Thursday, October 22, 2015

Oh God, Not McGinn Again

Via Daily Nous, we have learned that Colin McGinn, Edward Erwin, and the University of Miami are being sued by the former graduate student and research assistant who claims that McGinn sexually harassed her. Justin Weinberg has a copy of the lawsuit at DN. There is a detailed article at the Huffington Post, and less detailed articles at the Telegraph and the Chronicle. The HuffPo article contains a bunch of text messages and emails that I'd never seen reproduced before, which they say they had access to copies of, and which are horrible.

For example, here is the much-discussed "Sex Three Times" email, in its entirety (all quotations are taken from the HuffPo piece, and not just from the lawsuit itself, because HuffPo has reviewed the documents):
Need to avoid the scenario I sketched: you meet someone else, I broken hearted, our relationship over (except formally).  This follows pretty obviously from current policy.  To avoid my heart break I need to prepare myself mentally, which means withdrawing from you emotionally--not good for either of us.  Also no good to just have full-blown relationship--too risky and difficult in the circumstances.  So need compromise.  Many are possible. Here's one (I'm not necessarily advocating it): we have sex 3 times over the summer when no one is around, but stop before next semester begins.  This has many advantages, which I won't spell out, but also disadvantages, ditto.  I am NOT asking you to do this--it is merely one possible compromise solution to a difficult problem, which might suggest others.  It has the FORM of a possible solution.  Try to take this in the spirit in which it is intended.  yours, Colin
Great Scott! I hope it is obvious that this is not the kind of thing you can say to your research assistant. You cannot tell your RA that she needs to help you avoid heart break. You cannot suggest that your RA have sex with you as any sort of compromise. "Hey, let's have sex a few times! It's a happy medium between two unpleasant extremes!" Aristotle would be proud, but only because Aristotle was a sexist asshole.

Although technically, he allegedly says, he is not literally suggesting that they have sex three times over the summer--it's merely a meta-suggestion of the type of suggestion he thinks she should make--he does allegedly point out that doing so has many advantages, and anyways I'm not sure that you can really do this. The other day my wife had a bit of a long day, so after kiddie bedtime I suggested that we watch a movie and relax, and that she should pick the movie. "Whatever you want to watch, that's what we'll watch," I said. "For example," I continued, "if you wanted to pick Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, we could watch that. Not that I'm suggesting that--it's your decision entirely. I was merely suggesting that as a possible suggestion that you might consider suggesting if that was something you wanted to suggest." It was, however, clear to us both that I really was suggesting that we watch Anchorman 2, and that the technique of couching the suggestion in the form of a higher-order meta-suggestion had absolutely no practical effect on what I was doing. It did allow me to pretend that I wasn't really suggesting it, but I was obviously only pretending and nobody was fooled. We watched Snowpiercer.

Another time, according to HuffPo, McGinn sent her the following pair of text messages:
McGinn: I love your essence
McGinn: Plus it gives me a slight erection
Great Scott! No, no, no, no, no. No.

You can't say stuff like that to your RA, either. Also--and I want to make it clear that I have never tried this and that this is just an unscientific conjecture--I feel confident that just telling women straight out when they give you an erection is not an effective seduction technique. I'm not saying that it will never work on anyone; I'm saying that it will never work on almost anyone, and that the conditions have to be exactly right for it to work, and that those conditions are all but guaranteed not to be satisfied between you and your RA. The presence of a direct supervisory relationship messes up the dynamic. Maybe you'd be purposefully abusing your power. Maybe you'd be only accidentally abusing your power. Maybe you'd merely be opening yourself up to a lawsuit based on the fact that, to an outside observer, it would look exactly like you were abusing your power. Whatever it is, it's a bad idea. Very, very bad. Not good.

If you're going to try this--I am not saying you should try this.You should not try this. You should never do anything like this under any circumstances. If you're going to try this, you need to stop it instantly if you do not receive an immediate and overwhelmingly positive response. It is not up to the other person to tell you to knock it off. Sometimes you have to do this with toddlers, but adults can be expected to know that you should not talk about your penis in polite company. The lawsuit alleges that McGinn made numerous and repeated references to his erections in various emails and text messages.

