believe, and – let’s be honest – probably rightly so, that nothing good can come of shopping him… Forget the glowing reference and basic standards of collegiality; you’ll be getting the half-hearted reference, the teaching nobody else wants to do… Not to mention a reputation as a trouble-maker…”

As the job market worsens every year, this perfectly rational don’t-rock-the-boat anxiety can only continue to snowball amongst junior faculty and graduate students. Surely I, as a powerless person in my department, cannot just automatically be required to “go over to [a harasser] and call them on it” when they are powerful. So what should I do? There are supportive steps I can and should take, but we should always remember that when there are insane power differentials involving career-defining relationships, there are powerful incentives for everyone to just shut up. This is not going to go away until people can feel safer in their careers. Ironically, the very era in which feminist consciousness-raising has given us the concepts and values to call for change is the same era in which PhD admissions have begun to dramatically outstrip job prospects, creating a climate of anxious silence. Anyone have ideas as to how to fight this?Report

fedup
fedup
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

If you become aware of harassment, I would suggest making sure the harassed person knows you saw what happened and are concerned and then conferring with a trusted, more-empowered person, such as a senior faculty member, about what to do next. You’re right that power differentials matter, so any strategy should reflect that.

Also, for more minor situations, e.g., an off-color joke, a slight grimace or simple lack of approving laughter can do the trick. Sometimes non-verbal communication is enough and does not require a dramatic show-down with someone with power over you.

Of course, we need structural changes as well, and it’s hard to say exactly which are the right ones. Some possibilities include: regular anonymous surveys of grad students about harassment, encouraged-but-not-mandatory sexual harassment training (the not-mandatory bit is designed to forestall resentment), and some kind of more organized movement–perhaps a petition–by senior members of the profession (especially men) committing to a zero tolerance of harassment in their departments and at their conferences. (While I’m grateful to Justin for writing this column and to many other senior males who have been outspoken on this issue, I am discouraged by how few and far between such men seem to be).

A final small suggestion: get a poster or hand-out from your university’s program on sexual harassment/assault about how victims can report and/or what harassment is. Hang it in your office. Visibility matters. It’s a small but important way of signaling to your students and peers that you care about sexual harassment.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  fedup
3 years ago

Thanks for the final suggestion, I plan on doing just that. However, I remain convinced that we need much, much more than just consciousness-raising, gentle social cues and a reliance on the good will of senior male philosophers. Many of our problems are made worse by systemic forces. No amount of grimacing will change the massive financial and personal incentives to stay quiet. If losing out on tenure or a job prospect weren’t something akin to career death and a corresponding nervous breakdown, then speaking out would be much, much easier.

So it is in Hollywood, where ridiculous competition for a vanishingly small number of careers is responsible for there being such a thing as a “casting couch” at all. In fact, I’d bet that harassment infects all status hierarchies in our society with this incentive-reward structure. I think it is time to change the focus away from individual actors and their intentions.

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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Counter-point: if you wait to address sexual harassment until you have fundamentally changed the career structure of academia, you will be waiting a long time.Report

Brian Kemple
3 years ago

On the contrary to the authors first point, I think there are certainly credible reasons to believe someone–man or woman–would lie about the sexual misbehavior of another. That’s not to say that many, probably the great majority, of such accusations are true: but few things will discredit an individual more than a legitimate-seeming accusation of sexual abuse or harassment. In the current atmosphere, because there have been so many accusations and the problem is so clearly widespread, it makes it that much easier to slip in a false accusation. The same thing happened several years ago during the scandal involving Catholic priests–and I know at least two priests who had their lives turned inside out for years due to accusations which were eventually proven false, but only after they endured much unjust punishment.

I think it does much more harm, therefore, to believe immediately any claim of abuse. That doesn’t mean one should disbelieve, or ignore. Such claims, of such a serious crime, should certainly be taken seriously. But I think the attitude of “If you’re not with me [in believing this individual is a sexual predator] then you’re against me” is profoundly destructive.

