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Rolling Stone’s Failure

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 10, 2014

In November, 2014 the Rolling Stone magazine received worldwide attention for a story on the brutal gang rape of a student at the University of Virginia. The story had a significant impact not only on the University of Virginia but also on the broader community.

Some accepted the story as true—after all, it was a horrifying example of the rape culture that had become part of a general media narrative. Others had doubts about the story—some for ideological reasons and some for what turned out to be legitimate reasons. It turns out that the story is largely (or even entirely) untrue and Rolling Stone issued an apology to its readers.

In preparing and printing this story about the rape of a woman nicknamed Jackie, the relevant people at the Rolling Stone failed both professionally and morally. In investigating the story, the Rolling Stone did not contact the men alleged to be involved in the attack. This seems rather contrary to what should be a principle of good journalism, namely that of seeking information regarding all the relevant parties rather than simply using the account of one side. Also, given the information found by other news sources, such as the Washington Post, it appears that the magazine should have been more thorough in its investigation. After all, there is a professional and moral duty to engage in a proper investigation before publishing a story with rather serious potential consequences. When people believed the story was true, there were rather serious consequences. Now that the credibility of the story seems to have been damaged or even destroyed, there are also serious consequences and these will be discussed below.

To be fair, I am obligated to offer some defense for the Rolling Stone. First, as the managing editor Will Dana noted, the magazine was honoring Jackie’s request that they not contact the men she had accused of raping her. According to Dana, they wished to be sensitive to the shame and humiliation women often feel after being victims of sexual assault and Jackie said she feared retaliation from the men.

While the professed motivations seem laudable on part of the magazine, it is not clear how a more thorough investigation would have shamed and humiliated Jackie. It might be claimed that to even investigate the accused would be to engage in wrongful doubting of the victim. The obvious reply is that a thorough investigation is not an expression of doubt, but good journalistic practice. While an alleged victim should be given due respect, this respect does not entail that a journalist should abandon due diligence. But, to be fair to the journalists, there is no doubt considerable political and social pressure to avoid even the appearance of skepticism in such cases.

Second, the managing editor claims that Jackie’s story held up to considerable scrutiny and it is only recently that the problems in the story were found. This allows for a reasonable defense: even a thorough and proper investigation can turn out to have gotten things wrong, as revealed by later investigation.

The main problem with this defense is that the reason why the story seems to have held up is that the Rolling Stone operated within limits set by Jackie: she requested that they not contact the accused and told them that her friend would not speak with the magazine. It turned out that her friend was quite willing to speak with the Washington Post and that his story differs from her account in many key ways. As such, it would seem that the magazine cannot claim this defense. Rather, it can only claim that it decided to seemingly put its trust in Jackie and to allow her to decide the scope of their investigation. This is, obviously enough, not a good approach to investigative journalism.

Third, a defense can be made regarding the discrepancies. As has been well-established, eye-witness reports are unreliable and a person’s memories of an event tend to be rather inaccurate. As such, it would hardly be surprising for Jackie’s account to differ from the accounts of other and have some inconsistencies. This is, of course, a lesson from basic critical thinking.

However, there are limits to how far these facts excuse inconsistencies and factual errors. While there is not an exact line (such as six minor errors and one major error), there are reasonable boundaries to the extent to which these things can be fairly chalked up to these human failings. Looking at the details laid out in the apology and other accounts, the discrepancies between Jackie’s story and the accounts of witnesses and other information (such as the dates for parties at the fraternity) seem to have crossed that boundary. As such, it is rather difficult to chalk up the problems to this sort of cause.

The evidence does suggest that something did happen to Jackie, but the evidence does not seem to support the story told by the Rolling Stone. In defense of Jackie, it could be claimed that she was encouraged to embellish her story or that she felt obligated to tell the sort of story that she believed they were looking for. There are, of course, psychological pressures to do such things.

While the folks at Rolling Stone have contributed one more example of how not to conduct a proper journalistic investigation (and given me an example to use in my classes), there are some serious consequences to this incident.

One consequence is the harm done to the University of Virginia and those accused in the story. While it might be claimed that if the fraternity was not guilty of this specific crime, some fraternity is guilty of something similar, that is hardly just reporting.

A second consequence is that the revelations regarding the story will be taken as evidence that women, in general, lie about sexual assault. It can also be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is also a lie. When people point out that most reports of such assaults are not false, doubters can point to this article and inquire why that claim should be believed. By allowing this story to be published without proper investigation, the magazine has thus fueled such doubts.

A third consequence is that these revelations will also be taken as evidence that the media is eager to serve the “feminist agenda” and push the narrative of the rape culture. After all, one might claim, the magazine saw the story as too good to check and put forth a story in accord with the feminist narrative—a story that turned out to not be true.

This can be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is a fabrication, the result of feminists pushing a narrative on a media that is either a co-conspirator or spineless and eager to cash in on whatever grabs the public’s attention.

Obviously, the failure of the Rolling Stone does not prove that women generally lie about sexual assault or that it is not a problem. But, revelations of what seems to be, at best, sloppy journalism do certainly contribute to doubts.

