You’d think if there was any area of human endeavor that was least likely to be full of absurd sexual drama and thoughtless harassment, it would be philosophy. Don’t those people sit around thinking ponderously about ethics and moral behavior and living the life of the mind all the time?* But no, it’s all booze and animal lusts for them, too, just like the rest of us.
The crux of this story is that Colin McGinn, a very well known philosopher, was sliming one of his own graduate students with salacious email (pdf), making remarks about masturbating while thinking about her, etc. McGinn’s own defense does him no favors; and now he’s claiming that women support him in email, because they’re so much more sensitive than men. Advances towards a student are simply unacceptable, no matter how much McGinn wants to pretend it was simply friendly banter. McGinn’s own defenders aren’t helping, either.
Professor Erwin goes on:
“There was some sexual talk, banter, puns, and jokes made between the two,” Mr. Erwin said. “The written records, I believe, show that this was an entirely consensual relationship.”
No, no. That is not how it works. It is remarkable how profoundly this misunderstands the student/professor relationship. A professor’s relationships with his or her students are not “entirely consensual” like that. Student/professor relationships inherently have a highly unequal balance of power. That includes students in one’s undergraduate and graduate classes, obviously, but it also includes teaching- and research assistants; academic advisees; people whose thesis or dissertation committees one sits on; exam proctors; everyone. Everyone. Anything a student says or writes to a professor has to be seen in that light. Suppose the professor engages in sexual banter and the student banters back. Maybe that’s because she consented and wanted to banter, but maybe it’s because the power differential inherent in the relationship placed her in a position of duress, in which she felt like she had to banter or face unpleasant consequences. If the return banter was performed unwillingly or under duress, there is no reason to think that the written records will reveal it.
But wait, that isn’t the worst of it. On blogs and on twitter, all over the place, bad philosophy is being done.
I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y’all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.
OK, the communities of atheists, science-fiction writers, gamers, scholars of literature, skepticism, politics, and philosophers are rife with sexist scumbags. Is there any small part of the human community that is untainted? Do I need to start hanging out with polyamorous left-handed fly-tying hobbyists or something?
*The pdf linked above also cites something I did not know.
Complaints of sexist remarks and behavior have long plagued the field of philosophy, which has been dominated by men for years. More than 80 percent of full-time faculty members in philosophy are male, compared with just 60 percent for the professoriate as a whole, according to 2003 data compiled by the U.S. Education Department, the latest available.