The Curious Case of Laura Kipnis

Republished from Free Press Houston

By Blake Jones
Illustration by Blake Jones

We’re I a betting man, the smart money would be on the notion that you, dear reader, have at some point in your life, contributed to the countless flame wars, Facebook fights, and Twitter spats which are a staple of life on the Internet.

Maybe you do it to sharpen your mind? Maybe you do it to prepare for your obnoxious conservative uncle who’s had a few beers too many at Thanksgiving dinner and regurgitates the latest line from Fox News while you hope he doesn’t regurgitate dinner.

Maybe you enjoy being contrarian for it’s own sake?

In any case, the struggle is real.

I am certainly no stranger to discord and controversy. I frequently court them and one cardinal rule I have for debate is “attack the argument, not the person”.

I have few exceptions.

For example, a “family values” politician or preacher who thunders about sexual propriety, who parades his family before the cameras like show horses while building a career out of making life more dangerous and miserable for LGBT folks, who then gets caught on his knees in an airport men’s room makes himself fair game. Other than that, a typical moment of victory for me is when someone else goes ad hominem, when an opponent attacks the person, not the argument. That’s the point where someone admits they no longer have any valid counter argument.

Disagreement and debate take many forms,  different tones, and varying levels of intellectual honesty and vitriol. Some organize themselves in debate societies with various customs, courtesies, and clearly delineated boundaries of acceptable behavior and methods of debate. Nothing is learned, nor any mind changed when debates degenerate into screaming matches. One method I’d not anticipated but should have is that of using historic legislation designed to combat sexual discrimination against someone for writing an article in a national publication someone doesn’t like, which brings me to the curious case of Prof. Laura Kipnis.

Prof. Kipnis is a feminist professor at Northwestern university who wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Sexual Paranoia has Struck Academe”, protesting what she saw as her school’s excessive regulation of sexual conduct, specifically the prohibition of university professors dating or sleeping with their own students. This of course angered campus moralizers who so frequently behave like the intellectual and emotional equivalent of human veal at the slightest hint of disagreement, or a dissenting opinion so naturally they petitioned the school administration to issue official condemnations of Professor Kipnis, underscoring their displeasure by carrying mattresses and pillows during various protest marches in reference to the infamous “mattress girl” case of Columbia university.

As a general rule I don’t think it’s appropriate for college professors to sleep with their own students. For example, if you’re a political science professor, you shouldn’t date or go to bed with a political science major. There’s a conflict of interest there which I personally think is professionally inappropriate. That aside, assuming they’re consenting adults, I don’t have any objections to professors sating or sleeping with students who will never cross paths academically. In short, I’ve no interest in defending her original article.

Defending her became a moral imperative, at least for me, when two female grad students filed Title IX complaints against her, alleging that the article, and a tweet she’d posted related to it, amounted to retaliation the complainants. How they amounted to retaliation is my guess as much as it still is Prof. Kipnis’

For those of you wondering what Title IX is, it’s a historic piece of legislation enacted in 1972 to combat gender discrimination, more specifically in institutes of education which receive federal funds. This applies to virtually all universities in the U.S. since federally backed student loans count as the receipt of federal funds. With total  student debt load having ballooned to roughly $1.3 trillion, it’s easy to see why. Title IX is most commonly thought of as applied to university athletics programs whereby universities must provide equal opportunities for men and women to participate in various athletics programs, however it applies to all educational activities for such universities. It also demands that such universities implement and execute policies to combat sexual harassment and assault. In this case, the two female grad students decided to use Title IX against Prof. Kipnis because she wrote an article they didn’t like.

“It’s the harbinger of what we’re afraid is a new era of colleges deciding that they’re going to launch Title IX investigations whenever anybody says something that be construed as sexually discriminatory regardless of the situation. Title IX has never been  interpreted to cover op-eds in national newspapers like the Chronicle of Higher Education to the extent that it’s being used to regulate speech in a free press, that’s really problematic.” says attorney Robert Shibley, Executive Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE. FIRE’s stated mission is to protect the rights of “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience” on university campuses. I suspect that the terms “religious liberty” and “sanctity of conscience” may rub you the wrong way because it’s frequently the language of social conservatives. Hold that thought because it was a red flag to me too at first. More on that later.

That Kipnis couldn’t publish an opinion publicly without someone subjecting her to a Title IX inquiry is a horrific sign of the state of debate in American universities. Don’t want to be bothered to counter speech with speech? Just file a Title IX complaint to try to intimidate and silence people. One riposte I’ve heard to try to downplay the significance of filing a Title IX complaint against someone for an opinion piece is that it isn’t a big deal because such an obviously ridiculous complaint will certainly be dismissed and at least it sets a precedent. So why does it matter?

