Not educators who hope to foster critical thinking

I’ve liked a lot of Wendy Kaminer’s writing. I’m Ok You’re Codependent is very sharp and amusing. Sleeping With Extraterrestrials was disapponting, I thought, because it was way too cautious and apologetic, but still it was of value.

I don’t like her new piece in the Atlantic on sexual harassment though. She’s very libertarian, so it’s predictable, but…I don’t like it. I don’t like the way it dismisses harassment that’s not violent.

In a joint letter to the University of Montana, (intended as “a blueprint” for campus administrators nationwide) the Justice Department (DOJ) and the Education’s Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) define sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” verbal or nonverbal, including “unwelcome sexual advances or acts of sexual assaults.” Conduct (verbal or non-verbal) need not be “objectively offensive” to constitute harassment, the letter warns, ignoring federal court rulings on harassment, as well as common sense. If a student feels harassed, she may be harassed, regardless of the reasonableness of her feelings, and school administrators may be legally required to discipline her “harasser.”

Note may be. Twice. Not is, not are, but may be. Well? Is that just obviously absurd? If a student feels harassed, she may be harassed? There’s such a thing as context.

They are also required to promulgate detailed policies parroting the DOJ/OCR definition of harassment, as well as procedures for reporting and prosecuting alleged offenses: “Federal government mandates unconstitutional speech codes at college and universities nationwide,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) accurately declares:

Among the forms of expression now punishable on America’s campuses by order of the federal government are:
• Any expression related to sexual topics that offends any person. This leaves a wide range of expressive activity—a campus performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” a presentation on safe sex practices, a debate about sexual morality, a discussion of gay marriage, or a classroom lecture on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—subject to discipline.

• Any sexually themed joke overheard by any person who finds that joke offensive for any reason.

• Any request for dates or any flirtation that is not welcomed by the recipient of such a request or flirtation.

The way that’s worded, the first two sound excessive, but I’m not sure I trust FIRE to be accurate about the wording. The last one though – yes, and? This isn’t something overheard or said to everyone, it’s a personal approach. People are allowed to object to some kinds of personal approach. People don’t have a “right” to ask strangers for sex.

It’s easy to understand why federal officials might believe they’re on the side of the angels. Their new “blueprint” on sexual harassment, detailed in the University of Montana letter, was occasioned by the University’s reported failure to address alleged assaults, on and off campus. The trouble is, officials have focused on stemming insults as well as assaults. They’ve adopted the popular, “progressive” belief that arguably offensive, unwelcome sexual speech is the moral equivalent of unwelcome, abusive sexual acts and a virulent form of discrimination.

Not the moral equivalent (I don’t think that’s a real belief, I think she made it up), but not necessarily trvial, either. Suppose it’s hundreds of insults every day? What then? Would Kaminer agree that that is a form of discrimination? I would hope so, but it doesn’t look that way.

Who will benefit from this system? Not educators who hope to foster critical thinking, not students seeking intellectual instead of bureaucratic experiences, not parents whose tuition dollars support unwieldy student life bureaucracies, and not those administrators who value academic freedom and the university’s traditional educational mission. The Obama administration’s bureaucratic dream is an educational nightmare. Who will benefit from this system? Equity consultants, for sure.

Ugh. What bullshit. Critical thinking does not depend on freedom to insult. Yes, certainly it depends on not treating everything as an insult, and on not treating disagreement and debate as an insult, but it does not depend on total limitless freedom to insult and degrade and harass. On the contrary – a “freedom” like that is inimical to critical thinking. People who feel beleaguered and attacked are not in a good state to do critical thinking. The people doing the harassing aren’t either.


  1. Emily isalwayswrite says

    I think this whole misunderstanding of the nature of speech goes back to logical positivism: the only measure of speech is its truth value or its truth aptness. Kaminer should read J. L. Austin or Martin Buber.

  2. Emily isalwayswrite says

    Perhaps J. S. Mill’s understanding of what it means to speak was also too limited yet highly influential. Don’t get me wrong – I love Mill. But his conception of speech also focuses entirely on the semantic at the exclusion of the pragmatic.

