In the wake of Wellesley College's "Censorship Awareness Week"––a week that would seem to symbolize a commitment to free and robust speech––controversial speaker Laura Kipnis inspired professors to pen a letter calling for something that looks a little like censorship.
Self-described feminist Laura Kipnis's talk was entitled, "Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Intellectual Freedom Takes a Curtain Call)." According to the description furnished on Wellesley's website, Kipnis's talk centered on the idea that, "there has to be far more honesty about the complicated realities and ambivalences hidden beneath the notion of 'rape culture.'" She asserted, too, that various aspects of college bureaucracy and campus adjudication actually reduce female empowerment.
The description of Kipnis's talk seems largely innocuous and highly worthwhile. She clarifies in the description that she's disinterested in winnowing down the complexity of a rape survivor's experience, but rather interested in the dynamics of "feminist paternalism" and "well-meaning bureaucrats."
After all, it makes sense that a hot button issue like sexual assault should be discussed in the environment where it often takes place.
But as these things often go, Kipnis's talk was threatening and upsetting to some. Students crafted a video response (allegedly beginning production before Kipnis spoke, preemptively assuming she would offend them), and Wellesley professors soon followed up with a letter that claimed to support free speech, yet used confusing and contradictory quotes that don't actually support free speech at all.
The six Wellesley professors used a quote from Jelani Cobb, claiming initially that free speech is important but, "the freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered." Apparently, according to Cobb, "the enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one's liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose on the liberty of another."
So which is it: does free speech matter, or does it only matter when the "relatively disempowered" use it to punch up at the powerful? And, worse, who decides which groups are disempowered and which groups are powerful? Though well-intentioned, such criteria is likely to create dangerous outcomes––the types we were warned about in dystopian novels written many years ago.
I contacted the six signatories to the letter, asking if they would comment on offense, political biases, and how they would deign whether three potential speakers (Arthur Brooks, Stephen Moore, and Christina Hoff Sommers) should be allowed at Wellesley. These speakers are hypothetical, but I was curious as to how each one (coming from right-leaning persuasions) would be considered by the Wellesley professors.
Only one responded, claiming she was unavailable for comment. The other five refused.
This leaves me conflicted––why won't these professors elaborate on their thought process? As a part of my personal commitment to open-minded dialogue, I'm interested in what they have to say, but all I'm left with is frustration that their points don't stand up to scrutiny.
Given the Rolling Stone scandal several years ago, controversy over statistics used in The Hunting Ground, and issues with campus adjudication, topics like these should be discussed now more than ever. The issue with Rolling Stone's article was that it didn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny and fact-checking. This shows that critical examination of relevant statistics, beliefs, and processes is more important than ever if we want to end sexual assault on campus and prioritize justice for victims.
Perhaps Kipnis is wrong on most of her points, but I'd expect she has some insight or criticism of sexual assault adjudication that's worth hearing.
Offensive ideas should be heard, not so they can become the prevailing belief, but because we should fear any one person, committee, or institution determining which ideas are offensive and which are not. If these offensive ideas are conveyed without intended malice and with intellectual rigor, they're even more worth hearing. Kipnis falls into that category.
Apparently the one week devoted specifically to censorship awareness could not be devoid of faculty action against free and thoughtful discourse. At some point, sensitivity politics will erode my generation's ability to handle intellectual challenges. I think it's already happening.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is co-managing editor of Young Voices.
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