Scary Ideas (updated)
People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
That’s from a column in The New York Times by Judith Shulevitz on what she sees as a movement to protect students from “scary ideas.” Who disagrees with the idea that students should be exposed to unfamiliar and challenging and sometimes scary ideas? Not many people, I suspect. This doesn’t stop Shulevitz from whipping together a bunch of odd stories to justify the need to write her column, which seems full of hyperbole, equivocation, and uncritical nostalgia. Some of the stories she recounts suggest that some students may be a bit oversensitive and a bit silly (nothing new there), but I don’t know how seriously to take them. Clearly the most outrageous stories will get the most attention, and the ability to find a few by no means constitutes a trend. Additionally, she mischaracterizes the one case I know about (Kipnis at Northwestern; see this), so I don’t know how reliable her reporting of the other cases is.
I wasn’t planning on linking to this but, judging from social media, there seems to be some interest in discussing the story among philosophers, who are often in the business of presenting challenging and sometimes scary ideas. I would be particularly interested in hearing whether philosophers have encountered pushback from students and administrators on the discussing controversial or scary topics, or inviting speakers to do so, and whether such pushback came in the form of blocking speech (e.g., cancelling a talk) or the provision of alternatives (e.g., here’s a space you can go if you feel particularly bothered by some speech).
UPDATE (4/6/15): Lauren Leydon-Hardy, a PhD Student at Northwestern, has a column at the Huffington Post on the controversy surrounding the piece by Laura Kipnis.
Justin, take the time to read the comments to Shulevich’s (?sp?) column. If you do so, I think you’ll find that your effort to softpedal the problem is sorely misplaced. Perhaps you don’t like her style, and you think her evidence anecdotal. Read the comments, perhaps after a hundred anecdotes you’ll have your eyes opened. Out in the hinterland fear of scary ideas abounds, and it’s ruining the very idea of a university.Report
I have found that I can discuss almost any topic with students provided that I show them respect as a person and take their concerns seriously. I have found that those who are most likely to complain about instances of what they take to be “oversensitivity” are people who lack (or fail to communicate) an understanding of why the subject matter could be troubling (even if, in their view, it shouldn’t be).Report
Justin, I’m struck by your claim that Shulevitz “completely mischaracterizes” the Kipnis case. I don’t see it. What is the mischaracterization?Report
Richard, I probably should not have said “completely mischaracterizes” (and so I dropped the “completely”). Shulevitz makes it seem as if the students were demanding the administration condemn Kipnis’ essay because of its claim that “sexual paranoia pervades campus life”; my understanding, rather, is that they were objecting to her mockery of a student and, as Kathryn Pogin put it in the piece I linked to in the OP, to “factual errors and a misleading presentation of information which just happened to craft a narrative of events more supportive of her own favored view.” In other words, it wasn’t Kipnis’ “scary ideas” that the students were objecting to.Report
I’ve commented anonymously on this topic before, but I will do it again just because I think I represent a voice missing from much of this conversation.
I am a woman, and I have actual PTSD. Like, it’s a medical condition that I take a lot of lengthy steps to deal with on my own, so I can be as normal of a person as possible. I find it really upsetting that a lot of social justice types have appropriated the language of post trauma disorders–real, diagnosed, medical post trauma disorders–in order to legitimate their negative feelings. It ends up making people like me look oversensitive or ridiculous, and it is even harder to explain why sometimes I do need to opt-out of certain classes or assignments. People now think “triggered” means “I feel sad, or anxious, or threatened.” No. That’s not what happens when one ACTUALLY gets triggered.
On a related note, the much maligned “trigger warnings” would actually be very helpful to me in the classroom, and it is upsetting to see that the issue has been taken over by idiotic social justice activists and blown up to ridiculous proportions, such that people want trigger warnings on the Great Gatsby for “racism.” Despite my best preventative measures, there are still a lot of clueless professors who don’t understand why, say, springing a graphic article/discussion about rape on students in the middle of a philosophy of language is not a really good idea. I really would like to say some kind of sensitivity training for faculty, which would perhaps at least get more faculty to ask themselves, “Do I really need to assign/show/discuss THIS PARTICULAR graphic whatever in my class? Is it worth the distress it might cause?” I can’t tell you how many clueless profs have cavalierly discussed or assigned extremely sensitive, disturbing, obviously-going-to-trigger-victims stuff that was more or less not really needed for the class. (Rape in a phil of lang course? Really? THAT was how the prof wanted to get more women on the syllabus? )Report
May I second anon grad student’s points and suggest that discussion of the issues raised by Shulevitz should be kept separate from recognition of the importance of trigger warnings in teaching. In fact, it may be a great idea to problematize the astounding absence of trigger warnings in teaching – perhaps in a dedicated thread here on dailynous.Report
First, anon grad student, thank you for sharing your experiences. But, I’d like to point out that racism-related PTSD is a recognized medical condition by the DSM-V. Both in the sense of PTSD following a singular traumatic event that was racially motivated and caused horror and fear, and also in the sense that one may develop PTSD from living in a world that is consistently racist. So, much like battlefield trauma, race related PTSD can develop from a period of time spent in high stress situations. The individuals who experience PTSD due to racist events and racism are no more ‘oversensitive’ about their psychological condition due to their race related experiences than you are due to your sexual assault related experiences.
