A Reply to McMahan and Singer on the Stubblefield Case

Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer have a piece in the Stone today at the New York Times that I think is woefully ill-argued, in which they conclude that Anna Stubblefield has been treated unjustly by the courts, and question whether or not the man she was convicted of sexually assaulting was really harmed by her. I’m not going to address every point in their piece — but I do think it’s important to say a few things.

First, while I haven’t seen all of the evidence they have apparently been made privy to, there is enough in the public domain to know that their description of the events which transpired is deeply misleading.

For example, on the matter of John Doe’s* communicative capacities, they write,

“Sheronda Jones, an undergraduate at Rutgers at the time, volunteered to assist [John Doe] by using facilitated communication so that he could write papers for an English class he was auditing at Rutgers. Before the trial, Jones had told a detective in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office: “He pretty much read the books. I didn’t know any information about the book. I made sure never to read any of the information. I can’t tell you what he read. And he typed out the information.” Jones did not attend the class [John Doe] took. If she did not read the material on which his work was based, how could she have produced writings that respond to that material?”

They fail to mention that Jones’ statement went on to note that one of her roommates was in the same class, and she knew that her roommate and John Doe produced similar writings for the class. So, how could she have produced writings that responded to the class material which she had not read? By reading her roommate’s homework.

They also fail to mention that despite training in how to use facilitated communication, neither John Doe’s mom or brother was ever able to successfully use it to communicate with John Doe, and that they believed the purported communications facilitated through Stubblefield conflicted with what they knew about John Doe from experience living with him (e.g., according to Stubblefield, John Doe didn’t like gospel music, but according to his family, his behavior suggested he particularly enjoyed it).

As another example, on the matter of the assault itself, they write:

“If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist, and, for reasons we will note shortly, it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him. On the assumption that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, therefore, it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.”

Now, just on the question of if John Doe was forcibly subdued, set aside for the moment that of course assault is not actually the sort of thing where all perpetrators lurk in dark alleys, twirling their mustaches as they lay in wait, ready to do obvious physical violence, and one need not have been forcibly subdued in order to be a victim of assault — as a matter of fact, the evidence does suggest that John Doe tried to get away from Stubblefield, at least on the first occasion they had sexual contact. As the New York Times wrote on this case back in 2015,

“They met the following Sunday at [John Doe]’s house, while his mother was at church. They tried to kiss while lying down on [John Doe]’s bed, on the theory that it would be easier, given his impairments. But [John Doe] kept sitting up, and then he lowered himself onto the floor. Anna offered him the keyboard and asked if anything was wrong. Nothing’s wrong, he typed, he was very happy, but also overwhelmed — he needed a minute. Anna said O.K., and [John Doe] scooted out into the hall.”

Stubblefield performed oral sex on John Doe a few minutes later.

Second, philosophically, this argument is quite astounding. One’s being incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations makes unclear what the nature of the wrong of sexual assault could be? Seriously? Why ever should we think that one must have the cognitive capacity to conceptualize precisely how one has been harmed in order to have been so harmed? Are small children not even possibly victims of sexual assault? Can animals not be unjustly exploited? Are persons with severe brain damage incapable of being victims of theft?

Why think experiencing pleasure precludes genuine harm? And even if one wanted to subscribe to a principle so readily met with counter-examples, why ignore that, again, according to Stubblefield’s own description of events, on many occasions John Doe expressed discomfort?

On the question of predation, McMahan and Singer write:

Judge Teare described Stubblefield as “the perfect example of a predator preying on her prey” and gave her a sentence that would be fitting for a predatory rapist. Yet no one would or could ever have known that Stubblefield and [John Doe] had had sexual relations if she had not conveyed to his mother and brother what she believed to be his message to them, via facilitated communication that she conducted in their presence, that he and she were in love and had consummated their relationship. This is the action not of a sexual predator but of an honest and honorable woman in love. Even if she is mistaken in her beliefs about his intelligence and ability to communicate, it is undeniable that these beliefs are sincere and that she was neither reckless nor negligent in forming them. This ought to have been a mitigating, if not wholly exculpating, consideration in the sentencing.

Stubblefield was aware of the controversial nature of facilitated communication. She may have believed that the experts which determined it to be pseudoscience were mistaken — I suspect she genuinely did — but she also knew that others who had diligently attempted to learn the methods of F.C. had failed to communicate with John Doe. She knew that she was in a particular position of power over him, and that she had an interest in virtue of her own feelings, in his communicating particular things.

