Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Laura Kipnis's Title IX Investigation

According to an article in The Chronicle of High Education, two female graduate students filed Title IX charges against author and professor Laura Kipnis over an essay she penned for the Chronicle in February provocatively titled Sexual Paranoia Strikes the Academe, where she called the current incarnation of campus feminism replete with trigger warnings and safe spaces "feminism hikacked by melodrama." Kipnis is obviously not afraid of ruffling any feathers. She was eventually cleared of the charges, but that someone would lodge a Title IX complaint for writing what, at the very worst, could be described as a slightly tone-deaf op-ed piece is so beyond the pale it sounds like the plot of a Phillip Roth novel. The genesis of the complaint, from what I understand, stems from her writing in detail about a particular harassment case on her campus. (There were some inaccuracies which were later corrected.) While she didn't name names and the case is public knowledge, simply using it to illustrate her point that there is a creeping "sexual paranoia" on college campuses created a "hostile environment" for the accuser (which kind of proves Kipnis's point). The new article details the investigation process, which should be disturbing for anyone who considers herself a supporter of academic freedom. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has a good write-up on the whole mess, as does Brian Leiter, who quotes at length Friday's article, which unfortunately has been moved behind a paywall. The Washington Post explains:
Kipnis wasn’t allowed to have an attorney with her for her meeting with investigators; she wasn’t apprised of her charges before the meeting; she had to fight with the investigators over recording the session. “I’d plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it,” writes Kipnis.
Both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that the charges were ridiculous. Alsison Herman from Flavorwire draws ironic parallels between Kipnis's investigation and how sexual assault victims themselves are treated on campus:
I was struck by some of the similarities between her horror story and those of survivors. The official record of her hearing was preserved in her investigators’ subjective notes, which she could only attempt to correct after the fact; her “support person” faced repercussions of his own for discussing the case in public; her ruling has yet to come through, even though the 60-day time frame offered by the university has already passed. Such blunders are staples of some of the most highly publicized stories of administrative incompetence, including Sulkowicz’s.
Even Jezebel marveled at the incredulity of the investigation, calling it a "stunning example of feminism eating itself," adding:
Student activists at Northwestern protested Kipnis’ essay by carrying around mattresses in the style of Emma Sulkowicz, which Kipnis regarded as “symbolically incoherent,” given that Sulkowicz’s mattress had come to symbolize student-on-student sexual assault and that Kipnis’ essay was primarily about sex between students and teachers. Further, Kipnis hadn’t assaulted anyone. Nevertheless, the students, with mattresses in tow, went to Northwestern’s president with a petition demanding swift and official condemnation of Kipnis essay.
There is so much wrong with this that I don't know where to begin. Kipnis wasn't allowed to have a lawyer present during the investigation. She wasn't told what the charges actually were, just that a complaint had been filed. That there is now a generation of adults who think that they need protection from... an essay! All of these things are part of a campus climate ill-equipped to handle conflict and too content with infantilizing students . In a March article for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg said:
What’s going on is as much a culture clash as an ideological divide. In some ways, the present moment recalls the feminist sex wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was the anti-porn feminist Catherine MacKinnon, after all, who best elaborated a theory of speech as violence. Yet MacKinnon’s broader ideas about porn and prostitution are utterly out of fashion. In many young feminist circles, criticism of sex work is dismissed as slut shaming or whorephobia. Lots of elite campuses have BDSM clubs. Just a couple of years ago, Slutwalks were all the rage. On the surface, it seems that feminists like Kipnis—author, among other things, of a sympathetic 1996 book about porn titled Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America—have triumphed over the bluestockings. Yet surrounding all this sexual bravado is a constricting earnestness that renders insouciant provocateurs like Kipnis anathema.
And as much as I hate to chalk this up solely to a generational divide, there has been a pattern of women, mostly in their mid-30s through their 50s, dismayed at the current state of feminism and its valorization of victimhood. Jessa Crispin, Meghan Daum, Michelle Goldberg notably on feminism's toxic environment -- to name a few. I'm about their age, and I see it to. Growing up with a feminism that married punk rock, ethical sluts, and Bust magazine, I miss the fierceness, even if it was largely performative.