Random thoughts on, or at least caused by, the McGinn case

by Dave Maier

Int3BWhen I was a grad student, I once made an off-color remark, or the equivalent, to a female colleague (I'll call her Jessica). It was in the library, in front of the circulation desk. We had been talking shop, and when I said that I had written something relevant to our discussion, she asked to see it, so I promised to put a copy in her department mailbox. At the end when I turned to go, she called after me to remind me about my paper: “Oh, and put your thing in my box.” I was ten feet away by this time, and after weighing my options for about 1.2 seconds, I walked back and stage-whispered, mock-offendedly, “Jessica, please!”

That looks terrible in print, doesn't it? At the time, since a) I got a nice laugh, and b) I was (and remain) convinced that (for myriad reasons most of which I can't get into here; but read on) she was not offended, I felt okay about it; but now I wish I hadn't said it. What do you really lose by forgoing a joke – even after so perfect a set-up – when the potential downside is so great?

I was naturally reminded of this by the recent events (if you don't know what I'm talking about, start here) which have the philosophical world (academic subsection) abuzz. Many of the most relevant issues have been thoroughly hashed out, if not entirely conclusively, on the blogs (esp. New Apps and the Philosophy Smoker). Not surprisingly perhaps, one theme in the comment threads has been (I paraphrase): “philosophy is/you (or we) philosophers are so messed up; here you/we are quibbling over abstract minutiae instead of acting/deciding what to do, like real people would.” Here's part of an actual comment: “All those years of arcane, fatuous debates about the trolley problem have blinded many philosophers to obvious ethical truths. If this is a good reflection of the sexual politics of your discipline, then your discipline is fucked.” Another complains about people demanding “Cartesian certainty” instead of accepting obvious facts. And yet we also have: “I'm thinking wow, these people have an awful lot to say about a case about which very little is actually known, but then again, they are philosophers: many of them have written entire books on the basis of no information, so two or three facts are more than enough to decide this matter.” (So basically we can't win: we either demand too many facts or make do with too few.)

At the risk of confirming the suspicion that philosophers are clueless jerks, I've got a few comments about the philosophical issues that came up in the discussions. In my defense I claim that any good points I might have made here about the real-world case have been made over and over again, and better than I could have, by certain commenters on the threads (including our own J. E. H. Smith). Go read what they said if that's what you're interested in. Here, abstract minutiae rule, so continue at your own risk.

Before we get to the philosophy, though, here are some more empirical facts from my own experience. As it happens my colleague Jessica was also the victim (not sure I like that word – let's say “object”) of what, if she had decided to press it, would certainly count as sexual harassment. The professor in question seemed to think that they had a connection, and that she had acknowledged this. At one memorable dinner (my only direct experience of the two of them together that I recall), the three of us were at one end of the long table (she across from me, he at my left, at the end). He started going on (to her) about “what are we going to do about this then” (i.e. their supposed connection), while she and I traded amazed/appalled looks. We couldn't believe he wouldn't drop it, even after she directly and forcefully, but also civilly, disabused him of his idea – as I recall it, she literally curled her lip in disgust. (I think this is one reason I thought she might not mind my remark above: she knew that I knew she had been subject to actual creepiness, and that my own remark was to be taken in that context, indeed that that creepiness was what it was about, if that makes sense.)

Another incident shows how easily we shrugged this sort of thing off back then. I was retrieving my mail one day (I think this is where it happened) when Jessica showed me an ad for a particularly crude sex toy that another student (our level) had left in her mailbox (I think he had initialed it). Again, that sounds terrible on the page; but she assured me it was just this guy's sense of humor (and knowing him too, I believe it). Still, I wonder about the cumulative effect of such things on even so strong and downright unflappable a character as hers.

Okay, so here's the first philosophical issue I was thinking about: how context affects meaning. Briefly, McGinn is accused of sending at least two inappropriate emails, as part of a pattern of inappropriate, or at least uncomfortable-making, behavior over a period of some months.The Chronicle of Higher Education piece tells us that the student's boyfriend (whom for some unknown reason they feel it appropriate to name), “along with two professors with whom the student has worked, described one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating. Advocates of Mr. McGinn, however, say that the correspondence may have been misinterpreted when taken out of context….Part of the reason Mr. McGinn was sending messages that could be interpreted as sexually explicit, [one supporter] said, was probably because of communication about [McGinn's] research [about human evolution and the hand].”

Of course this can be true even if it doesn't excuse the behavior at all (as some commenters note). But since McGinn admits using the term “hand job” (and no one claims he used the word “masturbating” or related forms), clearly the communication was at least a double entendre, even if intended as a joke (and thus inappropriate if so perceived, which apparently it was). That's not my point, however, which is this: several people naturally wondered how McGinn could have meant that he was masturbating if what he actually wrote was something about a “hand job”? As they pointed out, that's not what “hand job” means: one performs a “hand job” on another, not oneself. Others speculated that using “hand job” in an autoerotic sense, as the boyfriend for one takes it, might be a regional usage (e.g. Ireland), or as used by Martin Amis in a particular novel.

One lesson of the attention paid to language by philosophers over the last century is that context is everything. Just about anything can be made to mean just about anything given the proper context. Unfortunately this lesson is lost when the point is made primarily to escape responsibility (as here), rather than to explain. Yet it remains true. We don't need Martin Amis or the Irish here: we need the context of the actual communication. And in fact McGinn tells us on his blog that he and his fellow researchers into the hand would use the term “hand job” for anything done by the hand. Here the coining use was a double entendre; but after a while the risqué connotation (and whatever humor it once had) fades, and people used the term without even noticing it.

