If Colin McGinn was generally well-liked, would he still be employed? McGinn, the star philosopher from the University of Miami, resigned after his research assistant alleged McGinn sent her sexually explicit e-mails and texts. There is no question that McGinn crossed a line, and should face some consequences– but how much did negative feelings toward this guy make his situation worse?
Just to fill you in, McGinn and his research assistant were working on a book on the human hand. Thus, McGinn felt justified in sending her the message: “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” According to McGinn, the two were involved in a consensual intellectual romance, and his comments were merely referring to a manicure. McGinn also allegedly sent an e-mail suggesting the two should have sex over the summer.
What seems strange is the total lack of support for this guy. Isn’t it possible that he really believed he and his graduate student had some kind of special relationship? One exception, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a letter in McGinn’s defense, but after tremendous pushback, he seems to have changed his perspective. By contrast, the affable Anthony Weiner, who developed a habit of sexting women, still garnered almost 5% of the vote in the New York City mayoral primary yesterday. And it took 17 women coming forward with sexual harassment allegations before Bob Filner submitted his resignation as mayor of San Diego in August.
I don’t know McGinn personally – but the arrogance that oozes from his blog provides clues why he might rub some the wrong way. On one blog post, he defends the inappropriate messages sent to the grad student using philosophical arguments and proposes there’s a big difference between “suggesting” an action and actually “entertaining” it. Titling his book Mindfucking also suggests he may not be a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Nonetheless, an obnoxious or arrogant personality should not impact the severity of his punishment. If McGinn was extremely well-liked by his colleagues and his university president, would he have still been pressured to resign? Sexual harassment should not be tolerated, but awarding more severe punishments to jerks perpetuates stereotypes that sexual harassment charges can be used to target disliked coworkers.
Steven Pinker, suggested that a severe punishment for McGinn would put a chill on future communication between faculty and graduate students. Pinker wasn’t suggesting that it’s OK to send sexually inappropriate texts to students (as suggested in a New York Times op-ed last week). Instead, he was pointing out that men are already nervous interacting with female coworkers and students, and the belief that disliked men can be targeted for extreme punishments could further chill these interactions.
It’s not ok to sexually harass, but it’s also important to offer due process to everyone.