August 3, 2013

Sexual harassment in academia: It depends on what the distinction between "logical implication and conversational implicature" is.

"There was no propositioning," said the philosopher. "Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions."

That sounds like something from a brilliant novel that I would love to read, but unfortunately, it's a real professor, who's had to resign. Colin McGinn, according to the above-linked NYT article, was "a star philosopher at the University of Miami," and he has "agreed to leave his tenured post after allegations of sexual harassment brought by a graduate student."
“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?
Wow, he had to resign, and we know about it...  note the implication (implicature?!!) that things like this occur all the time, perhaps even to the point that some tenured professor is subtly ousted, but what's extraordinary is to hear about it. Another amazing thing is that the star prof is also a blogger, and he put serious effort into blog-bullshitting his way out of the jam he found himself in. He put "the cryptic language of analytic philosophy" out there to defend himself. He gave other bloggers text. That's a risk. But maybe that's what star philosophers do, take risks, verbal risks.

The top post at his blog right now:
I treated the student I was mentoring at UM with complete respect, as an equal, and with continuous encouragement and support....

As to the New York Times article, the devil is in the details. Read between the lines. Don’t be taken in by spin and exaggeration. Look closely at the language.
That's professorly — an invitation to examine the language of the NYT. So he's not giving us text now. He's saying look at their text. Look at what they say and what they do not say. So let's do that.

The article, by Jennifer Schuessler, begins and ends with the general idea that women have it "tough"  in philosophy. There's "bias and outright sexual harassment" throughout the field, or so "many" say. And the McGinn story is presented a shining "what some see as a healthy dose of sunlight." Does one individual's story really work to shine light on a problem in the whole field? There's one story that gets attention — because McGinn is famous — and then people who have been wanting to forefront a more generalized set of issues seize the opportunity. "Some" think that's healthy, but it exploits the individual for the sake of a preexisting agenda. I'm reminded of the use of George Zimmerman to forefront racial issues. You could say that Zimmerman's case shone a healthy light on problems of racism, but it makes more sense to say the problems of racism threw an unhealthy shadow on the specific details of Zimmerman's individual case.

Schuessler concedes we're "short on undisputed facts." Schuessler interviewed McGinn and, in the middle of the article, tells us his version of the story:
It was “a warm, consensual, collaborative relationship,” an “intellectual romance” that never became sexual but was full of “bantering”.... 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 would not talk to the NYT. Her boyfriend described email and text messages he saw, full of "unwanted innuendo and propositions from Mr. McGinn."
Mr. McGinn said...“There was no propositioning”...  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.”
I had to look up "implicature." The (unlinkable OED) says:
The act or an instance of (intentionally) implying a meaning which can be inferred from an utterance in conjunction with its conversational or semantic context, but is neither explicitly expressed nor logically entailed by the statement itself; a meaning that is implied contextually, but is neither entailed logically nor stated explicitly. Esp. in conversational implicature.
Without seeing the email, it's hard to know what that's supposed to mean. I don't see how I can read between the lines. That's totally opaque. If only we knew the context, there would be subtleties of meaning. But not only do we not know the complexities of the context, we don't even have the explicit text. The whole thing is covered up. Where's the healthful sunlight? It's all thrown into shadow by McGinn's resignation. I wish it had gone to trial. But apparently both parties to the communication preferred to wrap the whole matter up into darkness. There are reputations and careers to be preserved, and a deal was reached. McGinn signed an agreement, and now he can't go any further defending himself, and the woman doesn't want to talk at all. Her career needs are cited by intermediaries. A boyfriend — was he jealous? — tells the silent woman's story.

So it falls to those who want to forefront the general issue to keep exploiting the occasion. Hence Schuessler transitions to the final chunk of her piece:
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 say...
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.
Many credit.... Many many.... Forget McGinn, a known individual about whom we know only some of the facts. Let's go on to talk about all the unknown victims/accusers and perpetrators/accuseds. We're told the culture of philosophy may be changing, as "several graduate students" are "considering filing complaints," and there's an idea of trying to make philosophy "more woman-friendly," but "no one can agree on the root cause of that unfriendliness."
Is it straight-up sexual discrimination? The lack of female mentors? The highly technical nature of much contemporary Anglo-American philosophy? The field’s notoriously rough-and-tumble style of argument?...

