John Searle, too?

Now the famous philosopher John Searle stands accused of harassment.

The lawsuit, which lists Searle and the Regents of the University of California as defendants, claims Searle groped Ong in his office after he told her “they were going to be lovers.” He also said he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” the complaint states, and that he was “going to love her for a long time.” Ong turned Searle down and reported him to other UC Berkeley employees, but they did nothing, the complaint states. Instead, Searle cut Ong’s salary and she was eventually fired, according to the complaint, which also claims Searle watched pornography at work and made sexist comments.

He’s one of many: 113 sexual harassment cases have been reported in the UC system in just 3 years. Personally, I find it incredible: I can’t imagine myself even wanting to treat students or colleagues that way, but the evidence is clear…there are a lot of rotten apples in the barrel.

I don’t think California is particularly terrible in this regard, either. It seems to be an issue all over the place. Part of the problem has to be a system that treats some individuals as “superstars”, giving them a bloated sense of entitlement, while simultaneously treating others as peons and dismissing their concerns. It’s everywhere. Hierarchies of privilege always seem to lead to evil.

If you’re somewhere low in one of those hierarchies, I recommend this checklist of warning signs of abusenone of the behaviors listed there are at all appropriate. If you’re higher up in the hierarchy, you should check it too and make sure you’re not doing any of them. They’re behaviors that ought not to be hard to avoid, but it’s surprising how many prominent academics can’t.


  1. handsomemrtoad says

    When I was in grad school, a friend/classmate of mine told me that his advisor, a very famous Hungarian-American scientist who ALMOST won a Nobel Prize (the committee gave it to his competitor and no one, including the recipient, understood why not to both of them), had said to him during one of their weekly one-on-one meetings: “Eeef I thought eet vould make you vorrrrrrk harrrrrrrder, I vould SKVEEEEEEZE YOURRRRRR BAWLLLLLS!”

  2. says


    but it’s surprising how many prominent academics can’t.

    It’s not a matter of can’t. It’s a matter of “those rules don’t apply to me.”

  3. gijoel says

    Jebus Christ he’s 84. Why would he think someone young enough to be his great-granddaughter want to have sex with him? Entitled fuck.

  4. CJO says

    Not surprised. He’s treated like royalty on that campus. PHIL 134 or whatever it is isn’t a class where you learn anything except how to fawn over the Famous Philosopher, and it’s certainly not a place where competing ideas can be discussed academically. You get two or three of Searle’s books (ALL with his picture prominently on the front cover) and you learn how to write essays about how great they are and how much smarter he is than his rivals. He’s so obviously an egotistical narcissist.

  5. chrislawson says

    Caine@4: I remember a social psychology paper years ago that showed that the higher someone is in a power hierarchy, the more judgemental they become about other people and the less judgemental they become about their own behaviours. I should try to find it.

  6. wzrd1 says

    I’ve been a senior NCO in the military, I’ve been in positions of public trust, some of which granted me significant impact over the lives and careers of others.
    I’ve never found any inkling of temptation to abuse those positions. I honestly cannot understand how such a person’s mind works!
    Why is it so hard for some people to just treat others the way in which they want to be treated?

  7. robro says

    I don’t think California is particularly terrible in this regard…

    Actually, UC is terrible in this regard, it’s just not worse than a lot of others. And, I suppose it may be less terrible than some. Still…

    Scary thought of the day: The Drumpf gang uses something like this to go after the UC system. They were gearing up for it over the “riots” (aka demonstrations) about what’s-his-name speaking on campus.

  8. astro says

    by the way, that awesome checklist applies to lots of situations outside of academia. like, pretty much any workplace.

    it’s a roadmap of many of the ways that an individual in a position of power can abuse an individual over whom they have power. and i can’t believe i’ve never seen anything like it before, because it’s so amazingly useful. victims of this type of abuse invariably feel awful about themselves, and are confused, so when someone asks them, “what made you feel abused or threatened?” it’s hard to pinpoint anything. but give them a checklist like this, and i think things will become much more clear.

  9. redwood says

    Agree with astro @11. I had the same thought, that this could be used for colleagues in the workplace or in any kind of social gathering or group. If someone believes there’s a possibility of power abuse, this checklist would be very helpful for them.

  10. Anton Mates says

    Why would he think someone young enough to be his great-granddaughter want to have sex with him?

