By Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Another sexual harassment allegation of a high profile philosophy professor, John Searle, is making the rounds. There are plenty of sordid details among the allegations, a particularly damning one being the allegation that Jennifer Hudin, director of the John Searle Center for Social Ontology (yes, seriously) admitted knowledge of a longstanding pattern of sexual harassment by Searle to the plaintiff in the case. The resulting inaction is, depressingly, not particularly surprising.
Nor is the response of (presumably) professional philosophers on various online forums, including several (since deleted) comment threads on the original Daily Nous post. People, for some reason, thought it was time to cape for due process and the maxim that folks ought to be "innocent until proven guilty" (widely accepted as regulative norms of criminal proceedings, not so much for 'attempts to form opinions on the internet'). What's going on here? Let's abstract just a bit from the particulars of this case and wheel in a term borrowed from Liam Kofi Bright over at the Sooty Empiric:
"Informal Omega Inconsistency is when people agree to a general claim but will stubbornly deny or remain absurdly sceptical as to every particular instance of it you produce. So, somebody may well agree that there are bad drivers in Pennsylvania -- but every time one points to a particularly erratic person on the road in the state they will say that, no no, this is not a bad driver, this is somebody whose car has suddenly and inexplicably stopped working, or is cursed, or at least they will not believe it is a bad driver till these possibilities have been ruled out, or... whatever. Just for some reason every instance that might witness the existential claim granted turns out not to be granted as an actual instance, no matter what lengths must be gone to deny as much.
Sounds wacky, right? Maybe, but I think it will be easily recognised as a very common by anybody who has ever argued about racism. Of course everybody will agree there are racists, certainly, it's still a terrible problem and there are lots of liberal pieties I could complete this list with that would gain equally near universal assent in my social circles. But this or that particular instance? Oh no, you have to understand, he's a very kind soul, you must be misinterpreting what he meant by ``All coloureds must die'' -- maybe he was talking about a novel method of rendering crayons reusable? And, look, he really likes dress up even months after halloween, so that was probably just a ghost costume, and of course he's a very devout man so he likes to build crosses wherever he goes, but alas he's a smoker (nobody's perfect!) so he probably was getting his lighter out then he tripped and fell and it just happened to set the cross ablaze, and...."
If we - I suspect more charitably than it would seem - ascribe to the field of professional philosophers a general belief that sexual harassment and other forms of violence are rampant in the discipline, and further ascribe to the field the further moral commitment to opposing it, we can ask the question: are philosophers exhibiting informal omega inconsistency when they respond to individual allegations of harassment with obfuscatory platitudes (e.g. "hey lying is a thing happens sometimes")?
Informal Omega Inconsistency (IOI) describes patterns of action and inference, not one-off occasions of either. Then, an interesting feature of Bright's definition here is that, on any one occasion, genuine skepticism (perhaps based on the particular details of a case) and informal omega inconsistency could predict more or less the same behaviors. Bright notes this himself: "it's a fallacy that is only recognisable in aggregate. On any one occasion it's consistent to deny that this witnesses one's general claim -- it only becomes Informal Omega Inconsistency once it's apparent that this is a matter of policy, that this is how the person always responds to apparent instances of the general claim being made".
But, while Bright applies IOI to individuals, I think there is a collective analogue worth considering. It may not be the case that any particular individual philosopher is exhibiting IOI when they make pointless comments in response to sexual harassment allegations. Each of them may in fact be speaking in good faith in some sense. But it is a completely predictable feature of the philosophical community generally that someone will say this dumb shit at some point in such conversations. Or, to put that differently, the web of norms acting over professional philosophy are such that one might describe the community as having a "policy" makes these additions to conversation predictable. This policy seems, at least, insufficiently sensitive to the actual evidence - as, if the allegation and several of our colleagues are to be believed, a telling extent of Searle's behaviors were known and publicly acknowledged in at least some professional circles.
But that's maybe not the important part. The fact that this is a "policy" suggests that it is a stable, predictable, and structural fact of the social world of the discipline.
Why is that bad? Let's start, fellow philosophers, by putting this in familiar and unthreatening terms, and then working backwards. You know those bad objections that you think aren't serious, that betray a fundamental misunderstanding of your view or the view of an interlocutor of yours - but that appear persuasive on the surface and thus might, if left unanswered, convince your audience that your central claim was mistaken? I bet you prepare answers to these bad questions anyway. You arm yourself with quotes from the historical author to show where their interpretation goes wrong, you stress just one more fine distinction, you whip up a nice thought experiment to show the error of their ways. That is, in the general analysis: despite the fact that the whole scenario in which you have to answer this rests on a mistake, you build anticipation of that mistake into your practical orientation towards the world. Now, swap out the dispositions: instead of 'seemingly devastating objections in Q&A' we have 'seemingly devastating objections to your assertion that you were assaulted after all' and now we're at rape culture.
Perhaps many of you will feel that I haven't been reasonable yet. So, speaking of objections based on fundamental misunderstandings: some people may be incensed at the connection of IOI to rape culture, as they have made comments reminding people about innocence until one is proven guilty and they are shocked - shocked! heavens no! - that anyone could accuse them of intending to support rape or sexual harassment. Only, I didn't. It is a peculiar fact about our systems of miseducation that we assume that a necessary condition of the operation of a structural injustice is its presence (explicit or implicit) in the psychology of the agent(s) who carry out its proximate effects. But that just isn't so. We might discover that this or that county official who enforced the grandfather clause really didn't know that it was designed to subvert the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment and racially restrict the vote. Perhaps that would even be exculpatory in some morally relevant way. But to go beyond that and argue that the actions of that official didn't contribute to Jim Crow because of what the official did or didn't know, want, or intend would simply be confused. Perhaps at the root of the mistake is a tendency to run judgements concerning how we are to normatively evaluate people's actions too closely with ones concerning how we ought to come to descriptive judgements about them.
Second: apparently sexual harassment isn't the only social pattern that bears on how we evaluate these conversations, as I have learned in some online discussions about this. There is also a fear that the 'left' is mounting an assault on due process and free speech, as evidenced by the protesting and deplatforming of several public figures at universities across the nation, especially at UC Berkeley. One might think that reasonable discourse requires that I engage this head on. And indeed, that is usually my temperament - under different circumstances I would be quite prepared to sit people down and ask them what the fuck 'the left' is, and engage with whatever reason they have for believing that reading the occasional critical epistemology reader and thinking it would be cool if there were more coloreds around is equivalent to being a balaclava-clad member of Black Bloc. But...nah. I must admire, at least, the complexity of the interlocking layers of bullshit required to hold this set of views upright. But I leave that game of turd Jenga for someone else, I hand my ticket back to Kant.