“Many people have called philosophy the combat sport of academia,” [said Louise Antony, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst]. “But if you can’t have those conversations, you’re at a disadvantage.”
There's some talk of adopting "an informal 'be nice' rule" to help women philosophers, even though that itself sounds patronizing. But that's a completely different issue from sexual harassment. If there's a very aggressive style of argument where you have to be a bully and an asshole to get ahead, then maybe there's reason to say men have structured the environment to serve the interests of men, and if they want women represented in the field, they need to figure out how to make it a place that doesn't repel women. Even to state that problem is to deploy stereotypes, a good subject for a whole other conversation, one that has virtually nothing to do with what we can see about the McGinn case, which is about seeking to have sex with someone who doesn't want it.

I began this post making fun of McGuinn's self-serving hair-splitting, but I end this reading overwhelmed by the lumping together of a big, multi-faceted feminist agenda. Where is the sharp thinking that makes proper distinctions and puts things together that belong together? Philosophers should be better at this sort of thing.

McGinn said — about the NYT article — "Read between the lines... Look closely at the language." If I had to sum up what I see in that semi-darkness, I'd say: A man took an offer that he thought served his interests and he agreed to shut up, and a lot of women are using the occasion to promote an agenda they've had for a long time about what will advance the careers of women.

29 comments:

Jason said...

That reminds me of that time my hot English lit TA offered to help me straighten out my Longfellow.

Donald Douglas said...

Well, thanks for opening comments.

I posted on this, 'Professor Colin McGinn Resigns After Allegations of Sexual Harassment'.

You've dug down deeper than I have, simply because I got right to the point of the feminist agenda. His resignation is enough evidence to these observers of McGinn's guilt. The article notes that he basically implicated himself with bad philosophizing. I just see a lot of male academics who are jerks. But this larger feminist agenda criminalizes virtually all interaction between men and women in the workplace, to the point that men can't speak without their words being perceived as sexist. It's a no win situation.

I'll add your link to the post.

Again, I'm liking your comment moderation and I hope it's working for you.

Saint Croix said...

Sex harassment law often violates the free speech clause. It was snuck in by unelected judges, who allowed corporations to be sued. So the corporations enforced speech codes on their employees.

Now the Obama administration is expanding the speech codes to the university level, which means the state is directly punishing people for what they say. More discussion here.

Zach said...

If there's a very aggressive style of argument where you have to be a bully and an asshole to get ahead, then maybe there's reason to say men have structured the environment to serve the interests of men, and if they want women represented in the field, they need to figure out how to make it a place that doesn't repel women.

Meanwhile, the women are doing what? Complaining?

The "What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy" blog entries are uncomfortably close to unfocused venting. There's one story of a TA responding to sexual rejection very badly, and a lot of "I made a good point, and nobody paid attention to me!"


David said...

My first wife went to Smith, were the perks of the job for many men included sexual liaisons with the undergraduate girls. It was just part of the game in those days, a rite of passage for some, and probably a disaster for others. This was assumed to be common knowledge among faculty, administration, students and alumni. Smith had this facade, but it was in many ways a crazy place. Still is, just in a different way, I imagine.

somefeller said...

I haven't followed this controversy closely, but I am sorry to see this happen. I read Colin McGinn's "The Mysterious Flame" a few years ago and it's a great book with some really sharp discussions about the nature of consciousness. His positions in that book weren't pro-theist, but they were opposed to more purely materialistic forms of atheism. I wonder if that brought out the long knives from some of his critics.

mccullough said...

Intriguing. Not quite as scintillating as Naomi Wolf accusing Harold Bloom of coming on too strong when she was an undergraduate. But I'm not seeing the connection between sexual harassment and the field is too intellectually combative for girls. It certainly doesn't make the connection with this particular philosopher.

tim maguire said...

Properly understanding another e-mail to the student that included the crude term for masturbation...

Here's my reading between the lines: "bullshit bullshit bullshit, I'm guilty, bullshit bullshit blah...."

madAsHell said...

Sexual Harassment - He banged her, and then gave her a poor grade.

Matthew Sablan said...

Don't engage in sexual banter with students. Isn't that, like, a rule or something?

Matthew Sablan said...

"That reminds me of that time my hot English lit TA offered to help me straighten out my Longfellow."

After that, it was straight to Faulkner?

Alex said...

I think the default assumption anyone should make about a woman enrolled in a liberal arts major is that she IS a psychopath who will use the system to target a male.

TomHynes said...

David, my first wife also went to Smith. After 36 years, she still gets all pissy when I call her my first wife.

William said...

For a philosopher he doesn't seem to have thought this through sufficiently.

Jim S. said...

His positions in that book weren't pro-theist, but they were opposed to more purely materialistic forms of atheism. I wonder if that brought out the long knives from some of his critics.

Well, McGinn is an atheist and a political liberal, so I don't think his colleagues pushed him out because he argued against a relatively small but vocal contingent of philosophers of mind.

