I was going to start a series of posts on disability and philosophy this week; however, I felt it more pertinent to comment on the recent Buzzfeed article about Thomas Pogge’s sexual harassment of female graduate students and early career academics.
I should not read comment sections on the internet. This is a cardinal rule that I broke this morning while reading an article about Thomas Pogge, the famous ethicist who is currently embroiled in a legal battle regarding his behavior toward female grad students and early career academics. Many women have come forward throughout the years, accusing Pogge of harassing and exploiting young women, particularly women of color and international students.
The allegations against Pogge are numerous. In 2010, he was accused of sexually harassing Fernanda Lopez Aguilar. When she rejected his advances, he retaliated against her by rescinding a fellowship offer. She is now pursuing a legal case against him. A woman at a European university also accused Pogge of using career opportunities to exploit young women and pursue sexual relationships with them. Likewise, Pogge had complaints filed against him for sexually harassing a student at Columbia, where he previously taught.
Needless to say, there are several allegations against Pogge. This is particularly worrying, given his status as a scholar of global justice, and one who argues for gender-sensitive conceptions of global justice at that. If the accounts of multiple women giving similar accounts are to be believed, then he has by all measures exploited this status.
The key word in the previous sentence is if. As I read the comment section (I really shouldn’t have), I found numerous examples of people defending Pogge, belittling the (consistent) stories of several women, and accusing Buzzfeed of twisting the evidence. Here’s one example:
The article is one-sided, and it’s not really an article about Pogge. Yes it is a smear campaign attacking Pogge’s personal life… But let’s not delude ourselves. It’s not an objective unbiased news article about allegations of misconduct. Rather, it’s a political article pushing feminist propaganda. Of course people are going to side with the women and against the man – regardless of the evidence (or lack of evidence). When given nothing but hearsay, ten out of ten women will side with the woman, and nine out of ten men will side with the woman.
This comment is an example of everything I think is wrong with the surprising number of people rushing to Pogge’s defense. It presumes that several women making the exact same types of allegations are less credible than one man. It presumes that believing women who make allegations of sexual harassment is tantamount to pushing a (supposedly misguided) feminist agenda.
At this time, I wish to put aside the concrete evidence that corroborates many of these women’s stories (of which there is quite a bit). I will even put aside the fact that the FBI estimates that ‘unfounded’ allegations of rape make up less than 8% of sexual assault cases, suggesting that when a woman argues that a man has harassed or assaulted her, there is an overwhelming probability that she is telling the truth. What I am concerned with is the textbook case of testimonial injustice (a form of epistemic injustice) that these types of comments exemplify.
Political and social injustices are not the only types of injustices that oppressed groups are subjected to. According to Miranda Fricker, these groups are also subjected to epistemic injustice. For those of you who might not know, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, what we know and how. Epistemic injustices, according to Fricker, occur when a person’s status as a knower is questioned.
One particular kind of epistemic injustice, according to Fricker, is testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustices are situations in which a person’s testimony is subjected to more doubt and criticism just because a person is a member of an oppressed group. For example, there are countless studies suggesting that women’s contributions to the workplace (and society more generally) are valued less than the same types of contributions made by men.
I think that testimonial injustice is something that most women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ persons, and disabled persons can identify with. In one graduate seminar, I remember being infuriated when I would make an argument, which was immediately ignored or dismissed by my male peers, only to have a male peer make the same argument 10 minutes later and receive praise for it. Empirical evidence suggests that this is commonplace. Men (and women) often view their female colleagues as less credible, and therefore, they may gloss over what they say altogether.
Now that we have established what testimonial injustice is and how it works, it seems clear that the immediate dismissal of not only one, but several women’s claims, is a textbook case of testimonial injustice. One man’s testimony is viewed to be more credible than multiple women. Not only that, but Lopez’ history of anxiety is also used as a way to undermine her credibility, suggesting that people with mental health conditions cannot bring forward credible allegations of sexual harassment.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. When Bill Cosby was accused of rape by 58 women, a surprising number of people leapt to his defense, delegitimizing the women’s claims altogether as hearsay. We are consistently taught to view women as liars, starting with the stereotype that women are gossips who believe whatever they are told. This stereotype pervades depictions of women who claim to have been assaulted or harassed. In fact, one police unit even called their sexual assault division the ‘Lying Bitches Unit.’ There is a tendency to believe that women are lying about sexual harassment and assault, and to find alternative explanations that exonerate the perpetrators.
I would venture to say that if multiple men brought to light similar stories relating to a repeated pattern of abuse and exploitation, it would not be dismissed as easily as these women’s claims. This is a clear case of epistemic injustice.
I know that most of my friends thankfully believe these women’s testimony. However, testimonial injustice is pervasive and often subconscious. It is important to be aware of our biases when it comes to distrusting or dismissing others’ opinions. It takes a lot of self-reflection to realize if and when we are committing epistemic injustices.
It is also important to put a name to the devaluing of these women’s testimony: it is a clear-cut case of epistemic injustice. Injustice comes in many forms, and many in the philosophical community, as well as the general public, are committing epistemic injustices against these women by not believing their testimony, despite both physical and testimonial evidence.
It might be objected that there is a chance that these women are lying; however, given our persistent tendencies to explain sexual harassment away, I am far more comfortable trusting the testimonies of multiple women over one man, who I might add, is protected by an Ivy League institution and tenure.
It is important, as a final point, to recognize that this is not an isolated incident. For more stories about the culture of sexual harassment that plagues the philosophical community more generally, see the blog What it is like to be a woman in philosophy. Women are frequently harassed and exploited by tenured professors, who often have much less to lose from harassing these women than the women have when reporting it. It is clear that this is an epidemic in the philosophical community, one that the community must openly confront. This starts with taking claims of sexual harassment seriously and holding people, even famous tenured professors, to account for their behavior.