The New York Times had a piece about Colin McGinn yesterday, and (better) about the implications for paying attention to sexism in philosophy and universities.
While the status of women in the sciences has received broad national attention, debate about sexism in philosophy has remained mostly within the confines of academia. But the revelation this summer that Colin McGinn, a star philosopher at the University of Miami, had agreed to leave his tenured post after allegations of sexual harassment brought by a graduate student, has put an unusually famous name to the problem, exposing the field to what some see as a healthy dose of sunlight.
“People are thinking, ‘Wow, he had to resign, and we know about it,’ ” said Jennifer Saul, the chairwoman of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in England and the editor of the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?
“I think that’s unprecedented,” she added.
The case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has set off voluminous chatter among philosophers on blogs and social media. The discussion has been fueled partly by Mr. McGinn’s own blog, where his use of the cryptic language of analytic philosophy in attempts to defend himself seems to have backfired.
Is that what that was? The cryptic language of analytic philosophy? I didn’t recognize it! I thought it was much more the thuddingly banal language of the wannabe hipster dude who thinks he’s funny.
Two open letters, posted online in mid-July and signed by more than 100 philosophers, including a majority of Mr. McGinn’s colleagues at Miami, criticized some of the posts on his blog as “retaliation” against the student.
The first letter, at Feminist Philosophers, says this:
We are members of the philosophy profession concerned for the graduate student at the University of Miami who filed a complaint about the conduct of Dr. Colin McGinn. We are also concerned for other graduate students who may conclude from this case that, although a student pursues a complaint against a professor through the proper channels while purportedly retaining anonymity, she may have her scholarship, work performance, or conduct negatively characterized in a public forum by a powerful professor with no response or defense from her university.
We write to urge the University of Miami to protect this student from negative public assessments of her work or character by or on behalf of Dr. McGinn. Whether or not Dr. McGinn’s observations on his blog are intended to be retaliatory, they have some of the same deleterious effects as intended retaliation. We recognize Dr. McGinn’s right to free speech and his right to criticize whatever treatment he may have received by his employer, and we appreciate his stated desire to defend himself. However, the student is not in a position to defend herself publicly. We ask that her university discharge its duty to protect its students from acts that amount to de facto retaliation from professors about whom they have complained.
The second one, sent to Brian Leiter and posted on his blog, includes:
Universities have procedures and protocols in place for receiving the complaints of students in order to protect the rights and interests of those who are vulnerable. We have every reason to believe that the University of Miami investigated the matter in question carefully and judiciously. We urge those without access to all relevant details to show caution in speculating upon the situation.
As members of this department, we take the matter very seriously and support our colleague who filed the complaint. Whether or not any given complaint has merit is for the University to decide. But no student who files a complaint, regardless of whether the complaint is judged to be with merit or not, deserves retaliation and intimidation. Such behavior serves to silence others who would come forward, and undermines the policies and procedures the University of Miami has in place to protect individuals with limited power to protect themselves.
But McGinn is still saying the same crap, apparently unabashed.
In Mr. McGinn’s telling, his relationship with the student, a first-year doctoral candidate who worked as his research assistant during the 2012 spring semester, was an unconventional mentorship gone sour.
It was “a warm, consensual, collaborative relationship,” an “intellectual romance” that never became sexual but was full of “bantering,” Mr. McGinn said in a telephone interview. The terms of his agreement with the university, he said, prevented him from saying much more. But “banter referring to sexual matters,” he added, isn’t always “sexual banter.”
The student, through intermediaries, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing concern that it might damage her academic career.
McGinn continues to babble freely while he knows that she can’t.
Amie Thomasson, a professor of philosophy at Miami, said the student, shortly after filing her complaint in September 2012, had shown her a stack of e-mails from Mr. McGinn. They included the message mentioning sex over the summer, along with a number of other sexually explicit messages, Ms. Thomasson said.
“This was not an academic discussion of human sexuality,” Ms. Thomasson said. “It was not just jokes. It was personal.”
Mr. McGinn said that “the ‘3 times’ e-mail,” as he referred to it, was not an actual proposal. “There was no propositioning,” he said in the interview. Properly understanding another e-mail to the student that included the crude term for masturbation, he added later via e-mail, depended on a distinction between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”
“Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions,” he said.
And there is no other way to do that than by talking about hand jobs. No other way at all. Simply cannot be done in any other fashion.
Whatever the facts of the case, many philosophers say that the accusations of misbehavior against Mr. McGinn are the edge of a much bigger problem, one that women have long been unwilling to discuss publicly, lest it harm their careers.
Many credit the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, which in 2010 began posting anonymous stories of harassment, with helping to highlight the issue. “Just about every woman you talk to in philosophy has experienced first- or secondhand some form of sexual harassment that is egregious,” said Gideon Rosen, a philosopher at Princeton. “It’s not just one or two striking anecdotes.”
There are signs that the publicity surrounding the McGinn case may be encouraging more women to step forward. Both Ms. Saul and Peggy DesAutels, a philosopher at the University of Dayton and a member of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women, said that in recent weeks they had each heard from several graduate students who were considering filing complaints.
Oh noes – they will scare away all the women and then the philosophy departments won’t be able to boast that they’ve pushed their percentage of women all the way up to 21%.
Scholars in all disciplines have disagreements. But philosophy is unusual, many say, in its tradition of developing ideas through face-to-face and sometimes brutal debate. “People in other disciplines think we’re just thugs,” said Louise Antony, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
That reliance on debate can pose a particular dilemma for women, she added. Argue aggressively, and they’re branded shrews (to put it nicely). Hold back, and they’re not good philosophers.
“Many people have called philosophy the combat sport of academia,” Ms. Antony said. “But if you can’t have those conversations, you’re at a disadvantage.”
“Shrews” of course is NY Times for “bitches” and “cunts.”
In an essay on implicit bias in the forthcoming book “What Needs to Change: Women in Philosophy,” Ms. Saul recalled the terror of overhearing faculty members at Princeton, where she earned her Ph.D., casually sort graduate students into “smart” versus merely hard-working — or worse, “stupid.”
Women, she said, are more likely to be categorized as “stupid,” to the detriment of the field as a whole.
Fear of being labeled not smart “is bad for philosophy,” Ms. Saul said. “It makes you not want to take risks.”
This is a job that may take some time.