Two additions to the discussion of UVA and the allegation of rape

Let me add in two factors that might help the discussion. First of all, there’s memory. Secondly, there’s the need for a way to think about ‘rape reports’ which does not make them all questionable until proven otherwise.

First of all, memory. Ordinary people often enough take the fact that we have memories to show that we have recording devices inside us that somehow secure most of the details of our experiences. There are several reasons why this is false. If nothing else, calling up a memory and then restoring it alters it a bit. And memory follows vision in getting the gist of things better than getting the precise details down. There was a recent NY Times OpEd by two top researcher on memory and its fallibility. Given what we know about memory, we should expect this young woman’s memory to be gappy and to have errors. And even more so considering the trauma of the experience she was reporting. Because an organization was named by her, it may be that a reporter aware of recent memory research should have checked it.

But this does not mean that reports of rape are somehow particularly suspicious, or even that hers now is. I think we need a way to recognize that human beings are fallible, and empirical evidence is full of examples of how we get things wrong, but that does not mean we should view everything everyone says with a heavy dose of doubt.

Decades ago when I was working in epistemology, we had the useful notion of defeasibility. Perceptual statement can be wrong, but that does not mean that we can only accept those provable from premises mentioning only private, quite incorrigible experience. Rather, we recognize that our statements are defeasible; they may be wrong, but that does not give us a reason to think they are unless we start to get evidence against them.

It would be good if feminist philosophy had explored this area more and have worked out ways of appropriately evaluating statement without robbing injured women of their epistemic authority. Is anyone aware of progress in this area?

21 thoughts on “Two additions to the discussion of UVA and the allegation of rape

  1. I haven’t been following the details of the story very closely, but when I’d hear people say there were “inconsistencies” in the woman’s story, my first thought was, “yes, just like in almost all stories people tell”. (Supposedly an unusually high level of consistency between tellings of a story is a useful thing to look for itself in deciding if people are making something up, because it’s often an indication that the person has memorized a story rather than remembering it.)

    As for defeasibility, a recent book on it, applied to many areas, is this: Claudia Blöser, Mikael Janvid, Hannes Ole Matthiessen, and Marcus Willaschek (eds.), Defeasibility in Philosophy: Knowledge, Agency, Responsibility, and the Law. It has a very extensive bibliography covering many areas, though it doesn’t explicitly list feminist theory or epistemology as an area. (There is no index, unfortunately.) (I reviewed the book for the NDPR some months ago, and thought there was a lot that was useful in it.)

  2. I think there needs to be some conversation and understanding on how to report cases like this. I completely see how trauma can effect one’s memory and even understanding of what’s happening. I’ve recently gone through the death of a close family member – in completely ordinary and expected circumstances – but I still have gaps in my memory and mis-memories of what happened in those last hours. And that was nothing like the trauma that a rape or other violent crime might induce.

    But, it’s understandable that news reports need to get facts right. In ordinary conversation, there’s a way for people to tell what happened and leave things vague or unstated where memory is uncertain. Reporters needs to be prepared to report in this way, too. It may not make as dramatic a story, and for some, maybe not as believable a story, but it’s more truthful. None of us knows whether “Jackie” made up her story or whether she has normal memory failures. But the reporting that happened almost certainly did a grave disservice to some people – either Jackie herself, or the people she accused.

  3. goodrumo: nice observation!
    Here’s an explanation of gaslighting for those not familiar with the term: Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.

    No doubt any definition is problematic, but the basic idea is that of psychologically undermining one’s beliefs about one’s experience.

  4. The Washington Post’s reporting is consistent with the fact that Jackie may have misidentified her assailant’s fraternity. The man she named this week apparently did work with her as a lifeguard but is not in the particular fraternity she claimed. Also, she apparently did not know the name of the fraternity at the time of the assault, but only learned a year later from a friend.

    If so, that’s not a minor discrepancy that we can disregard due to the fallibility of memory or emotional trauma. It’s a fundamental error in the allegation that, however, is consistent with her claims that she was raped. Surely we should have rigorous standards and demand a high level of proof to make sure that key details – such as the perpetrators identities – are correct. There has to be a middle ground where we believe victims in principal but also apply sufficient skepticism to ensure that the key details of the story are correct. Otherwise, we are letting down the people we claim to advocate for.