Oso Negro said...

An older man found a young woman attractive. She found his advances unappealing. Feminist utopians can spend another four decades philosophizing about how wrong that is. I am betting on biology.

bpm4532 said...

what could be a deeper philosophical quest than to determine the meaning of the word "is"?

david7134 said...

I have some experience with this from the standpoint of women in medicine. I assume that the issue is very much similar to that in other academia. For that most part, there is a bias in favor of women. The class in any given medical school is at least 50% female. Then there is the issue of obtaining a spot as an intern or resident. In this regard, any woman that applied for the position at our institution and could read or demonstrate any level of basic intelligence was accepted. In fact, overt efforts were made to get them into the institution at any cost. The same went for any other group except white males and Indians. There were more Indian applications than you can imagine and they represented about 60% of total resident positions.

Then there is the aspect of harassment. I have found that almost everything offends women. Especially something said or done by a male. So being offensive is not a good measure of harassment. In fact, when I employed people, we would only hire women in divisions of 2. That means that if we had 2 women that was good, 3 was bad. With 3, 2 would gang up on the other one and there would be fights. This is actually a measure in most employment situations.

Then the is the concept of sex. When I was a professor at the medical school, I was in my late 50's. I would hardly consider myself much to look at. Yet because of the position, I had multiple offers from the young 20 year olds. As I was happily married, it was difficult to deal with this issue. If you accepted the proposals, then you were doing wrong and clearly abusing the position and the person. If you turned the woman down in a bad way, then she would seek retribution and likely complain about your overtures or harassment despite the fact that nothing had occurred.

Alex said...

Why can't older men control their urges to hit on young women? It's disgusting. They come off as pigs.

Terrence Allen said...

"...level of responding to ideas about the topic, etc..." Just thought that Faulkner gag was funny as hell

Terrence Allen said...

"...responding to ideas etc" Just thought that Faulkner gag was VERY funny.

Thomas said...

Philosophy departments don't have many women. This, as McGinn notes, is unlikely to help.

McGinn's blog is quite clear in making the point that he was never charged with sexual harassment; he was accused of failing to report a personal relationship.

Reading between the lines here, this isn't a difficult story: A jealous boyfriend was unhappy that his girlfriend had an intimate, non-sexual relationship with her adviser. He insisted on her ending it, and has led the charge in publicizing various pieces of the story, wrenched from proper context.

David R. Graham said...

"Why can't older men control their urges to hit on young women? It's disgusting. They come off as pigs."

Give it a rest.

AST said...

According to the following, McGinn told her he thought about her when he was masturbating:
http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/colin-mcginn-to-resign-from-the-university-of-miami.html

AST said...

According to the following, McGinn told her he thought about her when he was masturbating:
http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/colin-mcginn-to-resign-from-the-university-of-miami.html

Chap said...

"Some" is a journalist's copout.

I read "some" in a newspaper article as "the reporter thinks". I read "many" as "the reporter probably thinks and two people told the reporter they thought".

Unknown said...

I've read McGinn and listened to his commercially available lectures. McGinn is a great writer and teacher. If his interactions with the woman student violated her rights, he should be sanctioned in a manner commensurate with the wrong. Somehow, I doubt that this sort of public shaming along with the loss of his job is commensurate to the wrong.

Jan Silver said...

Having taught for quite a few years at a university I realised there was a game going on - attractive PhD students (generally) wanting fast-track academic careers could get these via liaisons with professors.
The way to do this was flatter the middle-aged man (they could be players as well, I don't know) but the best strategy was to get them to leave their wives, become the next wife, and low and behold, a good tutoring job would develop which would then lead to better jobs. During this time ababy or possible two. Once the career track was established, professor, now reaching the end of his career was dumped but still had to maintain children.
It is important to realise these women were ardent feminists on the whole, I met several of them. This new strategy is simply another planned career strategy to get fast-track careers.
By the way I am a woman.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

"A boyfriend — was he jealous? — tells the silent woman's story."

The focus on the boyfriend struck me as a bit odd. Is your aim to gin up some scepticism?

It's true that the boyfriend tells the story, but it's also true that crucial elements of the story were corroborated by (at least) one of McGinn's colleagues. It's also the case that McGinn was forced out by the University after the relevant emails were read in spite of the fact that he's arguably the most successful philosopher in that department. Is this decisive? No, but it's some evidence that should lend some credence to the boyfriend's allegations.

It struck me as odd that you'd decide against mentioning the fact that Amie Thomasson corroborated parts of the boyfriend's story.