The dynamics of a witch hunt

JVL Introduction

Laura Kipnis has written a stunning book Unwanted Advances about the monster that has been created in the effort to eliminate gender discrimination on American campuses through Federal Government Title IX intervention. Providing safe spaces for learning and attempting to protect people from harassment has become, argues Kipnis, “officially sanctioned hysteria”.

Reading her work, it is impossible not to be struck by similarities in the dynamics of the process she analyses and that of the campaign against “antisemitism on the left” in Britain.

Of course the content of these campaigns is very different – and yet, the resonances from time to time are stark, as some extracts from Kipnis will make clear.

Unwanted Advances

Sexual paranoia comes to campus

Laura Kipnis, Verso 2018

Extracts, reposted with permission of the author.
18 June 2019

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The extracts below come from the Introduction and the Coda to Unwanted Advances. Page references follow each extract. We at JVL web have added the sub-heads

Collective paranoia

Lately I’ve been thinking that future generations will look back on the recent upheavals in sexual culture on American campuses and see officially sanctioned hysteria. They’ll wonder how supposedly rational people could have succumbed so easily to collective paranoia, just as we look back on previous such outbreaks (Salem, McCarthyism, the Satanic ritual abuse preschool trials of the 1980s) with condescension and bemusement. They’ll wonder how the federal government got into the moral panic business, tossing constitutional rights out the window in an ill-conceived effort to protect women students from a rapidly growing catalogue of sexual bogeymen. They’ll wonder why anyone would have described any of this as feminism when it’s so blatantly paternalistic, or as “political correctness” when sexual paranoia doesn’t have any predictable political valence. (Neither does sexual hypocrisy.) Restoring the most fettered versions of traditional femininity through the back door is backlash, not progress. (p.1)

Critical distance itself is out of fashion—not exactly a plus when it comes to intellectual life (or education itself). Feelings are what’s in fashion. I’m all for feelings; I’m a standard-issue female, after all. But this cult of feeling has an authoritarian underbelly: feelings can’t be questioned or probed, even while furnishing the rationale for sweeping new policies, which can’t be questioned or probed either. (I speak from experience here). The result is that higher education has been so radically transformed that the place is almost unrecognizable. (2)

Ideas as threats

[T]he culture of sexual paranoia I’d been writing about isn’t confined to the sexual sphere. It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate in higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats—writing an essay became “creating a chilling environment,” according to my accusers—and freedoms most of us used to take for granted are being whittled away or disappearing altogether. Sexual paranoia has converted the Title IX* bureaucracy into an insatiable behemoth, bloated by its own federal power grab, though protests are few because—what are you, in favor of rape culture or something? Also, paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and its inroads on campus are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university—as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas—is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear. (5)

* [Editorial note: Title IX states that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. It is enforced by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).]

The reality of sexual assault
Sexual assault is a reality on campus, though not exactly a new one. But despite all the recent attention and the endless flurry of statistics, it’s still an incredibly underexamined reality, permeated by speech taboos and barbed-wire fences meant to deter intellectual intruders. We’re never going to decrease sexual assault on campus—a goal I assume everyone shares—if we can’t have open conversations about it. Having control over your body is, especially for women, a learned skill; it requires education. It also requires a lot more honesty about the complicated sexual realities hiding behind the slogans than is currently permissible. My question becomes: what contradictions are we not supposed to notice, hiding in plain sight behind those large No Trespassing signs? (7-8)

None of this is to diminish the reality of sexual assault. At the same time, we seem to be breeding a generation of students, mostly female students, deploying Title IX to remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences, and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup—and campus administrators are allowing it. If this is what feminism on campus has come to, then seriously, let’s just cash it in and start over, because this feminism is broken. It has exactly nothing to do with gender equity or emancipating women—a cynic might say it actually has more to do with extending the reach of campus bureaucracy into everyone’s lives. It’s a vast, unprecedented transfer of power into the hands of the institution. But whatever the agenda, and whoever the secret beneficiaries, hard-fought rights, namely the right for women to be treated as consenting adults in erotic matters, are being handed back on a platter. (17)

