The phenomenon of the "trial by internet" has been around for some time now. It's a very serious thing that, in many cases, does very serious professional and psychological damage to those who find themselves in the position of the accused. Leaving aside Pogge's curious decision to post his caution about "trial by Internet" on the Internet, we can understand the fundamental concern: anything repeated often enough inevitably gains the ring of truth. There is no unringing the bell of rumors and gossip. Or, as Pogge himself (somewhat hyperbolically) claims :Trial by internet will always be a greatly suboptimal procedure. But our individual contributions determine how far it falls short. At its worst, trial by internet is as haphazard and unfair as stonings in Afghanistan. At its best, it can clarify the issues and achieve at least a partial weighing of the evidence.
The assumption at work in the passage above is that discussions about certain matters of import, when they take place on the internet, are had amongst decidedly non-ideal "knowers" whose access to reliable information is limited and whose awareness of relevant circumstantial facts is incomplete at best, erroneous at worst. Ergo, judgments arrived at by such discussants ought to be non-binding and provisional or, better still, discussants ought to suspend judgment altogether in deference to their nescience.
In professional philosophy, where sexism and sexual assault is the wide open secret about which the general dispositional attitude is to keep one's eyes wide shut, victims are rarely afforded the luxury of an ideal epistemic environment in which the wrongs done to them might be judged fairly and impartially. Correspondingly, wrongdoers are frequently afforded the luxury of using the discipline's systemic sexism and inattention to sexual exploitation as a shield to cover what appear to be innocent appeals to ideal standards of judgment, but are in fact nothing other than socially-, politically-, and professionally-motivated self-interest.
"Trial by internet" is sometimes closer in character to a trial by ordeal than it is to a jury trial. That is to say, trials by internet frequently presume guilt and thus can be, as Pogge claimed, "haphazard and unfair.". But that isn't always so and, in many cases, trials by internet are neither haphazard nor unfair. (See: Edward Snowden) It may be a "suboptimal procedure" in ideal circumstances, but the circumstances that determine the deep struts-and-girders of professional Philosophy's social ontology are neither optimal nor ideal.
Absent the conditions for "ideal" knowing-- which are rarely, if ever, present-- we make do with what we have for forming careful, considered, albeit incompletely-informed judgments. Given what I know, and given what anyone else who has bothered to pay attention to the scandals of our discipline over the last half-decade or so should know, there is more than enough sufficient reason to suspend the requirements of ideal epistemic standards in one's judgments about the verity of female philosophers' accounts of sexual exploitation.
Where there is smoke, there is not always fire. But where there is smoke, there was, at least, very recently a fire.
And almost everywhere in professional Philosophy, the smoke is suffocating.--"Trial by Internet" and the Presumption of Innocence by Leigh Johnson.
There is a difference between (i) receiving criticism and disapprobation from one's professional peers, (ii) a university firing a professor, or (iii) the state sending somebody to jail. Let's stipulate (for now) that these three scenarios (i-iii) are increasingly costly (including in opportunities foregone) to the targeted individual and society. In particular, the downside or (to use HPS jargon) inductive risk of getting things wrong increases in each scenario. (If you like analytical epistemology you substitute your own jargon here.) So, it makes sense that epistemic standards are more demanding as one moves from (i) to (iii) [see, for example, this argument by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa; see also Brian Leiter]. In what follows, I ignore how we should treat the presumption of innocence; rather I wish to use the opportunity "to clarify" some of "the issues."
Does it follow that the standards of judgments must be lower in (i) than in (iii)? No. One could demand that one's epistemic standards in (i) are just as demanding as in (iii). If anything else, adhering to this demand requires self-restraint: I have some professional friends that have insisted that they withhold public judgment about, say, Professor's Pogge's behavior until a university tribunal or a court of law has issued its public verdict. There are lots of solid reasons -- from an embrace of liberal values to a suspicion of mob rule-- to defer to local judges that can make situational, contextually sophisticated judgments based on fair procedures and weighing of evidence. I respect this stance. But we should not fetishize withholding judgments and fall into mute silence: publicity and agitation are often required in order (a) to get universities to take proper action and (b) level the playing field among agents with unequal power. Of course, there are lots of speech acts between silence and a public judgment. By now it is a familiar fact that internet anonymity does not bring out the best in people.
As it happens -- this is a contingent fact -- journalists have revealed that we now know there have been judgments against Pogge by, it seems, two universities (Columbia and Yale) for different kinds of infractions, but which previously have been kept confidential (Buzzfeed; recall also my post). This practice of confidentiality primarily seems to protect the reputation of universities. In fact the most interesting fact to appear is that some folk at Yale seem to have been aware of the existence of a prior incident when they hired Professor Pogge. So far no individuals have been implicated in this fact, but to keep quiet about this fact rewards wrongdoing and reinforces the problem. So, it seems a bit odd to withhold all judgment, especially of the decisions by Yale University (and, perhaps, some of our peers there).
