Thoughts on The Kipnis Clown Show and the Drama of University Life

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You may have seen some mention of the now-apparently-concluded Laura Kipnis saga at Northwestern University. If you haven’t, here’s the quick gist: A couple months back, Kipnis, a Professor of Radio, TV and Film at Northwestern, wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lampooning and denouncing what she views as the ‘sexual paranoia’ now reigning on college campuses, spreading out into the society at large and creating a broader climate of adult infantilization captured by new phrases like ‘trigger warnings’, ‘safe spaces’ and the like. This created a good bit of controversy and debate, unsurprisingly. It also spurred a protest at Northwestern in which student activists demanded that the administration publicly reject Kipnis’s views and reaffirm its support for its own policies on sexual harassment and assault.

Then, in response, at least two students at Northwestern filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis – alleging that her essay constituted retaliation against students whose sexual abuse or assault claims she described in passing in the essay. The University did in fact open such an investigation, complete with a contract with an outside law firm to conduct the investigation, which was entirely based on the article in question and a single tweet Kipnis tweeted to support the same article.

On Monday, it was reported that the Title IX investigation at least has ended with Kipnis being entirely exonerated, though there is apparently an on-going probe into whether Kipnis’s article violated a non-retaliation provision in the University’s faculty handbook.

In other words, Kipnis wrote a sharp-tongued, one-dimensional caricature of university sexual assault and trigger warning activists at Northwestern. And they turned around and proved her one-dimensional caricature 100% right.

A few more details of the drama.

* Kipnis is no conservative. She’s a feminist and though I don’t know a lot about her political views, certainly in the broad sweep of our national politics she’d be considered a liberal of some sort.

* The arguments from the complainants are that Kipnis misstated or distorted details of these other Title IX complaints and in so doing retaliated against them and created a ‘chilling effect’ on other students’ ability to file complaints or assert their rights.

* Excessive Disclosure: TPM published an excerpt from Kipnis’s new book earlier this year. But I had never had any contact with her of any sort until sending her a question on this topic by email this weekend.

When I was in college I was much less political than I am now. I was usually part of more liberal social sets or organizations on campus to the extent I belonged to any organizations, which was barely at all. But I was always on the skeptical or perhaps right-leaning edges of those communities. So on the right of the left. Since then I’ve had a similar diffidence about the politics of the academic world. College campuses are where much of our newest and most forward-thinking ideas about rights, equality and more humane social mores first emerge. It’s no accident that the Freedom Riders were college kids, that a huge amount of the changes in attitudes toward the LGBT communities grew or was supported by student activists or that student activists have more recently been an important support to labor activists fighting to shame the country into raising the minimum wage for fast food workers. At the same time, campuses are unfailingly among society’s greatest engines of nonsense and unwitting self-parody. If Isaiah Berlin had had a more modern sense of humor, he might have said that out of the drama of late adolescence/early adulthood and the fatuous insularity of PhDs nothing straight was ever made. And I’m a PhD!

As you may, I remember similar debates, excesses and nonsense in the late 80s and early 90s when I was in college. A lot of it was amazingly stupid. And yet society has kept right on chugging along over the last quarter century with no apparent problem or breakdown. People are still free to say stupid and offensive things, let alone discuss most issues of real import in basically anyway they want. In fact, people don’t have too much problem saying baldly racist things in the public square with little or no consequence. There was a lot of newspeak and clumsily heavy-handed speech codes and other ideas that were extremely difficult to defend. But the net effect of most was: don’t be an asshole. Indeed, most of the martyrs in this cause tended to be people who had gotten their nose bent out of joint over not being able to tell racial jokes or print racially-denigrating articles in the student newspaper. Indeed, there’s one half-prominent columnist at a major paper who got his start as one of those very martyrs.

Then and today there’s a cottage industry of conservative writers who monitor every campus for the biggest excesses and then retail it at a profit for aggrieved conservatives nationwide. How else could David Horowitz make a living otherwise? But this has always struck me as something like shooting fish in a barrel – an endeavor at which foot-stomping victories are always possible, yet which amounts to little, if any, consequence, and is for all that more than vaguely pitiful. The latest resolution passed by a committee of the student government few vote for and barely any care about, the latest hyperbolic campus protest, etc.

But this Kipnis saga seems like more than the usual nonsense and stupidity. I expect a decent measure of militant foolery from undergraduate and graduate students. It’s part of the creative stew of university life. Not the most lovely, but far from the worst part of it. But when universities start making their own way into the derp by enforcing federal laws according to its dictates, then you’re on to another kind of situation.