Another time, according to HuffPo, McGinn sent the following series of text messages, which contain an interesting riff on the well-established "hand job" joke:
McGinn: So I expect a hand job when I next see you.
McGinn: Yes.
McGinn: I like to amuse you.
McGinn: Now I've got a slight erection.
McGinn: I'm imagining you.
Great Scott! No! Noooooooooooooooo!

Suppose that you accept McGinn's explanation that 'hand job' means "clipping my fingernails" or whatever, and then you accept that it makes any sense on any level for an advisor to tell his student and research assistant that he expects her to clip his fingernails when he next sees her, and that there's any reason why a person would want to imagine his RA clipping his fingernails. I still find that the fact that he allegedly gets an erection in the middle of all this and allegedly tells her about it substantially undermines the claimed innocence of the "joke." The way he allegedly mentions his penis in the middle of what is supposed to be an admittedly ribald way of referring to clipping one's fingernails makes it seem exactly like he's not really talking about clipping his fingernails after all. The net effect is of a vulgar, ham-handed, extraordinarily inappropriate come-on that absolutely should not be aired in the context of this kind of professional relationship. Unless it's one of those chaste, platonic erections that can exist between friends and which employers can share with their employees. Maybe it's one of these ironic erections that the hipsters of Williamsburg and Silver Lake have recently been attaining. In any case, I've now given the topic of Colin McGinn's privates much more thought than I prefer, and would like to change the subject please.

The lawsuit also alleges that McGinn called her over 30 times during winter break, which seems excessive; that he quoted a passage from Lolita to her that deals with the fire of Humbert's loins; that he invented a ritualized series of hand grips, which he admits to in articles that appeared in Slate and the Chronicle, and which she says made her extremely uncomfortable; that he insisted on holding her foot and then kissed it; that he threatened to harm her career unless she had sex with him; that he suggested sex three times as a compromise when she said no; etc. After she resigned from the RA position in September of 2012, the lawsuit alleges that he wrote, "you are much better off with my support than without it. So please think carefully about your actions." The alleged behavior seems pretty inappropriate, and at least somewhat threatening.

And so, if these allegations are true and the University of Miami had access to these messages, I can see where it would be very distressing that the administration threatened to charge him (or threaten to charge him or whatever they did) only with failure to report a consensual relationship instead of bona fide sexual harassment, and then let him resign rather than be formally investigated, and then let him say publicly that he'd never so much as been accused of sexual harassment, and also let him say publicly (in Slate and the Chronicle) that she lodged her complaint only because she failed to complete her research assignment and was concerned about getting a negative evaluation. If that happened to me, I think I would be extremely distressed by it. I suspect that I'd find it pretty devastating. I'm not sure how I'd be able to cope with it.

I admit to being naive about how these decisions are made, and I would not want to suggest that a complainant should have final approval over any plea-bargain that a University's disciplinarians might consider pursuing. But I do think that a complainant ought to have some say over whether the investigation of her complaint is conducted in a formal or informal manner--particularly if the disciplinarians think the complaint is serious enough that the step of asking for the defendant's resignation is warranted. (The UM faculty manual indicates that it is the complainant's option to end any informal proceeding and initiate a formal one. The lawsuit alleges that she was not granted that right.) I don't know enough to have a legal opinion about what UM's obligations were or whether they lived up to them, but on a non-legal level, if these allegations are true, it seems to me that she's got a real point here.

--Mr. Zero

P.S. I'm going to open comments, but I'm going to moderate with a heavy touch. I don't know what actually happened, and neither do you.


Anonymous said...

"If you're going to try this, you need to stop it instantly if you do not receive an immediate and overwhelmingly positive response. It is not up to the other person to tell you to knock it off. Sometimes you have to do this with toddlers, but adults can be expected to know that you should not talk about your penis in polite company."

Which of the things do we sometimes have to do with toddlers? Telling them to stop? Or telling them about our penises?

Anyway, nicely said. This episode is pretty bloody awful.