The dynamic of fear and response

Speaking of realities: a few additional thoughts on the term rape culture and why I can’t sign on. The idea of rape culture has become the campus equivalent of 9/11: in both cases, horrible real events take on mythic proportions, becoming resistant to precise analysis. On campus, the term rape culture, like the term terrorism, has become the rhetoric of emergency. Fear becomes the guideline, promulgating more fear. The problem is that fear rhetoric obfuscates more than it explicates; nevertheless, officialdom leaps to action. Hawks demand an over-response, such as going to war on false pretenses. The failed war exacerbates the fears, which becomes the rationale for further expanding the security state: vast expenditures, increased layers of bureaucracy, surveillance, secret renditions, summary justice—like expelling a freshman for “emotional coercion.” (18)

Apparently no one has mentioned to them how many of the professors being caught in these widening nets are, in fact, queer—or suspected of being so, anyway. A woman professor I met while visiting another campus revealed she’d been brought up on Title IX complaints for making “suspicious eye contact” with two female graduate students, staring at one’s chest, and whispering in their ears. It so happened that the whispering took place in a library; her field was library science. She told the story in a funnily bitter way, but it was probably not so funny at the time. She was summoned to a three-hour meeting, not told what the charges were or who had complained, and then not allowed to set foot on campus for two months while the case was in progress. In other words, she was treated like a sex offender ordered to stay away from playgrounds. (23-24)

Had you been there to witness my reaction to a recent memo sent to the faculty in my department by one of our undergrad majors, imploring us to “be conscious of the vocabulary and discourse used in your classroom” and to “challenge ideas of gender, rape culture, whiteness and heteronormativity” in the teaching of our classes, you’d understand what I mean. Why does the purgatory of the nice place have to entail so many empty slogans? I fumed silently. There I was, huffing and puffing like some bow-tied neocon: this isn’t intellect, I snorted (to myself); it’s virtue-mongering. And yet: did I send a prickly reply pointing out to my young correspondent that all these terms have tangled and contested histories and meanings, that good intentions are fine, but we’re all still supposed to be thinking for ourselves? I did not, because I’m fairly sure that if I had, I’d have been creating “a hostile learning environment,” and I’m fairly certain there are codes against that. (26)

Lowering the bar for making accusations

The problem is this: the more that “safety” means lowering the bar for accusation-bringing, then the more of a magnet the process becomes, and has become, for anyone with an agenda, a grudge, a neurosis, and sometimes financial ambitions—payouts can be huge for a well-timed claim—and there’s no adequate method for sorting legitimate from specious claims (as we’ll see). It’s not in administrators’ interests to sort them: a campus’s success in “combatting sexual assault” is measured in increased accusations, which are closely tracked. By the way, complaints can increasingly be made anonymously—which is to say that witch hunt conditions are now an institutionalized feature of campus life. (30)

No doubt there are people who’d say he [Peter Ludlow, whose case forms a substantial part of this book] had it coming—he “wasn’t a eunuch,” in his own words—though I tend to think that’s like saying John Proctor in The Crucible had it coming. The reference is to Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials. (Proctor was one of the accused witches, hanged by the community.) Seen as a parable of McCarthyism when it was first staged in 1953, the play was recently revived on Broadway—apparently someone saw it as relevant again. The Cold War blacklist, too, is being plumbed for current resonances. A recent biopic about Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (forced out of work and imprisoned after falling afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunt investigation of communism in the movie industry) left me reflecting that sex is our era’s Communist threat, and Title IX hearings our new HUAC hearings. Except this time around, they’re under the direction of the Department of Education, not Congress. (31-32)

Writing this book has forced me to realize something about myself, or maybe a couple of things. The first is how disillusioned I’ve become, in the last few years, about the state of intellectual honesty on American campuses. Campus life has gotten so ludicrous and censorious that it hardly seems worth caring. It’s far more impossible to have an intellectually honest discussion about sex on campus on an American campus than off these days, which is nothing short of bizarre if you’re someone who was drawn to academia in the first place because talking about difficult stuff was supposedly what went on there. (33-34)


