Is it ever okay to publicly shame someone on the internet? There are many cases where people have been persecuted online, and suffered severe consequences, based on accusations that are either trivial or false. But there may also be cases where public humiliation is merited, indeed, it may be the only way to address a grievous wrong. A letter accusing a prominent professor of sexual harassment is an important test case.
Thomas Pogge is the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Political Science at Yale. Pogge has been accused of serial sexual harassment in an Open Letter signed by scores of his academic colleagues:
Pogge has engaged in a long-term pattern of discriminatory conduct, including unwanted sexual advances, quid pro quo offers of letters of recommendation and other perks, employment retaliation in response to charges of sexual misconduct, and sexual assault. [There are also] affidavits from former colleagues at Columbia University, who attest that Pogge was accused of sexual harassment by a student in his department, and disciplined for this.
Workplace sexual harassment is a serious form of wrongdoing, but it’s very common. So what makes this case news? It may be the identity of the accused. Pogge is an internationally famous political philosopher. He is an egalitarian, best known for having extended the work of his teacher, John Rawls, to issues of global justice. Sexual harassment, if he is guilty of it, is a striking betrayal of his public commitments to justice.
The Open Letter has an option for other academics to co-sign. I’ve spent a surprising amount of time considering whether I should.
The reason not to sign is that “trial by internet” is problematic.* There’s no due process or rights for the accused. Yale has an administrative procedure for handling harassment complaints and there is a way to get justice in the courts under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And, of course, not everything that you read on the internet is true. I was deeply shocked when I read the Rolling Stone article about the supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia, and shocked again when it was retracted.
But this case may be different. There are several witnesses testifying about their victimizations. Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, a former Yale undergraduate, has alleged that Pogge sexually harassed her while she worked as his research assistant. (Pogge responds to her here.) There are also allegations by an anonymous graduate student, the philosopher Delia Graffi Farra, and the philosopher Erin Kelly.
Moreover, although I do not know Pogge personally, many of the authors of the Open Letter do. They include many leading moral philosophers, including other former students of Rawls (Elizabeth Anderson, Barbara Herman, and Joshua Cohen), and Pogge’s Yale colleagues Shelley Kagan and Stephen Darwall (chair of the Yale Department of Philosophy). In many cases of sexual misconduct, there is an ‘old boy’ network that seeks to hide the scandal and protect the institution. Not this time.
Pogge’s colleagues are also concerned that
bringing the complaint to resolution will be a long and complex process focused more on Yale’s handling of these claims, rather than on the specific allegations against Pogge. Meanwhile, the academic community must make its own decision about how to respond in light of what has been made public. We write, then, to express our belief that the information now in the public domain — including that provided by Pogge himself… — suffices to demonstrate that Pogge has engaged in behavior that violates the norms of appropriate professional conduct.
In short, Pogge is being read out of the community of ethics scholars. But I think that the authors of the Letter are concerned with more than Pogge. There is significant evidence that philosophy can be a particularly hostile environment for women (see accounts here, and the case of Colin McGinn). The authors may be hoping to reset the norms governing the treatment of women in philosophy and, perhaps, university faculties generally.
Finally, if we can’t judge others’ behaviour because we lack perfect instruments for determining the truth, we will never make or signal our moral judgments. Similarly, if we required that judicial proceedings be perfect instruments of truth, we would have no courts.
I signed the letter.
*I also have a concern about personal consistency when I stand in the crowd judging Pogge. What’s the metric that makes me a better person him? No, I haven’t sexually harassed (or cheated on, or assaulted!!!) anyone. But I can list many principles that I endorse in theory and betray in practice. For example, I believe:
- That animal lives count. Yet I am a lapsed vegetarian.
- That global warming is a serious threat. Yet I log a lot of air miles.
- That current social and economic inequality is excessive. Yet I live in the North American 1% and have no plans to leave it.
- [The list is indefinitely long.]
If I’m unfaithful to my professed beliefs, do I have standing to criticize Pogge?**
**[Releasing my inner David Foster Wallace, here’s a footnote to my footnote.] As we put Pogge into the stocks on the Commons, we need to ask ourselves whether we are the judges in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. Who are we to judge when we are, as Jonathan Edwards said, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?***
***And yet, if we can’t judge until we ourselves are perfect, there will be no moral progress.