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.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Unwitting Rape

This is a spin-off of a thread in this post. Content warning for rape. Probably not necessary or recommended reading for most readers.

Administrators and Snowflakes on Sexual Assault Policies

Wow, there were a lot of comments on my last post about Laura Kipnis's book. (Here's a bit of meta-commentary about them, for anyone interested.)

Let me start this post by saying something I'd've thought would be obvious: in attacking some of the things Kipnis says, I'm not thereby attacking all of them. I have many important disagreements with the book, both on general cultural matters and on particular conclusions she draws about cases she discusses. I think that, her protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the book perpetuates rape culture. I think I made that case in my last post, and I plan to make it again in future ones. But that doesn't mean I think she's wrong about everything.

Several people have taken me to task for defending the Title IX status quo. I have a quick retort: I don't defend the Title IX status quo. One of the several central conclusions of Kipnis's book is that universities' reflexive legalistic instincts contribute to injustices, including injustices against people who are accused of wrongdoing. The way Kipnis tells her story, respondents are often not told what they're being accused of until investigations are complete; they're also, she says, often denied the possibility of legal representation, despite the severity of the matter under investigation. If this is true—and I suspect that it is—it is not just.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kipnis on Sexual Assault and Sexual Agency

Thanks to all who engaged, here and elsewhere, with my post last week about Laura Kipnis's book. I continue to have more thoughts about the book, so I thought I'd write more. My last post highlighted Kipnis's endorsement of a harmful stereotype. It was of course only one small passage, but in my opinion it's representative. I thought it might be helpful to offer some corroboration for that opinion.

I'll be discussing sexual assault and related harms below.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kipnis on Assault Allegations

Some of my colleagues around the philosophy world have recently been discussing Laura Kipnis's new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I'll start here with one. (I may write more later.) This is kind of a big-picture thought about Kipnis’s starting points and outlook—I find some of her thoughts about sex and sexual assault to be surprisingly retrograde. I know that some of my colleagues are impressed by this book; I am not sure if they share Kipnis’s general sensibilities on these matters, or whether they just like it for some of its conclusions. At any rate, I think some people would be surprised by Kipnis's sensibilities; the point of this post is to draw attention to some of them.

Discussion of sexual assault ahead.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On the Very Idea of a Religious Minority

A minority group is a group that comprises less than 50% of the total population. Draw the pie chart. If your part is defined by an acute angle, your group is a minority one; if its shaped like Pac-Man, you're part of the majority.

Even holding fixed the total population, whether someone belongs to a minority group or not depends on what kinds of groups are relevant. For example, among faculty members in my department, I'm in a gender majority, because I'm male, and more than half of the faculty members in my department are male. With respect to certain natural ways of carving out dietary restrictions, I am a minority, because I'm a vegetarian, and fewer than half of the people in my department are vegetarians. This kind of 'minority-relativity' is obvious, and not something people get particularly confused about. There's no one absolute answer to the question of whether someone is part of a minority—it depends on what kind of categorization you're interested in.

But there's another kind of minority-relativity that's easier to overlook. Someone's status as part of a minority doesn't just depend on what kind of category you're talking about. It also depends on how finely you're carving up the distinct options. Suppose, for example, that you're interested in the question of whether someone is part of a religious minority, relative to their nation of origin. (Donald Trump attempted to make this a central question for many people's refugee statuses.) If you're going to give special treatment to religious minorities, then it turns out that it matters quite a lot what you count as a religion.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Labeling lies and knowing minds

I don't have super strong feelings about whether news outlets should use the word 'lies' to describe Donald Trump's lies. As long are they're super clear about how he's saying that p even though p is false, that seems to me to be the important thing. The controversy over whether to use the 'L-word' doesn't really interest me all that much.

That said, I did find it pretty interesting to read NPR's description of why they don't call Trump's lies 'lies'. The basic thought is this: in order for something to be a lie, it has to be said with an intent to deceive. So in calling something a lie, one is in part making a claim about the intentions behind it. As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly puts it: "without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts."

This is an epistemological claim—a skeptical one. It's often tempting to say that you can never really know what someone is thinking, because all you really have to go on is how they behave. But skeptical temptations are funny things, and there's probably good reason to resist a lot of them a lot of the time. For example, notice that it's also tempting to say that you can never really know anything about the future, since it hasn't happened yet, or that you can never really know historical facts, since you weren't personally there. At an extreme, Descartes famously argued that you can never really know anything about the external world, since you might be the victim of an evil demon who is manipulating your senses in a way that doesn't correspond to reality.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Selective Sampling

I think that Donald Trump is really dangerous.

Here are some true facts.* These facts include moderately detailed descriptions of sexual assaults—skip past the bullet list if you like; the relevance of these facts will be explained below.