    I wish victims’ advocates would take more responsibility for their own recklessness in this fiasco. This whole situation is one giant, unforced error on our part. When you advocate on someone else’s behalf, your credibility affects their credibility. I’ve seen lots of defensive, evasive, snarky, speculative comments desperately trying to prop up the Rolling Stone article’s allegations even as more reporting arrives to undermine it. This only weakens the credibility of every future victim who comes forward with their story. On the face of it, you may be arguing that false rape accusations are rare or that there is a larger story of pervasive sexual assault or that the accused aren’t angels, but in practice you’re merely confirming to many people that you don’t particularly care about the truth.

  5. Peter, I don’t think we yet know what’s what in this case. You have just described supposed facts that speak to Jackie’s credibility. How rigorously did you check them? Your resources were reliable? Maybe, but surely not infallible.

    We’ve know for some time that eye-witness testimony is not infallible, including in cases of rape. That does not mean that it is all highly doubtful. But the reporter seems to have mistaken sincerety for truth and done no checking. Just about no one’s word is wholly unquestionable

  6. Peter, since I’ve been arguing on another thread precisely that false allegations of rape are rare, I want to take some issue with this: “On the face of it, you may be arguing that false rape accusations are rare. . . but in practice you’re merely confirming to many people that you don’t particularly care about the truth.”

    I think the move from ‘you are arguing that false accusations are rare’ to ‘you don’t care about the truth’ is a pretty extreme one. I’m sure I’m not the only feminist who cares very much whether the Rolling Stone story is true – not the least because if it turns out to be false it will have disastrous consequences for so many rape victims who are already fighting an uphill battle to be believed. Pointing out that false accusations are rare, in this context, doesn’t – or needn’t – be a way of suggesting we should assume the Rolling Stone story is true. Rather, it’s a way of trying to frame the conversation. No one has ever suggested that false accusations don’t occur – of course they do. But should it turn out that this accusation is false, it would be terrible for that to contribute to the belief that false accusations are common. The point of talking about the rarity of false accusations is to emphasize that we shouldn’t treat reports of rape with default skepticism *whether or not this particular story is false*. (This is, after all, just one story.) That’s nowhere near the same thing as suggesting it doesn’t matter if the report is false.

    I’m also not sure why you point the finger specifically at victims’ activists for particular ‘recklessness’. For starters, it’s not like activists were the only ones to take the RS story at face value. The UVA administration and the state of Virginia appear to have done pretty much the same thing. So this is hardly a case of a small bunch of feminists getting in an uproar and being careless with the truth. That being said, people were – as it turns out – wrong to attribute journalistic credibility to the RS piece. We can perhaps all be at least somewhat forgiven, though, for thinking that such a high-profile story would have done at least some *basic* fact-checking to see whether the victim’s story could be corroborated – especially since, as Anne’s post so nicely highlights, inconsistencies and lapses are incredibly common in this type of first-person testimony. We were, as it turns out, wrong about this. RS wrote a complete hatchet-job piece, and then proceeded to rather glibly throw a vulnerable young woman under the bus when it blew up in their face. In the process, they’ve run rough shod over years or hard work on behalf of anti-rape activists. When we have conversations about the rarity of false allegations or the tendency of victims to give inconsistent or confusing testimony, we aren’t – at least, speaking for myself – trying to defend the Rolling Stone story! We’re trying to defend anti-rape activism from the damage the story has done to it, and defend someone who is still very possibly a victim of severe trauma from the pillorying she’s currently being subjected to. (My own view is that “Jackie” is either a victim of trauma or suffering from severe mental illness – either way, she doesn’t deserve this, and the editors of RS should be ashamed.)

  7. Anne, the first two paragraphs were meant to be a contribution to the philosophical question of how skeptical we should be of “rape reports”. I wanted to outline a possible, but not proven, interpretation of the reported facts of the case that’s a useful hypothetical. It’s an example that makes it easy to justify believing a victim in principal but also demands we be very skeptical when it comes to crucial details, especially if we take it upon ourselves to advocate on someone’s else’s behalf, as Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone did here. I also wanted to highlight a distinction between minor “inconsistencies” or “discrepancies” and major factual problems. Or more accurately, point out that there are types of details – like the specific fraternity at fault here – that a victim might get wrong in a completely understandable and forgivable way that doesn’t undermine the basic credibility of their story, but nonetheless have major ramifications.

    It’s important to me as an educator to support my students if they’ve been assaulted, but I also have a responsibility to my other students to help ensure they are not incorrectly identified as a perpetrator. I’m concerned about what to do when someone comes to me with an allegation that I learn is inconsistent on key details. I don’t have much to say but think it’s a vital question.

