We want to believe women who make claims about being abused by more powerful men, but the notion of always doing so is philosophically problematic.
When philosophers discuss belief, it is often in connection with accounts of knowledge. They consider distinctions between believing a statement and knowing it to be true. In some contexts, this distinction seems pretty clear. It is one thing to believe that Campbell River is north of Nanaimo, another to know that it is. Having made this distinction, one can then go on to explore what makes for knowledge as distinct from belief. In these discussions, philosophers consider believing statements, or claims. Another aspect of belief, less commonly explored, is believing people. It is people who assert claims, whether in oral or written speech, and to accept their claims is to believe them. Believing people is a fundamental matter.
Much of our knowledge and many of our beliefs are acquired through other people. People make claims about all sorts of different things of course – what they have experienced, what they feel, remember, sense, have learned, know, or think they know – and of course, what they believe. What other people tell us can be defined, in a broad sense, as their testimony: testimony in this sense is not purely a legal matter. In relating to other people, we are fundamentally challenged if we do not feel able to believe them. If an addicted person who has been unreliable in the past tells you no, he did not have a drink today, you may be reluctant to believe him and not accept his claim. Even if a person who is normally reliable tells you something, you may not believe him if what he says is implausible given what you already believe. Needless to say, you can be mistaken about such matters. These sorts of things may seriously threaten relationships.
Yet women are human beings, fallible human beings, and as such may misperceive, misremember, or even lie. It hardly makes sense to recommend that all women should be believed, in all contexts and circumstances.
Issues of testimony and belief can be understood more fully when you think about them from another perspective. What if you are the person with testimony to offer, things to tell? What if other people do not believe you? Suppose that something important happened to you, and you told your family and friends about it, only to find that they would not believe you? What if they said it couldn’t have happened that way; you must have misperceived or misinterpreted what was going on? Or perhaps you were confused. Worse yet, perhaps they didn’t listen at all, simply ignored you, paying no attention. You would be insulted and feel disrespected, even humiliated.
I once wrote about such matters in the context of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. Some years later, the British philosopher Miranda Fricker took up the theme in her book Epistemic Injustice, which has attracted considerable attention and inspired further work in an area called ‘social epistemology.’ The thing is, it is an insult to be systematically disbelieved or ignored. When such rejection becomes systematic, the dismissal of someone’s testimony amounts to a denial of her status as a person. In addition to this deep ethical violation, there are practical dangers in such situations: serious harms may be overlooked with risks not only to the denigrated person but to many others and, indeed, to society at large. We do not need to look far to find illustrations of this claim in cases of abuse and discrimination.
Here, in abstract terms, we see the background of the MeToo movement and its strong initiatives to rectify serious failures to attend to women’s testimony about harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and rape; and its directive ‘believe women.’ It urges: Believe women. But what does this mean? Reflecting on the matter, on such a fully literal interpretation, the admonition ‘believe women’ does not seem credible. Are we to believe all women, no matter what they say, no matter what the context and circumstances, no matter what the damage to others? That cannot be it. Notoriously, women have been disbelieved and dismissed, with resulting harm to themselves and others. Yet women are human beings, fallible human beings, and as such may misperceive, misremember, or even lie. It hardly makes sense to recommend that all women should be believed, in all contexts and circumstances. On such an understanding of ‘believe women,’ the directive would not be credible. It needs interpretation and must mean something else, something more modest and yet of enormous importance. Women should not be ignored, insulted, or humiliated, or have claims about their experience dismissed without attention. People should listen to women, listen hard and seriously, even when women make strange and unwelcome claims.
There is a further matter too. You can see that by considering the very notion of a directive to believe? How could such a directive make sense? After all, believing is not a voluntary act. If someone tells you to believe this or that, even if you try, you will find that you can’t do it in response. You can’t simply decide to believe and as a result come to believe. To illustrate the point, try a little experiment. Suppose I say to you, “Believe me: Justin Trudeau will retire at age 55.” Try to follow my directions and believe that because I tell you to. Test yourself with the experiment and you will discover it’s not possible: you need some evidence, some reasons, some thought on the matter, at least some sort of support.
In the eighteenth century, Blaise Pascal argued that because the dangers of hell are horrendous and the benefits of heaven are infinitely great, people should believe in God for pragmatic reasons. “Bet on God” was the conclusion of his famous Wager argument, based on a cosmic cost/benefit analysis. Pascal acknowledged the criticism that a person couldn’t simply believe at will in response to his advice. He replied that a kind of self-manipulation would be required. You could arrange for that by exposing yourself to religious rituals and adherents, who would over time influence your thinking.
Nor can a person just believe women as a result of acts of the will. The saying ‘believe women’ cannot make sense if it means that; to make sense, it must be interpreted as meaning something else. And that is the direction to go. Women should not be systematically discounted. They should be listened to and respected and their testimony should be taken seriously. In contexts where women tell of sexual harassment, assault, rape, and abuse, their testimony has so very often, and so harmfully and damagingly, been dismissed or ignored. Women’s testimony as to their experiences of harassment and assault has not received the attention it merits given the importance of these matters; women have not received the attention we deserve, as human beings meriting dignity, respect, and equal status as members of society. These are the important things; this is how to understand ‘believe women.’ It is not that people should accept as a matter of knowledge policy, whatever the evidence and circumstances, whatever women say, just because they are women and women were so often disrespected in the past.