I also think that the more fundamental belief about sexual drives–hinted at in the excerpt–that all men are innately a deontological failure’s breath away from imposing their sexual desires on women, encourages sexual impropriety. There has been much discussion in recent years about consent, but not enough consideration of everything which has to happen to enable true consent in the first place–continuing to treat it like a binary affirmation or denial of some action is only going to perpetuate bad sexual decisions, habits, and beliefs. Treating human beings as though their decisions are programs run with logical execution ignores the full reality of human nature and the pivotal importance of both knowledge of the good and habituation towards it.

https://semioticthomist.wordpress.com/2017/11/30/sex-power-and-instinct/
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agradstudent
agradstudent
3 years ago

The epistemic problem does not seem to be quite as straightforward as Beebee & Widdows put it. Usually, I have no reason to assume that someone deliberately lies to me in their everyday testimony. But sometimes I have reason to believe that what they assert is still not true — then I assume a nondeliberate mistake.

To use one of their own examples, suppose I have waited 30 minutes for the train and ask a guard about when it may arrive; the guard may reply “oh, it runs every 20 minutes”. I’d assume he’d spoken in good faith, but on bad information (maybe it’s a holiday with an alternative schedule, or there is construction that delays the train, or …).

That is, I have no evidence that he lied, indeed no reason to believe that he did, but I have evidence that what he said is not true, hence reason to believe that what he says is false.

Similarly, in many of these cases of sexual harassment — particularly the “small” things as fedup puts it — I may have such reasons. For instance, a common case seems to be that the person accused is someone that a doubter has known for years to be an ethical person who has had many healthy professional relationships with men, women, people of color, etc.

Again, no evidence for a deliberate lie, but (maybe?) evidence for untruth. Doubt ensues. From my completely subjective reading of the media reporting, this is the kind of doubt that is usually raised by colleagues of an accused person (“misunderstanding”, “misconception” …).

I cannot see how the arguments Beebee & Widdows put forward are relevant to the kind of doubt that does not assume deliberate lying.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

that the person accused is someone that a doubter has known for years to be an ethical person who has had many healthy professional relationships with men, women, people of color, etc.

Why should one think that people fitting this description are unlikely to have committed sexual harassment? It seems to me that many of the men who have been revealed to be harassers have had friends who would’ve thought they were ethical, and who have observed them to have apparently healthy professional relationships with men, women, people of color, etc. So this isn’t actually evidence for untruth of the evidence of harassment.
One of the classic responses to harassment is that the harasser’s friends react by saying “My friend X wouldn’t do such a thing!” Maybe you don’t know whether he would or not? Someone’s out there doing the harassing, and those people have friends. Maybe one of those friends is you.

Again, no evidence for a deliberate lie, but (maybe?) evidence for untruth. Doubt ensues.
Well, look at one of the cases Beebee and Widdows discuss. A woman’s senior colleague puts his hand on her thigh, twice. The only room for “untruth but no deliberate lie” there is that she doesn’t know whether his hand is on her thigh, which, come on. Or that there’s some innocent interpretation for how that happened, twice, which, again, come on. It’s a really bad idea to twist ourselves into pretzels trying to come up with some innocent explanation for this sort of behavior when what’s most likely is that the senior colleague was harassing the woman. Which, as we know, is the sort of thing that happens all the time. So why doubt that it happened this time, unless “you have a credible reason for thinking she is lying to you”? Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

> Why should one think that people fitting this description are unlikely to have committed sexual harassment? It seems to me that many of the men who have been revealed to be harassers have had friends who would’ve thought they were ethical, and who have observed them to have apparently healthy professional relationships with men, women, people of color, etc. So this isn’t actually evidence for untruth of the evidence of harassment.

Well, it seems to *me* that in many high-profile cases the offender was a “known creep” (I’m not naming names, but it’s not hard to find examples). And thus, it seems to me, the actual problem here is that Known Creeps are continued to be tolerated. So you and I may see the data differently.

But this is independent from the issue at hand. I argued that “no reason X is lying” is not sufficient to conclude “assume what X says is true” in all cases. In any particular circumstance there may be particular reasons not to draw this conclusion; feel free to disagree with me on whether “character evidence” is one such reason — my point stands.

> So why doubt that it happened this time, unless “you have a credible reason for thinking she is lying to you”?

As said, any particular circumstance may have any particular reason. Recently, a philosopher accused of ‘groping’ replied that he denied the event in question without thereby calling his accuser a liar (again, I’m not interested in naming names). I believe the amount of time passed (and the general fallibility of human memory) aided this point.