Further, I think this shows one of the interesting problems that often comes up in discussions about content warnings and trigger warnings: that it is incredibly difficult for a lot of people to understand why someone could need a trigger warning for something when you cannot personally connect to those feelings and physiological responses.Report
Oh, no, Shulevitz is clearly right: attempts to create safe spaces for traumatized students are clearly “seeping” into student culture and creating a generation of wusses. We don’t need “empirical evidence” to see this, it’s right in front of our eyes, after all.
Also, has anyone actually *listened* to the lyrics to “Louie, Louie”? It sounds like gibberish, but it seems to me as though the gibberish occasionally borders on sentences that could be considered Satanic. I think that the FBI should look into the connection between kids listening to this song and the trend in question. Also, I hear that lots of kids play Dungeons and Dragons, and we all know what THAT does to them. Also, did you hear that people in Seattle are noticing strange “pitting” on their windshields? Some say it’s nuclear fallout, and an increase in fallout could help to explain the spinelessness of the current generation. Just some thoughts.Report
While it is unfortunate that anon grad student only brings up race in an example of when trigger warnings may not be appropriate, it doesn’t strike me as fair to conclude that she doesn’t believe that PTSD can be race related. The more straightforward reading of her point is that what makes the case bad is that it takes for granted a threshold for when something deserves a trigger warning that is very low. The thought, as I understood it, was that if we insist on thresholds that are too low this will turn away potential supporters and that these potential supporters will then fail to put trigger warnings on material that should receive one even under a high threshold.
*I’m thinking that a low threshold for something like a novel might be something like “contains an instance of racist language” whereas a high one might be something like “contains an instance of racially motivated violence.”Report
I mean, my point wasn’t that race related PTSD is not a real thing, just that (if memory serves correctly) the racism in Great Gatsby is not of the shocking, graphic, disturbing, violent level that I think warrants a trigger warning. I mean, I guess it’s POSSIBLE that someone could be triggered by the material in Great Gatsby, but my point was that trigger warnings are taken most seriously when they are applied to stuff that has a very high and obvious likelihood of triggering someone. Idk, like Absalom, Absalom (if memory serves correct) is a much better candidate for a racism trigger warning than The Great Gatsby.
I probably shouldn’t have gone with race, I probably should have used an example like…Content Note: mention of domestic violence, on Austen’s How to Do Things With Words, because there’s a mention of a man shooting a woman. Which is the kind of thing no one will take seriously. I went with the Great Gatsby example because it was the most ridiculous example I could think of that I can recall actually happening, whereas I just made up the Austen thing.Report
” I would be particularly interested in hearing whether philosophers have encountered pushback from students and administrators on the discussing controversial or scary topics, or inviting speakers to do so, and whether such pushback came in the form of blocking speech (e.g., cancelling a talk) or the provision of alternatives (e.g., here’s a space you can go if you feel particularly bothered by some speech).”
No. I have honestly never seen this. I have not seen this during my undergrad (94-98), grad (00-06), or professorial (06-today) years. At my university, and at universities in the area near my university (like University of Michigan and Wayne State University) I have never personally observed a talk being cancelled on any of these grounds. I have never personally seen a “safe space.” I have certainly never seen a “safe space” with Play-Doh. I have travelled to a number of universities to give talks and attend conferences and, once again, I have not seen any cancellations that have occurred due to subject matter. I have a colleague at my university who works on evolutionary psychology and is particularly interested in evolutionary explanations of rape. He deals with some very difficult subject matter, but I have seen him speak on campus to many students without any sort of pushback at all or any calls for a “safe space.” He has held conferences on campus and invited speakers with very controversial views (like, for example, David Benatar, who thinks sexism against men is comparable to sexism against women) without any interference or pushback. Our department and others have invited speakers to our campus who deal with difficult subject matters (we’ve had Peter Singer talk about euthanasia and Daniel Dennett talk about religion), but once again, I have not seen any pushback or call for “safe spaces.” I think the closest thing I’ve seen to a pushback on subject matter was when I applied for an internal grant to invite a speaker to talk about the problem of evil. (I was hoping, actually, to get money to invite Peter van Inwagen). My grant was rejected on the grounds that I wanted to invite a specific speaker with a particular slant, and the people giving the grant would have preferred a debate. (I’m not sure those people knew Peter van Inwagen’s views). But we’ve also been able, as a department, to invite another speaker who held that the problem of evil disproves God’s existence without any pushback at all. Maybe some of this is happening at other places, but I think the examples Shulevitz gives may not be representative of a major trend or phenomenon, unless the universities I have taught at, spend time at, and I have visited are unrepresentative.Report
Obviously, I think the narrative surrounding the Kipnis aspect of this has been misrepresented. What I find genuinely infantilizing is the notion that we should not be held to at least the minimal standard of accuracy. Moreover, the way this debate has been framed in the series of recent articles surrounding it, the student protest here at NU is purported be evidence of a “chilling’ of the climate for expressing dissent to popular ideas. If our protest had the power to chill speech, what kind of chilling effect might Kipnis’ op-ed have had on my fellow students? It is almost as if power differentials matter, but only when students engage in a performative act of power through protest, not when a tenured professor makes use of a platform available to her in virtue of her professional position to mock her university’s students (in part, based on misrepresentation)–not when an invited speaker is giving a platform on campus to deny that rape and patriarchy are connected–not when students who feel they have been victims of prejudice or violence are subject to the social power of those who deny their understanding of their own experiences.
