The Chronicle Review

Can Sexual Predators Be Good Scholars?

December 07, 2017

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

In a 1966 New Yorker article, Hannah Arendt ventured the bold claim that bad men are bad writers. In her view, the magnitude of a thinker’s transgressions is manifest in the quality of his work — which means "that the faculty of writing a good line is not entirely at the poet’s command but needs some help, that the faculty is granted him and that he can forfeit it." Arendt thought Bertolt Brecht ceded his talents when he became complicit with Stalinism. Intellectual mediocrity, a price exacted by a vengeful cosmic editor, was his recompense. Brecht’s odes to Stalin "sound as though they had been fabricated by the least gifted imitator Brecht ever had."

Arendt’s vision of artistic retribution is comforting. If literature or scholarship reflected its author’s moral failings, brutality would contravene brilliance: Wrongdoing would amount to its own punishment. We would never have to confront the galling affront of a beautiful thought birthed by a hideous thinker — nor would we persist in demanding decency from the gorgeous and the interesting, to our repeated disappointment.

In my native discipline of philosophy, and in the academy more generally, bad but brilliant men are as live a hazard as ever. In the last five years alone, the superstar philosophers Thomas Pogge (Yale), John Searle (Berkeley), and Colin McGinn (University of Miami) have come under fire for reportedly harassing and humiliating female students, as has the renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy (Berkeley). Searle and Pogge targeted the most vulnerable women — students of color and foreign students isolated from their families. When his Asian-American research assistant mentioned American imperialism, Searle is said to have replied, "American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!"

These most recent and widely publicized offenses point to patterns of racism, sexism, and abuse stretching back decades. Like Harvey Weinstein, Pogge and Searle were "open secrets," tried and condemned by a whisper network of vigilante women but abetted by the big-name institutions that lionized them and the male colleagues who knowingly turned a blind eye. When Geoff Marcy’s long history of infractions came to light, the interim chair of the Berkeley astronomy department, Gibor Basri, sent out an email that read, "This has been a day of drama and difficulty for many of us, each in our own way and with our own context. It is hard to process for those who knew Geoff well ... Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment." His insensitivity is nothing short of astronomical.

In the academy, where we identify ourselves with the bodies of thought we defend, the professional is personal.
As a wave of post-Weinstein accusations continues to sweep the publishing and entertainment industries, we can expect more revelations in the university, a claustrophobic province where advisers’ whims can make or break careers. Allegations against three professors of psychology and brain science at Dartmouth and two titans of literary scholarship at Stanford are already in circulation, and several others have recently surfaced. Do these men’s books and papers betray their ethical flaws, as Arendt so fervently hoped they would? Her insistence that good work is evidence of good character is understandable: Her mentor, adviser, and sometime-lover, Martin Heidegger, was a Nazi collaborator. Ought we conclude that his genius is proof of his innocence, or at least his potential for redemption?

I wish aesthetic and intellectual justice on all men who mistreat women, wish it with a force so furious that it should be efficacious. But how is it supposed to work? What is the supposed mechanism of its enforcement? What god will avenge us, marring the work of the men who wrong us, making it as stupid and as ugly as it deserves to be?

The problem lamented by Arendt is not specific to misogynists. The option of simultaneous evil and excellence is available to everyone bad, no matter the form of his badness. So why are we more concerned to secure a route from intellectual failure to sexism than we are to trace a link between ineptitude and, say, a penchant for vicious gossip? Perhaps because systemic transgressions are especially toxic offenses.

Compare the sexist professor — a character who needn’t be as criminally monstrous as Searle or Pogge, but might "merely" write off women’s work as frivolous — with the cranky professor, who snaps at everyone indiscriminately. The behavior of an isolated crank is unlikely to have much of an effect on the behavior of his colleagues, but sexism is a tincture that embitters a whole culture. The edifice of oppression is reinforced by each of its iterations.

And the harm of each sexist slight is magnified precisely because misogyny is so ubiquitous. A woman in academe is likely to have experienced a lifetime of discouragement and trivialization. Staggeringly, one in 10 female graduate students at major research institutions report experiencing sexual harassment from faculty members.

In this context, the pernicious impact of sexism is often disproportionate to the blameworthiness of its perpetuators, who may be merely hapless. An offhand remark, perhaps more expressive of thoughtlessness than malice, can carry undue weight, confirming for the umpteenth time what a woman has heard so often — that she is illogical or emotional, uptight or prudish, that she is too feminine or not feminine enough. An unwelcome advance that comes in the wake of a hundred advances confirms — once again — that our value is exclusively sexual.

"I assumed you were there because you needed extra credit," a college boyfriend who’d met me in a phenomenology lecture confessed. "You seemed out of place." For months the comment rankled. I wondered if I’d dressed wrong that day, if my facial expressions were memorably vacant, if I should stop wearing lipstick or painting my nails in "girly" shades. (A friend’s professor once proclaimed her pink notebook an "unserious" color, a horror story I recall whenever I’m tempted to paint my nails magenta.) Should female scholars cut their hair, wear more masculine clothing, toss their pink notebooks away? It took me years to realize that it was my college boyfriend, not I, who needed as many additional opportunities for extra credit — for redemption — as he could get.

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, male misbehavior is beginning to meet with public censure — but do its perpetrators face artistic and intellectual costs, as Arendt thought Brecht did? The need to establish a connection between chauvinism and scholarly defect is more urgent than ever, and a spate of recent articles has made valiant attempts. In The New York Times, Amanda Hess convincingly argued that many of the works we revere cannot withstand close scrutiny. The films of Roman Polanski, who drugged and allegedly raped a 13-year old, and comedy routines of Louis C.K., who is said to have masturbated in front of disgusted female colleagues, are warped by their evident sexism. In Frieze last month, Elvia Wilk went further, reframing Arendt’s suggestion in even stronger terms: "He cannot make good work if he is a sexual abuser. If a person is an abuser, the work cannot be good. I don’t just mean that the work is somehow tainted by bad behavior. I mean the work itself is actually not good."