  3. says

    What the letter has to say about definitions of harassment:

    The confusion about when and to whom to report sexual harassment is attributable in part to inconsistent and inadequate definitions of “sexual harassment” in the University’s policies. First,the University’s policies conflate the definitions of “sexual harassment” and “hostile environment.” Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. When sexual harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program based on sex, it creates a hostile environment. The University’s Sexual Harassment Policy, however, defines “sexual harassment” as conduct that“is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to disrupt or undermine a person’s ability to participate in or receive the benefits, services, or opportunities of the University, including unreasonably interfering with a person’s work or educational performance.” Sexual Harassment Policy 406.5.1. While this limited definition is consistent with a hostile educational environment created by sexual harassment, sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Defining “sexual harassment” as “a hostile environment” leaves unclear when students should report unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature and risks having students wait to report to the University until such conduct becomes severe or pervasive or both. It is in the University’s interest to encourage students to report sexual harassment early, before such conduct becomes severe or pervasive, so that it can take steps to prevent the harassment from creating a hostile environment.

    Second, the University’s policies do not define “sexual harassment” consistently. The Sexual Misconduct Policy incorrectly implies that sexual harassment must be both “severe and pervasive” to establish a hostile environment, as opposed to “severe or pervasive”—the longstanding Title IX administrative enforcement standard and Title IV injunctive standard. In contrast, the Sexual Harassment Policy states that “sexual harassment” must be “severe or pervasive.” The SCC prohibits only “malicious intimidation or harassment of another” and does not explicitly reference or define “sexual harassment.”

    Third, Sexual Harassment Policy 406.5.1 improperly suggests that the conduct does not constitute sexual harassment unless it is objectively offensive. This policy provides examples of unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature but then states that “[w]hether conduct is sufficiently offensive to constitute sexual harassment is determined from the perspective of an objectively reasonable person of the same gender in the same situation.” Whether conduct is objectively offensive is a factor used to determine if a hostile environment has been created, but it is not thestandard to determine whether conduct was “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and therefore constitutes “sexual harassment.” As explained in the Legal Standards section above, the United States considers a variety of factors, from both a subjective and objective perspective, to determine if a hostile environment has been created.

    Finally, none of the policies explicitly defines “hostile environment,” accurately defines “sexual harassment,” or indicates that a single instance of sexual assault can constitute a hostile environment. To address these issues, the Agreement requires the University to revise its policies so that they provide accurate definitions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and conduct that may constitute sex discrimination and may provide the basis for a Title IX complaint, and to dispel any confusion about when, where, and how students should report various types of sex discrimination.

    Isn’t it all so terribly chilling?

  4. says

    We were lucky enough to have an opinion piece in the local paper on Friday, one of the regular weekly contributors (not sure if he’s local or a column picked up from elsewhere) who was making similar sorts of complaints about the awful overreach of anti-harassment policies.

    It’s rather irksome to read something so full of wrong and not be able to respond (in a timely fashion).

  5. says

    People don’t have a “right” to ask strangers for sex.

    I have been shocked at the number of people who disagree with this. More than that, the number of people, men and women, who believe that those of us who do agree are either insane, or fascists, or both. And not only do people believe that there is some universal right to proposition absolutely anyone (and many would add “at any time”) for sex, there are also many who seem to think the entire human race would die out in the event that these types of policies were enforced.

    The two major objections I’ve heard have been: 1) “Yes I do have a right to proposition strangers–it’s called ‘free speech’!” (Right, because we never put limitations on speech.) And 2) “Well, how am I supposed to know if she’d say yes if I don’t ask her?” (I suggested that he wait at least as long as he would before asking a girl if he could borrow her car overnight. He then brought up bars, as thought a bar isn’t a completely different context than work or school, and all I could think was, “Dude. I know you. You are not this stupid. In fact, you’re brilliant. So I have to believe that you are being deliberately dense in this one area, because there is no way you could navigate the world and the many complex social interactions you handle every day but somehow not understand that propositioning a perfect stranger at work is not okay.”)

  6. Charles Sullivan says

    I recall that in my undergraduate days when the administration was having meetings with students to discuss new anti-harassment policies under consideration, there were those who were concerned about how to define “unwanted conduct. of a sexual nature.” The concern was about how subjective it could be.

    The concern was frequently described as follow: “Is it unwanted conduct of a sexual nature if a fat unattractive male student simply asks an attractive female student for a date, if she considers that initial request unwanted conduct of a sexual nature?”

    Frankly. the administration’s response was not well thought out. They replied that there was no need for anything more objective than the “unwanted conduct” aspect of the wording because, they said, “you can trust us. We would never allow that to happen.”

