The fallibility of feelings

by Emrys Westacott

A recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, “The Case of Al Franken,”[1]should disturb anyone who places a high value on fairness and rationality. Franken, who first became famous as a comedian, was elected to the US senate from Minnesota in 2008 and soon became a leading and effective advocate of liberal causes. But he resigned from the senate in January, 2018 after being accused of sexual misconduct during his time as a comic actor and writer.

Franken was effectively forced to resign by his fellow Democrats in the senate. At the time, the Me Too movement had recently surged, and feminists everywhere had vociferously criticized Donald Trump’s blatant sexism as well as the revealed sexual misconduct of well-known men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Louis C.K.. Franken’s colleagues, several of whom expressed profound regret over his resignation afterwards, appear to have believed that if they even acceded to his immediate request for a hearing before a Senate Ethics Committee, they would be open to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

As Mayer’s article makes clear, Franken was largely stitched up by some of his enemies in the right-wing media. A proper hearing would have revealed, for instance, that:

  • His main accuser, Leeann Tweeden, was a close friend of the extreme right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity.
  • Many of her claims were demonstrably false (e.g. that he wrote a kissing scene especially so that he could kiss her; and that after he had kissed her once in that skit, she never let him near her again)
  • The release of Tweeden’s accusation was carefully plotted, with no attempt to fact check any of her claims or discuss them with Franken.
  • Alleged accusations by other women were either not corroborated or were extraordinarily thin (e.g. one woman said she once thought that Franken was planning to kiss her, and that made her feel “uneasy.”

The rush to judgement, the denial of any sort of due process, and the willingness to place perceived short-term political concerns ahead of principles of justice are all deeply disappointing in this case. But to my mind, the most disturbing item in Mayer’s article is a statement made by New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a friend of Franken who, nevertheless, called for his resignation. Referring to Franken’s accusers, Gillibrand said, “the women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment. So it was.”

Gillibrand is a hard-working and highly respected senator who has become increasingly sympathetic to liberal causes, particularly issues that affect the wellbeing of women. She especially deserves credit for her willingness to take on problems such as sexual assault in the military. But the statement of hers just cited is obvious nonsense. Moreover, it expresses a form of thinking that can only, in the end discredit the causes it is intended to support.

Feelings, by definition, are subjective. There is a venerable and respectable philosophical tradition which maintains that I cannot be wrong about the contents of my consciousness–that is, the things I am immediately aware of. If I feel happy, then I am happy. If I think I am seeing a tree, then even if I am hallucinating, I am still undeniably having a certain visual experience. So much is plausible. But to claim that anyone’s subjective feelings are an infallible guide to the way things are in the objective world is absurd and dangerous. There are several serious objections to Gillibrand’s statement.

  1. There are obvious counterexamples to the idea that a person’s feelings are an infallible guide to anything beyond their own subjective state. Just because you feel that a certain person is in love with you, or is planning to kill you, doesn’t mean that they are. Just because you feel that you deserve a pay raise doesn’t mean that you do. Just because you feel that a particular investment will pay off doesn’t mean that it will.
  2. If we take feelings to be infallible, then we will quickly end up embracing contradictions. A feels that B has sexually harassed her. B feels that A is mistaken. They can’t both be right. And what if B feels that As accusation itself constitutes sexual harassment?
  3. It is always legitimate to ask if a person’s belief about another person or some state of affairs in the world is reasonable. Of course, a person’s beliefs about whether or not they have been sexually harassed or sexually violated constitutes important primary evidence that anyone seeking to determine the truth of the matter should take into account. But that doesn’t mean that claims about sexual harassment or misconduct lie beyond possible criticism or questioning. To suggest that they do–to say that someone’s feelings, and their beliefs based on those feelings, cannot possible be mistaken–is to embrace a dogmatic kind of faith that is incompatible with any commitment to critical thinking.
  4. Accepting Gillibrand’s statement means, in effect, scrapping any recognizable idea of due process when it comes to charges concerning sexual misconduct. The only possible line of defense would be to question the accuser’s sincerity. Apart from that, the accusation itself is enough to deliver a verdict. This means that the accused has very little chance of being able to defend themselves, no matter how weak the objective evidence or how unreasonable the accusations.

The Me Too movement has done a lot of good. It has heightened everyone’s awareness of how widespread and pernicious the problem of sexual misconduct against women is. Given the long history of abuse, discrimination, and harassment from which women have suffered, it is quite understandable that measures to rectify the situation should be aggressively pursued. Given the way that women’s complaints have for so long been ignored or belittled, it makes sense now to be assiduous in taking them seriously. Nevertheless, it is important that these efforts stay within the bounds of reason. To treat certain feelings as infallible or certain beliefs as beyond question is the royal road to irrationality and injustice. And as Emily Yoffe says, in a recent article in Reason on another case somewhat similar to that of Al Franken, “creating injustice today does not undo the harms of the past; instead it undermines the integrity of the necessary effort to address sexual misconduct.[2]

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