But of course the risqué connotation is still there in the background, so to speak. If McGinn writes “Say, I thought about you last night while I did a certain hand job”, context not only allows him to mean “maybe just washing the dishes” but also to suggest “when I jerked off”. Note that this is no excuse of such behavior (and again, we don't know what the actual message was). In fact the plausible deniability makes it almost creepier than an explicitly sexual remark. But again, that's not the point. The question was, how did McGinn mean “masturbation” by “hand job” if that's not what the term means?

In a note in the Investigations Wittgenstein asks “can I say 'bububu' and mean 'if it does not rain I will go for a walk'”? We are naturally tempted to say no, “bububu” doesn't mean anything at all, let alone that. But with enough – actually a surprisingly little amount – of what he eventually calls “stagesetting” (which we may contrast with explicit coining), the answer is clearly yes. Among philosophers familiar with this example, it seems that if one pointedly looks at the sky, at the time of his daily constitutional, affixes the other with a certain look, and says “bububu” and nothing else, I think the latter might take his meaning perfectly well.

Akeel Bilgrami has another example in Belief and Meaning, in which one roommate studying for a test comes into the living room where music is playing and says “the gavagai's too loud”. Here he didn't even need to use the unfamiliar word previously at all, and yet there is no conceivable doubt about what is meant. In fact the two might later go on to use the term to mean “stereo” or “music” without anything approaching coining or explicit agreement. Here context really is everything.

Another philosophical issue here concerns Cartesian certainty and the nature of belief. There are a whole lot of epistemological issues bunched together here, but I'll try to keep it brief. It would certainly be wrong to argue thus:

1) It is possible (i.e. logically consistent with the evidence) that McGinn did nothing wrong.


2) We should suspend judgment on the matter.

If reasoning of this sort were valid, we could never make any judgments on evidence which fell short of logically entailing the conclusion – which makes empirical science impossible. Now of course this is exactly what skeptics tell us; but even they concede that in real life we can't, and shouldn't, do this (suspend judgment). (Ironically, or not, McGinn himself has sometimes argued for skepticism of this sort.) To bring merely theoretical possibilities into a clear-cut empirical situation is to muddy the waters (indeed, sometimes on purpose: imagine a defense attorney for example).

Now one might wonder whether this situation is as clear-cut as all that (I for one would really like to see the emails in question). But that's not my point (too relevant to the real-life issue! not theoretical enough!). So: most times you see this point in epistemological contexts, it's made like this: “Cartesians set too high a bar on belief [thus the dig at “Cartesian certainty”]; instead, we should think of belief as coming in degrees. “Fallibilists” can allow the logical possibility of error, while allowing us to justifiably infer our conclusion anyway, due to our (relatively) high degree of belief in its truth, even if that degree falls short of certainty. So we should be fallibilists, assigning degrees of belief rather than equating belief with certainty and anything less with doubt.”

This way of talking is surely attractive, especially given that it allows us to take advantage of certain ways to quantify degrees of belief (think Bayesian epistemology here, with its “priors” and whatnot). However, I think that fallibilism so described is in fact closer to skepticism and its associated Cartesian viewpoint than it looks. It would be crazy to try to give my full argument for this here, but try this out for size.

If I believe something, I believe that it's true. But truth doesn't come in degrees (in Susan Haack's terms, it's “flat” rather than “bumpy”): something is true or it isn't. That's why when you ask me what I believe – or better, when you tell someone else what I believe – the answer is a picture of the world, a description of how the world is if I am right about it. But how the world is doesn't depend on the degree of my belief that it is that way; so the latter isn't part of my belief. I either believe X (my picture of the world has X in it) or I don't (it doesn't). No degrees.

In any case “infallibilists” can account for the anti-skeptical point made above in our own way. We need only distinguish between the “absolute” incorrigible certainty of the Cartesian with the corrigible yet still complete certainty of ordinary belief (i.e. that things are a certain way in reality). In fact, again, it's the fallibilist who displays a Cartesian conception of belief in suggesting that it makes sense to say “I believe it, but it might not be true.” In falling short of full belief, fallibilism gives away the store to skepticism and in fact virtually amounts in the end to the same thing. (I think I've already promised/threatened to post on this, but let's leave it there for now.)

Okay, one last thing. Many people (including Justin) objected when on one thread a poster remarked that “Colin McGinn is the Jerry Sandusky of Miami”. [Dr Killjoy at the Smoker: “By publishing such a comment, you didn't just drop the Moderating Ball, you punted it out of the goddamn fucking stadium.”] And indeed, phew, that's pretty quick, given that … never mind, you get the idea.

But consider the general complaint: how dare you compare A with B, when it is clear that B is much worse? We hear this complaint all the time, often validly: no matter what you think of them, George W. Bush was not a Nazi, nor Barack Obama a Stalinist, and the comparisons are indeed offensive. Yet as Quine reminds us, everything is similar to everything else in some respect, and it seems that one may sometimes helpfully compare A with B even when B is an undoubted moral evil and A not yet shown to be nearly as bad, or even an evil at all. But back on the first hand: even if the comparison is helpful in some way, might that possibly subtle point be lost in the emotive swirl of the looming suggestion that maybe A really is as bad as B in some respect?

Consider everyone's favorite example, the Nazis. The German government of the early 1940s had many, many attributes. If its unprecedented degree of moral evil made it entirely unique, we couldn't understand it in conventional terms in any respect. Their filing systems, or their approach to infrastructure, or the tactical use of heavy artillery, would be rendered unintelligible by the vile uses to which they were put. And indeed it's hard to look at, say, the careful records made by the concentration camps and not be struck the uniqueness of that depravity (yet at the same time by, in Arendt's famous phrase, the “banality of evil”). But maybe that's what makes the Nazis a special case; yet surely not every evil is this way, even when a comparison offends – and especially when it shouldn't.