The story of Laura Kipnis is utterly chilling. The Northwestern University professor, a prominent left-wing feminist scholar, wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education denouncing the atmosphere of “sexual paranoia” on campuses, caused in large part by feminist hypervigilance about sexual assault. From that essay:
For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square. Let no one think I’m soft on harassment. But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.
In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules. Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors, opening the door for another panicky conflation: teacher-student sex and incest. Recall that it was incest victims who earlier popularized the use of the term “survivor,” previously reserved for those who’d survived the Holocaust. The migration of the term itself is telling, exposing the core anxiety about teacher-student romances: that there’s a whiff of perversity about such couples, notwithstanding all the venerable married ones.
These are anxious times for officialdom, and students, too, are increasingly afflicted with the condition—after all, anxiety is contagious. Around the time the “survivor” email arrived, something happened that I’d never experienced in many decades of teaching, which was that two students—one male, one female—in two classes informed me, separately, that they were unable to watch assigned films because they “triggered” something for them. I was baffled by the congruence until the following week, when the Times ran a story titled “Trauma Warnings Move From the Internet to the Ivory Tower,” and the word “trigger” was suddenly all over the news.
I didn’t press the two students on the nature of these triggers. I knew them both pretty well from previous classes, and they’d always seemed well-adjusted enough, so I couldn’t help wondering. One of the films dealt with fascism and bigotry: The triggeree was a minority student, though not the minority targeted in the film. Still, I could see what might be upsetting. In the other case, the connection between the student and the film was obscure: no overlapping identity categories, and though there was some sexual content in the film, it wasn’t particularly explicit. We exchanged emails about whether she should sit out the discussion, too; I proposed that she attend and leave if it got uncomfortable. I was trying to be empathetic, though I was also convinced that I was impeding her education rather than contributing to it.
I teach in a film program. We’re supposed to be instilling critical skills in our students (at least that’s how I see it), even those who aspire to churn out formulaic dreck for Hollywood. Which is how I framed it to my student: If she hoped for a career in the industry, getting more critical distance on material she found upsetting would seem advisable, given the nature of even mainstream media. I had an image of her in a meeting with a bunch of execs, telling them that she couldn’t watch one of the company’s films because it was a trigger for her. She agreed this could be a problem, and sat in on the discussion with no discernable ill effects.
But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life?
It’s a perfectly reasonable essay. For her trouble, Kipnis was set upon by campus feminists, including two graduate students who filed a Title IX charge against her (Title IX is a federal civil rights law forbidding sex discrimination in higher education). Kipnis tells what happened next:
…I received an email from my university’s Title IX coordinator informing me that two students had filed Title IX complaints against me on the basis of the essay and “subsequent public statements” (which turned out to be a tweet), and that the university would retain an outside investigator to handle the complaints.
I stared at the email, which was under-explanatory in the extreme. I was being charged with retaliation, it said, though it failed to explain how an essay that mentioned no one by name could be construed as retaliatory, or how a publication fell under the province of Title IX, which, as I understood it, dealt with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. It is stunning, and scary as hell, to see how much power aggrieved students have to ruin a professor’s life and career by using federal law to wage culture war against their professors for being insufficiently kowtowing to the sensibilities of these Little Empresses. Kipnis writes about the kangaroo-court Title IX hearing process to which she was subjected (there has been no verdict yet), and adds:
Many of the emails I received from people teaching at universities pointed out that I was in a position to take on the subjects I did in the earlier essay only because I have tenure. The idea is that once you’ve fought and clawed your way up the tenure ladder, the prize is academic freedom, the general premise being — particularly at research universities, like the one I’m fortunate enough to be employed at — that there’s social value in fostering free intellectual inquiry. It’s a value fast disappearing in the increasingly corporatized university landscape, where casual labor is the new reality. Adjuncts, instructors, part-timers — now half the profession, according to the American Association of University Professors — simply don’t have the same freedoms, practically speaking.
What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place. With students increasingly regarded as customers and consumer satisfaction paramount, it’s imperative to avoid creating potential classroom friction with unpopular ideas if you’re on a renewable contract and wish to stay employed. Self-censorship naturally prevails. But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes; pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.
When it comes to campus sexual politics, however, the group most constrained from speaking — even those with tenure — is men. No male academic in his right mind would write what I did. Men have been effectively muzzled, as any number of my male correspondents attested.
