Now THIS Is A Witch Hunt! The Northwestern-Laura Kipnis Ethics Train Wreck

Springfiled mob

I really tried to ignore this ridiculous story. Campus political correctness battles, like examples of public school teacher incompetence ( my head just exploded yesterday, so I refuse to write about THIS), are so common and so self-evidently whacked that the blog could easily be over-run by them. The lower education episodes are more important, I’ve concluded, because the victims are children who still might be saved from indoctrination and a life-wrecking warped concept of how authority should be wielded, and children must be protected from the kind of child abuse a lot of these episodes represent. In the college campus fiascos, much of the time, it is the students who are the initial culprits (remember, they are adults, supposedly), and the administrators are mostly the craven enablers. Initially, I thought this episode was just another example of runaway progressive fascism feeding on itself. And it is, but there is more to it than that.

To briefly summarize…Laura Kipnis is a Professor of Radio, TV and Film at Northwestern University. She wrote an entertaining article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what she termed the ‘sexual paranoia’ on college campuses, including hers, and delivered observations about how these attitudes were strangling discourse and sane human interaction in society at large.

I wasn’t crazy about the article, because Kipnis, as I might expect from a theater prof, appears to know nothing about ethics at all. Her over-arching position is Old Sixties Berkeley: if it involves sex, chill out. I will bet my head that Kipnis was one of Bill Clinton’s defenders on the grounds that lying about sex isn’t lying, even when it’s under oath, even when it’s on TV, even when it’s to the American people’s face, even when you use your power and high office to support it. It’s sex, and sex is groovy. Who knows, she might also have defended John Edwards, and no, I have not had any respect for people like this since the Nineties.

Her essay began with ridiculing rules against professors dating students, because she dated professors when she was a student, and because, I guess, some students are hot. She regards campus rules against this—the rules are necessary and correct, because of professors like Kipnis– as part of a climate of “adult infantilization.”  That misses the ethical issue completely. Ethical authority figures must not have intimate relationships with those they are charged with leading. It interferes with their objective and independent judgment, it exploits their power and position, it is unfair to those they are NOT having a relationship with, and it leads to bad results so frequently that it is an irresponsible risk. None of these issues occurs to Kipnis, apparently, which means she would lose her license as a doctor, psychiatrist or lawyer in a New York minute, and would be a potential Mary Kay Letourneau if she taught the sixth grade. No, I am not a fan of Professor Kipnis, who herself represents much that is wrong with colleges today.

Since this nonsense was how she started her essay, I initially didn’t finish it. I returned to read the rest after this controversy arose.Her other targets were more legitimate, but she still doesn’t get it. It’s easy to poke fun at the absurdities of sexual harassment law, for example, but since employers and others (like her) could never quite understand what was unethical about hitting on vulnerable underlings who might be afraid to say “no,” we are stuck with these stupid, but necessary laws. (“When ethics fails, the law steps in.”Me.) Prof. Kipnis got in some sound and well-deserved shots at ‘trigger warnings”  and “safe spaces,” which I enjoyed, and also recounted some jaw-droppingly silly student complaints that had led to formal inquiries.  Kipnis concluded her piece well:

“The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing. Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen. If you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method. And in that sense, we’re all the victims.”

She sure got that right.

Indeed, we already have a pacified, cowering citizenry that is largely unwilling to admit—to others, to themselves—reality for fear of being labelled, branded, and tattooed as one of the bad people. A recent poll showed that 50% of Americans think that race relations in the United States have improved under President Obama. Even assuming that some of these people are racists to whom “good race relations” means “closer to a race war,” there is no explaining this unless a lot of Americans are in frantic denial about the fact that a black President, by his policies, by his words, aided by a racially-biased Attorney General, has produced the worst atmosphere of racial distrust, anger and conflict, not to mention rhetoric, since the days of fire hoses and Mississippi Burning.

In Baltimore, to take one awful but irrefutable example, murders are out of control in part because the police force now knows that if it tries to do its job, a black citizen is involved, resists arrest and is killed in self-defense, the police officers involved will be tarred as racists, ruined, indicted (by the black states attorney) and tried, and the facts of the case won’t matter one bit. (If they are lucky, the President won’t make a public statement about how the deceased could be his relative. President Obama also has said that race relations have improved under his leadership. He really has.) So why does a full 50% of the public espouse an opinion of current race relations that is completely inconsistent with observable reality? It is because to believe otherwise, they have been taught, means aligning with the critics of a black President, and thus consorting with racists. So they simply refuse to believe it. If someone has another explanation—I’m sorry, but “Race relations are GRRRRRREAT!” will not suffice—I want to hear it.