This defence would be impossible on Beebee & Widdows’s epistemology. But it seems to me that it is reasonable. Disclaimer: I have neither the desire nor the means to adjudicate this case; the point is that *in general* the *defence strategy* appears permissible. And the very reason for what it appears permissible is my original point: that sincere assertion does not entail truth.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

Well, it seems to *me* that in many high-profile cases the offender was a “known creep” (I’m not naming names, but it’s not hard to find examples). And thus, it seems to me, the actual problem here is that Known Creeps are continued to be tolerated. So you and I may see the data differently.

Continued toleration of Known Creeps is certainly a problem. But there are high-profile cases where the offender had positive relationships with friends and seemingly healthy professional relationships with other people they had not harassed. I’m not naming names, but it’s not hard to find examples of people saying that the offender was a valued colleague and they were surprised by the allegations (I’m mostly thinking outside academia here). Even for Known Creeps! Not everyone knows a Known Creep is a creep.

But this is independent from the issue at hand. I argued that “no reason X is lying” is not sufficient to conclude “assume what X says is true” in all cases. In any particular circumstance there may be particular reasons not to draw this conclusion; feel free to disagree with me on whether “character evidence” is one such reason — my point stands.

Look, we’re not doing abstract epistemology here. The question is: A colleague of yours says that someone has harassed her (or him, or them) in a particular way. Do you believe her? And in practice, one of the reasons survivors of harassment aren’t believed–or don’t tell their stories because they don’t think they will be believed–is that they get or fear the reaction “But X is a great guy!” So, if that’s not actually a valid reaction, you shouldn’t just airily wave that away as an unimportant detail. It is far more important to be clear on whether this is a good reaction than to litigate whether it is an absolutely exceptionless generation that one ought to believe someone who tells one about her direct experience unless one has reason to think she is lying.

I guess I would ask this: Would you have had any objection if Beebee and Widdows had said to believe the woman unless you have a particular credible reason to think that what she says if not true? If not, do you think that the not-lying-but-mistaken cases are going to be anywhere near common in these cases? If no one had jumped in to say that there is logical room for the possibility that someone might be mistaken but not lying, would anyone actually have been confused about this? Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

> Look, we’re not doing abstract epistemology here.

I happen to believe that philosophical analysis has a bearing on public discourse. So, in a way, I am doing abstract epistemology (as applied to a particular real life epistemic problem: how can I know whether an accusation is true?). We (philosophers) are well equipped to sort bad arguments from good arguments — and a bad argument in support of a good cause is still a bad argument.

> A colleague of yours says that someone has harassed her (or him, or them) in a particular way. Do you believe her?

Probably. But only after a (possibly brief?) evaluation of the accusation w.r.t. my background knowledge that may or may not cause doubt. Honestly, I find it perplexing that serious people make the serious demand to suspend this evaluation.

> Would you have had any objection if Beebee and Widdows had said to believe the woman unless you have a particular credible reason to think that what she says if not true

I don’t know, because they haven’t. I would venture the guess that this conclusion would actually be too weak for what they are trying to argue (further) in their article.

> If no one had jumped in to say that there is logical room for the possibility that someone might be mistaken but not lying, would anyone actually have been confused about this?

No, I don’t think so. Which is precisely why I pointed it out.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

Honestly, I find it perplexing that serious people make the serious demand to suspend this evaluation.

Nobody in this discussion has! Beebee and Widdows (and I) have said that you should not doubt a woman’s word unless you have some particular credible reason to doubt it. Figuring out whether you have some credible reason to doubt it is evaluation.

I don’t know, because they haven’t. I would venture the guess that this conclusion would actually be too weak for what they are trying to argue (further) in their article.

I don’t know why you need to “guess.” You’ve read the article; you’ve quoted the specific example where they specifically mention mistakes, and you’ve read the subsequent examples they cite–“If a woman tells you she’s been groped by one of your colleagues, or that the guy at the conference who’s a friend of yours made a lewd comment”–which are not the sort of thing about which the woman is likely to be mistaken. So it does seem like the conclusion is still supported by this version of the argument.

I find it kind of odd that you’re making such heavy weather of the fact that B&W said “is lying” rather than “is lying or mistaken,” without trying to explain why the additional possibility is relevant to their larger argument. That’s not good philosophical practice, regardless of the subject matter. Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

Again, the odd case of the disappearing reply button.

Respectfully, I submit that there is not much more to do for us here. You’ve now moved to argue:

– from authority (“distinguished philosophers”).