Jaded, Ph.D. said...


Anonymous said...

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Not anyone. And not because of who is involved, or where it took place. But because this exposes (as if we needed it exposed again) a troubling part of our corner of the planet.

On the one hand, academia at large (but certainly Philosophy to a great degree) exalts people based on their work. And, of course, they should. Good work should be rewarded with things like good jobs, good pay, and maybe even some fame. However, there seems to (almost) always come a point when people are allowed to do horrible (even illegal) things, and get away with it, because of their value to "the profession." People look the other way, make excuses, or just don't care...and all to ensure that Important People stay right where they are, doing Important Work.

On the other hand, universities have done a truly terrible job of addressing sexual assault and the larger rape culture that exists. University officials often do their best to keep everything quiet to avoid the (increasingly inevitable) public scandals that come when victims finally go public. And when things do go public, they circle the wagons to "protect the brand" (and anything else that comes with that brand, like themselves and the star faculty who are associated with the brand).

Put these two together, and you have a system that is all but designed to allow people in power to use that power to manipulate those without power, a system all but designed to ensure that sexual predators can hunt. And there are plenty of people (and the evidence here suggests that McGinn was one of them) who explicitly take advantage of this system.

Maybe justice will be done here, and I hope it is. I hope the victim comes out of this as well as one can reasonably be expected to, and that those involved in causing her suffering are forced to acknowledge that and are dealt with accordingly. But make no mistake: this will be little more than a band-aid on the larger wound, and will do nothing to help change the culture that allows people to engage in such activity.

For that, we all need to work toward making our campuses a better place. And I can assure you, all our campuses need to do better in this regard. Your campus - whoever you are - is not the exception to this rule.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mr. Zero.

I'm not sure what the point of your piece was. Who are you writing against? McGinn himself? Who exactly is supporting him at this point?

Look, there was an issue before when some people who didn't have good evidence about what happened were jumping the gun and attacking him without waiting for sufficient evidence, and that was creepy and evil, so others said cool your jets. That was reasonable.

But now that the emails are out, who exactly is going around defending McGinn? Is it your belief that there's a significant number of people who think it's just fine and dandy to suggest to one's supervisee that the two of you have sex, one time or several times? Or that it's just fine to mention to the supervisee that you masturbate thinking about her?

Who exactly is saying this?

Yes, obviously McGinn seems to be open enough about this behavior to do it. Even then, I really don't think he believes it's acceptable behavior. The fact that he went to such lengths to conceal it from others seems to indicate that he realized this wasn't the best thing to do. But fine, you've got McGinn, and maybe one or two other weirdos. Other than that, you're really shooting fish in a barrel here.

It's as if someone were to write an open letter to Hans Brevik arguing that it isn't OK to dress up as a police officer and go on a shooting spree.

I'm starting to get concerned that you and others think you're doing important work replying to some big group of people you've invented, and that this is leading you to misunderstand the arguments against some other positions you and others hold. Nobody serious is seriously disagreeing with you about this. We hate the New Consensus for other reasons.

Anonymous said...

I think 9:19 is right that they don't understand the point of Mr. Zero’s post. The main problem appears to arrive with the claim that sexual harassment is restricted to "McGinn and maybe one or two other weirdos." This is simply mistaken. Whether or not many people believe sexual harassment is acceptable behavior (and I'm sure many don't), many people conduct themselves in an unacceptable manner. And many people continue to minimize, rationalize, or remain silent in the face of such behavior.

As for the concern that people are replying to some big group they’ve invented, that does seem to capture the nature of the reference to “the New Consensus.”

Anonymous said...

Ah. So, I'm inventing the New Consensus, am I?


Anonymous said...

Yes 10:27, you appear to be inventing it. In this case, you're projecting the existence of an organized social body with a political agenda onto a innocuous generalization made in one post over a year ago by the moderator of the Daily Nous.

Anonymous said...

"Who exactly is supporting him at this point?"

You're missing the point. Who exactly is coming out against him at this point? There were plenty of people defending McGinn when the story first broke. What are they saying now? How many of them are coming out and supporting his victim, the way they supported him? "Not publicly supporting him" is not at all the same as "supporting the victim."