This is the environment that produces witch hunts. Not “witch hunts” as it is used by partisan activists, to tar legitimate investigations into plausible wrongdoing that the partisan activists regard as inconvenient (the IRS investigation is not a witch hunt; -investigating the activities of the Clinton Foundation is no witch hunt), but witch hunts as they were operated in 17th Century Salem and by Joe McCarthy, in which any individual with integrity who challenges the way victims are being unjustly condemned for imaginary evils is instantly suspected of the same evil themselves, and similarly condemned.

This is what happened to Kipnis. First there was a march and a protest at Northwestern in which student activists called for the school to publicly reject Kipnis’s heretical views–published off campus as an opinion piece in a magazine about higher education. Then two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis  alleging that her essay constituted retaliation against students whose sexual abuse or assault claims she described in the article, This was a ridiculous and unsustainable accusation, obviously made to harass and punish her. Incredibly, the pusillanimous university leadership opened an investigation.  Although it ended with Kipnis being cleared of wrongdoing, there is another ongoing probe into whether Kipnis’s article violated the University’s faculty handbook, a theory stated thusly by one of her Furies writing in the Huffington Post:

“Kipnis’ op-ed was in clear violation of Northwestern’s faculty handbook, which explains that faculty, while free from institutional censorship, also undertake “special obligations” in virtue of their “special position in the community.” Among those obligations, naturally, is a commitment to be accurate “at all times.”

“Accurate” here means “consistent with progressive and politically correct dogma.”

Otherwise, you’re a witch.

In the same article on HuffPo, the president of Northwestern was accused of turning the author into a newt because he wrote an article defending Kipnis’s right of free speech and academic freedom:

“Schapiro’s op-ed sends a very clear message that Kipnis has nothing to be concerned about with respect to those complaints, which in turn sends a clear message to those students regarding the complete lack of seriousness with which his administration regards their concerns. Frankly, those of us concerned about the integrity of our judicial processes ought to be a little disconcerted with how unilaterally our president has moved to completely stack the decks against these students. One wonders what else the university could possibly do to create a more hostile environment. How can those students endeavor to flourish on a campus where their own president has publicly taken sides against them?”

Jonathan Chait, a liberal pundit who was accused of being a witch in Vox for condemning the witch hunt at Northwestern, nicely summarized the phenomenon:

“The campus atmosphere has changed radically in a short period of time; students consider themselves highly vulnerable to trauma and consider it their right to be protected from opposing viewpoints; professors are terrified of giving offense and widely committing self-censorship; the phenomenon is bound up in a left-wing ideology that believes identity cannot merely complement but completely supplant reason as the means for settling disagreements; and this ideology has spread beyond the academy into many corners of social media.”

However, he happily concludes that it will all blow over:

“But this ritualistic denunciation is merely the price of progress. I remain confident that, just as the last wave of political correctness did, the new version will eventually die of its own absurdity. It is probably dying already.”

I don’t see how he can say that, except through his own obeisant denial of reality.  President Obama’s Department of Education fanned the flames of this toxic trend with its infamous “Dear Colleague” letter demanding that schools reduce the presumption of innocence and due process in allegations of sexual assault, or face consequences. Chait’s similarly liberal but usually reasonable colleague Josh Marshall, while similarly expressing alarm at the ordeal of Kipnis, also tries to be inappropriately optimistic while betraying his own biases. He writes…

“There may be some excuse for Northwestern itself inasmuch as they appear to have believed that they had no choice but to mount the investigation into the student complaints.”

Just as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby “had no choice” but to bring  premature indictments against the officers in the Freddie Gray case, Josh? If leaders believe that have no choice but to give up principles of freedom, due process, justice and fairness because the mob is rumbling, that excuses them? It is the mounting of the investigation that chills speech, discourages dissent, and forces less courageous faculty members and students to conform to the mob or face consequences.  Those consequences include being hounded, shunned, branded, and destroyed.

How anyone can argue, as Chait does, that this mad gender/race/ ethnic identity feeding frenzy on the Left is going to end any time soon while the Democratic Party seems determined to nominate Hillary Clinton for President simply because she is a woman—she has absolutely nothing else positive to bring to her candidacy—itself shows selective blindness. I was explaining to an intelligent, female and reliably liberal friend of advanced years why the Clinton e-mail trickery and the Clinton foundation money trail should disqualify her for any high office, and was in rapid succession called a sexist, a bigot, and a tea party fanatic. This technique has worked so well for the past seven years that I wonder if the Democrats will ever nominate a white male ever again. It’s brilliant, really: elect a member of a sanctified minority, and  no matter how awful the individual’s subsequent performance in office, no one can criticize or even acknowledge it without being punished as an oppressor, a bigot, a criminal, and a villain.