I understand so well how love of an idea or artwork can come perilously close to love of its author or architect, how revelations of sexism or cruelty can feel like a betrayal. Writing and thinking are intimate activities, and we entrust ourselves to what we read and contemplate — what seems by dint of its beauty or fascination to lay acute claim to us. In the academy, where we identify ourselves with the bodies of thought we defend, the professional is personal.

Genuine intellectualism involves more than publishing well-received papers.
But Wilk and Arendt made assertions, not arguments, and however much it wounds us, their assertions are false. Evil does not work its way into everything that an evil man makes: The proof is in the unpolluted pudding. Failures of empathy may amount to serious defects in a paper on gender equality, but it’s hard to see how they could mar a mathematical calculation or abstract metaphysical treatise.

Other works, like Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right, are decidedly sexist but ultimately worthwhile. On the one hand, Hegel thinks that "the difference between man and woman is the difference between animal and plant," but on the other, he makes interesting political proposals that are readily detachable from his amateur botany. Plenty of thinkers manage to be kinder in their writing than in their lives. Tolstoy abandoned the serf who bore his child, but he still crafted one of the most compassionate portrayals of female heartbreak in Western literature.

The myth of just intellectual allotment — of quality that invariably corresponds with moral merit — is worse than false: It’s dangerous. If bad men must be bad thinkers, then any work that’s sufficiently good must have a good creator. This is the fallacy that has long driven us to exonerate men who don’t deserve our (or Arendt’s) exculpatory contortions. When the perversions of authors and thinkers permeate their work, the product is, mercifully, its own indictment. But when the product bears no traces of its untoward origins — when none of Arendt’s gods come to our rescue, cursing ugly men with ugly minds — there may be no recourse.

Heidegger is often reproached for his Nazi sympathies, but he’s rarely faulted for seducing Arendt when he was 35 and she was just 18, an eager student in the crowd at one of his popular lectures. His sexism, and our blindness to it, remained dangerous long after his Nazism ceased to pose a threat. Once the Nazi government collapsed, there was little that Heidegger could do to resuscitate it. But his fame still positioned him to take advantage of the female students dazzled or intimidated by his outsize reputation. A powerful man’s vices are troubling not only because they tarnish his character — for once, this isn’t about him — but because of what they enable him to do to other people.

Dead thinkers can antagonize their readers from beyond the grave, but one thing they cannot do is harass their female students. When their work is good, we should continue to read it. Besides, it’s vital that scholars attend to the chauvinists who are seminal in the formation of the canon. Since the Enlightenment, much of ethics has been a response to Kant, a philosopher who declared that "the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous" and that a woman "who conducts thorough disputations about mechanics ... might as well also wear a beard." A careful reading of his moral philosophy is an object lesson in hypocrisy that we would do well to confront.

Living scholars pose thornier problems. Certainly men who abuse women should be fired, reproved, and removed from positions of power. And certainly we should strive to disentangle the glorification of their ideas from the glorification of their lives. But what we should do with their work is a more difficult matter. Some have favored demoting it, or making it harder to access: HBO, for instance, has wiped its archive of Louis C.K. episodes. Yet the terrain of purgation is treacherous, both because we have an obligation to familiarize ourselves with our checkered history and because the alleged degeneracy of gay people, people of color, and sexually liberated women has long been levied as a justification for censorship. A precedent that vindicates banning important findings on the basis of their author’s moral status may prove pernicious if the tides of public opinion revert.

Most importantly, to eschew good work is to deprive ourselves. Heidegger would have disdained me, a Jewish woman. But I still went to Germany and mouthed the barbed words of a foreign language so that I could read his work. And I am still violently moved by his writings, which are such exquisitely jolting celebrations of disorientation. It wounds me that their author displayed such callousness. But should I wound myself further by denying myself something I love?

What’s left of Arendt’s righteous vision? Is there any way of making good on the notion that men who hate women suffer for it — if not in their own lives, then in their oeuvres? I’ve argued that a man’s work can be worthy enough to overcome his moral failings, but I think there is also reason to suspect that insofar as a man is sexist, he’s a worse thinker than he would have otherwise been.

For one thing, he incurs an opportunity cost. A scholar who doesn’t listen to women may miss helpful suggestions — or devastating objections — articulated by female colleagues; a man who refuses to mentor women misses out on the chance to see his work championed or cultivated by the next generation of luminaries. Many female astronomers chose to avoid the Berkeley astronomy department because Geoff Marcy’s reputation preceded him: Their absence was his loss.

For another thing, genuine intellectualism involves more than publishing well-received papers: It demands that we apply the full force of our rigor to ourselves. Bias is a philosophical error as well as a moral one. A man’s commitment to scholarship is lamentably shallow if he prioritizes cheap sexual validation over truth-seeking and self-improvement — if he relinquishes even one opportunity to subject himself to scrutiny that might better him, or excludes even a single female peer from his field.

In her New Yorker essay, Arendt quotes the poet W.H. Auden, who envisions a hell designed for evil authors. Their punishment is to realize how much better their writing would have been if they’d been better, too:

God may reduce you
on Judgement Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.

Sexism warps the men who forgo self-searching in favor of self-serving — who neglect to question their own conduct in favor of bullying the women they supervise. Happily, they consign themselves to the terrible inferno of their own intellectual cowardice. May they roast there for eternity, writing worse poems than they could have, knowing how horribly they have impoverished themselves.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard University.