Regarding the cancelling of an abortion debate between two men — shutting down one debate about abortion between two men is not really shutting down conversation broadly. Men debating abortion amongst themselves is both normal and frequent. Surely who we chose to give a public platform for such debates has expressive value beyond the intellectual value of the debate itself. Saying, hang on, maybe this was a bad idea because it coincides with, and underscores, the systematic delegitimization of women having voice over their own bodies, seems to me to be a way of opening up debate rather than shutting it down. It can be a way of expressing a willingness to broaden the scope of who is able to engage in the substantive expression of ideas.
As regards “triggers,” I think it is a mistake to assume that because we do not recognize a student as having a good reason for being “triggered” that they are not in fact triggered. Many students may in fact be grappling with the psychological damage of trauma and simultaneously not feel inclined to share the details of that trauma nor the status of their mental health with us.Report
While I agree with #11 that I haven’t seen much (but not zero) overt student or administrative pushback (at my midwestern state school) about controversial topics, there does some to be a sweet spot where administrative CYAness meets student hyper-sensitivity meets a kind of theoretically de-racinated ‘standpoint theory’ that claims the epistemic privilege of personal experience (and excludes critique). At this juncture, faculty seem to be becoming much more cautious. Perhaps this is not all bad. Perhaps it calls faculty to be more respectful and to take student concerns more seriously. But, as in other political/professional conversations, we might be better off thinking of faculty not as ideal moral agents invested in permanent processes of self-improvement, but as good enough educators who care about student learning but who also are confronting a myriad of institutional forces. In a context in which certain topics, themes, questions, texts, problems, etc. demand more and more scrutiny and justification, the good enough faculty member (and honestly, I think this is many if not most of us) might just take Topic X off the syllabus or avoid Topic Y class discussion. It’s not quite ‘chilling’ but a low-level cooling that is being built into the very demand for things like trigger warnings. And the effect will accumulate through a lot of small, minor decisions.Report
For what it’s worth, I was asked during job interviews whether I would teach students about infanticide, and I know of persons to whom job offers were withheld because of controversial articles they published. So I am afraid that if you asked me “Who disagrees with the idea that students should be exposed to unfamiliar and challenging and sometimes scary ideas?”, I would say: many philosophers do (and my suspect is that most philosophers do).Report
I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this issue; I have experienced it myself, and I believe it can have highly pernicious consequences.
I do put a general warning on one syllabus that we will be watching films and reading works of philosophy that contain graphic depictions of violence. I do so somewhat reluctantly, but it seems a prudent CYA sort of precaution. But what should I do when this does not fully address students’ concerns?
I have had a student tell me that she couldn’t participate in a unit on sexual violence because she didn’t feel safe. This was a student who had read the blanket warning on my syllabus. She wanted either to be excused from class for several weeks or for me to shut down students who expressed their views in a way she found disrespectful. Well, one person’s vigorous defense of a position may be another person’s dismissive writing off. In the end, I couldn’t give the student what she wanted, I.e., a safe space, and it was clear that she resented me for it.
I think this student’s response was encouraged by a general culture of trauma and therapy surrounding discussions of sexual violence, racism , and other politically charged topics in some academic fields and social domains.
This strikes me as a very serious issue. After all, one reason given for Saladia’s dismissal from his faculty position was that students in his classes might feel threatened by him , given the content of his twitter postings.
I think we should be suspicious of the language of safety and respect I this context; while appeals of this sort may sound innocuous or even apt, they can do great damage.Report
Justin, I just reread the NYT piece since I hadn’t looked at it since yesterday; you’re certainly free to edit your own posts as you see fit, but I personally stand by the claim that the Kipnis situation was “completely” misrepresented. The students she quotes were not responding to her ideas, they were responded to her making public claims about specific students. That’s quite a different matter from “hiding from scary ideas.” Moreover, Shulevitz inserts what is either misrepresentative or a total non sequitur when she says that our university president wrote an op-ed defending Kipnis’ academic freedom (perhaps, though, this can be blamed on that op-ed being an entire non sequitur itself). No one has suggested that Kipnis does not have the academic freedom to express the conclusions she argued for.Report
I hope people who don’t think this can happen have paid close attention Kathryn Pogin’s post #12. First she makes excuses for creating a chilling climate, claiming that other people chilled the climate first. Then she makes excuses for canceling a debate, claiming that it actually opens conversation. Then she makes excuses for avoiding topics of conversation and forcing others to do so too, saying that we never know when someone might be being triggered.
I hope nobody can read that and think there aren’t people in the world who are trying to control the conversation topics of those around them, and doing it with an attitude of moral superiority.Report
Yeah, not buying it. Could someone explain how a person gets to complain about “an attitude of moral superiority” being an unfair thing to have leveled against them? Who gets to feel protected from ethical complaints? Where does the idea that that should happen come from?