You know.

A witch.


Sources: Talking Points Memo, Chronicle of Higher Education, Huffington Post, New York mag

10 thoughts on “Now THIS Is A Witch Hunt! The Northwestern-Laura Kipnis Ethics Train Wreck

  1. “Just as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby “had no choice” but to bring premature indictments against the officers in the Freddie Gray case, Josh? If leaders believe that have no choice but to give up principles of freedom, due process, justice and fairness because the mob is rumbling, that excuses them?”

    I don’t blame the institutions in this. Not entirely. And it doesn’t excuse them. But. The dear colleague letter threatens their lifeblood unless they hold these kangaroo courts, and the institutions have unanimously realized that if the choices are to have their government funding cut off, or pay court fees to settle with the people who’s rights they trample on, it will always be less disastrous to pay those court costs. This is the shittiest of situations to put them in, and I’m sure that there are some people who realize exactly what they’re doing and sleep horribly.

    This is the direct result of feminist advisors in politics. This is exactly why I oppose feminism, and think that people who adhere to the label are misguided at best and sociopaths at worst. If all feminism was was the belief that men and women should be equal, I’d be a feminist…. But it isn’t. It comes with philosophical baggage that is literally dismantling society.

  2. I’m pretty sure that if the Framers had another shot at it, they’d write in a separation of school and state. The educational requirement to persuade is incompatible with the police power of the state.

  3. Jack,
    I largely agree with your points in the article; however, this: “In Baltimore, to take one awful but irrefutable example, murders are out of control in part because the police force now knows that if it tries to do its job, a black citizen is involved, resists arrest and is killed in self-defense, the police officers involved will be tarred as racists, ruined, indicted (by the black states attorney) and tried, and the facts of the case won’t matter one bit.” is an unproven hypothesis. Thus, it is not “irrefutable.”

    For all we know a band of marauding serial killers have descended on the city, perhaps the police there are especially incompetent at catching murders (their historically high crime rate would seem to at least suggest this as a possibility), or perhaps this is just a banner year for crime. You’re creating instant history which involves assigning a definitive narrative to events that are still very much unfolding. You may be proven right, and I’m not suggesting you’re necessarily wrong, but to call it “irrefutable” is just plain intellectual hubris.

    I hope you’re well.


    PS: You did say “in part” which I initially skipped over. That said, I still think your point is a tad presumptive.

    • Really, Neil? I don’t. Both sides of the issue agree in Baltimore that the current crime wave, the worst in 40 years, is due to the police refusing to be proactive. The only questions are why (retribution or self preservation) and whether their conduct is justified. (Of course it is.) Sure, its possible that the reason is a newly mutated virus that makes law-abiding citizens into Bonny and Clyde, but its not presumptuous to assume that Occam’s Razor is, as it usually is, applicable.

      • Maybe we should out the Army in charge of policing Baltimore. the upside is that they do not answer to local officials.

          • Posse Comitatus. It’s there to prevent just such an occurrence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent a militarized federal “police” force from doing this, while in the process of federalizing as many local police departments as they can. From our earliest days, the prime responsibility for law enforcement, corrections and even the militia has rested with the county sheriff… who is elected independently. Many see what’s happened in Ferguson and Baltimore as a deliberate attempt to institute a national constabulary in the place of local officials through contrived or abetted mass lawlessness.

  4. Jack, why did you even bother having that discussion with that friend? It sounds to me like you were wasting your time, and knew that you were wasting your time going in. Some conversations are simply not worth having and are better off not had. I had to learn that the hard way a week or so ago with a coworker who exploded at me in a conversation over Ireland. This coworker is now persona non grata, and has been told as much. it sounds like you might want to tell your friend the same.

    • Steve, Jack just can’t help himself. Something he readily admits. All of which is admirable. Certainly he’s patient beyond my capabilities.

  5. Thanks for taking Prof. Kipnis down on her views on student-teacher relationships. Outstanding. Her views are truly despicable on a matter which is a personal hobby horse of mine. She’s dangerous. She says just because lots of faculty are happily married to their former students (presumably just one at a time) proves that students being involved with teachers is actually wonderful. What a moron.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.