Friday, May 27, 2016

"Trial by Internet" and the Presumption of Innocence

Only a couple of weeks ago, I noted on this blog (in "Philosophy's Gatekeepers") that it had been 190 days since the last major breaking-news story about sexual harassment or assault in professional Philosophy. That was a noteworthy fact,

And then, last Friday, the Thomas Pogge story broke.

I'll just direct readers to the news coverage already out there on the Pogge scandal (here, here, here, and here) to learn the details of it. This post is not about Pogge.  I will not (directly) address the specific allegations against Pogge here. Rather, I want to look at the assumptions at work in (and implications of) one particular passage in Pogge's "Response to the Allegations by Fernanda Lopez Aguilar," in which Pogge cautions against what he calls "trial by Internet."

The phenomenon of the "trial by internet" has been around for some time now. It's a very serious thing that, in many cases, does very serious professional and psychological damage to those who find themselves in the position of the accused. Leaving aside Pogge's curious decision to post his caution about "trial by Internet" on the Internet, we can understand the fundamental concern: anything repeated often enough inevitably gains the ring of truth. There is no unringing the bell of rumors and gossip. Or, as Pogge himself (somewhat hyperbolically) claims :
Trial by internet will always be a greatly suboptimal procedure. But our individual contributions determine how far it falls short. At its worst, trial by internet is as haphazard and unfair as stonings in Afghanistan. At its best, it can clarify the issues and achieve at least a partial weighing of the evidence.
The assumption at work in the passage above is that discussions about certain matters of import, when they take place on the internet, are had amongst decidedly non-ideal "knowers" whose access to reliable information is limited and whose awareness of relevant circumstantial facts is incomplete at best, erroneous at worst. Ergo, judgments arrived at by such discussants ought to be non-binding and provisional or, better still, discussants ought to suspend judgment altogether in deference to their nescience.  Pogge's appeal, implicit but following from this assumption, is that in trials by internet the accused ought to be accorded a "presumption of innocence" in the same manner that any defendant in a courtroom trial would.

Here's where things get tricky, I think: when we lean too heavily on the metaphorical association of "trial by internet" with "courtroom trial," the analogy begins to falter.  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa addresses this in his post "Presumption of Innocence," where he argues that the special obligation as a jury member in a courtroom trial to presume innocence until "proven" guilty does not extend more broadly to a general moral obligation to presume innocence until proven guilty in every case. Ichikawa claims, rightly in my view, that we place supererogatory demands on jurors in part because they are acting as agents of state power and, in most instances, state-sanctioned judgments have considerably more serious consequences than your everyday agent-in-the-street's moral judgments do. The rules governing courtroom trials are our best attempt at manufacturing an ideal environment in which ideal knowers make ideal judgments.

But, as any actually existing individual is surely aware, precious few of our actual judgments are made this way. Rather, we regularly make judgments (moral and otherwise) in non-ideal environments, with non-ideal access to non-ideal information, qua non-ideal knowers.

What Ichikawa calls a "ludicrous epistemic standard"-- i.e., "don't believe anything unless it's been proven in a court of law"-- is also a dangerous one.  More importantly, that danger is not evenly distributed. It disproportionately disadvantages the powerless, the vulnerable, the easily-exploited, and those whose testimony is not, by default, trusted.  That is not all by itself reason to dispense with efforts to achieve that sort of epistemic standard in cases where it can be achieved or approximated, nor is it reason to deny its site-specific value, nor is it sufficient reason to grant a whole-cloth endorsement to the messy business of "trial by internet."

It is, however, a reminder that just as there exist strong and compelling reasons to adopt so-called "ideal" epistemic standards in making moral judgments, there also exist strong and compelling reasons not to do so.  In professional philosophy, where sexism and sexual assault is the wide open secret about which the general dispositional attitude is to keep one's eyes wide shut, victims are rarely afforded the luxury of an ideal epistemic environment in which the wrongs done to them might be judged fairly and impartially.  Correspondingly, wrongdoers are frequently afforded the luxury of using the discipline's systemic sexism and inattention to sexual exploitation as a shield to cover what appear to be innocent appeals to ideal standards of judgment, but are in fact nothing other than socially-, politically-, and professionally-motivated self-interest.

"Trial by internet" is sometimes closer in character to a trial by ordeal than it is to a jury trial.  That is to say, trials by internet frequently presume guilt and thus can be, as Pogge claimed, "haphazard and unfair.". But that isn't always so and, in many cases, trials by internet are neither haphazard nor unfair. (See: Edward Snowden) It may be a "suboptimal procedure" in ideal circumstances, but the circumstances that determine the deep struts-and-girders of professional Philosophy's social ontology are neither optimal nor ideal.

Absent the conditions for "ideal" knowing-- which are rarely, if ever, present-- we make do with what we have for forming careful, considered, albeit incompletely-informed judgments.  Given what I know, and given what anyone else who has bothered to pay attention to the scandals of our discipline over the last half-decade or so should know, there is more than enough sufficient reason to suspend the requirements of ideal epistemic standards in one's judgments about the verity of female philosophers' accounts of sexual exploitation.

Where there is smoke, there is not always fire.  But where there is smoke, there was, at least, very recently a fire.

And almost everywhere in professional Philosophy, the smoke is suffocating.

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