"The fact that he went to such lengths to conceal it from others seems to indicate that he realized this wasn't the best thing to do."

And the fact that he did it seems to indicate that he thought he was above right-and-wrong, which is the problem. He knew it was wrong, he did it anyway, he repeatedly lied about it on his own blog (in posts he later deleted), and he kept pointing to his supporters as proof that some people knew the truth that others were actively avoiding. This includes someone in his own department who, it would seem, knew what actually happened, but didn't care.

"But fine, you've got McGinn, and maybe one or two other weirdos. Other than that, you're really shooting fish in a barrel here."

One or two other weirdos? You have to be kidding. I have studied at 3 universities, and taught at 4 more. Every department I worked for had someone who was some sort of "weirdo," from the older professor who thought that repeatedly complimenting big-breasted blondes on their breasts was what made him charming, to the professor who rented out a room every year to his favorite redhead, to the professor who threatened his students with ruining their academic careers if they didn't sleep with him. And I refuse to believe I just happened to stumble into the 7 universities other than McGinn's where this shit happens.

This really isn't about McGinn. This is really about everyone who works with a McGinn, and allows him to get away with it. This is about that colleague or professor of ours who uses his position to abuse his students. But most importantly, this is about the very many students who are dealing with their own McGinn, and watch as their classmates and other professors turn a blind eye because they can't be bothered, because they think nothing will change anyway, because they like the professor, because they know that have to work with that professor long after the student leaves, because that professor is a great scholar, etc.

Derek Bowman said...

I'm afraid 9:19/10:27 is right. If one person uses a (lower case) term to characterize a phenomenon, anyone else who takes positions that fall under that person's characterization of that phenomenon is part of a cohesive group belonging to a group named by that term (now upper case).

Anonymous said...

I think the "cohesive group" and "organized social body" are straw-manning the actual use of 'New Consensus'. Right, there is no such organized body or cohesive group, but there is still a worrisome ideology and it is indeed explanatory of some worrisome recent phenomena. You can disagree with this, but simply mocking it isn't warranted.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, because I've been a student in two philosophy departments and worked in two, and nothing like that has happened in any of them, and I refuse to believe I just happened to stumble on... (I should admit that in one of those four I might well not have known, though.)
We're all biased by our own experiences. That's why we need real information, instead of links to WIILTBAWIP.

Anonymous said...

I suppose i agree with derek, as far as it goes. But there's the further question as to whether the views and opinions and things that are often attributed to the New Consensus are actually contained in the text. I find I often have doubts about whether the answer to this question is 'yes'.

Anonymous said...


The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

Anonymous said...

Hi 8:13. I'm not 6:21. Burt I disagree with your view that there is a worrisome ideology and/or worrisome recent phenomenon. I don't read 6:21 as mocking those who believe there is. Rather, I read 6:21 as attempting to seriously engage with them.


Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in a department which has a generally friendly atmosphere. Nearly all of the graduate students and faculty here would, I suspect, report that we have no such problem. But the three (perhaps more, those are just those I know about) and many former female graduate students who have been sexually harassed by a senior male faculty member are well aware that this is not the case. It is really important to understand that you really can't always see that these things are happening, even if you *seem* to be in the know, even if you are a woman in a department with a small minority of women, etc. In our case, the culprit has a huge amount of power over the department and is extremely well-liked and respected by the faculty and also in the field more generally. It would be career suicide for any of us to raise this issue, and even for it to get out into the general grad student body. I really think there's an asymmetry in the way we should treat positive evidence for the claim that there is a harassment problem in a given department, and negative evidence ("I've never heard of that happening in my department") here.

Anonymous said...

In the first place, that slogan is false. The fact that there is no evidence of a Loch Ness monster is indeed evidence that there is no such monster.
Second, I was not (obviously, I thought) suggesting that my experience was evidence that there's no sexual harassment, etc., in philosophy!

Anonymous said...

I was referring to 6:09 and Derek Bowman. I quoted their phrases. 6:21 was on a different topic, so I don’t see why you thought I was talking about that comment.


