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Daly: We’ve made our mistakes in response to Kipnis

Alex Daly, Columnist

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When Prof. Laura Kipnis published “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in February, the essay raised more than a few eyebrows, including my own. But when the controversy struck the student body, discussion became its first paralytic victim. In a letter published in North by Northwestern, student signatories called for “the Northwestern community [to] meet Kipnis’s toxic ideas with resounding opprobrium.” They put it quite frankly: Kipnis’s ideas “have no place here.” Students marched, mattresses and pillows in hand, to the administration and delivered a petition calling for the University to take action against Kipnis for her article. Last week, Kipnis announced publicly that she had become the target of a Title IX investigation after two graduate students filed separate complaints against her essay in The Chronicle. She was later cleared of any wrongdoing. Had we spoken too hastily?

If paranoia hadn’t already struck NU’s campus like Kipnis claimed in her essay, something like it certainly had by the time people finished reading. Many of us dismissed her ideas quickly and without discussion, claiming they were too offensive and too dangerous to be momentarily entertained. A defense simply wasn’t palatable for the student body.

Allow me a brief illustration. When Raff Donelson, a graduate student, wrote a letter to the editor in The Daily, he voiced an early discomfort with student response that, in many ways, echoes my own. He said that “Prof. Kipnis got carried away,” and pointed to her “ignorant comments” about the Peter Ludlow incidents. But he also said that what Kipnis had to say “may have gotten many of us carried away too.” Shortly after, Lauren Leydon-Hardy, another graduate student, responded in The Daily by saying that Donelson’s letter “strains under the weight of its own charitable timber.” She called Kipnis’s views “thoroughly repugnant” and wrote that the consequences of Kipnis’s article, and Donelson’s supposed redemption, are “intolerable.” Donelson quickly became familiar with the same spectre of insolent dismissiveness that haunts Kipnis.

Leydon-Hardy wondered “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’s piece.” She cited the example of Communication senior Noa Wiener, who believes she was a student Kipnis described in her first essay. Leydon-Hardy said Kipnis “manages to betray the confidence of her own students.” Should it escape our notice that the student decided to self-identify in The Daily if, in fact, this is even the student Kipnis had in mind?

I find myself wondering if Kipnis’s more egregious comments should overshadow her broader, even passive arguments. It seems like Donelson thought so. It was a curious move on Leydon-Hardy’s part to spend time in her letter passionately criticizing the mere idea that students had perhaps responded in the wrong way, because she does give certain ground to Donelson’s larger points: “There are aspects of Donelson’s piece that are worth engaging with,” she wrote. Notice the careful but sudden shift in tone. Notice how the points are suddenly Donelson’s and not Kipnis’s. Could Leydon-Hardy — indeed, could any of us — be seen publicly entertaining something Kipnis had to say? I don’t mean to nitpick old news, but these letters exhibit certain symptoms of a misguided response that still afflicts our campus.

Neither letter seems to embody quite what I mean, but their relationship does bespeak a broader point I’m trying to get across. Donelson attempted to open a discussion, and even pointed us toward moments in Kipnis’s piece that might benefit from secondary considerations. In the only public response to his letter, his views are called “intolerable,” and are claimed to have “[shouted] down a certain kind of victim.” That said, this small exchange of letters in The Daily marked what became, in retrospect, the apex of public student discourse.

Perhaps I can frame the atmosphere that troubles me by way of another example. Another NU graduate student recently filed another Title IX complaint, this time against Stephen Eisenman, an art professor who publicly discussed the school’s investigation into Kipnis. The student later suspended and eventually withdrew the complaint. I can’t help but grow concerned about what kind of atmosphere would make the complaint seem reasonable in the first place. When given the opportunity to discuss the topic in an academic setting — an opportunity I hoped we’d be eager for — an offended student filed a Title IX complaint.

The reasoning behind the complaints filed against Kipnis is at least a little more understandable. It found ground in the argument that Kipnis’s essay had “misrepresented and impugned one of Mr. Ludlow’s accusers and had had a ‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct.” The central question here is whether or not Kipnis deserved a Title IX investigation on these grounds. Were I to venture a guess, I’d say legal proceedings stalled and were eventually dismissed because there was nothing substantive to investigate. The complaints were not leveled because of discrimination — they were leveled because of vehement disagreement. It appears that Title IX may have been misused.

Kipnis’s article clearly drew the ire of students across campus. But I am deeply concerned about the way we responded to our frustration. At our worst, we attempted character assassination. At our best, we only spoke to Kipnis’s broader point that we’ve begun to self-infantilize, demanding the administration shield us from an opinion that disagrees so strikingly with our own. When we said that “Kipnis does not speak for us,” we lent credence to the idea that Kipnis was responsible for speaking for us in the first place. When we demanded swift administrative action, even going so far as to demand that this action come automatically, we started down a slippery slope toward censorship. For an administration we sometimes place such little trust in, we certainly trusted it to shield us from countervailing opinions. And to what result? Kipnis had yet another chance to take to The Chronicle, writing this time with what may have been a smile of validation.

I don’t want to call our response to Kipnis a “melodrama,” but the misuse of a Title IX investigation, the reflexive dismissal of discussion and the expectation that our University protect us from ideas we deem too offensive certainly does send me searching for synonyms. NU succumbed to misdirected student pressure, nearly at the cost of academic freedom. There are those among us that would still have Kipnis publicly castigated by the administration and demonized by the student body. But it could very well come at the cost of our own integrity.

Alex Daly is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at alexdaly2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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