– that I can’t be right because you have the moral need to maintain Beebee & Widdows’s conclusion (“instruction kit for ignoring harassment”). (as I said, bad arguments in favor of good causes are still bad arguments)

– against a caricature of my view: I’ve never proposed to have “he’s my friend” as evidence, but rather “this person has an (objectively) positive track record” (and, thus, deserves some benefit of doubt in my eyes).

I can’t defend against that.Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

For some reason, I can’t “reply” to your latest comment, so I’m doing so here. Apologies for the confusion.

> Figuring out whether you have some credible reason to doubt it is evaluation.

The reason I’m making heavy weather is that “has X reason to lie?” is too high a standard for credible doubt. And indeed their arguments for that standard do not hold up to scrutiny (as I have argued).

For the lower standard that you suggest (and that I’d be fine with, with the proviso that we disagree on the role of “character evidence”) does not match with the elaborations of Beebee & Widdows (e.g. asking oneself what an accuser has “to gain” from a lie).

They’re not just being a bit imprecise by writing “lying” instead of “lying or honestly mistaken” — they seem to genuinely mean the former, or to be unaware of the latter, or to be presupposing that in these cases is no honest mistake (Bayesian Grad Student kindly addressed that third option). Thus I don’t think I’m being unfair to them.

And I have explained why the difference matters to a sufficient degree, i.e. I have “tr[ied] to explain why the additional possiblity is relevant”. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

or to be unaware of the latter

Good heavens, this is a condescending remark about two distinguished philosophers. Perhaps, rather than assuming that they are unaware of the possibility of sincere false testimony–a possibility they earlier explicitly acknowledged–one might look at the particular cases they talk about (“a woman tells you she’s been groped by one of your colleagues, or that the guy at the conference who’s a friend of yours made a lewd comment”) and realize that in those cases sincere false testimony is highly unlikely, if the report comes soon after the reported incident?
As it is, your prescription seems to be that, if a woman tells you that someone you know groped her or made a lewd comment, that you consider the “character evidence” (he’s your friend! or you know him professionally! he wouldn’t do that!) and consider that, while the woman might have nothing to gain from lying, she may well be mistaken, because… well, not sure if there’s any particular reason that she’d be mistaken, but there’s the “character evidence” after all. This is a step by step instruction kit for ignoring harassment. Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

Again, the odd case of the disappearing reply button.

Respectfully, I submit that there is not much more to do for us here. You’ve now moved to argue:

– from authority (“distinguished philosophers”).

– that I can’t be right because you have the moral need to maintain Beebee & Widdows’s conclusion (“instruction kit for ignoring harassment”). (as I said, bad arguments in favor of good causes are still bad arguments)

– against a caricature of my view: I’ve never proposed to have “he’s my friend” as evidence, but rather “this person has an (objectively) positive track record” (and, thus, deserves some benefit of doubt in my eyes).

I can’t defend against that.Report

jdkbrown
jdkbrown
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

Matt Weiner most certainly did *not* argue from authority. An argument from authority would run: Beebee and Widdow are distinguished philosophers and they say that X, therefore X. Instead, he argued: you impute that Beebee and Widdow made obvious mistake X; however, philosophers as distinguished as they are are unlikely to make such an obvious mistake; furthermore, they elswhere explicitly mention the possibility that you say they mistakenly ignore; therefore, your exceedingly uncharitable reading is unlikely to be correct.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  agradstudent
3 years ago

agradstudent–“Reply” buttons don’t appear past a certain level of nesting. Click the “reply” button on the nearest post above that’s at a shallower level of indentation and your post will appear at the bottom of the replies. For instance, I am replying to your post but my post will appear below jdkbrown’s.

jdkbrown has it right about my appeal to Beebee and Widdows’s distinction; I’m using it as an interpretive heuristic. It’s a fallible one–distinguished philosophers do sometimes make very bad arguments. But in this case I think and have argued that there’s a not obviously mistaken reading of their arguments, so we should opt for that.

As for the complain that I’m caricaturing your argument, it’s not that I think you mean to apply a “he’s my friend” standard, but in practice the “objective positive track record” clause will get applied as a “he’s my friend” standard. Again, without naming names, I think we’ve seen that happen. Furthermore, if we default to not believing any accusation when the accused person has a positive track record as far as we know, it’s going to be very hard for people to get a negative track record. If A, B, and C all tell J that X harassed them, sure, Z will conclude that X doesn’t have a positive track record. If A tells J, B tells K, and C tells L, and J, K, and L all think “Well as far as I know X has a positive track record so I will doubt this accusation,” then X is going to keep his “positive track record” as far as the next accuser goes.