Obviously, journalists may be selective and may sell or be fed a story on behalf of some side or another. (Something like this happened to Jan Boxhill, who may well have been scapegoated by her own university.) In fact, the interests of the profession and the interests of universities often come apart, and the media, which has its own interests (sometimes financial or ideological), is an imperfect mediator among different stakeholders. But, again, to discuss a case is something different from generating sanctions. Obviously, the manner of discussion may generate its own (to borrow Leigh M. Johnson's point) trial by ordeal. I return to this below.
So far, I have pretended, first, that (i) receiving disapprobation from one's professional peers is is less bad than (ii) a university suspending or firing a professor, and, in turn, less bad than (iii) the state sending somebody to jail. But obviously for some peers -- you know who you are -- one's professional identity, in particular one's status in the profession and respect from one's peers, is far more important than other goods. Such people may feel far more damaged by professional disapprobation than, say, the (temporary) loss of income. Such individuals may certainly wish for very high epistemic standards before they are judged by their professional peers absent a university tribunal or a court of law. The second pretense thus far is that (i*) harms against the profession or harms against an individual-qua-professional are trivial compared to (ii*) harms against the university as a corporate body and (iii*) breaking the law of the land. Just as receiving serious disapprobation from one's professional peers can be awful to some, harms against the profession or harms against an individual-qua-professional may be thought the worst. It is by no means obvious that this is perverse.
Let me give a scholarly example: plagiarists are often banned from the profession (they may also lose their job). The harm against the profession and the harm against particular plagiarized scholars is evident. But as moral infractions go, from the vantage of eternity or the laws of the land, it is certainly less harmful than lots of crimes. Yet, the professional response tends to be a lot more severe against a plagiarist than against a criminal. Moreover, journal editors, volume editors, and peers do not wait until a university tribunal to come to their own judgments about plagiarists. Of course, it is helpful if a university investigates a particular plagiarist [after half a decade of reading Retractionwatch -- undoubtedly a biased sample -- it seems likely that a professional that has been caught plagiarizing once has probably done so more than once], but, as it happens, this is an extremely low priority in lots of universities (due to cost and, alas, concerns over reputation).
The way we treat plagiarists -- ejection, shunning, publication bans, etc. -- reveals that we recognize harms against the profession and that we are willing to act rather severely against violators of professional norms. It shows, in fact, that we tacitly recognize that even if the world is wholly corrupt and fallen, we treat norms of the profession with utmost seriousness (a seriousness that seems ridiculous to outsiders). This is not hypocrisy. But rather an acknowledgment that we take the collective pursuit of knowledge (wisdom, truth, etc.) as a fundamental collective good. It is collective not in so far as we expect society to endorse our commitment to a substantive good, or to echo our sanctions of violators, but it is collective in so far as we remove norm violators as members in good professional standing.
As it happens, the Buzzfeed story accuses Pogge of treating letters of recommendation as a form of currency to elicit more favorable behavior from young women he encountered. Even if the accusation were true it does not follow that Pogge's letters of recommendation are not to be trusted; it is compatible with the accusations that Pogge only wrote actual letters of recommendations for people whom were not involved in any (proposed) quid pro quo.
I have no idea if these accusations about treating letters as currency are true. In an ideal world, some of the institutions that proudly list Professor Pogge's name on their website (Yale, Oslo, London, etc.) would investigate this charge. The more likely, utterly imperfect, response is that wholly innocent junior folk start scrubbing traces of Pogge from their CV, when possible, and removing his letter from dossiers. As is usual, the downside risks are unevenly distributed and fall on the less powerful. Here withholding public judgment is tantamount to buck passing professional norm enforcement to those with least professional influence and status. To accept the previous sentence, does not entail that public judgments must go against Professor Pogge without a ruling authority (which may be very imperfect, too) individuals will come to their own imperfect judgments. One option is to use the occasion to rethink the role letters of recommendation play in the discipline and to make them instruments that allow for less abuse.
Now, even if one allows that there are genuine harms against the profession that need to be sanctioned, it does not follow, unless one embraces the unity of the virtues, that the profession needs to be a moral community. That is, the profession and professional peers have, all things being equal, no business policing private morality in the profession (although we may have individual obligations/duties). In practice, there may be lots of exceptions to the previous sentence, but that's for another occasion.
Yet, relationships (inside and outside the classroom) between supervisors (or letter writers, teachers, etc.) with students constitute, in part, the profession. And how we view the components (grades, letters of recommendation, quality of teaching, etc.) of these relationships is a matter of ongoing deliberation and reflection on existing norms and practices. In addition, we philosophers happen to be members of a profession where reflection on the nature of philosophical education, social epistemology, and the fine-grained distinctions among professional and moral norms just are ways of doing philosophy. What are called 'Internet trials' are thus imperfect opportunities to debate and explore professional norms and the nature of professional philosophy in light of practice. The previous sentence is a self-interested defense of blogging, so I add: in such a trial nobody's judgment is authoritative or definitive.