Monday, January 25, 2016

A few more thoughts on university sexual assault policies

This post is part of a virtual teach-in in commemoration of UBC Sexual Assault Awareness month. See the #UBCSAAM hastag on twitter.

I suggested last week that often there will be grounds for institutional action in response to allegations of sexual assault, even if no criminal charges are filed or a criminal conviction cannot be reached.

One common response is that a policy that permits action in response to an assault that can't be proven in court is unfair to the alleged perpetrator. (I received several thoughts along these lines from members of the public at large in response to my op-ed.) I think this is a mistake—one that may be motivated by a failure to take seriously my suggestion that we sometimes have genuine knowledge, even when we can't prove something in court. I do not advocate institutional action in the absence of evidence or knowledge; I don't think, for example, that universities should expel students merely because they suspect them of being rapists. My proposal is that we should act on our knowledge. If the university knows that someone is attacking other students, it should take action to protect them. People sometimes forget that it's possible to have such knowledge without criminal trials, but it is obviously true. (I know that I walked my dog yesterday morning, even though I'd probably have a pretty difficult time proving it in court.) This was the core thought behind my Vancouver Sun op-ed—just because something is a criminal offence doesn't mean that law enforcement is the only entity that can or should be involved.

I think it's helpful to compare other criminal actions—sexual assault activates some weird patterns of intuitions. Suppose a student, Shen, has a habit of punching other students in the face. I'm assigning my students to work together in small groups on an assignment, and Paksima expresses a desire not to work with Shen, because she's afraid that he'll punch her in the face again. I've never seen Shen punch anybody in the face—and when I ask him about Paksima's broken nose, he says he doesn't know how she got it, but speculates that maybe she broke her own nose to get him into trouble.

Depending on the details of the case, I think I might, under these circumstances, be able to know what has happened. While it is literally a case of 'he said–she said', there are possible such cases where one can know who is being honest and who is lying. But let's suppose for the purpose of argument that we're looking at a version of the case where I can't have genuine knowledge about how Paksima's nose ended up broken. Maybe for some reason the possibility that it's an elaborate and costly framing job is really live. I still face the question, what should I do about this situation? Paksima is asking not to be required to work with Shen, and she's citing grounds of her own personal safety.

I don't think anyone would take very seriously the idea that this should be my response: "Paksima, punching people in the face is a criminal matter, not an academic one. You should take your concerns to the RCMP; if and when Shen is convicted of criminal assault, I'll take the allegation into consideration, but unless and until that happens, I'm going to assume that nothing improper has happened. To do otherwise wouldn't be fair to Shen."

This hypothetical response is ludicrously callous; but it is exactly analogous to a widespread idea about what universities should do about sexual assault. If you think I shouldn't ignore unproven allegations about getting punched in the face, then it's hard for me to see why you shouldn't think the same about unproven allegations about sexual assault.

None of this is to deny that there are difficult questions to ask about what procedures should govern just what steps should be taken, given particular bodies of evidence. Returning to the case of sexual assault, I do think that if a university knows that a student is sexually assaulting other students, he should be expelled. But I don't think it's at all a trivial matter to put institutional frameworks in place to investigate allegations and establish appropriate responses. That is to say, I don't think it's an easy matter to figure out what appropriate sexual assault policies are.

I also want to emphasize that punitive actions are only one part of what should be covered in a sexual assault policy. A sexual assault policy that focuses only on what standards of proof would justify what kind of punishment does so at the neglect of the victims it is meant to protect. Victims of assault may need many things other than a procedure that might eventually punish their attackers. And many of the things universities can do to support alleged victims are non-punitive, and so do not require at all a high standard of proof. (I don't punish Shen by letting Paksima work in a different group, or referring her to medical services, based only on her allegation.) So another part of a university sexual assault policy—one even further disconnected from questions about law enforcement—should set out such non-punitive guidelines for how to care for alleged victims. A few such policies that come to mind are flexibility about classroom assignments, an ability to make changes to living arrangements, and access to counselling. No doubt there are many more things to add to this list.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Degrading Material at the UBC Bookstore (1982 edition)

The struggle is slow and hard, and progress can't always be seen as it occurs. But sometimes history provides helpful context. I have been reading this week about a controversy in the 1980s about whether the UBC Bookstore should continue to sell pornography. To my contemporary sensibilities, that there should ever have been controversy about whether the UBC Bookstore should sell pornography is barely imaginable.