Even considered apart from its heady political implications, this is a hard topic. It may be easier to consider, for a moment, a neutralized version of the problem. Suppose there are two groups of people, the As and the Bs, and suppose further that for many centuries when they have lived together, the As have had more power and strength than the Bs; the As have dominated the Bs in so many ways – physically, economically, socially, and politically. There is much oppression; there are many conflicts. The pattern of domination affects the reception of testimony, especially when there are conflicts between an A and a B. There are so many cases of ‘A said/B said,’ where an A directly contradicts a B. Whom to believe? What to believe? What to do? In the circumstances of their power relationship, the As have dominated when there are conflicts of testimony. The Bs are not even taken seriously; their claims are ignored. Then let’s suppose that many people become aware of this problem. The As have all the power and have benefitted too long. They have received more of their due. What is to be done? What was done in the past was wrong, seriously wrong, and something different must be done instead. “The opposite,” some propose. “If what we were doing before was wrong, and we need to do what is right, we should do the opposite.” (After all, isn’t right the opposite of wrong?) Some will say, “We should believe Bs. We will believe Bs. And whenever there is a testimonial conflict between an A and a B, we will believe the B, just believe that person.” So, believe Bs.
This simplistic suggestion should be rejected as absurd, and I trust that, put forward in the abstract, it will appear absurd. You don’t rectify insult and harm to members of group B by harming members of group A. It’s not fair; it’s not respectful; it’s not a reasonable method of seeking the truth. At this point, several fallacies may be alleged. One fallacy is that of false dichotomy: it is not the case that the only alternative to the As dominating the Bs is for the Bs to dominate the As. Another fallacy lies in the underlying assumption that (somehow) two wrongs will make a right. But that’s not correct: if a policy is wrong, it will not be righted by adopting another policy symmetrically opposite to it and wrong for the same sorts of reasons.
Suppose someone said, “Why would it be so wrong for us to seize the advantage? They did it to us, after all, and we’ve suffered for centuries.” But this justification simply will not work. If dismissal of the weak was wrong before, it will be wrong again, even if the roles of weak and strong are reversed. If the weaker become strong enough to dominate their former oppressors, they are abusing their new power if they use it that way. One might say that this reasoning amounts to himpathy, to an excessive sympathy with the accused men. I reject that charge: to listen to someone and explore evidence for or against what he has to say is not excessive. And no argument against this attention should assume that it is.
It was seriously wrong to systematically credit men’s testimony over that of women, as has been so common for so long. It left women vulnerable, it was insulting to women, it was damaging to women and through that damage, it was harmful to children and to society at large. Someone might say at this point after all, men did it, they’ve been protecting themselves that way for years and centuries. It’s our turn; women can do this too. But that won’t do. To dismiss and denigrate women, to undermine them in fundamentally insulting and damaging ways was harmful, insulting, and damaging. Doing the opposite, systematically dismissing men while crediting women’s claims over theirs, insulting and humiliating them, putting them at risk of harm, would be wrong for the same reasons. Fairness, the rule of law, and respect for persons provide grounds for this conclusion. It does not emerge only because some are persons of privilege, unable to empathize with the marginalized, and reasoning from their privilege.
If someone were to argue that men benefitted from abuse of their power in the past, so now it is women who deserve an opportunity to abuse their power, that would not be a cogent argument. As the term ‘abuse’ implies, an abuse of power is wrong. To label the ignoring or dismissal of testimony of less advantaged people an abuse is to acknowledge the wrongfulness of the practice. In many contexts, women are acquiring increased social power, but that power implies no justification or reason for its own abuse.
In an essay in The Nation (May 5, 2020) the feminist philosopher and Cornell professor Kate Manne argued that Tara Reade should be believed when she claimed that presidential candidate Joe Biden had sexually assaulted her in a hallway. In much of her essay, Manne sought to defend Reade against criticisms. She also offered reasons in favour of Reade’s charges. Among these were claims that Biden was ‘the type’ to do this sort of thing, given that he was a white man who had enjoyed privilege all his life, had superior social power, and could likely get away with flirtatious gestures. What to say here? Again, appeal to the abstract and look at the reasoning: “X probably committed an offense of which he has been charged because X is the type of person who would commit this offense.” That’s the argument. (It’s not Manne’s only argument but it enjoys some prominence.) But here we see stereotyping and careless thinking. Such an argument does not pass muster, as several commentators swiftly pointed out, adding their questions about what could be happening in philosophy at Cornell. Manne is a prize-winning author, but this particular analysis lends her no credit.
Women are gaining power and we can exercise that power. We can ignore or dismiss the testimony of men, in contexts of alleged assault, abuse, and harassment. We can disrespect men and act as though they don’t count. We can dismiss their claims by dismissing their persons. But we should not. We were ignored, we were dismissed; it happened to us, and we were profoundly wronged. But reversing the pattern by wronging others is not the right thing to do. ♦