Let’s go back in time a couple of months, to early June, to June 4th to be precise, when the story about Colin McGinn broke. What story, and who? The story that McGinn is leaving the University of Miami because of allegedly sexually harassing emails; McGinn is a fairly prominent (for a philosopher) philosopher.
I saw a lot of mentions at the time but didn’t follow them up, I forget why…But I should have, because the story and the meta-story and the meta-meta are all highly relevant. (Relevant to what? To issues I’ve been talking about 1) as long as I’ve been talking at all, and as long as I’ve been blogging 2) more than before over the past couple of years.)
The story broke in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and was behind a paywall but then people shared it. The philosopher Sally Haslanger has the whole thing on her website. The core of the CHE account is:
In the Miami case, the female graduate student first approached the university’s Office of Equality Administration, which handles harassment-related cases, near the beginning of the fall semester last year. She had previously taken a course with Mr. McGinn in the fall of 2011, and began serving as his research assistant soon after.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous because she is planning to pursue a career in philosophy, said in an e-mail that she began to feel uncomfortable around Mr. McGinn at the start of the spring semester a year ago. Her discomfort hit a high point in April, she wrote, “when he began sending me extremely inappropriate and uncomfortable messages, which continued until the beginning of the summer.”
The student declined to share the messages with The Chronicle. However, her long-term boyfriend, [name deleted by FP]—a fifth-year graduate student in the department—described some of the correspondence, including several passages that he said were sexually explicit. Mr. [deleted], along with two professors with whom the student has worked, described one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.
Advocates of Mr. McGinn, however, say that the correspondence may have been misinterpreted when taken out of context.
Act 2 is on June 6, when McGinn posted a defense on his blog. There are links to it all over the place but he must have taken the post itself down, because the links just go to the main page, and even the Wayback Machine doesn’t find the post. But it’s not difficult to get the gist from other people’s commentary on the gist – it was that it was all a misunderstanding because he was just making sophisticated jokes which his graduate student was too stupid and unsophisticated to understand. Jokes like what? The New Apps blog quotes:
As the entire philosophical world knows by now, Colin McGinn has posted what some call a “defence” against allegations made against him. The defence is that one can jokingly trade on the literal meaning of ‘hand job’, i.e., job done by or to the hand.
Similarly, a professional glass blower might remark to his co-worker with a lopsided grin: “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat this sandwich?” The co-worker will interpret the speaker as indulging in crude glass blower’s humor and might reply: “Sure, but I’ll need you to do a blow job for me in return”
These reflections take care of certain false allegations that have been made about me recently (graduate students are not what they used to be).
Which is pretty much what Henry Farrell said about it at Crooked Timber.
A stupid, unfunny joke. Self-flattery about the sophistication of the joke. Condescension about the graduate student’s lack of sophistication in not appreciating the sophistication of the joke. The skeeviness of the “joke.” The conceit, smugness, entitlement, arrogance, obliviousness, and sexsexsexism of making the joke in the first place and the “defense” in the second place. The utter shittiness of trying to laugh it off with a boys’ club explanation of a boys’ club “joke” while dissing the student in the process.
One gem of a comment on Henry’s post, by t e whalen –
It’s fortunate that Professor McGinn’s teaching load has been recently lightened, as he now has the opportunity to expand his blog post into an article or book. I think he’s breaking some new ground in the intersection between Gricean implicature and moral philosophy. For instance, he seems to consider it obvious that a non-cooperating conversationalist who intentionally flouts Gricean maxims in such a way as to make the “timeless” meaning of his utterance a social or moral violation does not actually commit a wrong. Or, alternatively working backwards, if the speaker can make an argument that the utterer’s meaning of an utterance with a morally objectionable timeless meaning could have been innocuous, he can thereby avoid moral criticism. He goes even further, suggesting if an interpreter interprets an intentionally maxim-flouting utterance according to its timeless meaning, and acts upon that interpretation, the interpreter, not the speaker, commits a moral wrong.
Would it matter in these situations whether the statement embedded in the utterer’s preferred meaning was factually true? Can the speaker avoid interrogation of his intent in making a non-cooperative utterance?
There are so many interesting philosophical and linguistic avenues to explore here, and I wish Professor McGinn the best of luck in pursuing them in his well-deserved and copious new leisure time.
The thing is – it’s notorious that philosophy is one of the worst fields in terms of oblivious stupid entitled sexism. Jenny Saul at Feminist Philosophers remarked – on the 4th, before the “defense” appeared –
It’s an astounding new development in the field for allegations like this to be taken so seriously that someone is forced out AND for this not to have been hushed up.
Janet Stemwedel has some thoughts on reactions from haters of feminism, some of which she quotes.
There are a few things that jump out at me from these comments.
One is that the commenters railing about the corrupting influence of feminism on moral and epistemic fairness, on rationality, on the fabric of social interactions, et cetera, never actually bother to spell out what they mean by feminism. It’s hard to discern whether the (potentially distinct) Anonymouses have amongst themselves a coherent view in mind that they are against.
Another is that their litmus test for being a feminist (and therefore an advancer of this corrosive-but-not-explicitly-defined ideology) seems to be that one believes it is likelier that Colin McGinn transgressed proper professional boundaries with the graduate research assistant to whom he sent the “handjob” email than that the graduate student in question is lying.
Interestingly, though, these Anonymous anti-feminists who believe themselves capable of exemplary rationality and objectivity in weighing the facts around the Colin McGinn case mount some pretty elaborate efforts to construct possible scenarios in which the facts in evidence exonerate McGinn and damn the graduate student. For all their lips service to “fairness,” they seem to utterly reject interpretations of the facts that weigh against McGinn.