What the Charges Against Laura Kipnis Tell Us About Political Correctness

Laura Kipnis
It's Laura Kipnis -- BURN HER!Photo: Colin McPherson/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Several months ago, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis wrote a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education protesting what she saw as her school’s excessive regulation of sexual conduct. Outraged students petitioned the school administration to issue “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.” Students bearing the petition marched to the school administration carrying mattresses, the new symbol of the campus anti-rape movement. Now, Kipnis reports, the University has undertaken a Title IX investigation against her on the basis of her column and a subsequent tweet about it.

Title IX is a provision of federal law dealing with gender discrimination on campus, which has expanded to the point that it can now be the basis for a complaint against the publication of an opinion column and a related tweet. Kipniss’s story provides another marker in the ongoing resurgence of political correctness. As I define it (which is not the same way as many others define it), p.c. is an ideological system that justifies and undertakes severe restrictions on the discourse around race and gender.

The basis for the ideology is the belief that race and gender inequality both undergird nearly every major political question, and that they lie almost entirely beyond dispute. Relatedly, it assumes that people, especially students, are extraordinarily vulnerable to trauma, that pointed debate about race and gender (among other things) can set off this trauma, and that the ability to be “safe” from any such trauma is a primary right. Adherents of this ideology tend to view the distinction between actions and expression, which is a lynchpin of liberal thought, with skepticism. Of course, free speech theorists have always recognized extreme circumstances in which speech can become action (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, fighting words, blackmail, etc.), but p.c. ideologists collapse the distinction into virtual nonexistence, at least on matters of identity.

One mistake some critics make is to interpret political correctness as solely taking the form of censorship. (The headline to my story, which I did not see before publication, may have contributed to this confusion by describing “language police.”) Sometimes, p.c. rules are enforced through official sanctions, like a Title IX investigation. More frequently, p.c. takes the form of social norms agreed to by members of a community. Formal censorship is the worst kind of p.c., but it’s not the only kind, and it’s a mistake to view it as the full extent of the problem with p.c. Rather, the issue is that the people within the communities dominated by p.c. deny themselves the benefit of liberal discourse. The most important manifestations of this culture that Kipnis describes, and that match the descriptions provided by many other sources, are norms rather than formal rules:

Most academics I know — this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer — now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster. After the essay appeared, I was deluged with emails from professors applauding what I’d written because they were too frightened to say such things publicly themselves. My inbox became a clearinghouse for reports about student accusations and sensitivities, and the collective terror of sparking them, especially when it comes to the dreaded subject of trigger warnings, since pretty much anything might be a “trigger” to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.

I learned that professors around the country now routinely avoid discussing subjects in classes that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. Someone who’d written a book about incest in her own family described being confronted in class by a student furious with her for discussing the book. A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child.

I highly doubt that the inquiry against Kipnis will result in any important formal sanction. If it did, matters would be worse. But the slim possibility of actual administrative punishment is not the problem her story reveals. The problem is that a major body of progressive campus thought believes her publication of a dissenting column merits punishment.