Like Paranoia, Piety Strikes Deep

David Palumbo-Liu is in high dudgeon (thank you, I’ve always wanted to say that about someone). He wants us to know that, unlike Laura Kipnis, David Brooks, and other backward types on campus and off, he takes the side of victims of sexual assault and harassment. He congratulates himself for this virtue several times in his Salon piece, and accordingly accuses Kipnis of lacking it: she is clearly indifferent to their plight, he says, even makes light of of it.

No? He doesn’t actually say that? Here’s the third paragraph:

“Since its publication in February of this year, Laura Kipnis’s essay, ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,’ has not ceased to create controversy. Kipnis, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, asserts that new rules against faculty-student dating are playing to students’ exaggerated and self-destructive feelings of vulnerability, and attempting to legislate the sexual lives of adults. If students get hurt or harmed as a result of their liaisons with their teachers, Kipnis tells them to consider it a ‘life lesson.’ Thanks, Prof.”

To which there are only two rational responses: learn to read, or go fuck yourself. As Professor Palumbo-Liu himself notes, Kipnis recommends severe punishments (“chemical castration”) for sexual predators and oppressors on campus and off. She never suggests that student-professor sexual relations are normal, or normative. Why, then, this egregious misreading of her argument?

You’ll have to ask him.

It gets worse. Professor Palumbo-Liu stops making sense when he gets to what he treats as the literary or rhetorical part of the argument (for the record, he actually asked somebody on my Facebook page to define melodrama for him, I guess so he could muster this silly response).

“Kipnis seeds her essay with plenty of accusations [against whom, in particular?], ranging far and wide across a lot of terrain. But it would appear that, according to Kipnis, the most egregious thing those deeply concerned about sexual harassment and assault on campus are guilty of is the sin of being melodramatic. . . . If melodrama is a sin, or a symptom of something not psychically right, then Kipnis is just as prone to using melodramatic rhetoric as anyone. And that is a huge problem when we venture into the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus-—for many of the modes of expression that people use to help draw attention to these critical issues often end up in fact drawing attention away from them.”

Professor Palumbo-Liu thinks he’s ridiculing Kipnis here, but he’s actually hoisting himself on his own petard. He starts the essay by praising mattress–bearing protestors as “effective attention-getters.” Now he announces that they’re diverting attention from the “real issues.” But what are those issues? Sexual harassment and assault, of course.

Then he plunges deeper into the rhetorical mess of his own making. He says that Kipnis’s insouciant style has actually diminished the effect of her critique of campus culture-—and this after 90 days of public, angry, litigious debate about the content of her argument, an effect most of us would like, for good reasons, to have on political discourse. (The complainants now insist they were objecting to the “factual inaccuracies” in the February essay when they filed Title IX charges, which is itself an evasion of what Palumbo-Liu insists are the “real issues.”)

“I appreciate Kipnis’ attention to the issue, and her passionate investment. And I defend her right to speak and write about these issues without being censored or pilloried. What I am deeply troubled by is the way her rhetoric, meant to provoke, ends up obscuring whatever value her critique might offer and clouds the issue.”

There’s that issue again. How exactly does it get clouded by the rhetoric? Meanwhile, I still want to know about those accusations. Where are they? Against whom are they made? The investigators hired by Northwestern have dismissed the accusations of retaliation by the Title IX complainants. So I’m not getting it.

“No one is considering for a moment if Kipnis’ accusations [again, what accusations?] actually have any validity. And that is partly her fault. While Kipnis insists that these are not phantom issues [the issues of assault and harassment], the melodramatic mode of expression she chooses to use leeches them of substance and seriousness. She wants to have her cake and eat it too. And she does it by placing an awful lot of weight on the term ‘melodrama.’”

Hello? I’m still not getting it. First you’re befuddled by melodrama, and now it’s her fault that you are? This is beginning to sound too familiar. Maybe you want a trigger warning attached to rhetoric, very Platonic of you. And then, aha, here’s the deal-—just as her accusers complained because she didn’t write enough about them, Professor Palumbo-Liu has a standard of factual sufficiency to uphold:

“Kipnis never tells us what a ‘bona fide harasser’ might look like. Without providing us with any working definition for this central term, we are left without a clue as to what constitutes ‘real’ sexual harassment in her opinion.”

But then Kipnis doesn’t have to offer her opinion, because the actually existing codes carry exact definitions of sexual harassment—-she’s assuming we’ve all consulted our faculty handbooks on this question and proceeds with her argument, as if we’re all adults with some earned understanding of our workplaces.

Professor Paumbo-Liu concludes by missing the point entirely.

“Let’s leave Title IX aside for the moment. What many feel is really most important is to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place. And that is my major objection to Kipnis’ writings on the subject. . . . I wonder if she has spent any time with survivors of such harassment and violence, and one in every five college students can expect to be one. And that is a fact.”

And? Perhaps that is a fact. It has nothing to do with Kipnis’s essay, because, as the Columbia case illustrating Palumbo- Liu’s own essay strongly suggests, the real issue of sexual harassment or violence on campuses is a matter of sexual relations among students, not between students and professors.

And there is more to say about the logic of Professor Palumbo-Liu’s argument. It operates under the unspoken rubric of aiding and abetting the enemy. It’s the same inane logic that permits the gleefully malevolent Amanda Marcotte to claim that Kipnis’s concerns about Title IX merely amplify right-wing criticisms of the welfare state, and to suggest further that Kipnis has disarmed feminism as such by criticizing its new incarnation on campuses.

Kipnis never proposed to dismantle Title IX, and never diverted our attention from the issue of sexual harassment or assault. Instead, she asked whether the new structure of feeling on campus could let independence, individuality, insurgent ideas, or sexuality itself grow and thrive. Her troubled answer was, probably not.

Call that structure of feeling whatever you want, it’s real and it’s formative. To question it may well validate the claims of libertarians and right-wing critics of the university as a secular city devoted to knowledge for its own sake.

But to leave that structure intact, beyond reproach, is a much worse offense. For to do so is to cede our futures as intellectuals—-students and faculty alike—-to those who make a living by policing the boundaries of thought. It is to accept the bureaucratization of our imaginations.


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