Lance Read, an Education student at UBC in 1982, wrote this letter to UBC's student newspaper, the Ubyssey:
I would like to see our bookstore, an official arm of the university, discontinue the sale of printed matter that is socially offensive, degrading and unnecessary in an enlightened world. To my knowledge there are only two publications for sale in the UBC bookstore which concentrate on such degradation. Penthouse and Playboy magazines publish photographs which focus on posing women in submissive and degrading positions. Those of us who recognize the natural and valuable relationship that women and men share as equals struggling to retain respect for all social groups, will no longer condone through silence, such degradation. I therefore ask our bookstore to stop the sale of Penthouse and Playboy. I feel that this is justifiable censorship. I suggest as an alternative that the bookstore purchase reprints of socially inoffensive articles from both publications and make them available for resale.
You can find this letter printed on p. 10 of the Nov 19, 1982 edition here. I am amazed that the UBC bookstore was ever selling pornographic magazines in the 1980s—Read's position seems incredibly obvious in retrospect. But even more astounding is the response that one John Hedgecock, UBC Bookstore Manager, seems to have offered to Mr. Read. (I have been unable to locate this response in the online archives, but Lance Read has sent me his own copy.)
As a general rule the UBC bookstore has a non-censorship policy, especially in regards to material ordinarily available in public stores in Canada. The two magazines in question meet this criteria. Other perhaps more controversial material is handled on a case by case basis.
I would suggest that points made in Mr. Read's letter are more a matter of personal opinion. To paraphrase Shakespeare's 'Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye'—lets us say—art is in the eye of the beholder. Nude photographic art is art.
As a note of interest, I know personally that there are usually a few copies of these magazines available in the locker room of the Thunderbird rugby team on which Mr. Read plays.
(My emphasis.) The dismissive sneer comes through loud and clear in the prose. As if the idea of this material's being inappropriate was completely beyond the pale.

Although I didn't find this letter online, I did find clear corroboration that Hedgecock was unsympathetic to Read's request—which echoed a call that Education instructor Josephine Evans had been making for some time—see e.g. p. 1 of the October 10 1982 Ubessey. I am not sure what happened to this controversy in the end. The latest reference I found was a March 1983 discussion of a petition to the UBC board of governors to ban pornographic material from the UBC bookstore (p. 1 here). I don't know whether the ban was put in place, but I can report that I have never seen any pornography in the UBC bookstore.

So, progress!

Which isn't to say there's not still work to be done. Here's a photo Carrie Jenkins took at the UBC bookstore last fall (used with her permission).
That's How to Be a Man: A Handbook of Advice, Inspiration, and Occasional Drinking, and Red Green's Beginner's Guide to Women: For Men Who Don't Read Instructions. So yes, we've got the activity of manhood and women as objects, at the UBC bookstore, in 2015. See also this classy item, photographed by Moira Wyton‎ at the UBC bookstore, also in 2015 (used with permission):

Among its many objectionable qualities is a hilarious lighthearted threat of sexual assault.

So I guess maybe they haven't quite stopped selling "printed matter that is socially offensive, degrading and unnecessary in an enlightened world", but at least the bar seems to be moving in the right direction.

Maybe in 2050 the UBC community will look back and shake their heads, marvelling at the idea that anybody ever thought this was appropriate material for a university bookstore. A guy can dream.

Friday, January 22, 2016

No more free labour by me for Synthese

Like most philosophers who are active on social media, I was amazed and horrified this week to learn from Feminist Philosophers about an article by Jean-Yves Beziau, nominally on logical pluralism, published in Synthese and containing irrelevant and incoherent sexist and homophobic ramblings. (See also the Daily Nous coverage/discussion here.) The article represents an extremely serious editorial failure; in my opinion, its publication is inconsistent with Synthese's status as a high-prestige philosophical journal. The editors need to apologize (really apologize) and retract the article. Unless and until that happens, I plan to exercise the little bit of personal power that I have in this matter, and refrain from contributing any more of my labour to a journal that has so dramatically failed to live up to its responsibilities.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Knowing about Sexual Assault, Having Enough Evidence, and the Contextualist Fallacy

