Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fisking the Pinker Letter, or, More on McGinn: I Shouldn't Have Written This and You Shouldn't Read It

In a long tradition of continuing to talk about sexism-related stuff long after everyone is sick of hearing about it, I bring you a third post on L'Pickle McGinn.

McGinn has clearly rejected his own proposal “to say no more on the subject of recent allegations.” There are, by my count, seven additional posts on that subject since the proposal was proposed. (I made a judgement call to not count the one about his female influences, and I have no idea what to make of the one dealing with this "your sister is a prostitute" joke.) One of these contains a letter he received from Steven Pinker, in which Pinker expresses his support and solidarity. (Another contains a ludicrous threat of legal action, and begins by quoting the definition of 'libel' from the OED. Dear God. Since the dawn of time, philosophers have cleverly exploited Grice's findings on implicature in order to amuse themselves on Saturday nights with highly sophisticated X-rated puns.) Pinker's letter contains a number of inaccuracies, is based on a fairly basic misunderstanding of the situation, and is completely unworthy of attention. So obviously I'm going to go through it line by line. 

(Just so we're clear, the Pinker text is bold and      offset; my text justified normally and in italics.)
Harvard College Professor
Johnstone Family Professor
So far, so good. He knows who he is and where he works.
Professor Edwin Ervin 
I'm kinda sure it's 'Erwin' with a 'w', not 'Ervin' with a 'v'. Somehow I don't get the idea that this is going to be Pinker's most thoughtful work.  
Department of Philosophy
University of Miami
Miami, FL
 Coral Gables. 
June 13, 2013 
Dear Professor Ervin, 
Again, it's Erwin. With a 'w'. At least he's consistent.
I join you and other scholars, writers, and activists in protesting the threat of dismissal
According to McGinn, any threat of dismissal has been neutralized by the fact that he resigned. 

Also, activists? What activists?
of a brilliant and distinguished scholar, Colin McGinn, from the University of Miami for apparently nothing more serious than exchanging sexual banter with a graduate student.
McGinn claims that the only charge the University was considering was a failure to disclose a consensual but non-sexual relationship. But since the University has yet to publicly comment on the matter, it's difficult to know with any confidence what they thought he was up to, how serious they thought it was, how serious it actually was, or whether he would have been dismissed over it. 

Also, depending on whether the student was interested in engaging in sexual banter, the exact nature of the banter, and whether the student's participation was strictly and completely voluntary, engaging in sexual banter with a student could be fairly serious misconduct. Again, who knows what was really going on? Certainly not Pinker.
Even if the University had a clear policy that regulated communications between professor and student,
As far as I can tell, the University of Miami does have a pretty clear and sensible policy on this stuff. As I read the policy, very little in the way of professor/student communication is prohibited, though they are careful to point out that the uneven balance of power inherent in the professor/student relationship creates practical difficulties in establishing that the student has genuinely consented. 

It also says, and I have no idea whether this is strictly relevant, that faculty are required to disclose certain kinds of "amorous" relationships to a supervisor, and that they must do whatever is necessary to guarantee that they are not in a position of evaluative authority over someone with whom they are in such an "amorous" relationship. Failure to do so would create a clear conflict of interest, it says. It threatens the faculty member's ability to evaluate the person's work objectively. It can create the appearance (or fact) of favoritism. It creates a risk that the junior person might be exploited. It creates a risk that the faculty member or the University will be sued for sexual harassment, it says. Now, I'm not saying this is the kind of wisdom you'd consider going all the way to Dagobah to receive. But at the very least, it's fairly decent advice, and McGinn seems to have largely ignored it. At his peril. 
the punishment is ludicrously disproportionate to the alleged offense.
Again. McGinn says he wasn't "punished" or even charged by the University. He says he resigned and thereby halted any disciplinary procedures before they began. There's no such thing as the punishment. It doesn't exist.
As well as harming the reputation and intellectual quality of the University of Miami,
There's some low-hanging fruit here, but I'm not going to take it. Instead, I'm going to point out that this is one of the things that makes it so hard to square McGinn's version of the facts with reality. The story doesn't jell. 

