The bizarre Title IX investigation of Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis represents a milestone in the growing awareness among liberals that the left’s approach to identity has gone badly astray. The notion that Kipnis’s essay ridiculing the campus sexual atmosphere was not merely misguided, but an act of gender discrimination, crossed a threshold of ridiculousness. The absurdity of the proceedings was compounded, Erik Wemple reports, when Kipnis’s “faculty-support person” briefed their colleagues about her bizarre ordeal, and that person also became the subject of Title IX discrimination charges, the classic witch-hunt logic by which anybody who questions the fairness of the accusations becomes the subject of more accusations.
But what does the episode tell us? It does not show that the Constitutional right to freedom of speech faces a serious threat. The proceedings against Kipnis were dropped, and it’s impossible to imagine that a court could have sustained any formal sanctions against her on the basis of writing an op-ed column, because of, you know, the First Amendment.
What’s important, rather, is that Kipnis’s antagonists believe that she deserves to be punished by the university administration for writing a column they didn’t like. The official demand of mattress-bearing protestors was “a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article” on the grounds that the offending column “has caused tremendous hurt to members of Northwestern’s community.”
The move to sanction Kipnis was not a misguided one-off, but the natural expression of a worldview that I described in a story earlier this year about resurgent political correctness. This is a set of illiberal social norms that have spread throughout much of academia and some virtual communities in social media.
After I published the story, Vox responded with a story by Amanda Taub explaining, “The truth about political correctness is that it doesn’t actually exist.” Now Vox has a new story explaining that, actually, political correctness is everywhere. The author, an anonymous professor, confirms virtually everything I wrote: 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.
Many left-wing writers are torn between their discomfort with p.c. and their recognition that my piece was politically radioactive among their target audience. Freddie DeBoer handled this problem by calling me “condescending” and “an asshole” before proceeding to endorse my thesis. Vox’s author — who has to write under a pseudonym! — instead manufactures a point of disagreement. “Ideas can and should be judged both by the strength of their logic and by the cultural weight afforded to their speaker’s identity,” he writes, “Chait appears to believe only the former, and that’s kind of ridiculous.”
The author does not produce a quote from my piece to support what he says it “appears to believe.” Indeed, the story says just the opposite. In it, I conceded that my identity is “worth bearing in mind,” and also that “some level of consciousness” toward identity, as opposed to strict neutrality, is necessary to oppose discrimination.
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.