Last week I wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about university sexual assault policies. One of the things I tried to do there was to draw a connection between some of the questions in that area and my own research into knowledge and contextualism. I tried to make the case that a kind of contextualist fallacy lies behind some attitudes about university sexual assault policies. I still think that's plausible and interesting, although there are certainly competing possible explanations. But a tweet I received in response definitely commits the contextualist fallacy.
The contextualist fallacy is the failure to attend to the context-sensitivity of language, allowing for the construction of a superficially apparently-valid argument that is in fact fallacious. For example, the word 'now' is context-sensitive. Sometimes when it is used, it refers to 9:47 am Monday, Jan 18. (In fact, that's the time that word refers to when I utter it right now.) Here is a true sentence:
1. It is before 10:00 Monday right now.
Actually, although it is before 10:00, it's not very far before 10:00, when I have to teach. So I'd better come back and finish this post later.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hypocrisy, Self-Defeat, and other Ad Hominem Arguments

You learn in intro-level critical thinking to distinguish criticizing a position from criticizing a person holding a position. Doing the latter is an ad hominem argument. (The latin literally means 'to the person'.) In this dialogue, Frank makes an ad hominem argument:
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill often keeps her library books past the due date. Don't listen to her, the minimum wage is fine as it is.
This is a really blatant ad hominem; Frank is ignoring Jill's argument, and instead saying something about Jill herself—in this case, something completely irrelevant. But one can have ad hominems without this kind of irrelevance, as in this version of the case:
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill works a minimum-wage job, so her motives aren't pure. The minimum wage is fine as it is.
This version is less off-the-wall—one can actually imagine Frank arguing in this way—but it's also pretty clearly an ad hominem. Frank has ignored the argument Jill made, and is instead focusing on Jill herself.

Argumentum ad hominem is typically recognized as an argumentative fallacy. Perhaps sometimes it's appropriate to argue about the person—perhaps, for example, in some electoral cases, one of the main questions we're interested in is what kind of a person is this?. But establishing something bad about a person making an argument is not to be confused with arguing against the conclusion. So much is, I think, pretty much obvious, once it's spelled out. But there are at least two kinds of cases where ad hominem arguments can be misleadingly tempting.

Consider arguments involving hypocrisy. Someone is hypocritical when one condemns behaviour of which one is oneself guilty. When Newt Gingrich got all high-and-mighty about Bill Clinton's marital infidelity while at the very same time carrying on with a secret affair, that was hypocrisy. When people are guilty of hypocrisy, it can feel pretty satisfying to call them out for it—it's a strong rhetorical move. But it's also argumentum ad hominem. It says something about the person making the argument, rather than about the argument or conclusion itself.
Jill: The minimum wage should be higher. It is important that employees be able to make a living wage, and economic studies indicate that raising the minimum wage will probably not significantly reduce employment.
Frank: Jill doesn't really care about people making a living wage—her company profits tremendously from underpaying its employees.
Frank may succeed in getting people not to listen to Jill with this argument, but he does so in a way that totally ignores the content of what she actually said. Her argument is about what employees need and the relationship between minimum wages and unemployment. Frank has totally ignored that argument, and focused on Jill instead. That's the definition of ad hominem. If you don't care about Jill and only want to know what to think about the minimum wage, Frank's argument is just a distraction. Accusing people of hypocrisy is ad hominem.

The same goes, I think, for at least some self-defeat arguments. In my introductory epistemology course this week, we're discussing radical skepticism—the view that nobody knows or has any reason to believe pretty much anything. (Think about all the possible ways any of your beliefs could be wrong—you could even be a brain in a vat!) One charge people often level against this view is that it is self-defeating in the following sense: no skeptic can coherently claim to know, or have reason to believe, that skepticism is true. One imagines winning an argument with a skeptic, perhaps along lines like these:
Jill: Nobody knows anything. After all, it's possible to be deceived about any possible belief.
Frank: Jill can't possibly know what she's talking about, because if she did, then that would be some knowledge someone has.
Frank's argument is clever, and he might even convince people not to listen to Jill. But his argument is ad hominem. He says that Jill is being inconsistent in a certain kind of way, not that the content of her view is. Jill has given an argument having to do with the possibility of error—the argument does not depend on there being any individual who can coherently endorse it. Frank has ignored Jill's argument, and attacked Jill herself. That's the definition of an ad hominem argument.

One difference between this last kind of ad hominem and more prototypical cases is that it doesn't depend on particular contingencies of Jill's—there's a kind of argument template that one could use against any skeptic. But that's just to say that one is prepared to give an ad hominem argument against anyone who thinks radical skepticism is true. But this isn't an argument against radical skepticism itself.

