In March 2017, a Buzzfeed article reported that UC Berkeley’s world-famous Professor of Philosophy John Searle had been sued by Joanna Ong, a graduate student in the Philosophy department, for sexual assault over many years. After the allegations, several other women came forward, and even more students relayed stories of Professor Searle making misogynist and racist comments during lectures and in office hours. Searle’s behavior had been an “open secret” for decades.
I was in my sophomore year as a Philosophy major at Cal when that article was published. I attended my lectures over the next few days and was surprised by how few professors took the time to acknowledge the situation (of course, some professors I admire very much did).
Fast forward to February 2018. The #MeToo campaign has swept the globe, and it seems that allegations against high-profile figures in Hollywood, Washington, and other places have been coming in every other day. I haven’t heard new updates about Searle’s case since it was made public. His photo and biography are still up on the UC Berkeley Philosophy department website, and his title still reads “Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Language.”
Professor John Campbell begins my Theory of Meaning lecture by asking the class how we would feel about reading a paper written by John Searle. He acknowledges that this is a difficult question to discuss and that it’s very important for him to hear what students have to say.
With the #MeToo movement, people have found some of their greatest idols come under fire. What does it mean to consume or study the work of an immoral person? I’m a big James Franco fan. If he in fact assaulted women over the course of his career in Hollywood, does that make it morally wrong to watch and enjoy The Disaster Artist? How much can and should we separate a person’s work from his or her actions?
A man behind me raised his hand first to answer my professor’s question. He responded that later in the course we would be reading work by Gottlob Frege, a 19th century German philosopher of language who expressed anti-Semitic views. In fact, there are many thinkers who contributed groundbreaking work to the canon who committed questionable behavior during their lifetimes. To throw out their work because of this would be to throw out indubitable genius, and it really makes no sense to not read Searle but still read thinkers like Frege and Heidegger.
I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s a good one. It certainly brings a lot of ambiguity to the moral question. We would in fact have to largely throw out the canon were we to only read works by “sinless” scholars.
But the fact of the matter is, the reason why Searle was so untouchable, and why he was able to get away with his behavior for decades even though people in the department were well aware of it, was because he was a genius. He knew that he would be celebrated regardless of those actions, and in fact he WAS celebrated for them for years. His legacy as a brilliant mind would live on and remain untainted by any allegations that came out against him.
This is exactly the expectation that we are reinforcing by celebrating his work despite his actions. By “separating” his behavior and his work, we are feeding back into the dynamic that has given men with talent the ability to abuse their power and victimize those who look up to them.
I raised my hand after the man made his point. I said that it was a good argument, but that because the situation happened in our department and many of us know the victim personally (though I do not), that it would be disrespectful to her to read the Searle paper and regressive in a department that has not done enough to rectify the structures and norms that allowed such abusive behavior to happen.
After that, the only people who voiced agreement with me were women. And the only people who voiced agreement with the man who spoke before me were men.
The conversation concluded that ultimately, if people felt uncomfortable reading the Searle paper, they should not be forced to. Professor Campbell pointed out that Searle’s ideas were not particularly original or canonical on the topic and that he would choose a piece that was more groundbreaking on the subject, but would send out the Searle paper as an optional reading.
I do not believe we should throw out the canon. John Searle did not look to Frege as an example of a person who got away with immoral behavior because he was a genius. He only saw genius in himself and discovered he could use it to his advantage. The Searle case is happening now. A power structure is still present in the department in which he assaulted many women. It is pointless to think about the past and retroactively disparage men who were immoral in the 19th century. #MeToo is about now and the future. We need to start examining how people come to these positions of power now and start dismantling our current structures. We need to show people that just because they have talent does not mean we will prioritize that over the victimization of innocent.
In the UC Berkeley Philosophy department, that starts with Searle.
But that’s just my opinion.