    My arguments depend not on what actually happened to Jackie, but on some meta-facts that I think are well-established: The reporter, Sabrina Erdely, and the magazine did not perform sufficient due diligence in verifying Jackie’s story before publishing it. Despite this, they made her story the lede of the piece, which inevitably intertwined their own credibility with Jackie’s. After some criticism of the piece arose, the magazine decided it couldn’t stand by the article in full. As a result, they have destroyed their own credibility. As a cruel consequence, this undermines Jackie’s credibility with the public as well. Erdely and Rolling Stone are at fault for this, not Jackie and not anyone who raised doubts about the reporting of the piece.

    I believe that Erdely and Rolling Stone approached this story with good intentions, but then undermined those good intentions with poor journalistic practice. I also think it can be argued that they made these professional mistakes out of an exaggerated deference to Jackie and a desire to believe a rape victim’s allegations. By failing to apply sufficient skepticism and adequately confirm key details of her allegations, it was clearly reckless for them to publish this story.

    Magicalersatz, I understand your intentions, I understand your point, I understand you are trying to “frame” the debate. But I already agree with you. My point is that good intentions aren’t enough. You have to ask, “Is my message getting across to people who don’t already agree?” and I think the answer is no. If a bridge falls down, no one wants to hear that shoddy bridges are rare and that almost all bridges are well-made and still standing. It comes across as changing the subject, because people are emotionally invested in this particular bridge. If, right now, you try to talk about all other rape accusations and discount this particular one, your audience feels as if you’re not serious about their concerns about this particular story. Your audience hears exactly what you don’t want to convey; they hear that you don’t care whether this particular story is true. And if you continue, your audience concludes that you’re not trustworthy and so you end up undermining your ability to advocate effectively in the future.

  8. I think people who expect the government to solve rape cases really don’t care about rape victims. You’re so obsessed with being right that you don’t want to actually solve the problem.

    From all these college rape stories I hear, if I ever had a daughter, I literally do not want her going to college. (I’m serious.) Or, if she does, I want her accompanied by two or three body guards at all times. I don’t want to play games with my daughter’s life just to prove that rape should be illegal. To Hell with the government. I’ll protect her myself.

  9. With the caveat that I don’t work professionally in this area, and that this is based on lay experience only (and the additional caveat that I’m partially reprising something from a comment thread several months ago):

    Sometimes – often? – the question of whether to believe someone who says they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted seems to be a moral rather than an epistemic one. If someone confides abuse experience to me – as a friend, or co-worker, or maybe because I’m filling some more official welfare role – then I have a support relationship with them, and as part of that support relationship I need to err really strongly on the side of accepting and believing what I’m told. This is a support and welfare matter: accepting someone’s account of what happened as true is going to be really important to helping them cope, and the relationship I’ve accepted with them means that helping them cope ought to be my priority. That probably, and appropriately, commits me to being an advocate for them if there’s any kind of formal process.

    In this context it’s perhaps helpful for me to be able to reassure myself that statistically the accusation is probably true, but it’s not central. If a friend confides rape to me, my first response shouldn’t be “I’ll believe you, because it’s 90%-98% likely that you’re telling the truth absent confounding factors”: it should be more like “I’ll believe you, because that’s in the nature of the relationship we have” – or, more likely, not believing her doesn’t consciously cross my mind, but my reasons if interrogated on them look something like that. (Of course that’s defeasible and isn’t meant to imply blind faith in the presence of clear counter-evidence.) And to a significant extent that relationship-based reason for trust extends to more professional contexts. I used to do some helpline work, and “believe the caller” was pretty clearly a matter of support policy there, not an epistemic judgement; I imagine something similar is probably true in victim support more generally. And if one of my students disclosed rape or abuse to me, I don’t think weighing up the evidence is any part of my role: my role is to support them.

    Against this there are genuinely epistemic cases of the question. I was a juror on a rape trial earlier this year, and there I thought the proper response was to put my instinctive feelings of sympathy entirely aside and make a cold assessment of the evidence. (Which of course includes judgements of believability of the witnesses, not just forensics.) Adjudicators in more informal discipline processes seem to be in the same situation.

    It’s going to lead to trouble when these roles get conflated. Advocates shouldn’t, I think, also be adjudicators, not just on due-process grounds but because they have two incompatible attitudes that they’re required to take to the accusation. Reading between the lines of some of the UVA re-reporting, it looks as if this *may* also have been a problem for Rolling Stone’s reporter: if she effectively entered into something close to a support relationship with the accuser this could have got in the way of the chilly epistemic perspective on the accusation that her journalist role required.