    1) The age gap isn’t the point. If an older adult and a younger adult want to date and they don’t have an academic (or other) power imbalance, that’s cool. If they’re the same age and they do have a power imbalance, that’s not cool. I’ve been a teaching assistant for continuing education students who were older than me. I still had power over them. No flirting.

    2) As far as Searle’s own responsibilities go, whether someone wanted to have sex with him also isn’t the point. You don’t get to grope your student or employee even if you truly, honestly, correctly believe they want it. At some point, if you’re in a position of power or influence, you will probably have somebody working under you who has a crush on you. That’s totally normal. But Do not act on it. Be the awesome, unattainable crush, just like you had your own awesome, unattainable crushes when you were younger and lower in status. Let your junior admirer progress in their career unmolested, and move on from your sphere of influence. If they come back later and say “Hi, you were always the love of my life, now we’re equals, kiss me you fool,” hey, awesome! But that doesn’t usually happen. So let them fondly remember you as the senpai who was cool enough to lust after, but also cool enough not to take advantage.

  11. says

    Not limited to the US/the Anglo-Am. system either. And the problem is that it’s usually very difficult to get rid of tenured profs who do that kind of shit. I remember a case in Germany where a prof exchanged good MA grades for sex; the victims in the end decided not to press charges – because it would have resulted in them losing their MA. It became public and led to a trial nevertheless, because it was just too outrageous. In another case, a history prof did a similar thing, but wasn’t indicted and kept his position. His colleagues’ reaction: force him to have his door open when talking to students, not letting him grade BA or MA theses of female students, and telling all historians what he did.
    There’s also the other example: a professor I know stalked his Ph.D. student. She managed to control the situation through HR. A colleague of mine blamed her because he thought she was “manipulative”. What the fuck does that have to do with anything? I suspect because she’s conventionally attractive, this was a version of Farrell’s “ass power” argument. Yuck.

  12. cedrus says

    @10: Also, he’s a philosopher. Even by academic standards, philosophy is legendary, to the point where it would be bigger news if an old, high-ranking professor was shown to *not* harass his young female subordinates. I’ve dealt with computer science conferences where the female presence was in the tenths of a percent, and we’re still ahead of philosophy by light-years.

  13. wzrd1 says

    There is only one time one should grope someone without consent, indeed, I’ve done it many times.
    When evaluating an unconscious or unresponsive casualty, to ascertain if there is a major defect, such as broken bones or large holes in said victim.

    Hell, I don’t even grope my wife of 35+ years without permission.
    Maybe that’s why I can’t figure such people out, a simple matter of respect for others being automatically granted. It’s why I’ve modified my verbiage here, due to the impact my words have had upon others that was unwarranted and unwanted.

  14. Saad says

    wzrd1, #18

    Hell, I don’t even grope my wife of 35+ years without permission.

    What do you think saying this adds to your point?

  15. wzrd1 says

    Permission is *required* before *any* contact is conducted.
    Period, end of story.

    We keep our hands to ourselves until invited.
    To just grab is childish ownership nonsense.

    One grabs a steering wheel if one’s grip was oddly dislodged. One grabs a flotation device if one is drowning.
    One may grab at the parts of a participating partner, if such partner agrees to be grabbed.

    The only time I’ve explored another person’s body, without consent was under tacit consent conditions, they were badly injured, I was treating and examining.
    That’s the only context I can comprehend as imaginably understandable.

    How is that an outside context problem for you?

  16. kupo says

    What do you feel the use of the word ‘even’ in your statement is communicating?

  17. Dark Jaguar says

    Now I know I’m oversimplifying, and there’s plenty of people with a high sex drive who manage to go their whole lives without harassing people so it’s still the individual at fault, but I sure do wish that the sex drive could just be turned on and off.

  18. Dark Jaguar says

    On the topic of this conversation here, hey you know I might even say kissing sleeping beauty while she was unconscious was justified, considering any reasonable person would be able to figure out she probably didn’t want to be in a curse of eternal sleep. Fantastical fairy tale scenarios aside, here in the real world that sort of thing is simply wrong.

    For those that need help figuring out when it is appropriate to touch someone without their consent, remember Stephen Colbert’s easy acronym. D.O.N.T. The D stands for “DON’T!”, and the rest of the letters also stand for DON’T.

  19. Friendly says

    he was “going to love her for a long time.”

    “Me love you long time”? Really??

  20. exphilosopher says

    I have been out of the profession for a few years, but I had heard of Searle’s reputation before this recent news. Friends have related to me how their female friends at U of C planned what events to attend and what to wear based on whether or not Searle would be present. Sadly, Searle is not a unique figure in philosophy.