What is happening to Kipnis is happening on campus, but don’t think for a minute it’s going to stay on campus. Title IX governs higher education, but the Social Justice Warrior crusade against wrongthink is spreading. Disagreement, even critical disagreement, with the position of a protected class of Little Emperors and Little Empresses can set one up for discrimination accusations, and even potential legal action. It’s one thing to create a “hostile work environment” by actual harmful remarks or actions, but what happens when a Little Emperor or Empress accuses a colleague whose opinions they don’t like of creating a hostile work environment?
As someone who was once accused of doing exactly that, I worry. Had my case — which involved an expression of written opinion that was part of my job as a professional opinion writer — gone to the human resources department for adjudication, in theory I would have easily won, because the accusation was absurd. But I could not take that risk. There was, I judged, a meaningful chance that had this gone to HR, the department would have sided with my touchy accuser, if only to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit. Even if I had been victorious, the process would probably have destroyed the working environment within the office. I stood to be tarred professionally as a bigot, which, in mainstream American journalism, is an offense that is consequential and hard to shake.
I was (am) the sole breadwinner in my family, and I worked at the time in a declining industry, in which many talented people were losing their jobs, and not finding other ones within the field. I could not afford to make trouble. So I stood down.
What’s happening to Laura Kipnis is much, much worse, but in some ways better, because she has the job security of tenure. Reading her this morning brings back the shame I felt over knuckling under to this bullying colleague, who, frankly, held all the cards and the power in this situation. After I refused to fight for myself, I made a point of avoiding this colleague, and of not commenting on anything that might set the colleague off, for fear of jeopardizing my livelihood. Did I mention that I was a professional writer of opinion, someone who was supposed to take sides and provoke discussion and debate? This is the field of work I chose, but I did not realize that overnight, someone came and buried land mines all over it.
I’m thinking also this morning of a college professor I know who not long ago had a female undergraduate come to him to say she thought she had been date raped by a guy, but wasn’t sure. My friend tried to be compassionate and helpful to a traumatized young woman. Thinking this morning about Title IX and the Maoist sexual politics of campus, I think if a student turned up at my faculty door asking for help after a potential sexual injury, I would be terrified of engaging, for fear of what might happen to me.
Similarly, a Catholic priest I know, a man from a large family, stopped allowing his many small nieces and nephews to sit on their uncle’s lap at family gatherings, out of stark fear that somebody, somewhere would see a photo of it, or hear the child say that their uncle the priest had them in his lap, and destroy his life and priesthood with a groundless accusation. Can you imagine that? I can’t say I blame the poor man, nor would I blame my professor friend if he refused to help students in need of guidance and counsel over sexual trauma, or even sexual confusion. You have to behave in anti-human ways to protect yourself from being destroyed by people who view justice as an exercise in power, and the law as a weapon to be used to attack those they don’t like.
Some conservatives might take pleasure in watching the left-wing feminists devour their own. This is wrong. It’s wrong because what we’re seeing happen on campus is the destruction of the university. Yes, the liberals have let the barbarians in the gate by embracing the politics of victimization, and all that goes with it, but there is no legitimate pleasure to be taken as these privileged children of the Sexual Revolution sack and pillage institutions of civilization.
Besides, as Kipnis points out, all men on campus are in danger of this sexual Maoism. Your son the student and your brother the professor is at risk from the SJWs, who have federal law on their side. Not long ago, a professor told me that at his Christian university, concern over possible Title IX violations have led professors to be extremely careful about what they teach in the classroom regarding sexual morals and ethics, even in classes where it is appropriate to bring the issue up as part of the academic course. They are terrified of being accused by a student of harassing them by triggering sensitivity, even by simply presenting relevant material in a neutral way. It’s just too risky these days. Better not to teach it at all than to risk blowing up your career by offending a kid. A kid!
UPDATE: A nationally known conservative college professor, a man who is well into his career, and protected by tenure, just wrote to say “it’s worse than you think,” then sent evidence. He said this has definitely had a chilling effect on the lectures he gives, for fear of triggering a Little Empress or Emperor, who will set out to ruin his academic life. I’m not going to quote his post, because I want to protect him and his position on his campus. But he adds:
If I had to do it over again, I would have never, ever entered academia. I cringe when I think of the few young, ambitious, and bright conservatives who are entering the academy now who have no idea of how even uttering their viewpoints will be turned against them to destroy them.