Ashley Madison, accommodation, and silencing

10 September 2015

I recently read, with much interest, Jason Stanley’s How Propoganda Works and found it extremely stimulating and thought provoking.  It was exciting to see how Stanley sees his work in even the most arcane areas of formal philosophy (philosophy of language and epistemology) as bearing on the most important political issues our society faces—issues of racism and injustice in liberal democracies.  Equally as stimulating, has been following up on some of the sources Stanley cites as influencing his thinking on these matters.  One of these sources was Rae Langton and Caroline West’s “Scorekeeping In A Pornographic Language Game,” which draws on David Lewis’s paper, “Scorekeeping In A Language Game” to make a claim about how what Lewis calls “accommodation” might function so as to silence women’s voices.  It struck me recently that what the Ashley Madison hacking has revealed is an excellent example of what Langton and West (following Lewis) call “accommodation.”

First, some details on what the Ashley Madison hacking revealed.  As Annalee Newitz has reported, the adult have-an-affair website, Ashley Madison, was using “web bots” to engage with unsuspecting male clients looking for a fling—(presumably with a flesh-and-blood woman).  We now know Ashley Madison was doing this because one of the things the hackers revealed was the IP addresses of all the registered users.  Thousands of the straight, female users (those engaging with straight men) were accessing the site from the same IP address—an IP address that turns out to be physically tied to Ashley Madison.  As it turns out, these “women” were actually web bots—programs designed to interact with unsuspecting men, ultimately guiding them towards other services that the men would have to pay further money to be able to engage in further conversation with these “women.”  Presumably many (though not all) men who paid to subscribe to this service were deceived into thinking they were having a fling with a real woman.

Whatever we say about the ethics of Ashley Madison’s deceptive business model, I am interested in something perhaps much more significant—something that bears on the question of how certain false beliefs about women—beliefs that may be particularly tacit and thus hard to change—continue to proliferate, even in those who may uphold liberal, democratic ideals.  I’m interested in the kinds of false beliefs about women that may function so as to subordinate women by silencing their voices and their perspective.  What kinds of false beliefs about women might be reinforced in men who regularly interacted with what they believed to be real women on the Ashley Madison website?  Presumably things like: “women like to engage in sex with men they do not know.”  Of course, probably no web bot ever explicitly said something like this to any man with which it was having a conversation, but it is plausible that a man who spent any significant amount of time interacting with “willing women” on this website might come to believe something like this.  And he would, of course, have evidence to support this belief, albeit evidence that turned out to be faulty evidence (because based on a fiction that he took to be a fact).  And might this belief influence how the man treated flesh-and-blood women in the real world?  It is hard to deny that it would.  Might it affect such a man’s justification for treating a flesh-and-blood woman who he’s just recently met in a sexual way that she might prefer not to be treated?  Might his misguided beliefs about women’s willingness to engage in sex with relative strangers make him unable to register a “no” as a “no”?  This is the kind of real-life effect that Langton and West suggest in the context of pornography, and it strikes me that the same kind of analysis could apply to men interacting with these web bots on the Ashley Madison site.  (Presumably such interactions will no longer take place on the Ashley Madison site, since the cat is out of the bag, but this same phenomenon will continue to take place elsewhere—both on the web and in real life.)

As I said, the Ashley Madison web bots might never explicitly assert that “women like to engage in sex with relative strangers,” but men interacting on that site might come to believe it anyway.  The more women they interact with who seem to be wanting the same kind of thing they do (sex with relative strangers), the more secure such a belief may come to be for them (whether the belief is explicitly held or, more likely, implicitly held).  This seems to fit what Langton and West claim is a kind of “accommodation.”  The term, "accommodation," as introduced by David Lewis, refers to a linguistic phenomenon whereby a presupposition of something that is asserted comes to be accepted and to become a part of the “conversational score” (i.e., what is held true between the participants in a conversation).  For example, if I assert, in the context of a conversation about the difficulty of an exam that “even Jane could pass,” then although I assert that Jane could pass the exam, I also presuppose something like “Jane is incompetent” (this is David Lewis’s original example).  Lewis notes that conversations tend to evolve in such a way that the conversational score tends to accommodate these presuppositions.  Partly this is due to the fact that such presuppositions are harder to challenge.  The negation of “even Jane could pass” is something more like “Jane could not pass” than “Jane is not incompetent.”  Presuppositions like this seem to be supported by an implicit appeal to the (purported) fact that everyone knows or that it is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be explicitly asserted—it can be added to the conversational score without further evidence or argument.  I suggest, in the spirit of Langton and West, that the interactions Ashley Madison users were having with the web bots created a presupposition that these users accommodated.  It became part of the conversational score within those conversations that “this woman is willing to engage in sex with strangers.”  Over time, as this same presupposition is accommodated in other conversations with “other women” (i.e., the same web bots), a man may come to form the implicit belief that women in general (deep down, and perhaps in secret) desire sex with men they hardly know.  Does this belief then affect how such men would treat real women?  Langton and West think this is plausible.  I count myself in good company in also thinking that it is plausible.  Stanley thinks something analogous explains the persistence of (largely implicit) false beliefs that persist regarding black Americans.  I also count myself in good company in agreeing with him.

Comments (2)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, September 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you, Matthew, for a

Thank you, Matthew, for a great post! I've promoted it to our main blog, Philosophers' Corner.

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