A Rare Real Case of Free Speech vs. “PC” Culture: The Feminist Victimhood Wars at Northwestern

In recent months, a schism has emerged in feminist thought around issues of “victimhood.” On one side, there is a growing movement of young people who (correctly) understand how myriad forces like rape culture, trauma, and discrimination tear into a person’s, and society’s, well-being and wholeness. On the other side, a growing contingent of (mostly white) feminists — journalists, essayists, and thinkers — is pushing back against prioritizing “wounds” in feminist discourse, particularly when they say such wounds are weaponized and used to shut down discourse. Meghan Daum calls it “grievance culture.” Laura Kipnis calls it “paranoia.” Jessica Crispin calls it “emotional segregation.” And Michelle Goldberg says it’s a “politics of protection.”

The two strains of thought, which both have intellectual validity in my book, clash directly on campuses. For people in the first camp, the fear of being compelled to relive a trauma by confronting uncomfortable content creates the bogeyman of the second camp, the fear of diminishing academic freedom, a capitulation to sensitivity.

One such clash between Camp A and Camp B, at Northwestern, was chronicled by Goldberg this week at The Nation. To distill it: Kipnis, a notable intellectual provocateur (most known for her book Against Love), wrote a piece defending student-professor dating in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and critiquing the culture around trigger warnings and vulnerability she saw on campus. Students (particularly one who thought she was being described in the article) felt betrayed, staged a mattress protest, and petitioned for two things. First: “We call for 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.” And second, “we renew our demands for increased transparency regarding Northwestern’s handling of sexual assault.”

This latter is a crucial and fair demand, if not one that directly addresses Kipnis’ piece. Yet to me, the former is an extremely rare case in which “politically correct” culture goes too far. Students shouldn’t dictate what professors say on their own time. (Yet even as I say that, I have to note: Kipnis hasn’t actually been punished. She’s been protested, which means she’s been targeted by free speech. So so far, no censorship has occurred, beyond the self-censorship some academics are describing.)

The oddest part of this nationwide debate about triggers and victimhood is how little bearing it has on “the real world.” Although campus anti-rape activism is having a moment in the sun, that media victory hasn’t trickled down to all victims and survivors. Take the latest extremely upsetting headline-grabbing story, reported by the Washington Post last week (if I used trigger warnings, I would preface this link with one). An emotionally and mentally disturbed child was thrown into custody, for years, for reporting being raped:

After Danielle reported the rapes, the police interviewed her in a manner that violated guidelines for handling child sexual assault cases, records and interviews show. They delayed analyzing DNA evidence — and then analyzed only some of it. An officer misled her to get her to contradict her account, and then had her charged her with lying, according to police reports. And many officers treated her with extreme skepticism; in one internal e-mail, a lieutenant called her “promiscuous” and the “sex” consensual.

Yet Danielle was just 11 years old, well under the age of consent, which is 16 in the District. The suspects in the police reports obtained by the Bests were described as being in their late teens or early 20s.

This is the world that students come from before they enter college campuses, and re-enter upon graduation. Unfortunately, then, when sexual assault actually happens at school, complainants too often confront indifferent administrators who victim-blame just as the cops in this case did. Thus, students likely feel their chance at a voice — at an institution that vied for their tuition dollars — has been taken from them. It’s not surprising to me that they might find classes, and seemingly insouciant professors, triggering in such an environment.

Nor does it defy my beliefs to imagine that at least a few campus activists deal with this by doing what Goldberg and Kipnis claim they are doing: attempting to turn reminders of their broader powerlessness into a chance to seize a measure of control in the classroom. But whatever motivates students — a perverse need to identify with victimhood or a genuine trauma — smart activism means making a distinction between policies and systems that cause harm, and concepts or content that is upsetting. Each is deserving of a different response; policies are meant to be replaced, while upsetting speech should be countered with better, clearer speech.

Campus isn’t just a place to nurture young people, it’s also a place that is meant to foster the exchange of ideas. As a former student protester and angry college newspaper columnist, I hope students demonstrate as much as they want, write a million editorials expressing their views, and get dangerous fraternities kicked off of campus. But it’s never a wise idea to ally with administrators on restricting acceptable intellectual discourse, as the next outspoken person to be condemned might be you. As Kipnis wrote in an email to me containing her thoughts on the controversy, “the spectacle of students appealing to administrators to make more regulations” is “painful.”

My guess is that many of the Northwestern petitioners will realize this before they turn 30.