For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone can complain about being complained about without feeling ridiculous.Report
Darla, just to be clear, again, my involvement in the protest was not predicated on the general political view she was arguing for. I genuinely think there are interesting questions about how positive values contained within views of sexual liberation should be balanced against the reality of power differentials. But she argued for those conclusions through misrepresentation, and refused to correct basic factual errors. (Incidentally, one of my colleagues, Raff Donelson, has raised far more interesting versions of those same questions in a piece he wrote in our campus newspaper here: http://dailynorthwestern.com/2015/03/05/opinion/letter-to-the-editor-redeeming-kipnis/ )
There are a few other things in your comment I am a bit befuddled by (e.g., my comment on triggering was not an indication of any view that we should force others to avoid certain topics, as I hold no such view — it was, however, a response to a comment above regarding how others’ requests regarding trigger are believed to belittle someone else’s), but primarily, I guess I’m befuddled by the idea that I could be associated with “hiding from scary ideas” as I’ve made my participation in an unpopular protest known, in a public forum, and further, thereby exposing myself to comments attributing to me an attitude of moral superiority. If I wanted to hide from ideas that might make me uncomfortable, that’s not the sort of thing I would be inclined to do.
I don’t think you and I are going to agree about what I said in my comments above, but for the purposes of trying to have a conversation, let’s try a different issue: I want to resist the idea that the anecdotes in the NYT piece illustrate any kind of epidemic of student over-sensitivity, but let’s set that aside and just suppose there is such an epidemic. If so, would the locus of such a problem really be the students, or would it rather be an educational system where university administrators often operate in response to any problem on the basis of risk-management rather than principle?Report
Every university not named Oxford in that article is private, and I wonder if there’s a big difference in the culture of frailty at private universities vs. public ones. It does seem that the more pampered the upbringing, the more demanding the child; these days, “I am uncomfortable” seems to pass for a legitimate complaint.Report
First, the very fact that Shulevitz has provoked such a heated debate clearly indicates that she has indeed touched a nerve and has therefore made a legitimate contribution to public discourse. Are her examples “representative”? That question is beside the point. What should trouble us all is not that *some* of these events have occurred but that *any* have occurred. Shulevitz isn’t a statistician. She didn’t write a social-scientific treatise. She wrote a newspaper editorial about a pervasive attitude and some of its symptoms.
Second, my primary concern here is for freedom of expression (and thought). I live in Canada, which is somewhat less likely than the United States to produce extremism of any kind. But I’ve spent thirty years at a Canadian *university,* and I’ve seen countless examples of similar attempts to silence students or members of the faculty who adopt controversial positions–that is, those who refuse to accept double standards that emerge from the assumption that some social classes deserve sensitivity and others don’t. Some of these attempts, often successful, have been “subtle” (such as gate-keeping ideologues who find ways of preventing the publication of books and articles that present politically incorrect ideas). Other attempts to silence the opposition have been in-your-face (dis-inviting guest speakers such as the prime minister of Israel, for instance, and forcing speakers such as Margo Sommerville to rely on police protection).
Third, I know about being silenced from personal experience (although presenting a point of view that relies on philosophical or moral arguments should not require personal stories to legitimate it). I grew up as the gay victim of bullies. They persecuted me implacably and relentlessly throughout my childhood until my last day in high school. Nowadays, my parents (let alone the schools that I attended) would never have stood for that kind of abuse; my parents would have sued, and my schools would have established *zero tolerance* policies. And yet I don’t entirely regret my suffering. It forced me to *think for myself* and therefore allowed me to grow up. Even as a young boy, I realized whatever was “wrong” with me could never have legitimated the punishment that I endured for not conforming to my assigned gender script. (Yes, boys are under no less pressure to conform than girls are.) Gradually, and not consciously at first, I developed a sense of my own inherent dignity as a human being and with it the firm conviction that the highest virtue is compassion. Frankly, I feel more pride for having learned that (the hard way and on my own) than for achieving anything else. Unkind or insensitive remarks of any kind no longer scare me. Not even when they come from other gay people, who disapprove of my attitude toward gay marriage. (I have no problem with gay relationships, and envy those who have them, but I’m convinced that children need both mothers and fathers.)
As for all these triggers and post-traumatic-stress disorder, I have little to say except that those who experience these problems should take advantage of the medical services that every university (and every city) provides.Report
I routinely teach extremely controversial topics, and ones that the authors of these ‘infantalism’ articles would probably be ‘scared’ of themselves. And yet, I’ve received exactly zero pushback from students (well, a transphobic student gave me some pushback once about teaching trans issues–and before people jump, the student wasn’t transphobic because of the pushback, they were in how they expressed their pushback). Instead, I tend to get students coming up after class and thanking me for the difficult, but illuminating discussions. In many cases, their other profs were unwilling to wade into some of these topics because they were (I suppose) concerned about getting it wrong or offending people. Maybe we should recognize that there’s indeed a *skill* to doing this?