A philosophy professor at The University of South Carolina, Justin Weinberg, said that Kipnis’ exoneration basically shows the whole thing wasn’t that big a deal in the first place. “It turns out that the process she had been demonizing — which of course may have its flaws — pretty much worked, from her point of view.”

That’s an unbelievably silly thing to say.

I don’t think Kipnis was ever in a great deal of jeopardy. Any sanction against her on these facts would have been very hard to sustain in the face of any capable legal challenge in her defense. But that’s not the point. The very idea that a professor could be hit with a Title IX investigation over an opinion article she wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education is so palpably ridiculous that there is simply no need to go further.

There may be some excuse for Northwestern itself inasmuch as they appear to have believed that they had no choice but to mount the investigation into the student complaints. But if that’s the case, that just means the current case law and procedures have just gone completely off the rails.

I strongly recommend reading the piece in question, which you can read here. I think it’s fair to say that Kipnis writes breezily about teacher-student relationships and skeptically about two high-profile harassment/assault incidents on her own campus. For this to constitute ‘retaliation’ in the sense in which the term is generally known in workplace discrimination law is to pull the terms out of all relation to their meaning to the point of making them ridiculous.

The controversy has generally been portrayed as a free speech issue or in Jon Chait’s formulation as a rebirth of ‘political correctness’ from the 1980s and early 1990s. It certainly is the former from one vantage point. But the free speech dimension strikes me as a critical but secondary one, with the deeper issue a form of militant paranoia and a desire to chain not just sexual violence but even discussions of sex and sexual violence to an apparatus of administrative investigations, quasi-judicial inquiries and lawsuits – making a law which is incredibly important to gender equality on campus into a plaything tribunal of fanaticism and militant derp.

When I was reading Kipnis’s follow-up discussing the Title IX investigation into her article she references a blog post at Huffington Post, written by a grad student at Northwestern, attacking her article whose author seemed to know a great deal about the Title IX complaints which led to the probe in question. The writing Kipnis described seemed so deeply clownish that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a hyperbolic and overdone description.

So I read it. It wasn’t. Several times when reading it I genuinely wondered it wasn’t parody. Here it is. It’s well worth reading yourself.

The gist of the piece is that Kipnis’s article included inaccuracies to further her “repugnant moral and political views” about erotic life and sexual harassment and (emphasis added)…

In view of Kipnis’ refusal to correct the factual inaccuracies in her piece, and as the misleading narrative propagated by her began to reverberate across multiple media platforms, at least two students filed Title IX retaliation complaints against Kipnis. Because, when a professor writes about your Title IX sexual assault complaint in an erroneous, misleading, and condescending way, that pretty straightforwardly raises questions about retaliation under Title IX.

From here the author moves on to the real heart of the matter: the university President’s writing another oped defending Kipnis’s right to free speech …

So, here, roughly, is how this unfolded: Kipnis writes a piece in clear violation of the faculty handbook, riddled with falsehoods about students, even as she is discussing the worst thing that has ever happened to these people. And then, while there are two utterly nascent, open Title IX complaints, our university president writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal issuing a verdict: Kipnis’ piece is protected speech.

Schapiro’s op-ed sends a very clear message that Kipnis has nothing to be concerned about with respect to those complaints, which in turn sends a clear message to those students regarding the complete lack of seriousness with which his administration regards their concerns. Frankly, those of us concerned about the integrity of our judicial processes ought to be a little disconcerted with how unilaterally our president has moved to completely stack the decks against these students. One wonders what else the university could possibly do to create a more hostile environment.

How can those students endeavor to flourish on a campus where their own president has publicly taken sides against them?

This is a PhD candidate in the university’s philosophy department writing this. And it’s in earnest. For a second, I thought is that some latter-day homage to Alan Sokal’s infamous hoax on post-modernism and cultural studies. But no! It’s real.

Beyond the underbrush of the overwrought university student life drama, here we have the legal strictures and emotional dynamics of a sexual assault investigation jumping the fences out into a public discussion about sex, sexual assault and due process in university life and life generally. Indeed, we are seeing some of what we saw in the preschool child sex abuse panics in the 80s (McMartin, et al.) wherein advocates create an air-tight logical box in which any evidence challenging a particular accusation actually reinforces the validity of the accusation rather than casting doubt on it.

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