Friday, February 23, 2018

When to engage

Elizabeth Barnes has a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on an important topic: when is it a good idea to engage in a serious way with harmful and offensive ideas? Barnes draws a distinction between, on the one hand, Peter Singer’s discussions of the value of disabled people, and on the other, a hypothetical philosophical argument in favour of rape. She finds both stances morally problematic, offensive, and pretty clearly false, but sees value in engaging with the former, but not with the latter. The difference lies the opinions of people at large. As Barnes puts it: “A pro-rape argument isn’t an important ‘option on the table’ in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one”; by contrast, Singer’s view about disabled people reflect widespread assumptions.

I like Barnes’s piece, and I think her strategy of looking beyond views’ intrinsic features to social facts about how views are distributed, is a sensible and correct one. (I wrote something making a similar point a little while back.) That said, I think I have a couple of points of disagreement about how this kind of framework plays when we look to specifics.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Kipnis on believing rape survivors

There have been several recent feminist reactions to Laura Kipnis's book that I've found pretty insightful. Here's a Jezebel piece focusing on the lawsuit; here's a very solid review by Jeremy C. Young, focusing on the harm the book does to university culture. I started blogging at length about this book a couple months back because I felt like no one was publicly articulating some of the obvious feminist perspective; I'm glad to see that others have started to write about it too. I had thought that my previous post would be my last on the topic, but I did have a new thought today in response to something I read in this series of "Short Takes" by Signs. Unlike the other critiques I've read, this one included a response by Kipnis herself.

The exchange I want to discuss is about rape and rape culture and involves some specifics. So consider yourself content advised.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Kipnis on Epistemology

Laura Kipnis's Unwanted Advances is, in important ways, a work of epistemology. It's not an academic monograph—don't file it in the philosophy section. But many of its most central questions are epistemic: given the murky circumstances, psychological complexity, and private details that characterize sexual misconduct allegations in academia, how are investigators or members of the public to know, or to come to reasonable beliefs about, what has happened?

Kipnis’s view is that the prevalent practices among student activists and campus administrators are epistemically faulty: we are, Kipnis thinks, far too quick to believe students' allegations of sexual harassment and assault. On p. 1 of the book she describes the campus status quo as "officially sanctioned hysteria" and a "sexual paranoia" akin to McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials. ("As in Salem," Kipnis quips on pp. 66–7, "the accusations of post-adolescent girls still factor heavily.")

In this post I’d like to express disagreement with some elements of Kipnis’s epistemic outlook. All the usual content warnings.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Guest Post: Kipnis on Title IX

The following is a guest post by Kathryn Pogin, a graduate student at Northwestern Philosophy and an incoming student Yale Law. She is a colleague of the student who is suing Kipnis and Harper Collins —Jonathan

Since the release of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, a recurring theme in public disagreement regarding the book has been that if critics believe the book is in error, they should be specific, and provide evidence, while critics were hesitant to do so when it seemed that would only further violate the privacy of those depicted in the book. Whether or not there were errors in the representation of events at Northwestern may be adjudicated in a more appropriate venue than blogs and Facebook now, anyway – but one thing I’ve found odd about this dynamic is that there are errors in the book about matters of public record.

Consider this passage:
“In 2011 the Department of Education’s office for Civil Rights (OCR) expanded Title IX’s mandate from gender discrimination to encompass sexual misconduct (everything from sexual harassment, to coercion, to assault, to rape), issuing guidelines so vague that I could be accused of ‘creating a hostile environment on campus’ for writing an essay. These vague guidelines (never subjected to any congressional review) take the form of what are called, with faux cordiality, ‘Dear Colleague’ letters—note the nebulously threatening inflections of overempowered civil servants everywhere.” (p. 36 of Unwanted Advances)
This is false. The 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) is controversial — but it’s not because it expanded the scope of Title IX to include sexual misconduct. Title IX already covered sexual misconduct. Rather, it’s because in that letter, OCR issued guidance that schools should use the preponderance of the evidence standard when adjudicating sex discrimination complaints, including complaints of sexual misconduct.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Laura Kipnis and Harper Collins have been sued