The key, I think, is in *how* we teach these topics. It’s not easy, and I suspect that most are just best to avoid certain topics. I also tend to give my students content warnings. It’s a very small thing, I think, to take the 5 seconds and give a content warning before launching into something (or on the day before they’re going to be tackling a reading).Report
Dr. Giubilini, can you explain why teaching that infanticide is sometimes acceptable should be allowed on campus, but arguments that rape is sometimes acceptable should not be? Is the only distinction that there are female (and male) students in our classes who experience sensitivity to rape-apologetics, but there are no infants in class who are offended by support of infanticide? Why should that difference be morally relevant?
Call me crazy, but I’m fine with colleges restricting the advocacy of various ethical positions that are plainly false. (Mind you, I think that arguments for such positions may sometimes be used pedagogically; I just think that no professor should endorse such arguments, or defend them in a public lecture.)Report
I was silenced once. I felt as though it was traumatic. The talk of stifling speech reminds me of my own, subjectively traumatic experience. I would hope that the Daily Nous takes my experience seriously and closes this threat….I mean thread.
On a more serious note…..
Why is the matter of triggering left to the student and the discretion of the teacher in the first place? If there were a serious barrier to a student’s learning, wouldn’t it be better dealt with by, say, the college or university’s office of disability services?Report
I remember, here at Daily Nous, it was suggested by some (in the comments) that philosophers should not discuss the Ferguson case in class. This was supported by quite a few readers. The reasons given to not discuss Ferguson, as I recall, were similar to those cases outlined in the Shulevitz article. The fact that some philosophers, who are in theory supposed to represent those unafraid to discuss difficult and unpopular ideas, supported this seems to me to indicate that the problem highlighted by Shulevitz is becoming more widespread. Another example is the Marquette case that was discussed at length at Daily Nous. Though my sympathies are certainly with the former grad student in this case, some of things said by the grad student certainly indicate that we are fostering a culture in the university where certain topics (in this case homosexual marriage) are off limits. This, to me, is unfortunate.Report
Thanks, Justin. But I still don’t see it, unless we’re supposed to think that a lot of the coverage of the NU situation is misrepresentative. For instance, here:
I don’t doubt *some* protesters were doing what Kathryn Pogin was doing, but that position doesn’t even get mentioned. Moreover, the impression one gets is that the marching students were delivering this petition:
https://docs.google.com/a/udel.edu/forms/d/12sbmVqpNGQPY-QEYG5N7-VIUsXigVg3l9itcX4yTDcA/viewform. The third paragraph of the petition reads:
“We, the undersigned, are therefore calling for a swift, concrete and direct response from the University, affirming its commitment to its own sexual misconduct policy. We call for a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and we demand that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically. We should not have to ask the University to defend its own policy, survivors and broader community.”
An atmosphere in which a university “automatically” responds in this way to certain opinions seems to me likely to be chilling of free speech, and at least part of the justification is to “defend… survivors and the broader community.”Report
“let’s try a different issue: I want to resist the idea that the anecdotes in the NYT piece illustrate any kind of epidemic of student over-sensitivity, but let’s set that aside and just suppose there is such an epidemic. If so, would the locus of such a problem really be the students, or would it rather be an educational system where university administrators often operate in response to any problem on the basis of risk-management rather than principle?”
Hear, hear, Kathryn. You hit the nail on the head…Report
Hi Richard — the protesters were delivering that petition, but the idea wasn’t that Kipnis should be sanctioned for believing that limits on faculty-student relationships are bad policy; the idea was instead that the university has been issuing statements (automatically) affirming its commitment to its policies, to its students, or to equity, repeatedly, whenever it feels its own reputation may be harmed by some bit of news, and yet failed to do so here when a student who brought a Title IX suit against it has her credibility impugned by a misrepresentation on the part of one of its faculty members. One thing that the Daily Northwestern piece doesn’t mention (unsurprisingly, because I doubt this is what would be interesting to an undergraduate reporter) is that those student quotes are from a group discussion that took place shortly after we arrived outside the administrative buildings. There was more than one student during the course of that discussion who explicitly expressed support for Kipnis’ academic freedom, and were met with agreement from the group.Report
“Regarding the cancelling of an abortion debate between two men — shutting down one debate about abortion between two men is not really shutting down conversation broadly. Men debating abortion amongst themselves is both normal and frequent.”
