Lately, I’ve been remembering the good old days when you could open up a philosophy blog and read about… well, philosophy and the philosophy profession. And that was about it. Perhaps this is nostalgia talking, but I think those were good times. And they weren’t so long ago.
Over the past couple of months — or is it only weeks? — I’ve noticed a shift. The thing to talk about now is sexual harassment and sexism in the profession. And you can’t get away from it. Even if you steer clear of the blogs whose main purpose is to promote political correctness and gasp in self-righteous horror at its apparent violations, blogs that were once devoted to other topics (like The Philosophy Smoker) are serving up sex-talk to a satisfied readership around the clock these days. And Leiter Reports has apparently switched to 24/7 sexual harassment broadcasting.
It started, less than a year ago, with McGinn. A story was leaked, alarms were raised, McGinn kept trying to unstick himself from the scandal in counterproductive ways, and the world was
entertained by the public ridicule of a man nobody liked taught an important moral lesson in the process. Then came some lesser explosions, but for a long time nothing else had the OJ Simpson feel we all wanted to bind us together. We got McGinn far too soon in our descent into trash.
And then our inner gossips were fed the delicious Colorado scandal, thanks to the breach of confidentiality afforded by the site visit team. Nobody could stop looking at it or talking about it, but we told ourselves that our attention was absolutely necessary. Our discipline was waiting for us all to line up and wag our fingers at the accused, to revel in their shaming, and to announce to the world that it was everywhere. It was a glorious time: a time for feminists to ride high and say ‘I told you so!’, and for the men and women who had questions to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. To raise doubts was to announce that one was part of the problem. We felt that all of us were needed, somehow: that if it weren’t for each person expressing shock and outrage at how horrible the profession is, the alleged sexism problem would never be dealt with. For weeks, we had a wonderful reason to procrastinate on our work while never having to worry about how to fill lulls in conversation by the water cooler. We were all in on the fight to save philosophy from sexism, and it felt great.
As if on cue, just as we began to tire of the fun of dragging the Colorado department through the mud, ruining their career prospects and reputations forever (usually the thrill fades in a week or two if there aren’t more outrages), someone at Northwestern came to our rescue, giving us a new scandal about Peter Ludlow. By now even the extra-philosophical world had been primed to receive: the Ludlow accusation, with some work by the accuser and her lawyer, even made it onto the evening news, delivered in bogus earnestness by a newscaster who seemed to enjoy his swipe at the ivory tower.
Ten days or so later, our gastric juices were flowing again — wasn’t it a little sooner this time? — and we felt the pang of hunger. But whose life and reputation could be ruined this go-round? Lucky for us, the media had become wise to what we needed by that point and fed us… the Oxford scandal! A suicide — a horrific personal tragedy — bearing some unclear connection to someone in philosophy who was issued… a sexual harassment warning. And what better way to console the grieving friends and family than to begin speculating on the guilt or otherwise of someone who did something we don’t really know that much about? Don’t bother sending flowers: just start speculating and following the story. And in the meantime, keep reminding yourself and everyone else how much these allegations are sure to indicate about sexism in the profession. I’m sure all those involved are grateful to be in the thoughts of strangers who care enough to gawk and speculate about their private affairs.
Around then, we began to near the point where we wanted constant updates on our sex scandals. New legal opinions! Opinion pieces and emails from those who might have known the key players! Boycotts! Protests! All this can help stave off our hunger, but not for long.
And today, the new outrage was served up: the Berkeley affair! Yes, just last week, 31 students associated with Berkeley jumped into the circus by filing federal complaints against Berkeley for not doing enough to stop sexual harassment. For all we know, one of those students might have had something to do with a creepy philosophy harasser there or elsewhere! Will the horrors never end?
More seriously, how — if at all — is this different from the tendency of modern news stations to report murders, kidnappings, and grisly car crashes at higher and higher rates, regardless of the actual numbers of such incidents, all in a cynical attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator?
I see the future — well, a couple of possible futures. One is an ongoing teaming-up between philosophy and the scandal-hungry gutter press that we have already begun to explore these past few weeks, and which the general public seems to enjoy a great deal. If this scenario comes to pass, the lay public will at last be able to talk to us about philosophy, because we’ll have stooped to the level where there’s nothing but scandal left to discuss. Let’s hope it doesn’t.