I have just learned that the graduate student Laura Kipnis discusses at length in Unwanted Advances has sued both Kipnis and the book's publisher, Harper Collins. She's suing for public disclosure of private facts, false light invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

As I mentioned in a comment in a recent post here, I do believe that Kipnis dramatically misrepresented the student in dishonest and harmful ways. I am not surprised that there is a lawsuit alleging this. All of my blogging so far has bracketed those issues, since getting into the details of the misrepresentations would involve further violations of privacy. I have been trying to make the case that even if the specific evidence she cites is correct, her case is both uncompeling and harmful. But since Jane Doe vs. Harper Collins and Laura Kipnis is now public, some of Doe's specific complaints can now be discussed. (Many commenters have expressed frustration with people saying that the book is inaccurate without saying how. They may now be in a position to relieve some of their curiosity.)

The lawsuit puts in public, for the first time, Doe's version of the story. You can read it here. (It's a 23-page pdf.) This is of course her allegation; the evidence is something that will presumably be considered in court. A few highlights follow. Consider the usual content warnings to be in place.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Retroactively Withdrawing Consent

Following are more of my thoughts on Laura Kipnis's discussions of university sexual harassment and assault policies in Unwanted Advances. All the obvious content warnings.

Monday, May 08, 2017


A number of people have asked me about my blog's comment policy. As some readers may have noticed, in recent posts I have had many comments by anonymous commenters with minimal or negative value. I rarely delete comments, and I sometimes reply to them even when it is obvious that my interlocutors aren't engaging in good faith. Many people have asked me why I do this. As they point out, one result is that the comments sections of my posts end up being very unwelcoming to many of the people I might wish to be engaging with. This is absolutely true, and a serious cost to the current procedure.

One reason I haven't disabled anonymous comments, or engaged in more significant comment moderation, is that I don't only want to be discussing these issues with people who already agree with them. I'm spending quite a bit of time engaging with the Kipnis book in part because I am amazed that so many people find it compelling. But I don't just want to gawk at them with members of my own tribe. That doesn't get us anywhere. I want to assume that many of them are thoughtful humans it's possible to have a real conversation with—to have a chance of changing their minds, or to have a chance to correct any of my own errors.

Many people who are skeptical about the things I've been writing about sexual assault are unwilling to say so under their own names.

Not all of the comments I'm talking about are productive conversation of the form I'm talking about. Indeed, the majority are not. For example, there's no value related to the intellectual common ground in comments that do nothing but comment on my personal appearance, or comments that do nothing but lie about what someone has said. There's absolutely a case to be made for screening or deleting such comments. I guess there are two reasons I don't do that.

First, the line between comments that are and are not potentially productive is not always an obvious one; putting the bar for speech super low means I won't mistakenly exclude things that could have been useful. I'm letting in more garbage, but there's at least that advantage.

Second, I think it's important, for those of us who spend most of our time talking to people who agree that, e.g., a workplace where employers habitually let their hands linger on their female employees contributes to rape culture, to be aware of the cultural backlash to the advances of recent decades. We shouldn't forget that we live in a world where, if you say that a good exercise in female agency can be to report your boss's sexual assault, or that student activists aren't the force behind unjust Title IX investigation procedures, you're likely have commenters crawl up and tell you that you're a snowflake narcissist who doesn't deserve his job, maybe with some speculation about your sex life thrown in for good measure. I think this is a gross fact, but it is a fact that I think it'd be a mistake to ignore or forget.

Gratuitous insults from anonymous commenters don't really bother me personally—so I'm not suffering myself from the abuse (aside from the not-trivial time it takes to respond, on those occasions when I decide to respond). Obviously many people in different professional and social positions are different from me in this respect—I'm not saying how anybody should feel about this kind of thing, just how I do. The main cost, from my point of view, is the one mentioned at the top: letting the toxic voices in disincentivizes some people I'd like to be talking to from participating in the conversation. My compromise solution so far has been to open public facebook threads for posts, so that anyone with a facebook account can discuss it there. That's imperfect for a lot of reasons, but it's the compromise I've landed on so far. I may well change my mind at some future date.

(In case it wasn't obvious: this is not intended remotely as a criticism of blogs that use heavier moderation. I think they do so for very good reasons. Different spaces are, and should be, different.)