  • In 2008, a 54-year-old New York man named Donald Bowen traveled to Texas in order to pursue a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy he'd been grooming on the internet.
  • In 2009, another New York man, one Donald Caban, was convicted of molesting multiple teenage girls in his home over several decades.
  • Donald Darwell, of New York, is a convicted rapist. In 1978 he forcibly raped a woman at knifepoint. She was badly injured in the attack, and was unable to work for nearly a year.
  • In 2006, New Yorker Donald Valentine was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. His victim was a 16-year-old mentally disabled girl.
  • Donald Brown, a 42-year-old New York man, was apprehended in the act of the attempted rape of a 10-year-old boy whose parents had left him in his care.
  • 55-year-old Donald Glenn, of New York, convinced a reluctant acquaintance to go out on a date with him. That night, he overpowered and choked her before raping her both vaginally and anally.
  • Donald Jones struck a female stranger with his fist in 1993, then held her at gunpoint and attempted to rape her. When she screamed, passers-by stopped and he fled, before being caught by police and convicted of first-degree attempted rape.

([*] These are not quite facts, but they're close. In the interest of privacy, I have changed the surnames of these individuals. Importantly, I have left all of their given names unchanged. I've embellished these stories slightly, to give a bit more detail to hang on them. (I did this for vivacity, and to make the fallacy more tempting. I didn't have easy access to the actual details, or I would have used them.) I found these facts via the New York State Criminal Justice Services website.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, and Definitions

One of the courses I often teach is an introduction to epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about knowledge and rational belief—how is it possible to know something, and why is it important, and what makes some beliefs more reasonable to have than others? I learned early on that one of the first things I have to do for my students is help them get very clear on the difference between, on the one hand, facts and truths, and, on the other, knowledge, belief, and support from the evidence. The former concern how things are in reality, whether or not we have any access to them; the latter concern how we thinkers try, and hopefully succeed, to put ourselves in touch with reality. Many students come into my course a bit fuzzy on this distinction, but getting it crystal clear is a prerequisite for thinking in a rigorous way about epistemology.

This has not been a good winter for the distinction. To cite just a couple of the many examples, when Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes was asked on the Diane Rehm Show whether it's OK for Trump to post made-up lies about who won the popular vote, she explained that "there's no such thing anymore unfortunately as facts". Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as the 2016 Word of the Year. But early indications suggest 2017 will be no better for objective truth. Yesterday my social media feed was overrun with satire, disgust, and incredulity at Kellyanne Conway's description of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's blatantly false statements about the inaugration crowd size as expressions of "alternative facts".

I don't think Hughes really thinks, or even really meant, that there are no facts. I think she meant there are, within some restricted sphere of politically interesting claims, no facts that are generally accepted and can be assumed without contest. I don't think Conway really thinks there's a kind of fact other than the true kind. I think she was just spewing some garbage language in an attempt to obfuscate. (Note that later in her interview, she retreats from this metaphysical nonsense to an epistemic claim, saying that there's no way to know the size of a crowd. This is empirically (obviously) false, but it's at least not a denial of the idea of a fact.)

Critics of the Trump administration have of course been all over this. I see that already, one can buy "Alternative facts are lies" t-shirts. Some have observed that the concept is straight out of Orwell. I think they're right, and that that's terrifying. But that's not really my point here. I want to take this in a different direction.

The thing is, some of the anti-alternative-fact rhetoric is no less philosophically confused than this post-fact nonsense. Meriam-Webster tweeted:

When I first saw this tweet, I didn't know what the hell it was trying to do. But most of the interactions with it on twitter (38K retweets as I write) interpret it as criticizing Conway's invocation of 'alternative facts'.

And it's not just Trump critics who are reading the tweet that way.

But this is a terrible definition of facts, and one that does not obviously work against the Trump rhetoric. Look, suppose I tell a lie. I tell my students that the author of "Elusive Knowledge" was Barack Obama, writing under a pen name. And I tell them this in a v. serious tone of voice, and expect them to believe me. I'll announce that I plan to put that on the exam. This lie is a piece of information presented (by me) as having objective reality. So it counts as a fact.

Maybe you think a lie doesn't count as a 'piece of information'. Only truths can be information. OK, in that case, why is M-W talking about presenting as objective reality at all? Truths don't become facts when people present them. And indeed, there are lots of facts that haven't been presented as having objective reality, because nobody knows them.

On this definition, Conway's invocation of alternative facts makes perfect sense. If a fact is just an assertion, then the crowd-size experts have one assertion, and the Trump administration has an alternative assertion. Merriam-Webster has offered something more like a definition of a purported fact. But not all purported facts are facts, just like not all alleged murderers are murderers.

This dictionary seems comfortable with the notion of 'objective reality'. It does use that phrase in its definition. Once we have a grip on that notion, we should define 'fact' much more simply. A fact is a part of objective reality. A fact is something that is true, whether or not someone presents it as true, and whether or not anyone or everyone recognizes that it is true.

This is basic stuff. Literally first-day intro-to-epistemology-and-metaphysics material. Being clear on the idea of a fact is the first step to thinking about how we should go about trying to investigate what the facts are. Attacks on that clarity, whether by demagogic governments or by well-meaning resistance tweeters, make this crucial job that much harder.