But more importantly, McMahan and Singer confuse self-conceptualizing as having good intentions with failing to engage in predatory behavior. They confuse a willingness to articulate one’s position with being honorable. If these characteristics were genuinely interchangeable, multitudes of paradigm instances of exploitation through grooming, and even through violence, would be mitigated or exculpated. How many victims of childhoood sexual abuse have been told that their assailant loved them?  How many cult-leaders have thought they were doing what was best for the souls of their followers? How many perpetrators of domestic violence believed they were doing what was best to keep their families as they should be?

Intending to do good is not in any way inconsistent with doing enormous harm.

[Update: An earlier version of this post used the victim’s initials rather than the pseudonym John Doe. I’ve removed his initials in an attempt to do a better job of respecting his privacy.]

So You Want To Be Inclusive

A reader is asking for guidance on creating inclusive events.  Their problem?  Not every attempt to be inclusive works.  So for those with experience, what strategies have proven reliable?  What can you do if your ideal conference line-up all decline the invitation?  What do you say if the colleague organizing this year’s colloquium series has pulled together a rather marginalizing list, despite your suggestions?  How do you translate the aspiration to be inclusive into actual inclusion?

A female colleague recently reached out to me about a lack of inclusivity in an academic setting. This got us talking about a variety of things. One thing was strategies for making conference/colloquium schedules more inclusive. I asked her for advice about this. She recommended that I reach out to you (all).

Context: We were talking about how there are a variety of ways in which even progressive departments and conferences (i.e., ones run by progressive people) fail to be inclusive. E.g., one otherwise inclusive department’s colloquium schedule does not feature any non-white non-male (etc.) speakers.

My own experience: Some of my attempts to be inclusive don’t pan out. And many of my second, third, etc. attempts don’t pan out either. In the moment, I felt like I am going out of my way to be inclusive and somehow not succeeding — I am sure there was more to it than this, as will become clear in a moment.

I am interested in brainstorming ways to be inclusive when putting together, say, conferences and colloquium schedules: anything that involves inviting scholars to participate in something, really. I have searched through this blog and gathered some ideas — I particularly enjoyed reading “I Dreamt Of An Inclusive Conference,” by the way. One idea is for conferences to be held online, eliminating some of the difficulties associated with attending a conference and thereby making it easier for people who might not otherwise be able to participate. Still, I imagine that there are all sorts of things that have not even occurred to me. (And in my more anxious moments, I worry about how I might be clueless to the fact that I am the (or part of the) problem).

Any guidance/correction/resources/etc. would be very much appreciated.

It seems to me that there are at least four separate stages worth considering:

  1. How are conference funds and organizing duties distributed within a department?  Who is making invitation decisions?  Are they responsive to criticism?
  2. If you have the opportunity to organize an event yourself, how should a desire to be inclusive affect the planning stages: the conception of the topic, the kind of event and how it will convene, the keynote selection, etc.?
  3. Once the event is in the works, how do you ensure representative participation?  Where and how do you advertise the CFA/CFP?  How are you evaluating the submissions you get?  Where and how do you announce the event to encourage outside attendance?  Should you engage in outreach?  Should some funds be reserved to facilitate attendance by those for whom attendance is difficult?
  4. As the event approaches, and as it’s underway, what should you do (and what resources should you set aside) to ensure that attendees are able to participate fully?  What instructions should chairs be given on managing the queue?  What can you do if the tenor of Q&A or discussion turns exclusive?

And a difficult question raised by the reader’s concern: what constitutes a good faith effort?  What should you do if attempts to be inclusive fail?  Can you reach a point where you’ve done all you can?

Thoughts?  Suggestions?

Race and Stubblefield

Shelley Tremain at Discrimination and Disadvantage offers an interesting and disturbing analysis of the discussion surrounding the Stubblefield case, which draws on Tommy Curry’s work on the sexual assault of black men by white women, and the black male disabled body.