Coda: Eyewitness to a Witch Trial (p.221ff)

Laura Kipnis attended Peter Ludlow’s dismissal hearing and writes:

[It] was like watching someone being burned at the stake in slow motion, except this execution was catered—the university provided lavish spreads of food and snacks, and the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial. The five faculty members empaneled to hear the case were striving to make clear that they were neutral and not prejudging anything, which meant pleasant chitchat at breaks or in the ladies’ room, mostly about the food. We were, after all, in the Midwest. Even the university lawyers were pleasant. The whole thing dragged on for over a month, which meant a lot of chitchat and a lot of calories. I was tense, and overate. (221)

A modern-day purification ritual

Another way to look at it was as a modern-day purification ritual: torch the miscreant, resanctify the community. Purifying communities is no small-scale operation: in addition to the fiveperson faculty panel, there were three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel, a rotating cast of staff and administrators, and a court reporter taking everything down on a little machine. Ludlow had a lawyer (and on one occasion, two). And there was me. (221)

If someone is accused of something, surely they are guilty of something?

… I assumed, along with everyone else, that a professor who’d been accused of sexual misconduct by two different students was definitely guilty of something. I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s line in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell says to the adopted Jack: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” (224)

The weakness in the university’s case, it seemed to me, was that the most unequivocal charge against Ludlow was drinking with an underage student. But the university hadn’t moved to dismiss him [at the time…]—they’d disciplined him, yes, but he still had his job…
To dismiss Ludlow at this stage, the university was thus trying to establish that there was a pattern of behavior, between what were, in fact, rather dissimilar situations. …
Whatever the weaknesses in their case, I could see why the university needed Ludlow to go away: he’d become a public relations nightmare. (225)

“Are the accusers always holy now?” demands the accused witch John Proctor (soon to be executed) in Miller’s The Crucible. On campus, the answer is yes. (238)

Who knows how many other “clear-cut” campus guilty verdicts would turn out to be a lot murkier if they weren’t immune from public scrutiny?

All this being said, as I weigh the evidence in my own inner courtroom, I can understand why the university had to jettison Ludlow. Personally, I don’t think he abused his power. The problem was that he didn’t share the conception of power in vogue in academic precincts. (Neither do I, and may soon be clinging to gainful employment by my fingernails for that reason too.) Yes, Ludlow was guilty—though not of what the university charged him with. His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view, despite once being a crucial feminist position. Of course the community had to expel him. That’s what you do with heretics.

Still, the history of purification rituals is a pretty squalid one. Heading down this path once again requires a lot of historical amnesia from everyone involved. That college campuses should be where history goes to be forgotten is depressing on all levels, not least when it comes to the future of higher education—and freedoms of every stripe. (238-9)


Comments (5)

  • Simon Dewsbury says:

    “Are the accusers always holy now?”. Yes, that line has so much resonance at the moment.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I’m afraid I don’t buy the analogy made in the introduction to these book extracts. Whatever its faults and instances of false accusations, not doubt overwhelmingly outnumbered by real instances of abuse, Title XI is intended to protect potentially vulnerable students and University employees from predatory behaviour. There is no such “pure” motive behind the overwhelmingly false accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, made by those who are willing to destroy the Party and individual’s lives for the sake of the racist Israeli state.

  • Jim McNeill says:

    Yes, it struck a major chord with me too.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I’ve just had a conversation with a recent graduate student at a US University and he says title IX is used by universities to push REAL instances of abuse, assault, grooming and rape under the carpet, keeping the cases secret and out of the hands of the state thereby protecting their reputations and fee incomes. They do, however investigate actual instances sexual crimes, mainly against women, often as a result of pressure from student organisations, which is something perhaps we can be grateful for.

    Here is an alternative take on Laura Kipnis’s book:

  • Philip Ward says:

    I have no idea where this quote comes from, but it is trite. It is not about holiness, but power. In cases of rape and sexual assault, the alleged perpetrator is almost always the one with power, in society and over the victim (to use a word Laura Kipnis seems to hate so much). On the issue of the false accusations of anti-Semitism, the accuser has the power of the whole establishment behind them.

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