“The reason it matters is that in situations like this the process becomes the punishment when you don’t have a procedure for eliminating frivolous complaints at the very beginning of the process as you have what we’ve had here, which is a professor who has been sidetracked for 72 days worrying about whether or not she’s going to be proclaimed as someone is engaged in discrimination for simply writing an article for a newspaper. That in itself has an extremely noticeable chilling effect on expression on and off campus, particularly on Northwestern’s campus  where the other professors would say ‘you know what, I’d like to weigh in on this issue but is it really worth two or three months of hassle even if I’m going to be cleared at the end of it?’. [Kipnis] never even really got a clear statement of exactly what she violated with her column or how, so it’s a huge burden on the people who are being investigated.” Says Shibley.

Fortunately, the Title IX charges were dismissed — albeit after a 72 day ordeal under conditions of which “Kangaroo court” would come to mind for good reason. That nothing came Title IX complaint against Kipnis isn’t the point either. That anyone thought it was even remotely appropriate to use Title IX inquiries as a tool of intimidation or retaliation against people for voicing opinions they don’t like is a development that’s more than slightly alarming to me. It’s alarming because if there is one place in this country where the unmentionable can and should be mentioned, that tough ideas should be introduced and challenged it should be the American university.

OBJECTIONS ANTICIPATED

Remember when I said that I suspect that you might be suspicious of FIRE’s defense of “religious liberty” and “sanctity of conscience” because it’s frequently the language of social conservatives? I originally mistook FIRE as a conservative organization for this very reason. They frequently manifest as the language of draconian abortion restrictions, discrimination against LGBT folks, and “conscience clauses” which allow pharmacy techs to refuse to dispense birth control, so I understand the raised eyebrow.

They’re in fact highly non partisan and very sincere about that fact. While the organization does count conservatives as its members, FIRE’s President, Greg Lukianoff, is actually a liberal Democrat. The reason I bring this up is that while FIRE was not directly involved in Prof. Kipnis’ case, they have has come to the defense for the above mentioned rights of people from across the political spectrum on American universities. This is important because Prof. Kipnis’ ordeal is not simply a Left/Right issue.

“Most academics I know — this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer — now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster. After the essay appeared, I was deluged with emails from professors applauding what I’d written because they were too frightened to say such things publicly themselves. My inbox became a clearinghouse for reports about student accusations and sensitivities, and the collective terror of sparking them, especially when it comes to the dreaded subject of trigger warnings, since pretty much anything might be a “trigger” to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.” Says Kipnis in her article about her ordeal “My Title IX Inquisition”. Granted, this is in her own words, so take it with a grain of salt if you like.

DON’T BE A “STEPFORD STUDENT” – DO YOUR OWN THINKING

While Kipnis is one example out of many, FIRE has an extensive documentation of cases which resemble these. The concept of free speech is often wrongly conflated with the First Amendment, though they are related. This leaves the door open to pro-censorship weasel arguments which state in one way or another that “it’s only censorship when the government does it”. The First Amendment applies to the government yes, but free speech is a universal value.

When it comes to the defense of free speech rights I have a personal “viewpoint neutrality” whereby I’ll defend, with very few exceptions, not the content of someone’s speech, but their right to it. I don’t agree with Prof. Kipnis’ article protesting Northwestern University’s ban on faculty dating their own students; I think it’s quite reasonable. I do defend her right to pen that article. The fact that students thought they should use Title IX to retaliate against her for it invariably reminds me of the experiences of Brendan O’Neil, Editor at Spiked, who describes the rise of the “Stepford Student”, himself a victim of them when an abortion debate at which he was supposed to present the pro-choice argument was shut down simply because both debaters were men.

Stepford Students are, as he puts it, the “students [who] are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up.” In the UK, they demand the “right to be comfortable”, to never be confronted with any challenging idea, uncomfortable opinion. Here in the US, Stepford Students bang on about the need for “emotional safety”. In both countries, Stepford Students hide behind risible buzzwords such as “microaggressions” “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to install such petty tyrannies which encourage the kind of climate which spawned the alarming notion that it’s perfectly acceptable to use Title IX against someone because someone else doesn’t like or agree with an article.

“The increased calls for sensitivity-based censorship represent the dark side of what are otherwise several positive developments for human civilization. As I will explain in the next section, I believe that we are not passing through some temporary phase in which an out-of-touch and hypersensitive elite attempts — and often fails — to impose its speech-restrictive norms on society. It’s worse than that: people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.” Writes FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff in his essay “Freedom From Speech”

Indeed the kind of mindset behind the Title IX complainants, and those like them, demands precisely that — freedom from speech. It’s incredibly infantilizing because it never applies only to them; they essentially signal that they should get to dictate you what you get, or don’t get to see, read, and hear for yourself. If someone personally wishes to deny themselves the opportunities exposure to new ideas may bring, they can be my guest. I trust that you, dear reader, are better and stronger than that, both mentally and emotionally. Never allow moralizing whingers, hand-wringers and authoritarians of any stripe infantilize you.

Most of all, never let anyone intimidate you out of doing your own thinking.