 

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Should Fraternities Be Banned?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by mclfamu on December 3, 2014
Members of a fraternity displaying their new h...

Members of a fraternity displaying their new heart brands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been in academics quite some time, I am familiar with an unfortunate pattern involving the Greek system on American campuses. Something awful will happen involving a fraternity or sorority, such as a gang rape or hazing death. Then there will be a backlash and a surge in calls for banning fraternities (and sometimes sororities). This will be followed by some administrative action, such as hiring well-paid consultants to address the image problem and creating some new bureaucratic post on campus. Academics will write a few highly theoretical articles about the Greek system. The media will cover the event, squeezing it for the blood and pain that the news cycle feeds upon.  At the end of a specific event is the return to “normalcy” which terminates with the next terrible incident that grabs the attention of the media.

The latest cycle has been started by a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at UVA. As with other awful incidents, events are playing out following the usual script: media coverage, calls for action, theoretical academic papers being crafted in the hopes of advancing careers, and so on. It must be noted that many people are acting in good faith: they want things to change for the better. As in past incidents, there is a call to ban fraternities from campuses.

The main moral argument for banning fraternities is utilitarian: the existence of fraternities is claimed to create more harm than good, thus making their removal morally correct. In terms of the harms, the catalog is hardly surprising and certainly matches the usual intuitions about campus life in general and fraternities in particular.

First, while college students are generally heavy drinkers, members of fraternities are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking (75%) than the general college population of men (49%). This heavier drinking also entails that fraternity members suffer more from the negative effects of heavy drinking (such as injuries and academic problems). In addition to alcohol, fraternity members also abuse drugs (prescription and otherwise) at higher rates than non-fraternity members. Sorority members are also more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking than their non-Greek counterparts.

Second, fraternity members are much more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual assault. It must, however, be noted that most fraternity men never commit sexual assault. While there is some disagreement about the causes, this is typically linked to the greater abuse of alcohol, group psychology and fraternity culture. Sorority members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-Greek counterparts. This is also linked to alcohol abuse and cultural factors.

Third, there is hazing. On average, about one person is killed per year due to a hazing incident. Others are injured or otherwise harmed. Most fraternities officially ban hazing, but it obviously does occur. Obviously, hazing is not confined to fraternities—my own Florida A&M University lost a student, Robert Champion, to band hazing in 2011. While sororities apparently engage in hazing, fraternities are the ones that make the news the most often.

These harms power the argument for banning fraternities (and sororities) on the basis of the claim that getting rid of them will reduce the harms in question. To be specific, if fraternities cause their members to abuse alcohol, commit sexual assault and haze more than they would otherwise, then getting rid of them would reduce (but obviously not eliminate) these problems.

One response to this argument is to argue that banning fraternities would not have the desired effect. The reasoning behind this response is that fraternities merely collect together people who would behave badly on their own anyway and hence a ban would not have a significant impact. This does have some appeal in that non-fraternity members do binge drink, do commit sexual assault and do engage in hazing.

This response can be countered by arguing that a fraternity does not just collect together people who would behave badly on their own, the social dynamics and culture of the fraternity plays a causal role in this bad behavior. That is, the group dynamics changes individual behavior and a man who is in a fraternity is more likely to behave badly because of that membership. Given the studies of group dynamics, this does have considerable appeal: people do generally behave differently in groups and most are easily swayed by cultural factors and peer pressure.

Another response to the argument for banning fraternities is to admit that fraternities do cause some problems, but to counter by arguing that the good they create outweighs the harms. In defense of fraternities, people typically point to some of the following benefits.

First, fraternities often engage in charity work and community service—they do good things for the campus and general community. While I was not in a fraternity in college, many of my friends were and they certainly did many good things. As a faculty member and a member of the community, I also see the good works done by fraternity members.

Second, fraternities provide opportunities for leadership, brotherhood and the forging of social connections that often prove incredibly useful later in life. Fraternities have a well-established history of producing leaders in various fields, such as business and politics.

These benefits do have their appeal and it must be noted that some fraternities are include upstanding and outstanding men who do good on campus and go on to do good after they graduate. These positive factors should not be simply ignored or dismissed.

That said, as with any utilitarian calculation, the positive factors must be weighed against the negative factors. In this case, the question is whether the positive aspects of having fraternities on campus outweighs the negative aspects. There is also the closely related question of whether banning them would create more good than harm.

This is partially a matter of facts—the statistics about drinking, sexual assault and so on are factually matters and should thus be addressed by the usual rational means of assessment. However, it is obviously also a matter of value in regards to how much weight is placed on each positive and each negative factor. To use a somewhat dramatic example, this would involve questions about how many sexual assaults are offset by fraternity contributions to networking, leadership development and campus service. While some would be inclined to take the view that the number would be zero, it must be noted that we routinely tolerate horrible consequences in return for positive consequences. For example, tens of thousands of people die each year due to automobile accidents, yet we still tolerate driving. So, weighing the horrible against the positive is, sadly, a matter of how things are done. And, for utilitarian calculations, how they should be done. The obvious practical problem is that people disagree in these evaluations and such disagreements need to be settled in order to make a decision. Obviously enough, defenders of the fraternity system would contend the positives outweigh the negative. Detractors would claim the reverse.

