Passing glances: protests and sex on campus

The University of California at Berkeley, which in the 60s originated what came to be called the free speech movement, has now become a major home of an un-free-speech movement, and American college campuses are now one setting for a clash, which is also playing out in the wider world, between conflicting stances toward sexual behavior. Some recent reading illustrates the issues.

Where attempts to stifle unwelcome opinions are concerned, the headline of a brief report in the April 1 issue of The Economist tells the tale: “Colleges with rich students see more protests against speakers.” The article only briefly sketches the background, via a reference to recent protests at Middlebury College and UC Berkeley; if you haven’t heard about these developments, all I’ll say for now is that perhaps you’re not reading enough of the news. The report is based on a comparison of student attempts to disinvite speakers with information on SAT scores and wealth; though the results as displayed in a scatterplot aren’t clear to my eye, the analysis shows “statistically significant correlations,” and The Economist’s conclusion is that universities “with better-credentialed and wealthier students were likelier to mount protests. They were also likelier to mount successful attempts to block speakers.”

Given that success often entails actual or threatened violence, as at Middlebury and Berkeley, one might wonder whether the entitlement of the well-to-do is now being demonstrated in terms of smashed heads. To borrow the title of a recent book (which played on a rather well-known earlier one), is this another sign of the revolt of the elites? Is it merely an extension of consumerism, in which the wealthy assert their right to be taught only that which they want to learn? I’m inclined to see it in terms of memetics (the study of memes, a concept that goes way beyond the trivial, momentarily catchy notions popular on the Internet): ideas can be infectious, just as diseases can be, but fear of ideas—more precisely, fear of opposing ideas—isn’t going to get us anywhere good. Though analogies are always risky, the hygiene hypothesis may be a useful guide here: as our immune systems seem to require exposure to pathogens in order to develop properly, so perhaps does our mental strength and flexibility need to grapple with fresh ideas—or, for that matter, any ideas other than those we already have. The Economist article takes a similar tack in referring to John Stuart Mill in its conclusion.

Meanwhile, Laura Kipnis, who may be my favorite provocateur now that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among us (though she’s cut from a different cloth), just published a book in which she takes on another excess of academe. The subject is one into which men may reasonably fear to venture, so I’ll draw on a review in the April-May issue of Bookforum, which was written by a woman (Charlotte Shane, who confesses her own trepidation): “In Unwanted Advances [Kipnis] provides a wry, pragmatic analysis of the miscarriages of justice and abrogation of common sense sometimes perpetrated by American colleges in the name of protecting women. In case you’re unaware…combating ‘rape culture’ is a hugely popular campus cause, and Title IX, the law that prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded schools, is now habitually deployed as a corrective for alleged harassment and assault.” Kipnis was the target of a harassment complaint in 2015, and she’s a tenured professor at Northwestern University, so, as the review says, she’s well positioned to report on the situation. The issue she addresses is not whether harassment and assault are taking place but instead the many ways in which an attempt to correct or prevent a wrong leads to other wrongs.

Kipnis’s book attacks the subject from many angles, which I won’t attempt to summarize. One thing that strikes me in reading the Bookforum review is that Kipnis displays in this new work the same agile, sharp, ironic, and pithy way of thinking she has shown in earlier books and essays, which I nodded to here. What may be the most far-reaching among the comments quoted in the review is this, from Shane’s discussion of the prevailing campus environment: “College women are encouraged to believe that ‘sex takes something away from you,’ and that ‘you can catch trauma, which, like a virus, never goes away.’” The latter remark reminds me of what I might call a favorite theme, the concept—still largely confined to Britain, as far as I can tell—of therapy culture, which proposes, to oversimplify it, that the world damages us and that we can’t cope with it without help. There’s no question that the world does damage some of us some of the time. But it seems to me an unbalanced view to expect to be damaged, to believe that we can catch trauma and that it’ll never go away.


2 thoughts on “Passing glances: protests and sex on campus

  1. I think you’re spot on with that hygiene analogy, John. Current research into gut bacteria suggests that a healthy system, one that is resilient, depends on exposure to diverse microbes. Environments that are too clean, diets that are limited, prophylactic regimes all reduce the body’s ability to adapt and thrive.


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