In her essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education on “Sexual Paranoia” (6 March 2015), Laura Kipnis takes codes of sexual conduct to task for creating paranoia among college students toward what she sees as natural sexuality. As part of her evidence for her thesis, Kipnis invokes an ongoing case at her home institution, Northwestern University, where two students have filed separate complaints of sexual assault against the same philosophy professor. But, as I discussed in a letter to the editor, published in The Chronicle a month later (6 April 2015), Kipnis got the facts about those complaints so wrong as to undermine her thesis.
She fused the two student complainants into one and attributed the thicket of lawsuits that’s grown up around the twin cases to a single student’s report of sexual assault. Kipnis clearly holds that student responsible for creating a legal “mess” and the university responsible for inciting her alleged “paranoia” by implementing overly stringent codes of sexual conduct. But if multiple complaints about this one professor have been lodged, then the likelihood that “paranoia” is at work dwindles, as does the persuasiveness of Kipnis’s thesis.
What continues to mystify and trouble me about this discussion is its lack of intellectual rigor. I’ve written earlier in a blog post about the demeaning tone of Kipnis’s piece, which I view as a rhetorical device for promoting her position in lieu of solid evidence and convincing argumentation. In her original essay, she calls out students for shrinking from acquiring “critical skills” when they balk at films she’s showing in her classes that trigger memories of past trauma. While I believe Kipnis makes a good point about how over-coddling students can interfere with their learning, I’d expect her own “critical skills” to be more in evidence in her essay and, in particular, her follow-up response to my letter.
In that response, she says she isn’t all that concerned with the facts of the sexual assault charges at Northwestern, but is interested in making a broader point about campus culture. But the broader point she’s attempting to make about students’ paranoia relies on the specific evidence that she muddles. “Critical skills” include offering enough detailed, factual evidence to support general conclusions.
Paranoia means, literally, an irrational fear. Could Kipnis explain how a professor who’s had two accusations of sexual assault brought against him is the site of the paranoia she attributes to the undergraduate complainant? What, specifically, is paranoid about the two students’ allegations?
The information Professor Kipnis needed to represent accurately the situation on her own campus is largely public information, now on the record, as my next post will elaborate.