Finally, it’s not that I think you can’t be right because I have a positive need to maintain B&W’s conclusion. It’s that I think you’re not right on independent grounds, and that this is particularly worrisome because it’s particularly important to maintain B&W’s conclusion if it’s right; and that we’ve seen the pernicious effects of the kind of epistemic policy you’re advocating. In fact, B&W’s article is about those pernicious effects.Report

Bayesian Grad Student
Bayesian Grad Student
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

I think that the vast majority of people who make accusations of sexual harassment or abuse are telling the truth and that we should have high credence in such accusations in most cases. (I think talking about full belief here is unnecessary and confuses things.)

But the idea that an incident of sexual harassment is just fundamentally the sort of thing of which no sane person could have a sincere belief grounded in a false memory is undermined by empirical research on memory (e.g., Elizabeth Loftus’s work and follow-on studies).

Sure, it’s intutively appealing. It’s also intuitively appealing to think that no sane person could have a sincere false belief that they were in a helicopter that was shot down by an RPG, but many psychologists who’ve looked at the Brian Williams case think he did just that.

As I said, I don’t think such cases are common, and they shouldn’t prevent our being willing to have high credence in allegations of harassment in general, but we definitely shouldn’t think that they’re on a par with evil-demon scenarios either. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Bayesian Grad Student
3 years ago

we definitely shouldn’t think that they’re on a par with evil-demon scenarios either

I didn’t say they were. We should be clear on the chances, though; as far as I know Loftus’s work, it doesn’t seem like it would cast much doubt on most of these sorts of cases.Report

Bayesian Grad Student
Bayesian Grad Student
Reply to  Matt Weiner
3 years ago

Matt: I think we’re basically in agreement.

I’m not sure I can do much better, based on my (limited) reading of the studies, than to say that such scenarios should be factored into our credence to a low but not negligible degree.

With luck, as we come to learn more about the detailed workings of human memory, we’ll be able to be at least a little more precise about how common they are and what particular circumstances affect the likelihood of such things happening. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Bayesian Grad Student
3 years ago

Yes, I think we’re basically in agreement.
One thing about the studies, as I see it, is that they can provide further reasons to take a woman’s word, or at least undercut reasons to doubt it. I’m thinking of a (non-academia) case in which doubt was cast on a woman’s story because a detail in her story was wrong, and this was taken as evidence that she was lying. But the detail was exactly the sort that gets confabulated in memory, whereas the overall story of “X assaulted me” was not the sort that gets confabulated, when there wasn’t been any doubt about X’s identity. Report

prime
prime
3 years ago

“When someone tells you something and you have no reason to disbelieve them—no reason to think that they have made a mistake or are being malicious or have some other reason to lie to you—you take them at their word.”

Black males especially may find Beebee and Widdows’s simple “believe her” guidance chilling.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/07/politics/blacks-wrongful-convictions-study/index.html
“Black people serving time for sexual assault are three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than white defendants that have been convicted of sexual assault. The bulk of the racial disparities in sexual assault convictions can be explained by white victims who mistakenly identify black assailants.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/the-question-of-race-in-campus-sexual-assault-cases/539361/
“Janet Halley, a professor at Harvard Law School and a self-described feminist, is one of the few people who have publicly addressed the role of race in campus sexual assault. Interracial assault allegations, she notes, are a category that bears particular scrutiny. In a 2015 Harvard Law Review article…she writes, ‘American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women,’ followed eventually by the revelation ‘that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.’ She writes that ‘morning-after remorse can make sex that seemed like a good idea at the time look really alarming in retrospect; and the general social disadvantage that black men continue to carry in our culture can make it easier for everyone in the adjudicative process to put the blame on them.'”
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Jared
Jared
3 years ago

Is it really a choice between believing that Accuser is a liar OR that Accused is a harasser? It seems worth considering that BOTH judgments should be arrived at only with, at least, some hesitation and extra checking. And we can: it is possible to listen seriously, empathetically and credulously to an accuser while still withholding final judgment, or outright belief about the accused. This is a common practice in cases where the stakes of settling on a firm judgment are high, still more when the question concerns ACTING on the judgment, by publicly shaming or even punishing the accused. Indeed, it’s pretty much what we do with all other accusations of horrible behavior when we have no prior reason to believe either way. Should this be different?Report