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When Good Laws Go Bad: How One Professor is Experiencing McCarthyism in the 21st Century

Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, has been brought up on Title IX charges that appear to infringe on her First Amendment rights. She published an account of her experience yesterday.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Do you remember a few months ago when we posted the following video featuring Slavoj Žižek about the totalitarianism of the modern political correctness movement?

It’s a relatively long watch so I’ll offer a brief summary. Žižek’s main point is that totalitarianism differs from authoritarianism in that the latter is more of a “do what I say or else” system while the former is tinged with notes of “I know better than you what you really want.” His thoughts are based in Lacanian theory, built on the idea that social rules are being enforced by an imagined “Big Other” whom we strive not to offend. It’s out of fear that the public acquiesces to the bondage of totalitarianism. It’s also out of fear (plus systemic ignorance) that the public acquiesces to political correctness. Thus, political correctness and totalitarianism: odd bedfellows who are getting more and more comfortable with each other each passing day.

If you have doubts about Žižek’s theory, allow me to point you to the following tweet from Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis:

Read about the professor (me) brought up on Title IX charges over an essay. My Title IX Inquisition via @chronicle

— laura kipnis (@laurakipnis) May 29, 2015

It's a long read, but worth every second you spend poring over it. Kipnis is in hot water at the moment over an essay she wrote questioning the university's role in policing sexual politics on campus. To make a long (but important) story short, students that disagreed with her essay have exploited a perversion of Title IX to lodge a complaint against Kipnis that has resulted in a lengthy, opaque, and expensive investigation that violates all sorts of academic and first amendment freedoms. 

"As I understand it, any Title IX charge that’s filed has to be investigated, which effectively empowers anyone on campus to individually decide, and expand, what Title IX covers. Anyone with a grudge, a political agenda, or a desire for attention can quite easily leverage the system.  And there are a lot of grudges these days. The reality is that the more colleges devote themselves to creating 'safe spaces' — that new watchword — for students, the more dangerous those campuses become for professors. It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated."

This reminds me of a terrific piece on trigger warnings by my colleague Steven Mazie, published on this site a few weeks ago. His thesis echoes Kipnis' lamentations about perceived vulnerabilities and, frankly, intellectual spinelessness:

"Students should expect to be challenged — intellectually, personally, emotionally — in a liberal-arts classroom that is worth its salt. They should feel free to speak their minds in class, and this sense of a 'safe space' is indeed what professors have a responsibility to cultivate. Not a space free of ideas that may be offensive (to one, some, or many), but a space where everyone can feel comfortable exploring a rich text together with civility and respect."

There are several root causes to this mess we find ourselves in. First, Kipnis explains that the outcry over campus sexual assaults — an important cause that needed to be addressed — as unfortunately begat a sort of neo-McCarthyism through which any Abigail Williams can exploit the system to damage political enemies. This is because of the second root cause: Title IX, enacted by Congress in 1972 as a means to combat sex discrimination in education, has mutated beyond its initial purpose. Here's Kipnis again:

"Over time, court rulings established sexual harassment and assault as forms of discrimination, and in 2011 the U.S. Department of Education advised colleges to 'take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.' Since then, colleges have been scrambling to show that they’re doing everything they can to comply..."

Any college that receives federal funding has to be in compliance with Title IX. That's all fine and dandy when the standards to which compliance must be maintained are transparent. That is not the case here. Kipnis' article reads like a bureaucratic black comedy penned by Mike Judge replete with red tape, paperwork, and plenty of billable hours. It's The Crucible meets Catch-22.

The most notable root cause of this current state of affairs is the continuing evolution of universities away from intellectual purposes. Colleges are being run more like corporations than bastions of higher learning. Getting a diploma is more important than gaining knowledge. Students are treated more like customers than as pupils. This then means professors are being treated less like academic sages and more like the help. And that's going to students' heads. 

Here's Kipnis again:

"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...

You can mock academic culture all you want, and I’ve done a fair amount of it myself, but I also believe that unconstrained intellectual debate — once the ideal of university life, now on life support — is essential to a functioning democratic society. And that should concern us all."

Beyond these concerns, Kipnis also feels betrayed by those who launch assaults on intellectual freedom under the banner of feminism. It is, as Jezebel's Natasha Vargas-Cooper calls it, feminism devouring itself:

"I also find it beyond depressing to witness young women on campuses — including aspiring intellectuals! — trying to induce university powers to shield them from the umbrages of life and calling it feminism."

Kipnis is still waiting to hear the results of her inquisition. In all likelihood the spurious charges will be dropped and things will ostensibly go back to normal. But there is no normal after this. The political correctness sharks will almost certainly smell blood in the water. The push will continue to declaw higher education to prevent it from ever offending the tender sensibilities of full-grown adults. Those who voice discontent will be threatened with a blackball. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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That's what's most troublesome here. These folks think they're in the right, that they're balancing progress on their shoulders as they march forward. But as Žižek explained above, those who champion P.C. extremism do more to harm social harmony than help it. 


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