Alcoff on Rape and Consistency: A Survivor Speaks

In October of last year, I wrote a post at Discrimination and Disadvantage about how I was sexually assaulted by a fellow graduate student when I was in grad school. The post was entitled “Testimony, Uncorroborated” and was a response to some of the criticisms that were in circulation about Christine Blasey-Ford who had, in sworn testimony, accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. As you may recall, Blasey-Ford’s testimony was scrutinized for its consistency and comprehensiveness (among other things).

In this regard, the issue of Aeon that arrived in my inbox today includes a very interesting and a propos article by Linda Martín Alcoff about the epistemic value conferred upon consistency and how the value afforded consistency is inappropriate in the context of sexual assault and rape.

Here is an excerpt from the Aeon article:

“So what’s wrong with consistency? It might seem like a relatively objective measure, free of the implicit bias that affects other credibility judgments. Arguably, it’s a better indicator of truth than, for example, a confident demeanour, which might indicate entitlement, and can depend on how you are socialised by race, class and gender. Looking for inconsistency appears to replace fuzzy qualitative criteria with a hard-nosed quantitative one, and so to circumvent our susceptibility to prejudice. The criterion of consistency could serve as a modest baseline for establishing a credible accusation.

However, the focus on consistency needs to be put in a larger social and historical perspective. Women have long been considered less credible than men, and forced to assume a defensive posture before they have uttered a word. Socrates believed that women’s attention to their dress was proof of their intention to dissemble. Aristotle declaimed the tenor and pitch of women’s voices as a sign of insincerity and depravity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated the educational segregation of the sexes so that boys could achieve their potential for independence of thought, while girls would remain properly deferential to the opinions of others. Immanuel Kant considered darkness of skin tone a contraindication of intelligence.

In A Social History of Truth (1994), the American historian and sociologist Steven Shapin wrote about why certain groups were excluded from the most powerful knowledge-seeking practice: science. In early modern Europe, illiterate peasants were deemed too ignorant, Jews too cunning, slaves too obsequious, and children and the mad too unreliable. Interestingly, nobles were also suspect on the grounds that they were likely to be engaged in some court intrigue, and schooled in the art of persuasive dissimulation. The problem with women involved their purported sentimentality, but also their economic subordination and subsequent need to flatter and manipulate. This idea remains powerful today: witness the acquiescence in the US to the idea that wealth enables political candidates to freely speak their mind. The common charge that female accusers have economic motives also resonates with this old history.”

You can read or listen to the entire Aeon article by Alcoff here.

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