Sunday, November 2, 2014

Did I Misrepresent Leiter's Threats Against Noelle McAfee?

Leiter's latest, very strange post about Noelle McAfee (no, I won't link to it) reminded me that there was an old post I'd never finished. I'd more or less abandoned it in the spirit of not piling on, since this whole sorry episode seemed to have come to some kind of conclusion. But, apparently, no.1

In one of his responses to the various criticisms of his behavior (no, I won't link to it), Leiter wrote:
Similarly--and contrary to Richard Heck’s latest misrepresentations (which he's apparently been e-mailing out to the world)--when Noelle McAfee threatened that my e-mails to her would "get around" (a threat she has now made good on), the only thing I told her would "get around" is that I believed she had a personal vendetta against me because she felt I hadn't done enough for her back in the late 1990s when I was one of the placement directors.
Of course, Leiter does not quote my email or explain exactly what I was supposed to be "misrepresent[ing]", so we are left to figure this out for ourselves. And it is quite puzzling.

The part of my email Leiter has in mind is presumably:2
...I ask you to reflect upon these two passages from a pair of emails that Leiter sent to Noelle McAfee, of Emory University, on 12 Feburary 2014:
At 4:36 EST: I know you and your work all too well, and I realize you are on a personal vendetta against me, going back to when I was charged with placing you years ago. [McAfee graduated from Texas in 1998.] At some point, I’m going to go very public with all this if you continue to misrepresent me, the PGR, etc.
At 9:47 (EST?): If my e-mails to you "get around," rest assured that other things will get around. I am tired of your sick nonsense. You are lucky to have any academic job, let alone a job at a nominally serious university.
Noelle has confirmed publicly that she read these passages as I think anyone would: as "specifically threatening to out some information that [Leiter] had in his role as placement director" (my emphasis), information that, she is apparently supposed to believe, might threaten the "academic job" that she is "lucky to have" (and with it, of course, her livelihood). As Noelle goes on to say, "On its face that is beyond the pale". And, even if Noelle knows that "Leiter has nothing on [her]", such a threat can only have been extremely frightening and disturbing.
So let's see. I say how Noelle herself says she read these emails and remark that I think it's very understandable why she would read them that way. What of that is supposed not to be true?

That said, Leiter's claim that he was only threatening to out Noelle's "personal vendetta" against him is hard to believe. Why would anyone care if Noelle has a personal vendetta against Leiter? Why, in particular, should Noelle care if Leiter tells people about it?3 That really wouldn't have been much of a threat. And why does Leiter tell her, after making his threat that "other things will get around", that she is "lucky to have any academic job, let alone a job at a nominally serious university"?4 Does Leiter think having a personal vendetta against him is a fireable offense at nominally serious universities?

Maybe there are answers to those questions. Maybe Leiter really was "only" threatening what he claims to have been threatening. But the truth is that Leiter's intentions do not matter very much. We aren't responsible only for the intended consequences of our actions, and that is especially true when we are otherwise engaged in wrong-doing. The simple truth is that, if you're going to write angry, threatening, and insulting emails to people, then you don't get to complain if those people, hurt and upset by what you have said, misunderstand exactly what threats and insults you meant to be making.

That's especially true when the threats are veiled. The whole point of making a veiled threat is to let your victim's imagination run wild. Thus, in this case, Nicole was left to wonder exactly which "other things" Leiter meant to make public, since he didn't say. It's easy to imagine how she might have run through her memories, trying to figure out what Leiter might have had on her, and even then, having decided he has nothing, still be left to wonder whether maybe she'd forgotten something.

Why are so many people in our profession willing to tolerate and even excuse this sort of behavior? I used to think (or at least hope) philosophers were different from other people. I decided a while ago that I was wrong. But now I think maybe I was right. Just for the wrong reason.

1 That said, I'm going to backdate this post as I did an earlier one. The actual date of the post was 13 December 2014.

2 The email in question was sent to maybe 60 people, but it was also posted on this blog. So anyone who wished to do so could have consulted it.

3 This is all the more puzzling since Noelle had written, in her response to Leiter's first email to her:
I have no idea why you think I would have any kind of vendetta against you. In case you've forgotten I got a TT [tenure track] offer my first year out, which I turned down, and the next year I got a better TT offer, which I took. In that intervening year I taught politic[al] theory in the government department. So why on earth would you think I have a personal vendetta against you -- unless you have a guilty conscious about something I don't know about?
Perhaps Leiter expects Noelle to share his opinion that she is "a philosopher in a shit department"?

4 Speaking as a southerner, I have always found this slight of Emory outrageous. It is a very good university, and we southerners are very proud of it.

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