When Snowflakes Attack!

A few weeks ago Wellesley College invited Laura Kipnis to give a talk. Kipnis is not an especially controversial figure. She is a professor of media studies at Northwestern who teaches film and seems to be generally in line with old-guard feminism. Her one deviation was a piece she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education two years ago blaming modern feminism for creating a climate of sexual paranoia on college campuses.

Modern feminism did not take kindly to this heresy.

As a result, Kipnis has become, like Charles Murray before her, a pariah—an untouchable. When she spoke at Wellesley, the students and faculty did not take kindly to her presence. The students were very concerned about having her on campus. They proved just how concerned they were by crafting a video pre-buttal to Kipnis in which they showcased their nose-rings and used naughty words—can you even imagine how shocked and outraged the evil conservatives must have been by this vibrant display of nonconformity!

Alas, some of the Wellesley professors were concerned that their charges stopped short of going the full-Middlebury. In musing about what the Middlebury students got right, Wellesley political science professor Laura Grattan told the Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, “I think that the protests that are so loud and deafening and raucous as to try to stop a white-supremacist speaker before they start are not only the right of students, but also their effort to say this is the kind of campus and community that we want to have.”

The fact that Grattan thinks Charles Murray is a “white supremacist” tells you everything you need to know about the faculty at Wellesley.

Or rather, almost everything. Because the most important fact about the professors at Wellesley is that they were canny enough to use the Kipnis speech as cover to mau-mau all future speakers at the school.

The college’s Faculty on Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity (whatever that means) sent out an email after Kipnis’ visit to campus and put the administration on warning:

Over the past few years, several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs have presented their ideas at Wellesley. We, the faculty in CERE, defend free speech and believe it is essential to a liberal arts education. However, as historian W. Jelani Cobb notes, “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. 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 upon the liberty of another.”

There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley. We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments. Students object in order to affirm their humanity. This work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves. Furthermore, we object to the notion that onlookers who are part of the faculty or administration are qualified to adjudicate the harm described by students, especially when so many students have come forward. When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words, we must take these complaints at face value. What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided. The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community. . . .

First, those who invite speakers to campus should consider whether, in their zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups. We in CERE are happy to serve as a sounding board when hosts are considering inviting controversial speakers, to help sponsors think through the various implications of extending an invitation.

Second, standards of respect and rigor must remain paramount when considering whether a speaker is actually qualified for the platform granted by an invitation to Wellesley. In the case of an academic speaker, we ask that the Wellesley host not only consider whether the speaker holds credentials, but whether the presenter has standing in his/her/their discipline. This is not a matter of ideological bias. Pseudoscience suggesting that men are more naturally equipped to excel in STEM fields than women, for example, has no place at Wellesley. Similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers are equally inappropriate.

Third, faculty and administrators should step up in defense of themselves and all members of the Wellesley community. The responsibility to defend the disempowered does not rest solely with students, and the injuries suffered by students, faculty, and staff are not contained within the specific identity group in question; they ripple throughout our community and prevent Wellesley from living out its mission.

In case your eyes glazed over from all the social justice, here are the takeaways from Wellesley’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity:

1) Some speech is less free than the rest because it—or the speaker—is harmful to a privileged class of listeners.

2) The most privileged class is the student body, who must be allowed to determine which speakers are awarded the highest level of free speech and which speakers should be verboten because of the harm they cause.

3) If more than 24 students say they find a speaker harmful, their claim may not be questioned.

4) Anyone wanting to bring a speaker to campus should first consult the Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity and ask for their blessing. Because they speak for the students, somehow.

5) If another untouchable speaker appears on campus, Wellesley’s administration must side with the students against them.

And then, of course, there’s the unstated sixth item: Or else.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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