McGinn really was one of the more prominent members of the UMiami philosophy department. Though I don't mean to disparage the other members of the department, it seems to be widely acknowledged that McGinn was disproportionately responsible for the department's overall reputation. The administration would have to have known this when they called him into a meeting and told him whatever they told him about what they found out about his "relationship" with his RA, explained to him that he was required by University policy to have disclosed it, and informed him of his options going forward. And whatever they told him must have been at least kind of bad news, or else he wouldn't have resigned rather than fight the charges or accept sanctions. It is at least a little unlikely that they would have done that unless they thought it was sort of serious. Add to that the disconnect between what he seems to have done and what he says the charge was going to be, and I'm not sure how to make it add up. 

Of course, for all I know, the administration was mistaken about how serious it was, or they were out to get him even though they knew he didn't do anything wrong. 

Of course, for all I know, they were not mistaken, or he is paranoid and has a persecution complex. 

On the other hand, maybe Pinker knows more about the case than I do. No he doesn't. 
such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends. 
Perhaps Pinker's scholarship and teaching habits differ from mine (McGinn's seem to, after all), but I have not had to rely in my teaching on lurid puns about handjobs. To a captive audience. And from what has been made public, McGinn didn't get into any actual trouble until he inserted the RA herself into the jokes, and made handjob puns that were literally about her. I don't think I'd be chilled by a policy prohibiting handjob puns involving the students themselves in my communications with them. I don't think that would make me less "open" with them--and if it would make me more closed off, that just speaks to the necessity of the policy. A policy like that would really just codify what I've already been doing this whole time, in an attempt to avoid being thought of as a creep or having to explain my offbeat sense of humor to the Dean. 

There is such a thing as too much openness informality, you know. 
If the dismissal proceeds, I will certainly bring it up with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on whose advisory board I sit. 
Pinker can rest assured that the dismissal will not proceed, because of the apparently little-known fact that McGinn has resigned his post. 

But really. Although McGinn's posting of the Pinker letter suggests that he substantially approves of it, it doesn't really seem as though FIRE's involvement is something that McGinn would welcome--and I base this entirely on McGinn's statements and actions, and not at all on my own suspicions concerning his innocence or guilt. He says doesn't want to spare the time or resources that a serious defense would require; he's unsure whether his passion for teaching could survive the ordeal; he's concerned about how it would affect his wife and family; he didn't like working at Miami anyway. He says he wants to put this whole mess behind him and move on. So he decided not to contest whatever charges an investigation might have turned up and resigned instead. Take this job and shove it, as the fella says. 

(On the other hand, McGinn doesn't totally act like someone who wants to put this whole mess behind him and move on. Someone who wanted to move on from this might begin by not posting fifteen blog posts about it, including seven following the one where he said he was done talking about it.)

I'm also far from convinced that this is the kind of case that FIRE could really dig its teeth into. I don't follow FIRE's activities very carefully, but it seems like they tend to go after freedom-of-speech/freedom-of-religion/due process cases where there's a relatively compelling prima facie case that someone's Constitutional rights were violated, or that the University jumped the gun in applying discipline, such that the accused didn't get a fair shake. Whereas, based on what has been made public, this seems like a case where the accused really did kind of break the rules, and where it's not possible to know whether he would have gotten a fair shake because he resigned before any shaking took place. I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, but it's hard for me to see where FIRE might find a handhold.
Feel free to circulate this letter, and to add my name to any list of McGinn’s supporters. 
Shorter Pinker: I'm not sure who I'm writing to, and I don't have any idea what's going on, but I have chosen sides and am attaching my name to this half-baked letter, which you should feel free to spread around. 

Man, what a pointless waste of everyone's time.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Add Steven Pinker to the list of narrow minded academic misogynists.

You know, we're so often talking about naming and shaming on this blog and the standard response is that it would be hard to do so while remaining anonymous. Well, there seem to be two silver linings to this McGinn stuff:

1. It has once again brought the subject of sexual harassment and discrimination of women in philosophy to the forefront.

