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Potty-mouthed Philosophy

So. I don’t know if any of y’all are following or even care in the slightest about the Colin McGinn Incident. Essentially, Professor McGinn has resigned from his position at the University of Miami after being more or less given an ultimatum: resignation or public investigation of allegations of sexual harassment. The harassment publicly alleged consists of wink-wink smut in email; there are always hints that there are Much Worse Things just waiting to come out, but nobody is at present saying what they are, or if they even exist.

Your Humble Blogger is attempting, by the way, to frame this conversation in a way that doesn’t depend on how incredibly creepy Professor McGinn appears to be. That appearance is subjective and based on very limited information—things look very bad from my angle, but there exist other angles. So I’m hoping by explicitly stating how terrible it looks, and by being as careful as possible in my framing, I can avoid claiming to know things I actually do not.

So. One of the emails in question contains, or is reported to contain, Professor McGinn telling his research assistant he was thinking about her during his recent “hand-job”. Professor McGinn posted a recent note claiming to refute the appearance that this email constituted sexual harassment, or at least claiming to “take care of certain false allegations”. In it, he… well, he… I’ll just quote a bit:

What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before? A manicure, of course. Why does this joke work? Because of the tension between the conventional idiomatic sense of “hand job” (a certain type of sex act) and its semantic or compositional meaning (in which it is synonymous with “job done by or to the hand”). When you think about it virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second semantic sense: for all human work is manual work—not just carpentry and brick laying but also cookery and calligraphy. Indeed, without the hand human culture and human economies would not exist. So really “hand jobs” are very respectable and vital to human flourishing. We are a “hand jobs” species. (Are you now becoming desensitized to the specifically sexual meaning of “hand jobs”? Remember that heart surgeons are giving you a “hand job” when they operate on you; similarly for masseurs and even tax accountants.)

Now, does this not show a fundamental failure of understanding how language works? There’s a word (or two-word phrase, depending on how you count things like words in the English language) that has one and only one common meaning. Claiming that there is a semantic meaning that nobody ever uses or has used, and that the so-called semantic meaning trumps the actual meaning is, well, it’s a lot like what a joke philosophy professor would say, possibly in Alan Bennett’s voice (are you using the word ‘yes’ in the affirmative sense?) rather than an actual sensible statement.

It should, by the way, astonish y’all as it astonished me that Prof. McGinn’s refutation really is that he was indulging in crude […] humor with an employee. That’s it. He claims that he didn’t tell her he had a hand-job, but that he made a joke about having a hand-job. I guess that’s not quite true—he also claims that the two are totally different things, as if making crude jokes to an employee was not actionable. And… that’s it. That’s his refutation. In fact, he doesn’t even say that much, positing it as a hypothetical; he really only says that someone might have been reported as telling his employee that he had a hand-job, when in fact that person might have used a sort of double-entendre (A woman walks into a bar and asks for a double entendre, so the bartender gave her one) which, by the way, would have been incredibly witty, according to the distinguished professor of philosophy. Such wit, as far as I can tell, would have been called out as inappropriate on the internet message board I read for fans of my favorite sports team.

To get back to my question, though: do any of you care to defend the understanding of language and communication displayed here? Or is it possible that a supervisor using the word “hand job” to his employee could not be understood as a reference to a sex act, either directly or through obvious and direct implication?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,