I’ve got to say I’ve been working that argument around in my head and I just don’t think it’s defensible. You can’t justify shutting down a debate because debate exists “broadly.” And the justification that letting the debate go on would be “physically and mentally” unsafe for the students is ridiculously infantilizing and reprehensible.Report
Kathryn, you claim that the idea was not to sanction Kipnis, but the petition calls for an official condemnation by the university of her views. Not just a typical disclaimer like “Kipnis is not speaking on behalf of the University,” but instead “Northwestern University condemns Laura Kipnis for her views on…” That is not a sanction at the same level as, say, suspension or firing, but it is still a significant sanction. Any faculty member specifically condemned by their own institution would have real concern over their future career there — tenure, promotion, merit raises, post-tenure review, etc. It would be quite chilling not just for Kipnis, but for all other faculty at the school. Such an action should be reserved only for the most rare and extreme situations.Report
Thank you for linking to the petition. I think you are correct in linking the petition to the university’s self-defense under fire in another case, and to the complaint that the university had not said something here while it had been willing to defend itself in the other controversy. It is curious, though, that the petition here is described as not containing or being based on (or something–the phrase is “the idea wasn’t about,” which I find hard to describe more concretely) the idea that Kipnis should be sanctioned for “believing that limits on faculty-student relationships are bad policy,” but rather was based on a student having her reputation “impugned” by “misrepresentation[s].” That seems consistent with suggestions elsewhere in this conversation that the complaint was only about factual errors and/or misrepresentations in Kipnis’s piece. But the petition does not call on condemnation of Kipnis for factual errors or misrepresentation and for those alone. It demands a “swift, official condemnation of the SENTIMENTS expressed by Professor Kipnis [emphasis added]” and says that, in the future, “this sort of response [must] come[ ] automatically.” Whether a university ought to defend itself or not, there is surely a distinction between the university defending itself as an institution and the university singling out its faculty for condemnation. And whether the students agreed among themselves that they supported Kipnis’s academic freedom in a group discussion or not, the petition neither expresses this view nor demands condemnation of Kipnis for factual errors alone. It explicitly demands that the university officially condemn one of its professors for the “sentiments” expressed in an article.
I’m not sure how one distinguishes between ideas and sentiments, and I acknowledge that “academic freedom” is itself a contested concept, so that merely invoking the words without saying more is unlikely to settle a concrete question. But suffice it to say that it is entirely consistent with conventional and widely held views of academic freedom to believe that a university administration should not be in the business of condemning–let along condemning automatically–one of its faculty for her public expression of ideas and/or “sentiments.” Indeed, while many of us may be troubled by factual errors in a professor’s intramural or extramural writing, it is also widely believed, and there is much in the AAUP statements on academic freedom to support this view, that criticism of those errors should come from one’s disciplinary colleagues, not the central administration of the university, which is not tasked with the duty of evaluating a professor’s professional work and should not generally, if ever (and certainly not automatically), criticize a professor’s extramural writings, especially when they criticize the university itself and its policies.Report
That’s quite the jump from condemning sentiments she expressed to condemning her, no? Do our existing policies which speak to disagreement between Kipnis and the administration chill her speech? If the university says that it condemns racism, would that inappropriately infringe on the rights of racist faculty members? Do you know what sentiments the authors were referring to?
I guess in general since I know the undergraduates who wrote the petition, and since I spoke with them about it, since I was present for the whole conversation during the protest, I’m not sure why it seems, that for some, it’s absurd that I might think I know what they meant.Report
In response to #32: Well, it really doesn’t matter what the students had in mind, what matters is that the petition calls for condemnation of what a professor wrote in an opinion piece (sorry, I reject the idea that you can distinguish the sentiments expressed in some essay from the content expressed–very often, the two are tightly linked). We all, no matter what our political commitments, should be worried by this move. And these calls for official condemnation seem to be on the rise; apparently there was a similar call for condemnation in the recent case involving a philosopher’s Facebook post concerning Gaza.
I don’t understand this trend. If you don’t approve of some opinion expressed by a faculty member, protest it. And ask others to join your protest, put it on your Facebook page, etc. But don’t demand that the university *do* something about it. Going down that road constitutes a real threat to liberty of thought and expression.Report
Professor Plum, I was confused by this: “…sorry, I reject the idea that you can distinguish the sentiments expressed in some essay from the content expressed–very often, the two are tightly linked.” I didn’t say we should distinguish between the sentiments and the content–I was saying we should distinguish between the sentiments and the person, so I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to. Again, why is it that I should think a university’s speech could infringe on the rights of others, and not that a professor’s could? (Note: I am not saying that merely the expression of an opinion does constitute such infringement, but it seems to me that if a university’s doing so would, then sometimes a professor’s would as well).
Just to get clear on the discussion: Are folks who disagree with me inclined to say that there are no circumstances in which a university might issue a statement to express that the official position of the university is in disagreement with some opinion expressed? For example, suppose a professor writes an op-ed in which, rather than merely mocking someone who has filed an assault complaint as melodramatic, they say that sexual assault shouldn’t be classified as a criminal act, or that violence motivated by prejudice is a-okay. Is the disagreement here about whether or not academic institutions should ever be willing to do so, or rather about when they should do so?Report
I’m not sure who has said that it’s absurd to suggest that you know better what the students actually meant; I don’t think I did and don’t understand anyone to have said I did. In case my view isn’t clear on this point, I simply and respectfully consider it largely irrelevant. What is relevant is the students’ explicit communication with the university. It does not point out factual misstatements in the article and demand that the university ask that Kipnis correct them. It demands that the university “issue a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article” and that the university do so “automatically” in the future. (I’m afraid it’s not clear what they mean here either. If the core complaint is about factual misstatements, what burden of proof should the complainant meet before the university issues its “automatic” “condemnation?” Or should it be the case that an automatic condemnation should issue if a student asserts that she has been misrepresented or had her reputation impugned, whether that assertion is accurate, reasonable, plausible, or not? If it has to do with a professor issuing a statement that disagrees with some university policy, will any policy, no matter how picayune, do before a condemnation issues? Say the university opposes unionization of graduate students and the professor says, “the university is wrong on this; of course graduate students should unionize.” Must a “condemnation” automatically issue? Why on earth should it? Or is it that if a disagreement with university policy arises, the university should condemn it automatically if it involves particular sensitive subjects or strongly held views? Or that if any person in the university community spots a professor disagreeing with university policy and considers it important or offensive enough to believe personally that that person demands condemnation, the fact of the complaint should trigger the automatic condemnation? Perhaps you can help clarify matters, given your insight into what the students actually meant. But neither the university nor the rest of us possess that special insight. And insofar as the students are demanding a policy of automatic condemnation, it can hardly be the case that the special intentions of this one group will be relevant to all future incidents.)
