Colin McGinn and the Inevitable Sexism of Institutional Power, Jamming, 08/08/2013

Sometimes I’m not always happiest with what I post on my blog. I occasionally think a post could have been written a little better than it is, and once or twice I’ll get the date of an update wrong on the actual post. But today I can definitely say that I’m doing better than Colin McGinn. His blog isn’t even up anymore, last time I checked.

Of course the real reason I’m doing better than Colin McGinn is that he’ll probably never hold a university position again, whereas I’m freshly entering the job market and haven’t committed any acts of institutionally-enabled sexual harassment at all. This New York Times article lays out perfectly how McGinn used his position of power as a tenured faculty member with a highly respectable reputation in his field to habitually harass a female graduate student in his department at University of Miami, then greasily and shamefully attempted to defend himself on his blog, and was forced to resign in disgrace.

I could probably write Colin McGinn
quite an Afterword for any new editions
of his The Meaning of Disgust, but I
don't think he'd like what I'd write.
I’ve occasionally mentioned on the blog that post-graduate university job seekers are often discouraged from speaking their minds in public arenas for fear of offending or alienating those who may potentially be on hiring committees. In my own moments of doubt, I do second-guess what I write here. But I have no problem writing this: Colin McGinn is an unrepentant villain who received precisely the proper repercussions for his reprehensible actions. He harassed a woman whose position below him in the hierarchy made her especially vulnerable to his verbal abuse (and sexual harassment is verbal abuse). Now he can never commit these disgusting acts again, as he no longer has an institutional title allowing him to inflict pain and fear upon, and to exert verbally violent control over vulnerable women. 

As you can tell, I’m a little angry.

I never quite liked McGinn’s philosophy, although up until I discovered he abused his faculty position to harass a woman to whom he should have been a guide and mentor, I did respect him as a person. (To be perfectly clear, if I wasn’t sufficiently so for you in the above paragraphs, I no longer respect him as a person. Just banishing any trace of ambiguity.) I never agreed with his mysterian or borderline ontological dualist position on philosophy of mind. I think the belief in perceptual qualia is based on a category mistake that illegitimately distinguishes representations of the world from perceptions of the world. But I did find his tendency in his late period of publishing small, mass-market books of deep and erudite yet popular philosophy a refreshing break from both the ponderous character of late-career research and the tendency to laurel-resting of faculty as they approach retirement. And given my own multifaceted writing projects, I respected any academic who also wrote novels. 

Now, of course, all my professional engagement with his ideas is coloured with his disgusting actions. It can’t be helped. I certainly will never pay my own money for one of his books from now on. But if we can learn anything about contemporary philosophy (apart from the fact that sexism is encountered daily by many practitioners) is a sign of irony in the orthodox language of analytic philosophy. 

The usual rhetoric in analytic philosophy is that this style of writing and speaking is more clear than any other, precisely defining technical terms and arguing aggressively to be sure that no possible critique of an idea goes unaccounted.* Yet the Times precisely calls out McGinn for using exactly those analytic techniques of precisely defining terms to obscure the material nature of what he had done. He can use all the definitional subtlety he wants in distinguishing what it is to “suggest” an action from “entertaining” that action. He has used the style of language that is so often held as a method of clarity and transparency to excuse, trivialize, and brush away his violence toward a woman. Repeated harassment in the face of protest is abuse, a verbal and psychological assault on a woman over whom he had institutional power. 

* This is often used to distinguish upstanding and honest analytic philosophy from the obscurity of dreaded continentalism. More about this laughable ‘conflict’ another time.

The blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? describes countless real stories of institutional depravity, sexism, harassment, abuse, condescension, and disrespect that women receive in philosophy departments. The companion blog What We’re Doing About What It’s Like describes the steps the philosophical university community is taking to combat these attitudes and abuses, and shares stories to encourage women to change the system. However, reading about cases like McGinn’s, I don’t think we’ll ever really change the attitudes, self-conscious and non-conscious, throughout academic philosophy that women don’t belong or are inferior. There will always be men who abuse their institutional power and who cover up for those abusers. 

And however much these assaults and this demeaning behaviour may disgust me, there really isn’t anything I can do about it. Over the years that I’ve engaged with these issues in my classrooms and my life, I strained against this fact, because I’ve always wanted to build a better world where women were treated with the dignity they deserve. But I’m a straight male. And women in my professional life will look at me, no matter how much success my career may eventually hold and no matter how dedicated I am to working toward that better world, as another potential McGinn. These habits of verbal violence of men toward women will never go away no matter how hard I work to make it so. What I am makes me a suspect, an untrustworthy object of fear. The sad truth is that I can’t make the discipline I love more welcoming. Some man will always make every woman who wants to live a dignified life into a victim. 

Colin McGinn was a respectable and noteworthy philosopher who had risen to the top of his profession. Somewhere along the line, he broke bad and became a wretch. I know that every woman I meet in my professional life will ask the same question — When will he break bad and hurt someone? — of every man she meets, including me.

Correction, 20.00, 08/08/2013: McGinn's blog works again.

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