No Wit Today – Just Exhaustion, Advocate, 24/03/2017

There are some days when, like everyone who’s had to move from one career to another, I miss my old career. I was good at teaching, and I enjoyed it. I loved writing philosophy – it’s why I still do it independently, and why I put that analytic and creative skill to use in my current work as a writer, marketer, and artist.

But I read something earlier today that left a bitter taste in my mouth. John Searle is the subject of a viscerally disgusting set of sexual harassment allegations.

I don't really want to go over this in much detail. If you read the Buzzfeed article, you’ll discover all you need to know. I don’t want to discuss what Searle might or might not be found legally culpable for. Those are the kinds of discussions for law courts, which have much higher burdens of proof than straightforward ethical discussions.

I never really liked Searle's work to begin with, either.
The truth is, I’ve become increasingly alienated from the academic establishment. Although I regret the difficult and sometimes painful path I’ve had rebuilding my career after leaving the university sector, I find myself increasingly repulsed by the arrogant and grotesque behaviours the institution seems to encourage.

Not all professors, of course. Not all professors I knew in my academy days look straight through me when they see me on a campus or at a conference. Not all professors conduct blatantly dishonest job searches. Not all star professors in their fields regularly abuse their prestige and offices to prey on young female students.

The professors I knew who don’t do any of those things are wonderful people who I’m glad to have known. But I’ve also known enough who’ve done all these things. On the small scale my own life, I’ve met the arrogant, I’ve met liars, and I’ve met bastards.

I see how the prestige of an academic position feeds personal arrogance. I’ve seen the institutionalized untouchability of a prestigious office erodes people’s sense of ethics.

Now it seems I can’t go a year without learning of some other American university-based philosopher faced with civil claims or forced to resign over what in each instance are credible allegations of using his office to prey sexually on young female students.

Four years ago, it was Colin McGinn. Just over a year after that, it was Peter Ludlow, who when I met just a few months before his fall, was one of those academics who looked straight through me when he discovered I held no position.

Last year, it was Thomas Pogge, a multidimensionally hypocritical case of an ethicist praised for his selfless approach to political thought. Well, he had also been using his office and research institute to manipulate and seduce a long string of young female scholars from the Global South.

The same reporter carried out the investigation into Searle, and the lawsuit by Joanna Ong that he propositioned her multiple times, then cut her salary and fired her for refusing him. Yes, Ong’s suit alleges that he did, indeed, make that very joke.

The What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy blog exists, chronicling everyday sexist bullshit throughout the discipline. It’s beyond tiring, and I don’t even work there anymore.

I look at this institution that I had wanted to be part of, that defined a career path for me for a decade. It’s past being decadent. It’s past being sad. I feel a kind of sickly contempt at that institution. I don’t even know how I could have thrived there if I’d stuck out the career.

If I had seen something like what Searle and Pogge were apparently doing, would I have done something about it? Or would I have looked the other way? When I think about what my own livelihood would have depended on, what the established norms and moralities of my institution were, maybe I just would have been content with not doing such reprehensible acts myself.

Or maybe after many decades rising through the hierarchy of that world, growing entirely accustomed to its cultures and the power of an office, maybe I’d have done worse than turning away my eye.

I think it’s a profound and important ethical truth about humanity that when we think we’re incapable of monstrosity is exactly when we’re most vulnerable to becoming monsters.

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