2. It has given several people the motive and opportunity to name and shame themselves.

Matt said...

If Pinker indeed wrote that letter (which he very well might not have), he's embarrassing both himself and his institution and he should probably stop talking. I'm also proud to drop my anonymity to make this post.

Duck said...

I haven't wasted my time with this post yet (although I certainly will). Instead, I scrolled down to the end to see if the tags were right. Which they are - good job!

Speaking of tags at this blog, I am impressed that "Doom" easily takes second place (after "Job Market"), and that "WTF" does respectably also.

Anonymous said...

"If the dismissal proceeds, I will certainly bring it up with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on whose advisory board I sit."

Wow, this is one of the weakest threats I have ever read. I say, do it Pinker. Nut up or shut up.

Anonymous said...

These reviews of McGinn by Pinker suggest that McGinn was certainly well disposed to Pinker, although I don't know if they were personal friends:

Anonymous said...

"Wow, this is one of the weakest threats I have ever read. I say, do it Pinker. Nut up or shut up."

That does it.

If you are rude to Professor Pinker even one more time, I'm going to tell mom.

BunnyHugger said...

What bothers me most about Pinker's letter is that it repeatedly emphasizes McGinn's scholarship and reputation. If McGinn has been treated unfairly by Miami, then this would be just as much an injustice if he were an unknown teaching a slate of service courses. If, instead, he has harassed or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward his student, then his illustrious career is no defense.

Anonymous said...


You must be new to Philosophy. Don't you know that reputation is *all* that matters?

Honestly, I fail to see why anyone ever bothers even pretending that anything else is relevant.

BunnyHugger said...

Anon 4:30:

I only wish I were new; then it would be harder to see the dismal truth in what you say.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty clear, given what's come out, that McGinn has been treated unfairly here on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet. I hate the Internet, it makes us assholes, and this incident, in which I was partially complicit, reinforces my opinion.

I'm sorry for jumping on this idiotic bandwagon. Apologies to Prof. McGinn. I hope, if he is disposed to it, a school makes him a senior offer soon. Any university would be lucky to have him.

Amazing how given ZERO evidence of wrongdoing on McGinn's part we all uncritically assumed the worst.

Anonymous said...


Renouncing your grasp of implicature might put you into the genius camp.

Out of that f**ked loop--I love your comments. Prima facie implicature.

Anonymous said...

8:50 PM, CM wrote something that instantly resonated with me: that he dislikes most people.

Anonymous said...

Innocence or guilt, he's definitely now patrolling his blog to make it seem like he's clever and has the last word.

There was 8 comments yesterday, with OxfordFem seeming to have the final word with (what I remember) was a cogent retort to BerkeleyGirl and Prof. McGinn and then ending with a sarcastic comment to the affect of: "'least sexist person you could come across' seriously? do you also have a black friend, have you had beers with a gay person? *face palm*"
I just thought I should share this because the last comment made me laugh (which is obviously why I remember it so well)

Mr. Zero said...

I think it's pretty clear, given what's come out, that McGinn has been treated unfairly here on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet.

Did I miss something? What has come out? What do you mean?

Anonymous said...

"Did I miss something? What has come out?"

He has Pinker's support. Also, he's important. If you need more evidence, then the problem lies with you. Duh.

Anonymous said...

So sick of people in the isolated universe that is academic philosophy high fiving each other over how much they agree that women are horribly oppressed, that no woman could ever be even remotely responsible for, say, possibly initiating flirtation with a professor, and then using HER power to get him into trouble.

Are we all of one mind? Has our profession become so political that we must always take the same side? None of us knows what is really going on (yet), so let's stop being so sanctimonious in our condemnation of one of the two parties until we find out more.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty clear, given what's come out, that McGinn has been treated unfairly here on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet.

Actually, the only thing I can find that has "come out" recently is today's Chronicle article. Man, McGinn is his own worst enemy.