In his recent letter to the editor, Raff Donelson undertakes to ‘redeem’ Laura Kipnis. His letter strains under the weight of its own charitable timbre: Kipnis, he suggests, may have gotten a little “carried away” with herself. Perhaps, though, “many of us” did, too. He goes on to articulate some otherwise noteworthy commentaries, lest they go the way of a shiny dime in a pile of puke on Bourbon St. — only to be washed away, unappreciated. It’s tempting to ignore people like Laura Kipnis. Don’t feed the trolls, or, if you like, laisse tomber, car elle ne sait rien faire de ses dix doigts (that one’s for you, Laura). But Donelson, instead, tries to give voice to a version of what Kipnis could have said. A version that might otherwise have constituted a real contribution to a conversation that is ongoing. His response stems from a tenacity that I know and admire. And yet, I wonder whom exactly my colleague has in mind when he charges that many, or even some of us, may have gotten carried away in response to her op-ed?
Her thesis was that menopausal women suffering from diminished libidos have retaliated against garden-variety male sexuality by indoctrinating to institutions of higher learning a moral hysteria. In the course of her impressively longwinded op-ed, she manages to ironically compare victims of sexual violence to holocaust survivors, by way of mocking the idea that to come through sexual violence is itself to survive a trauma. She further manages to betray the confidence of her own students, some of whom, heartrendingly, recognize themselves in her derisive anecdotes. So again, I find myself wondering whom exactly Donelson has in mind when he supposes that perhaps many of us may have been similarly “carried away” in our response to Kipnis’ piece. I wonder, because I am of the opinion that Northwestern’s students have every right to be absolutely outraged by her vitriol, and this, without being accused of intemperance. To suggest that our students’ moral indignation is on a par with Kipnis’ piece is beyond the pale. This fact is unassailable even if, as Donelson argues, there is some truth in the vicinity of Kipnis’ otherwise thoroughly repugnant views.
There are aspects of Donelson’s piece that are worth engaging with. I think the argument about how disingenuous it is for universities to ban faculty-student sexual relationships, while practically subsidizing a culture that engenders an epidemic of student-on-student sexual violence, merits a conversation. Donelson also raises the current of Kipnis’ piece by bringing into view the intersectionality of individual identities, over and above the reductivist professor-student dynamic. And that’s helpful, because these issues are far more complex than Kipnis’ piece suggests. But, it’s the surrounding fauna of Donelson’s letter that I find — forgive me, but — irredeemable. Because, it echoes the tenor of Kipnis’ piece, which urges us to put scare-quotes around the word survivor when we’re talking about sexual violence, and condescends to the idea that faculty have a duty of care to their students. Donelson lends his voice to Kipnis’ profoundly misguided position, bolstering her argument, without giving what’s wrong about it, its due.
To conflate an interest in respecting basic professional boundaries, with a childish, borderline entitled request to be mollycoddled, is the height of setting up straw men. Inculcating to students a sense of healthy boundaries is simply not in the spirit of cosseting, and worse than intellectually lazy, to suggest otherwise is to shout down a certain kind of victim. Both Donelson and Kipnis are guilty of just that, and we should be quick to say so, because it’s intolerable.
Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy ’16, The Graduate School