Anonymous said...

"It would be career suicide for any of us to raise this issue, and even for it to get out into the general grad student body."

Can you explain why it would be career suicide for the fact that a senior department member is harassing women to get into the general grad student body? I am skeptical. But maybe you can explain why it's true.

Anonymous said...

Read the metameta blog to find McGinn's defenders.

Anonymous said...


I'm not Mr. Zero (obviously), but I think it's pretty easy to see a purpose for this post.

Remember, before this suit, we were in a world where McGinn had posted various things saying or implying that his relationship with this student was perfectly normal. He quit posting, but he never retracted those posts. There were people he contacted that spoke out for him publically. Some of that was since retracted, but not all. There was, among the many people critical of McGinn, also some commenters in the blogosphere who felt that the record showed that the student was encouraging McGinn's advances.

So then, the larger email record comes out. As you say, "who is going to defend McGinn?" Pretty much nobody, of course. But it would be kind of odd in the history of journalism and blogging for this new evidence to come out and for it not to be responded to. I would actually expect that everyone who had ever blogged on the story before to make one blog post about this new evidence. People, like Leiter, who post about legal issues are going to comment on the legal merits. People like Mr. Zero, who were sceptical about McGinn's story before, might post an article on "wtf man, this is what you were calling a normal relationship?" People who were sympathetic to McGinn before might post an article showing how/if this new evidence affects their opinion.

None of this points to some idea that there is some large group of McGinn defenders that need to be turned. It's the natural reaction to some new and significant evidence. If it goes on and on with Mr. Zero posting post after post begging people to keep their erections to themselves, then you might have a case. One post is not an issue, IMO.

Anonymous said...


Do you criticize the posts about the job market also? I means we all already know it's bad, right, so why keep talking about it? What is that going to achieve?

Because I don't remember seeing posts like yours in the latest job market threads.

Anonymous said...

My bad 3:12/8:13. I clearly misread. I am curious, however, why you take there to be a worrisome ideology at issue. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't take claims that the genders should be afforded equal treatment, security, and respect in the profession as particularly worrisome. Nor do I see how observations that this is not occuring amount to "strawmaning." (It seems to me that, in order to strawman, there has to be an argument, rather than merely an observation.)

But I'm open to the possibility that I'm missing the point where the worries enter in.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I have improperly used the term ‘straw man’. My point was that the target of the observation (as you put it) is not a real person or a real view that anyone has supported here. Honestly, I think you probably understood that that’s what I meant. When something similar is true of the target of an argument, you understand that to be a straw man argument, right?

Similarly, I am pretty sure you don’t actually think the objections people have to the New Consensus ideology are objections to the claim that genders should be afforded equal treatment, security, and respect. Is that what you honestly thought was meant? I think the objections have come out numerous times, on this blog and others, and I’m not keen to rehash them in great detail, but if you genuinely are not aware of them I suppose I could try to say what a few of them are.

Anonymous said...

Fairly neutral observer here (I haven't commented yet).

What do people take the bottom-floor disagreement to be between what some call the NC crowd and what others call the McGinn supporters crowd? I know those labels aren't fair, but I take it people can use them to distinguish the two sides.

Is it over the role of due process? The role of second chances? Is it over some empirical claim about the prevalence of sexual harassment? Etc.

Anonymous said...

Haha. Typical. Let's see...

It took 4 comments to get someone questioning the purpose of this post, 5 to try and change the topic, and 11 to suggest that maybe the underlying problem either isn't serious or doesn't really exist.

Good on you, Zero, for trying to make sure that we keep discussing such problems with the profession in the public sphere.

Anonymous said...

8:17 "That's why we need real information, instead of links to WIILTBAWIP."

It's news to me that the stories on WILTBAWIP aren't "real information." If you don't find those stories plausible or believable (as someone in a position to know, I do), there are plenty of sources of information on this topic that are gathered using unbiased methods. They paint the same picture. The contents of this lawsuit are further real information. If you're not finding enough real information, it may be because you're not bothering to look for it.