  21. hotspurphd says

    “Anton Mates #13
    golly gee what good advice”

    How about saying what you really think.

  22. wzrd1 says

    I used even as an odd joke. I keep my hands to myself, save when duty to evaluate a casualty required me not to.
    Not well said, perhaps. I don’t even pat someone on the back or shoulder if I’m not invited to, it’s rude, patronizing and an invasion of personal space.

  23. hotspurphd says

    I remember in the 80s at my university in the Psychology Department grad students and professors had relationships frequently, lived together, got married and divorced just like everybody else. Then the America Psychology Association said we couldn’t do that any more and it stopped. One of my professors then 45 married a grad student 22 years younger and they are still together 35 years later. I married a clinical supervisor in the medical school 15 years older and we are still together 40 yes later. A guy in the department who had affairs with several of the students this that life is messy anyway and he and the students should be left alone to work things out. I don’t disagree at all with the comments on this thread but am aware of opportunities that we ld be missed because of the restrictions. So glad I was not prohibited by the APA but it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. I fell in love and so did she. No one abuse any power.

  24. wzrd1 says

    @hotspurphd, I’ve long held the view that anyone in a subordinate position and a superior shouldn’t be intimately involved.
    It degrades the entire structure of the organization involved. Is that subordinate being accorded special treatment? Is that superior treating everyone else differently than their singular peer?
    Both create problems, both at a management level and interpersonal level for those least in power. In this case, the students, who aren’t there to get into sexual or familial relationships with their educators, but are there to be educated.

    That said, I do have slightly different POV. I’m retired military, where such conflicts could turn into major problems, which could impact or even disable a unit, from a morale perspective. Low morale in a combat unit adds to the probability of more severe PTSD issues, resulting in disability. It also can result in a loss of unit cohesion, resulting in significant loss of life.

    As you illustrated, it’s not impossible, but it is a problematic situation and the potential for abuse is much higher.

  25. hotspurphd says

    You make a good case. I think, maybe yes, maybe No. Yes in the military, maybe no elsewhere. Read this new article in the new yorker. An excerpt:
    Laura Kipnis’s Battle Against Vulnerability
    Kipnis quips that “bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated.” Similarly, she thinks professors guilty of quid-pro-quo harassment, in which sexual favors are demanded in exchange for something like a good grade or a promotion, should be fired, as should gropers and rapists. (“In cases where somebody’s directly supervising someone, that should be off-limits,” she told me, admitting that she could have been clearer about that in her first Chronicle article.) But she believes that the “leakiness” and “idiocy” of sexual desire cannot be contained by regulation; people need to learn to deal with it themselves. She disagrees with the idea, popular among some younger feminists, that true consent is impossible within a framework of asymmetric power. For Kipnis, it is precisely the dynamics of power—of status, money, appearance, age, talent—that create desire.

    Sent from my iPad

  26. wzrd1 says

    But she believes that the “leakiness” and “idiocy” of sexual desire cannot be contained by regulation; people need to learn to deal with it themselves.

    So, should we disband all regulation? While we’re at it, we can legalize rape, as people need to learn to deal with it themselves.
    Murder should be OK too, at least until people learn to deal with it themselves.
    No, that is the pathway to anarchy.
    We either regulate what is permissible and people learn to deal with it via the repercussions of violation of standards of conduct, be it prison sentences or termination of employment and financial losses in court.
    For, in these cases, we’re speaking of rape. A person in a position of power abuses their office to acquire sexual favors from someone who is essentially powerless.
    As for chemical castration, proved ineffective against such crimes. The brain controls behavior, not just testosterone.

  27. hotspurphd says

    “So, should we disband all regulation? While we’re at it, we can legalize rape, as people need to learn to deal with it themselves.
    Murder should be OK too, at least until people learn to deal with it themselves.
    No, that is the pathway to anarchy.”

    No one said to disband all regulation. She specifically said… Should be fired. Your response is ridiculous, hysterical, and not worthy of any further reply. And you sounded so reasonable in your previous comment.

  28. wzrd1 says

    I was trying to illustrate the lunacy of “deal with it themselves”, as it’s obvious that nobody is dealing with anything, hence the need for additional regulation. A fair amount of the problem is people using their position as a power over others for their own gratification. Their position isn’t crafted for that purpose, it’s an abuse of a position of trust to do such things.

    Conversations like this are far easier in person, where facial expressions and vocal modulation can carry additional content.