WASHINGTON, June 3, 2015 — The politics of sex and race often sound like dispatches from the lunatic fringe. Two stories, one about man-spreading, and one involving Title IX, emphasize that impression.
The Title IX story comes from Northwestern University in Chicago. Professor Laura Kipnis wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in February in which she described sexual paranoia on campus. She used as an example a case involving a philosophy professor at Northwestern who was accused by an undergraduate of “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.”
Kipnis named no names, but the young woman involved and a graduate student who had also filed a charge against the professor decided that Kipnis had made the campus an unwelcoming, even hostile place. They sued.
The university should not be a hostile environment for women or minorities. Anyone who attends a university deserves to be treated by administration, faculty and staff with a common level of courtesy and respect. It isn’t the job of faculty to berate and embarrass you, but to provide you with an education.
But neither is the university a place to be coddled. You will be exposed to ideas, people and books that you don’t like, and it isn’t necessary that you like them or feel comfortable with them. It is necessary only that you tolerate and learn to understand them.
So when a lunatic fringe starts defining “hostile environment,” we’re in trouble.
Kipnis was brought up by the university on charges. After weeks of interrogation, she had not been informed precisely what the charges were, nor had she been given anything in writing. When a faculty colleague who was allowed under university rules to sit in during questioning brought up his own concerns in the faculty senate, he likewise was accused of creating a hostile environment and found himself the target of a suit.
The problem at Northwestern wasn’t that charges were filed against Kipnis and her colleague; we don’t expect students always to think and act like mature adults. The problem was that grownups with a sense of proportion and fairness didn’t step in and quash this early on. The people who ran what Kipnis describes as an “inquisition” exercised bad judgment.
To be clear, what should have been quashed early on were the charges against Kipnis. The philosophy professor in question was accused by two students in two separate incidents, the more serious charge involving rape. The university has no choice but to investigate a rape charge. A faculty member, however, is free to view the case as “melodrama.”
It may pain the students to learn that’s her view, but that isn’t her problem.
On a tangential but related note, New York City has criminalized “manspreading,” the habit of some men to sit with their legs too far apart, on public transport. A report from the Police Reform Organizing Project says that two men were arrested and charged for manspreading.
As at Northwestern, we face the problem of judgment. Manspreading might be bad manners, but what degree angle between the legs constitutes a manspread? Does the level of occupancy of a subway train come into play, or the willingness of the offender to respond to a polite request to unblock adjacent seats? Does anyone have the right not to experience human contact in a crowded subway? In particular, is it a form of sexual assault and domination for a man to touch a woman’s knee with his own, or to subject her to a view of his unguarded crotch?
More to the point, will manspreading be defined by lunatics and enforced by people who have no sense of judgment? Will justice for men accused of manspreading resemble justice for university faculty accused of making the campus environment “hostile,” and will it be as subjectively defined?
Should a person’s discomfort be the basis for a lawsuit or an accusation of a crime? A touch becomes a grope becomes a rape, and then “rape” becomes a meaningless word.
When I heard an animal rights activist refer to commercial chicken farming as a “holocaust,” I wondered how we might go about distinguishing dead Jews from dead chickens. The Holocaust was a crime against humanity, a terrible stain on German, Western and world history. Chicken farming is often inhumane; my wife and I mostly buy non-cage chicken and non-cage eggs, which makes us feel virtuous and kind, but if we were facing retirement on Social Security, I’d be saying “damn the chickens; I want my eggs cheap!”
There’s a vast gulf between these holocausts. I don’t think I could be paid enough to support the Nazi Holocaust, but my virtue with regard to farm animals can be bought. Throw around the word “holocaust” loosely enough, though, and some people will have a hard time drawing a moral line between them. Either dead Jews aren’t a problem, or abused chickens become the basis for international trials.
Words like “rape” and “holocaust” should be used carefully. At some point, the correct response to a person who takes offense or who feels violated isn’t to call it “sexual assault” and then to treat it like rape; the correct response is to ignore the complaint. Deciding where that point lies is difficult, and it requires judgment—judgment that students and Title IX administrators at Northwestern clearly lack.
Kipnis was ultimately exonerated, but that is hardly the point. Universities are places where judgment should be developed and modeled. They are a place to learn that there are times to draw lines and times to ignore them. There is a time to obey rules, a time to skirt them and a time to ignore them outright.
Sometimes a mere look is sinister and has to be taken seriously, and sometimes kids should be told, “grow up.” Perfect definition and clarity will forever elude us. Learn to deal with it.