You ask whether I know what sentiments the students were referring to. I confess I am not sure, although I take it that “sentiments” are not the same thing as factual misstatements. Does the university? Does it–do you–does anyone else know what “sentiments” would be relevant in future incidents in which a swift, automatic, official condemnation should issue, according to the petition? Wouldn’t that be a useful thing to know? May I point out that in an earlier comment, you said that what the students really wanted was action by the university whenever a student “has her credibility impugned by a misrepresentation on the part of one of its faculty members.” You later described their intention as seeking condemnation for “sentiments [Kipnis] expressed,” which may or may not be a different thing. And immediately above, you speak generally, without referencing the students’ intentions at all, about the propriety of the university speaking out “whenever the official position of the university is in disagreement with some opinion expressed,” which does not seem to turn on whether there have been any factual misstatements and consequent impugning of a particular individual. May I suggest that in the circumstances, the uncertainty I confess here about what the petition actually demands is quite understandable and forgivable? Certainly I would welcome any information, based on conversations with the students, about what they meant by the swift automatic condemnation of “sentiments expressed” by a faculty member–although, again, it seems to me that for pretty well everyone, the best guide is the petition itself and not some gloss placed on it elsewhere.
You write that it’s “quite the jump from condemning sentiments she expressed to condemning her.” I’m not sure it is much of a jump, actually. But I suppose whether it is or not depends on the form that condemnation takes. If the university issues a statement saying, “we reaffirm our policies on sexual misconduct,” that doesn’t seem like a condemnation of the person, certainly. More generally, although I question the wisdom of having the university issue a statement reaffirming its official policies every time some professor disagrees with them, I do not have much of a problem with a university issuing a statement reaffirming its policies; it has the right to do so, it does not interfere with the right and sometime duty of professors and others to disagree with official university policies, in short it raises no issues of academic freedom and the proper role of a university administration. But–and, again, I guess the students weren’t really that clear in their petition about this–the petition reads as if this is one thing they want, but that they *also* demand a further condemnation of Professor Kipnis’s “sentiments.” So what would that condemnation say? Would it say, “We strongly condemn the sentiments issued in Professor Kipnis’s editorial, although of course we recognize her right to disagree with the university’s policy on X?” Would it say, “We think anyone who would argue X is not a fit or decent member of the university community?” Perhaps you have some insights on the students’ intentions here, or perhaps they formed no intentions. Did they draft a sample condemnation? To take an example you used, let’s say a professor writes a scholarly article questioning race-conscious admissions policies at universities on empirical grounds. Some students complain that such an article has a dehumanizing, degrading effect and places black students in the position of blacks in Jim Crow America. In response, and naming the professor and the article, the university issues a swift “automatic” “condemnation” statement that says, “We whole-heartedly condemn racism and racist ideas.” Given that the university is implicitly saying that the professor’s opposition to race-conscious university admissions is racist, would such a condemnation really involve a big jump from condemning sentiments to condemning the individual voicing those sentiments?
I apologize for the length of this exercise. I am not at all convinced that the students’ actual intentions matters more than the text of the petition itself. And, in truth, I think the petition is not *quite* as ambiguous as the above discussion suggests. But to the extent that it *is* ambiguous, I certainly would love to have some answers to those questions before readily agreeing that the university ought to institute some policy of swift automatic condemnation. I don’t object as such to students protesting statements that they find objectionable, for whatever reason–although, I assume like everyone else, neither am I inclined to think that the options for university discourse in the presence of disagreement are limited to protest and official condemnation. You suggest that certainly there are *some* occasions on which a university *might* issue statements in response to ideas voiced by faculty members, citing as an example a faculty member who argues that sexual assault shouldn’t be criminalized. I don’t strongly disagree with that proposition, but neither is it clear to me why the university would issue a statement in this case. I certainly would like to know much more about the argument being made; and I would like to know whether at this point we have moved from condemning positions that disagree with official positions of the university to condemning positions that are widely held in society, whether or not they directly relate to university policies. I gather, although I’m not sure, that although you also talk in terms of cases in which a professor publicly disagrees with the official position of a university, you believe those circumstances should be limited. I assume that professorial duties include the duty to disagree in certain cases with official university policies, and the right to do so, and that a university should not condemn every faculty member, or even their “sentiments,” every time such a disagreement comes up; it can’t possibly be the case that anyone reasonably thinks that the university should condemn all “sentiments” of all professors who disagree publicly with university policies, can it? So one needs to know what sorts of occasions merit a swift, official, automatic “condemnation” of–well, of something or other, currently described as “sentiments” voiced by a faculty member. I sure would like to know more about when that obligation is triggered!