  10. David, I agree very much with this:

    “Reading between the lines of some of the UVA re-reporting, it looks as if this *may* also have been a problem for Rolling Stone’s reporter: if she effectively entered into something close to a support relationship with the accuser this could have got in the way of the chilly epistemic perspective on the accusation that her journalist role required.”

    An anti-rape activist from UVA was making a similar point the other day on NPR:

  11. Having done some reading around, I find that Margaret Talbot makes the same point in the New Yorker:

    “Erdely probably also shared the point of view of the many victims’ advocates who argue that when people say they have been raped, they, above all others, should be believed. That’s a position that makes moral and emotional sense for advocates and friends of the victim, whose primary role is to comfort and support. But it’s not a position that makes sense for journalists, whose job is to find out what actually happened.”

    Megan McArdle‘s piece in the Atlantic is also helpful.

  12. I do worry a little, though, about the suggested narrative that Erderly’s journalism was negatively affected because of her feminist commitments. I mean, it’s possible that this happened – insofar as she *may* have blurred the line between feminist advocate and feminist reporter. But there’s also the fact that Jackie told the Washington Post that she asked to be removed from the story, and her friends have said she felt ‘manipulated’ by RS. Add that to the simple fact that Erderly could’ve spoken out in Jackie’s defense after that disgusting RS apology, but didn’t. None of that squares very well with the idea that she was too close to Jackie, or too focused on her role as Jackie’s advocate.

    Who knows. What we certainly do know is that it was a terrible reporting job. Any reporter with a decent understanding of rape should’ve *expected* inconsistencies, and been careful to do her homework around any case of first-person testimony – especially since Jackie’s real first name was being used, and the kind of fallout she’s enduring now is as awful as it is grimly predictable. Not only is nothing less than that good reporting, nothing less than that is, in this context, good advocacy.

  13. Okay, I certainly didn’t intend to imply that narrative – though I can see how it can be read into Talbot’s point. (It wasn’t how I read that point but the temptation to interpret others as supporting your own argument is ever-present and I’m not immune to it.)

    I guess one way of reading my earlier post is that no sensible set of commitments (feminist or otherwise*) ought to lead us to a one-size-fits-all attitude to accusers of rape, but rather it should depend on the nature of the relationship you have with the person (and is often not epistemic in nature).

  14. Oh, sorry, David! I didn’t mean to suggest that that was what your comment specifically implied! I just meant that I’m a little worried that that’s how some of this overall narrative will be interpreted, which probably isn’t great. I’m really sorry! Internet communication is hard. . .

    And I agree with you about appropriate epistemic attitude varying by context. (That’s a point that some people who want to make all contexts the philosophy seminar or courtroom could helpfully take on board!)

  15. I’m begging now – you can’t define ‘gaslighting’ without noting the 1944 Bergman/Boyer classic that gave us the term. From IMDB, “Gaslight”:

    Years after her aunt was murdered in her home, a young woman moves back into the house with her new husband. However, he has a secret that he will do anything to protect, even if it means driving his wife insane.

  16. Peter, thank you for your careful analysis of the situation. I agree in particular with you’re referring to it as an “unforced error” on the part of advocates. The Rolling Stone article and the entire situation that has resulted from it is likely to have very large, very negative consequences for a long time to come.

    The issue of mistakes in memory, particularly related to trauma, is an important one which everyone needs to be informed about. I would add that it’s precisely because of this that we need to have a greater emphasis on police investigations in cases like the one at UVA. Police are skilled and trained at investigating and respecting the rights of the accuser and defendant. A panel slapped together by a university in response to an investigation is not. Yet we even see here comments such as “I think people who expect the government to solve rape cases really don’t care about rape victims”. Such an attitude does nothing to help anyone.

  17. Alex, I could not agree more. The faculty and staff of universities are for the most part utterly unqualified to decide such cases and campus security units are not equipped or trained to investigate them. I’m not sure what should be done about universities in locations where the nearest police force or hospital cannot handle the cases adequately either. However, I find it ludicrous that the same actions that might cause someone to serve a prison sentence in other contexts could be decided by committee in a university and lead to penalties like a suspension. I may have misunderstood the comment above about the government solving cases, because I took it to be agreeing with this view in reference to public universities – i.e. expecting them to solve it would be like expecting some other non-police government bureaucracy to do the same.

  18. Regarding the UVA case, the latest article from the Washington Post makes it seem unlikely that mere memory problems caused by trauma are at the heart of this case.

    [most of the material from this comment has been removed. We cannot participate in the destruction of someone’s credibility without exceptional evidence. As far as I can see, WaPo prefers to give credence to anyone denying a part of the RS story. That is not worth believing.]

Comments are closed.