Here is a coherent hypothesis: nobody knows anything. Arguing that nobody could know it is a very different thing from arguing that it's false. The self-defeat argument only does the former; it is ad hominem.

Friday, January 08, 2016

On leaving sexual assault to the RCMP

This week many of my colleagues and I published an open letter concerning sexual assault policies at UBC. In the letter we write that it's clear to us that in at least some recent cases UBC has failed to do enough to protect its students.

One response I hear pretty often to this kind of discussion is that it shouldn't be a university's place to deal with sexual assault at all. The thought is that criminal matters are best left to law enforcement. I have never had any sympathy for this idea, but it seems to enjoy wide currency, so I thought I'd say just a couple of things about it.

While it's important for criminal charges to be pressed against perpetrators of sexual assault, there are many reasons it's often difficult for victims to do so. For one thing, it is very difficult to protect one's own privacy when making a criminal complaint, and not all victims of sexual assault may want their attackers to go to jail for it. For another, there is often insufficient physical evidence to proceed to criminal charges or convictions. But this doesn't mean that in such cases there's not sufficient evidence to be very confident that misconduct has occurred. I think people manage to confuse themselves into this argument: you shouldn't take any action unless you know that some wrongdoing has occurred; the only possible way to know that some possible wrongdoing has occurred is for this to be proven in a court of law; therefore, you shouldn't take any action unless wrongdoing has been proven in a court of law. Once that argument is written down it's clearly unsound: universities know lots of things that couldn't be proven in a court of law.

What does it even mean to accuse universities of 'handling criminal matters'? Is the idea that universities are handling the role of law enforcement? They're clearly not; universities don't send rapists to prison, for instance. Is it that universities treat as relevant whether certain criminal actions such as rape have occurred? I take it to be obvious that the aims of a university are at odds with having serial rapists as students. I doubt I need to spell out that reasoning; so of course the university should respond to some criminal actions, like rape. "Just leave it to the RCMP" means the same thing as "ignore wrongdoing that you know about unless it's been proven in a court of law." This is inconsistent with our responsibilities of care.

I think this Title IX page contains some good thoughts and resources—obviously things aren't exactly the same in Canada, but some of the same considerations apply.

It's also worth pointing out that universities face many decisions other than whether to expel students. There are lots of questions about how to respond to allegations of sexual assault that come in at earlier levels. Should a professor move a student into a different discussion section in response to unproven allegations of assault? Can different dorm accommodations be found? Not all the things that should be covered in university policy are or should be punitive. Universities are communities, and we have a responsibility to protect our students. "Just leave it to law enforcement" doesn't cut it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Is this trans girl the 20th most powerful person in Vancouver?

This week Vancouver Magazine published its list of the 50 most powerful people in Vancouver for 2015. Number 20 this year is Tru Wilson, a 12-year-old trans girl whose family filed a successful human rights complaint against her school, which had been refusing to treat her as a girl. The media by and large is treating Wilson's spot on the list as a feel-good human rights story; see for example the positive profile in The Province this week. From what I can tell, Wilson is an awesome person, and I'm 100% behind trans rights, but I do not think her placement on this list is a feel-good story. I think it was a mistake.

I'm going to give Vancouver Magazine the benefit of the doubt and assume that their intentions were great; they saw the unfair discrimination against this child, and wanted to celebrate her for overcoming it, and to highlight her eloquent speech on the topic. But calling her one of the most powerful people in Vancouver is the wrong way to do this. Wilson stood up to her school district and insisted on being treated with dignity, and that is awesome. But it doesn't mean she's one of the most powerful people in town; on the contrary, her bravery was necessary because of the high degree to which trans people are marginalized. By all means, put her on a list of 'people to celebrate', or 'people who achieved something important', or 'up-and-comers to keep an eye on'; putting her alongside CEOs, governmental leaders, and the chief of police as one of the 'most powerful' people wrongly suggests she won't have to fight harder than most of us do just to be treated with basic respect.

I don't think the mistake is harmless; it feeds into a reactionary bogeyman. A favourite trope of the old guard is the myth of marginalized people as wielding tremendous power—"you'd better toe the line or the trans activists will come for you!" This kind of fear is very dangerous. I'm all for celebrating trans successes, but attributing power to trans activists isn't the way to do it.