Naturally, there are alternative moral approaches to utilitarianism. For example, one might take the view that to weigh the benefits of fraternities against the fact that fraternity men are significantly more likely to engage in sexual assault is a moral travesty. The fraternities should be shut down, it might be argued, because sexual assault is to be prevented. While this does have some appeal, the same reasoning could be pushed to the entire university system: since sexual assault occurs on campus and eliminating campuses would eliminate sexual assault on campus, campuses should be eliminated. This can, obviously enough, also be countered.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Given the harms associated with fraternities, there is clearly a moral case for eliminating them. That said, there are some positive aspects to the fraternity system that can support a moral case for preserving them, presumably with some extensive reforms.

In any case, this cycle spins on. If it follows past patterns, people will soon forget about the UVA case and matters will go back to “normal.” Then some new horror will emerge involving a fraternity and it will start again.

 

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Screw PETA

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2012
Cover of a comic book created by PETA as part ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During an interview with Rolling Stone, actress Jennifer Lawrence discussed her squirrel skinning scene in Winter’s Bone  and said “I should say it wasn’t real, for PETA. But screw PETA.” Predictably, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk replied by saying that Lawrence “is young and the plight of animals somehow hasn’t yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest.’ We are told that this squirrel was hit by a car, but when people kill animals, it is the animals who are ‘screwed,’ not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might have caused any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature.”

While it might seem somewhat odd, I find myself in agreement and disagreement with the views expressed by Lawrence and Newkirk.  This is both in terms of substance and style.

While I do hold that hunting and eating animals can be morally acceptable, I do agree with Newkirk and Thoreau  that killing animals “in jest” creates pain that makes such actions morally wrong. This is, obviously enough, something that can easily be argued for on utilitarian grounds. Even Kant would agree-after all, he notes that cruelty to animals for sport cannot be morally justified. As such, I am in agreement with Newkirk on this point. That said, I also agree with Lawrence-or at least I am sympathetic to her statement.

While PETA often has laudable goals, their approach often has unfortunate tendencies. First, they often do things that are rather silly or questionable (such as the infamous holocaust and slavery analogies). PETA folks are, of course, aware of this and have argued that such methods are necessary in order to get media attention. While this does have a certain appeal (after all, PETA is famous), there is the concern that PETA undercuts its own effectiveness by such tactics. After all, while they do get media attention, their actions often seem to create the impression that PETA is silly and out of touch. This makes it easier for people to (fallaciously) dismiss PETA and the issues it raises as silly, which actually does harm to the causes they purport to serve. While I do get the need to put on a show for the media, I tend to think PETA is perhaps more about the show than about the causes. But perhaps I am just jealous of the attention that they get and I do not.

Second, PETA often holds what seem to be absurd positions, perhaps also calculated to get attention. For example, PETA condemns the “pastime” of owning pets. Since many PETA folks have pets, it is not surprising that their substantial criticism of pet ownership focuses on the abuse of  pets rather than on simply having a pet. After all, while pet ownership does enable the abuse of pets, condemning it because some people are bad to pets is on par with condemning relationships because some people are bad to their partners (or condemning parenthood because some parents are bad to their kids).  In the case of relationships, it is true that without relationships, there would be no domestic violence. However, it is absurd to claim that relationships thus cause domestic violence. Likewise for pets. After all, while it is true that there would be no abuse of pets if there were no pets, this does not show that the abuse of animals is caused by the “pastime” of having pets. As Aristotle might say, it is not all pet ownership that is to be condemned, but only the bad sort.  While I do agree with their view that abusing pets is wrong, I do not find their apparent bashing of the “pastime” of having pets to be very appealing or well supported. Of course, I have a husky-so perhaps I am blinded by being a part of this “peculiar institution.”

Once again, I do get the need to take seemingly startling positions in order to attract the attention of the media. After all, while PETA gets into the news, philosophical essays on animal issues rarely garners attention (with the exception of Peter Singer, who is also skilled in self-promotion). However, I am inclined to think that such tactics can do more harm than good in that they provide significant rhetorical ammunition to people who oppose the moral positions taken by PETA. However, I am open to the very real possibility that a PETA stunt does more good than a reasoned essay on the ethical treatment of animals. If this is the case,  then I would have to accept that PETA is in the right and that my criticism is off the mark.

Third, the attitude expressed by Newkirk and other PETA folks inclines me to take some pleasure in Lawrence’s remark. While the moral points are reasonable, the tone of this approach strikes me as both patronizing and self-righteous. Of course, folks have said the same about me (sometimes correctly). While I do agree with many of the ethical views held by PETA folks, the approach PETA takes does sometimes incline me to say “screw PETA.” While rejecting  a statement because of one’s attitude towards the tone of the speaker is a fallacy, a patronizing and self-righteous approach is not very polite nor does it seem conducive to persuading people. Of course, Newkirk did get considerable attention for her response while this posting will no doubt not even be the smallest speck on the media radar.

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