Over the past several days, I have thought about the Robinson trial and Curry’s pathbreaking work in light of the verdict in the trial of Anna Stubblefield. In the discussions about the trial and its outcome that have ensued on blogs, listservs, and Facebook, virtually no mention has been made of the fact that Stubblefield is white and the victim is African American. Thus, I think that among the questions that ought to be asked are these: How has race configured the reception of, and responses to, the verdict within the feminist philosophical community and within the disability studies community? In what ways have race and class conditioned the credibility deficit that disability studies scholars have implicitly and explicitly conferred upon the mother and brother of the victim? How has the hyper-sexualization of black men conditioned the reception of Stubblefield’s testimony and the verdict, as well as responses to them? Why have some white feminist philosophers found it “impossible” to believe that a white nondisabled woman repeatedly sexually assaulted a disabled black man? There is a mountain of evidence that demonstrates the prevalence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of disabled people by nondisabled people. As Curry’s careful research shows, furthermore, the sexual and physical assault of black men by white women has a long history in the U.S. (and elsewhere) and is well documented, if one bothers to look. Why have “facilitated communication” and its white facilitator, Anna Stubblefield, been effectively rendered the victims of the real victim’s black family? Has the stubborn preoccupation with the alleged merits of a discredited technique actually concealed the white skin privilege and class privilege that continue to shape the fields of disability studies and feminist philosophy?

You can read the whole piece here.

I’ve closed comments here, but you can join in the discussion by following the link above.

Class action lawsuit over trauma and disability in Compton schools

The full story is at NPR. (Perhaps especially relevant and of interest to those following broader discussions going on in academia regarding trauma and student accommodations.)

An unprecedented, class action lawsuit brought against one Southern California school district and its top officials could have a big impact on schools across the country. . .

The complaint is a terrifying read — of kids coping with physical and sexual abuse, addicted parents, homelessness and a constant fear of violence.

One of the plaintiffs, listed as 15-year-old Phillip W., says he witnessed his first murder when he was 8.

“Somebody got shot in the back of the head with a shotgun,” the boy explains in a video on a website dedicated to the case. “And they threw him over the rail, and he was just sitting there bleeding, blood all down the sewer line. It was a horrifying sight.”

The complaint says Phillip has witnessed more than 20 shootings and, in 2014, was hit in the knee by a bullet.

What’s this have to do with Compton’s schools?

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them. The plaintiffs want Compton Unified to provide teacher training, mental health support for students and to use conflict-mediation before resorting to suspension. . .

This idea — of treating trauma in children as a disability — is new, though the problem is not, says Ko. “Twenty-five percent of kids will have experienced a traumatic event before the age of 16.”

Not all of those children will struggle in school. But many will — and not just in Compton.

Dialogues on Disability – Zara Bain

A reminder of Shelley Tremain’s excellent series of interviews with disabled philosophers, which is taking place over at Discrimination and Disadvantage.

The second interview is with Zara Bain, who is based at the University of Reading.

Zara is in the early stages of her second attempt at a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the intersection of moral and political philosophy and social epistemology. As a self-identified disabled philosopher with long-term chronic illnesses, she engages in the practice of philosophy in the university when she is well enough to do so. When she is not well enough, she can be found resting and talking about disability, talking philosophy, or making philosophy jokes on Twitter. In her spare time, Zara creates vegetable-based, gluten-free, and dairy-free comfort food, learns about animal politics from her two dogs and cat, dances to beats-heavy music, writes about disability in higher education, and devises ways in which she can produce resources for teaching and learning in philosophy in order to earn a living post-PhD.

You can read the interview here.

Sexual Assault & Students with a Disability

“The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities”

“Even Gallaudet University, designed specifically for deaf students, can get it wrong when it comes to rape”

“Nationally, research has shown that individuals with disabilities experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates than the general population and that they also face critical gaps in services when they seek help for abuse. At the same time, experts say, schools have yet to adequately assess or address the issue on their campuses. “

“Al Jazeera America’s six-month investigation into sexual violence at Gallaudet — which included interviews with a dozen current or former students who say they were sexually assaulted, senior Gallaudet administrators, Title IX and disability experts, and an analysis of the university’s judicial board actions — reveals that even a school explicitly designed for students with disabilities can struggle in dealing with sexual assault.”

One story:

“Melissa thought his [Mike’s] behavior was creepy, and she reported him to Gallaudet’s Department of Public Safety. Since he wasn’t a student, she hoped DPS would bar Mike from campus. Instead, she says, the DPS officer she met with didn’t take her seriously: “He was sort of casual.” He started asking Melissa questions about her blindness, she says, and whether she could really know if she was being stalked. “If you couldn’t see him,” Melissa says the officer asked her, “how do you know it was Mike stalking you, and not someone else?”

“Yes, she was blind, but Melissa had other ways of identifying people, she insisted. She gave the officer details about the roughness of his hands when he signed to her, the things he said to her, and even offered to show him his Facebook profile picture. But without visual identification, Melissa says, the DPS officer told her there was no way they could pursue the claim or bar Mike.”

