Friday, November 29, 2019

Rape Cultures and Loud Pubs

I've been thinking for a while about the relationship between structural oppression, individual actions, and individual responsibility. Today I was having lunch in a loud pub, and it occurred to me that there might be an instructive analogy between a loud pub and a rape culture (or a racist country, or an ableist society, or a patriarchy, etc. etc. etc.).

A rape culture is a society that is conducive to sexual assault. Some of the elements of our society that make it one include: slut-shaming, normalization and valourization of seduction tropes, excessive empathy towards privileged individuals accused of sexual misconduct, 'stranger rape' myths, toleration of abuse against complainants, etc.

Societies don't have features like this ex nihilo; they emerge from individuals' behaviour. But individual behaviour is very much conditioned by the societies in which they exist. When someone focuses on what a rape victim was wearing, or says that if someone was attracted to someone they couldn't have been raped by them, they are both reflecting and contributing to rape culture. Insofar as rape culture is something everyone has to figure out how to live with, it will impact individuals' behaviour — even if they resist it, that will be an action, perhaps a costly one, requiring effort. This complicates the relationship between structural oppression and an individual's responsibility for an action that contributes to it. It also makes actions that further rape culture the default, so that people will often perform them unwittingly. This doesn't always or usually get people off the hook entirely, but it is very relevant contextual background.

Loud pubs are a little bit like rape cultures. The pub's being loud might not be attributable to any one individual's decisions. There are many people in there, and they each feel the need to speak loudly to be heard, because it is a loud bar. But their speaking loudly is also what makes it a loud pub. Each person's raised voice both reflects and contributes to the loudness of the pub.

One can, with some deliberate countercultural decision-making, refuse to contribute to making the pub a loud one, but this has costs. For example, one might not be heard. This might well frustrate one's broader social interests, like having a conversation with one's friends. This complicates the relationship between the loudness of a pub and an individual's responsibility for an action that contributes to it. It also makes actions that further the loudness of the pub the default, so that people will often perform them unwittingly.

My example has been rape culture but I think these issues play out in exactly the same way if you swap out other forms of structural oppression. Racist societies have the same relationship to individual behaviour as rape cultures and loud pubs do too.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Professorial Guidance and Student Autonomy

One of the big-pictures questions I often struggle with when designing my courses is about how much specific guidance I should coerce in my students' study. In favour of a broad exercise of professorial power (i.e., using grading incentives to require attendance, regular homework, etc) is the undeniable fact that students will learn better if they do that work, and that most students are much likelier to do the work if I penalize them for not doing it on a particular schedule. On the other hand, I am also moved by the argument that university students are adults who should be allowed, even encouraged, to make their own decisions about how best to learn. They also often have many more competing obligations than I did when I was an undergraduate, such that requiring a lot of homework, or penalizing missing class, is a significant hardship.

When discussing this issue with colleagues, I find that opinions and practices vary dramatically. Some offer a maximally flexible approach, always accepting work that is completed well after the deadlines (even after the course is complete); others have strict syllabus requirements—treated like laws of nature—that mandate exactly what must be done when.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Welcome 2019

As you'll see below, one of my New Year's Resolutions is to start blogging again. So, first post of the year: New Year's Resolutions. In my line of work September tends to feel more like the start of a year than January does, but there's still something about the turning of the calendar.

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.