But perhaps it is more useful simply to state more directly what I think university administrations ought to do, leaving to one side the (ambiguous?) petition and the (actual rather than apparent or explicit?) intentions of these particular students. Professors have a professional obligation to engage in professional speech, an academic freedom right to engage in intramural speech about the university and its actions, and a general right to speak extramurally on matters of public interest and concern. Generally–I’m not prepared to say “always,” but only out of an abundance of caution–when the central administration of the university is asked to issue “condemnations” of those statements, its answer should be a respectful but blunt “No.” That is certainly true in the absence of factual errors and where a professor is simply making a controversial or wrongheaded statement on a matter of public interest–such as “the idea of “campus rape culture has been vastly overstated” or “the university’s policies on race are immoral” or “students who disrupt classes should be expelled and criminal charges pressed”–even if students or others consider themselves hurt or victimized or disregarded by such a statement. University administrations, who have a governance role and not a roving intellectual jurisdiction or expertise, should not generally be in the business of correcting factual misstatements, or joining issue where the nature of the alleged misstatement involves ambiguity or interpretation as opposed to a flat-out factual error; where they do, it should, I would think, involve situations in which the matter falls directly within the knowledge and dealings of the university, and the occasions for such intervention should be fairly limited. Factual misstatements on a matter of public concern outside the university’s own dealings, even if they involve public issues of great concern to individual students, should be outside the university administration’s bailiwick. And possible factual errors falling within the faculty member’s discipline should generally be dealt with by the discipline itself. You have more or less convinced me that what the petition means by a swift, automatic condemnation is unclear. But while students and others remain free to complain about statements made by faculty, I can see little justification under principles of academic freedom as they are currently and generally understood for universities to adopt a policy of issuing *automatic* condemnation of “sentiments.” If asked to institute such a policy, they must–and, I assume, will–refuse. I have little interest in condemning the students, even if I think the policy they demand is a bad idea and, apparently, a badly drafted one. I am interested primarily in ensuring that the university act appropriately under current understandings of academic freedom, the role of universities, and the distinct roles of faculty members and university administrators–and that means that the university should respectfully but clearly reject the petition’s demands.Report
Paul Nathanson: “First, the very fact that Shulevitz has provoked such a heated debate clearly indicates that she has indeed touched a nerve and has therefore made a legitimate contribution to public discourse.”
I’m curious about the “touched a nerve, therefore made a legitimate contribution” inference. Counterexamples seem overwhelming in both number and obviousness.
“Are her examples “representative”? That question is beside the point. What should trouble us all is not that *some* of these events have occurred but that *any* have occurred. Shulevitz isn’t a statistician. She didn’t write a social-scientific treatise. She wrote a newspaper editorial about a pervasive attitude and some of its symptoms.”
So it doesn’t matter whether she establishes representativeness, only pervasiveness? That’s an odd distinction to follow up the claim that the number of instances is irrelevant. Or is the pervasiveness already known directly, by those who “get it”, so that the examples can be few and unrepresentative without undermining the key point?
“I’ve seen countless examples of similar attempts to silence students or members of the faculty who adopt controversial positions…”
Except that this is not obviously what happened any of examples that Schulevitz provides, and definitely mischaracterizes most of them. Offering a competing event, for example, actually broadens the options, and could not be mistaken for silencing someone who adopts a controversial position. Taking someone to task for not objecting to a slur term silences them for what controversial position, exactly? I can’t speak directly to the countless examples you believe you’ve seen, nor your interpretation of them. But if those examples really are similar to the examples Schulevitz cites, and stand in the same relation to the overall characterization of the examples as hers generally do, then I must conclude by parity of reasoning that they do not show what you say they show.Report
Thought this was relevant:
Personally I think microaggression theory is as troubling as the “hostile environment as exception to free speech” theory.Report
Why are content concerns not treated like other accessibility concerns? At my university professors and TAs are given notices about student accessibility concerns via our Accessibility Services clinic. Students visit the clinic to identify and present their accessibility concerns (e.g. impaired motor skills, chronic illness, etc.). These concerns are then relayed (anonymously, whenever possible) to their instructors so that the instructors can accommodate them. At my university it is commonplace for instructors to begin a course by asking for volunteers to take notes for students with accessibility concerns, and to make a point of mentioning how to contact Accessibility Services. Were content concerns treated like this then instructors would know when to throw up content or trigger warnings for students, and could design evaluation more equitably (e.g. a choice of essay topics, only some of which concern the ‘sensitive’ issues).
An important benefit of this approach is that equity concerns are primarily dealt with by professionals trained to deal with them, rather than by professors of philosophy who just want to teach a course.Report
Laura Kipnis has posted a new article discussing how Title IX charges were filed against her for her Chronicle article, and the Kafka-esque proceedings that following, including an initial refusal to even tell her what she was being accused of. The faculty senator who accompanied her to her questioning has now also been charged with violating Title IX for criticizing the investigation process.