Another story:

“The two women, whose names and some identifying features have been changed, began dating. But within a month and a half, Alma says, their relationship took a turn. It began with a light punch. As a survivor of abuse growing up, Alma told Lisa the punch triggered bad memories.

Alma says Lisa suggested that it was playful and described growing up in a difficult home. Feeling guilty, Alma scolded herself for not being sensitive enough.

But over the course of their five-and-a-half-month relationship, the abuse escalated, she says. If Lisa felt Alma spoke too loudly, she would pinch her. And when Alma reacted, she says, Lisa would snap, “Oh my God, do you know how awful you sound?”

Alma had no idea what her voice sounded like, but she did know that the fastest way to disempower her was to demean the way she spoke. “The verbal insults became the root of the relationship,” Alma recalls. “Before I knew it, I was getting in trouble for talking to my friends.” [It gets worse.]

“But the worst part, she says, were the questions the other officer asked her.

““Are you sure you were raped?”

““You call that rape?”

““Do you know what the definition of ‘rape’ is?””

On how the university handles sexual assault:

“in October, an article in the university’s newspaper told an unnamed survivor’s account of why she didn’t report assault. “It had nothing to do with how the university would handle it,” the piece began. “But it had everything to do with me being embarrassed.” Later, it continued, “I’ve seen how Gallaudet has improved in how they handle sexual assault and rape cases, and I have faith in how they run the system.” But while the university was being defended by its students, it was also trying to block the reporting that led to this article. During this investigation, Gallaudet, and representatives from a communications firm it hired, reached out to Al Jazeera America on several occasions to express concern about contacting sources for this story.

““We’ve all been dismissed as being the exception individually, even by people who are sympathetic and open to listening to our story,” explains one student who says she was groped by an unknown assailant one night. “People don’t want to see it as common [because] it’s scary. For one, it means it can happen to them. It also means admitting there is something wrong with a system they are a part of … Gallaudet is such a safe place in other ways, nobody wants to admit that there is an ugly underbelly.”” -Alma


End of the Independent Living Fund?

Yes, I’m afraid this is yet another blog post about the UK Government’s cuts and alterations to services used by disabled people. This time, it’s the Independent Living Fund that’s under threat. The ILF pays for support for those with very high needs, enabling them to live independently in the community, go to work, and do all the things that enabled folks largely take for granted. The fund has so far been the responsibility of central government, but plans are afoot to transfer it to local authorities in June this year. Importantly, the funding will not be ring-fenced, so there is no guarantee that local authorities will use it for its current purpose. Indeed, as local authorities are short of cash, this sort of change often leads to cuts as the money is used to pay for other things instead. (To give just one example, this happened when the ring-fence around Supporting People funding was removed. You can download a parliamentary briefing about this here.)

I understand the government are proposing to stop the fund completely a year later (presumably the money will be completely reabsorbed into a general budget). There is a bit more detail about the proposed changes here. An Early Day Motion has been filed, and you can ask your MP to support it if you feel so inclined.

New Blog: Discrimination and Disadvantage

This new blog looks like it will be great. Looking forward to reading it when it launches in the next few weeks.

In recent years, philosophers have increasingly reflected on how various kinds of privilege and advantage are at work in the profession with an eye towards improving the lot of the disadvantaged. This blog is a space for philosophical reflection on various kinds of disadvantage (e.g., discrimination based on racism, classism, sexism, hetero-sexism, ableism, and the intersectionality of these and related phenomena) as well as discussion of such disadvantage within the philosophical community.

Access to Work Funding Cut

The UK government is quietly cutting the Access to Work funding that pays for things such as computer software and support workers that enable disabled people to gain employment.

Advisers have guidance on what AtW now does and doesn’t cover, but because the changes haven’t been published, all we can put our hands on is that limits have been imposed on the amount of support worker hours that are permitted and major restructuring in how AtW is being delivered has led to delays in people’s money.

Deaf people who need sign language interpreters have been particularly penalised, with the cuts to support workers’ hours. Jenny Sealey, who runs a disabled-led theatre company that employs 80 deaf and disabled people every year, has gone from co-directing the Paralympic 2012 opening ceremony to being left “in fear” for her career after her support was cut by half. It gives some insight into the mindset of those with their hands on the controls that they can promote the need to get disabled people into work while enacting measures that make it impossible.

You can read more here.