    Many people were not happy giving such wide latitude to the administration is such matters (many feminists included). But I recall some feminists were in favor, and accused those against as enablers of rape.

    In many ways the entire dialogue became so hostile and aggressive and name-calling (on both sides), that it really turned me off to institutional politics.

    I believe these codes can be written in such a way that protects people from sexual harassment, while allowing the ugly to ask the attractive for a date. (of course the asking must be within acceptable norms, and the requester should take no as no).

  7. Hertta (Herttainen) says

    People who have problems with harrassment policies seem to assume women are just horrible people who’ll use every chance they get to abuse the policies. They are so horrible, that if a guy they don’t find attractive asks them out, they’ll report it as harrassment given the chance! They really don’t trust women at all.

  8. aziraphale says

    Hertta, I think you have it backwards. You are saying if a policy is badly written no woman will ever abuse it. If I said that about men you would rightly laugh at me. Women show the full range of human attributes. Including, in a few cases, being horrible.

  9. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    I bet those women who report ugly guys for harassment just for asking them out are the same ones who later have late term abortions just because they want their waist back immediately.

  10. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says


    If someone is malicious enough, they could find a way to falsely accuse someone under any policy or law. But only when it comes to harassment, sexual violations and rape do people suddenly become very concerned about evil women falsely accusing men in droves. Including the staff of relevant institutions, which must be the reason why women are very often not believed when they report, harassment or even rape.

  11. kevinalexander says

    Before I retired I knew a fellow at work who would approach new hires with some variation of ‘Hey baby, wanna fuck?’
    I heard him do that once and asked, ‘Why do you hate women so much?
    ‘I don’t hate women, I love women’
    ‘You can’t really expect to get any action with that insulting approach.’
    ‘I get a lot. It just takes me hundred hit ons to get a hit.’
    ‘But you’ve hurt the ninety nine to get (and disappoint, I thought) the one’
    He just shrugged “Collateral damage.’

  12. leftwingfox says

    Charles Sullivan:

    The reason they’re being cagy is because “asking for a date” includes many inappropriate situations, regardless of the attractiveness of the asker. For instance:

    -If the asker turns a single failed proposition into repeated attempts.
    -If the asker is in a position of power (teacher, supervisor, boss)
    -If the asker is taking advantage of enforced co-operation (I.e. asking a lab partner at the beginning of an exercise, an elevator at 4:00 am)
    -If the proposition is intended as an insult (“Hey baby, How much?”)

    Those certainly aren’t exhaustive. The bigger problem is that harassment has NOT been treated as a serious issue, with many harrassing, abusive behaviours being excused. In that atmosphere, it makes sense to have an overly broad definition where the cases most likely to be dismissed are borderline unacceptable behaviour, than an overly strict definition, which encourages rules lawyering of unacceptable behaviour as being permitted. One thing you notice when paying attention to dedicated harrassers, they are very eager to exploit the letter of the law while violating the spirit. (I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you!)

    The “Ugly man” part of this is one of the noxious elements of MRA, one that nearly entrapped me long ago. It’s a scenario which hides a number of pernicious lies.

    -It assumes an objective standard of beauty, when there really isn’t one.
    -It assumes women will always say yes to an “attractive” man,
    -It creates a double standard, that implies women are shallow for having standards of appearance, while not questioning the standards of female beauty.

    Worst of all, it becomes an excuse for men who fail to get dates, and stunts the vital introspection required for genuine self-improvement. In many cases, the problem is not that they are unattractive, but that they have been encouraged by general culture and the idea of the pick-up into using ineffective dating techniques.

    Perhaps a lot of these guys would do better by being friends with women, or engaging in social activities, where they get to know other women as friends and compatriots before asking them out, rather than propositioning complete strangers in school or the bar. Maybe it means online dating, or broadening their own standards, rather than swallowing the hollywood/porn “ideal” image as average.

    The double-whammy of self-loathing and lack of meaningful introspection creates this perfect brew of resentment that drives so much “Nice Guy” resentment and PUA/MRA misogyny.

  13. smhll says

    Worst of all, it becomes an excuse for men who fail to get dates, and stunts the vital introspection required for genuine self-improvement. In many cases, the problem is not that they are unattractive, but that they have been encouraged by general culture and the idea of the pick-up into using ineffective dating techniques.

    Perhaps a lot of these guys would do better by being friends with women, or engaging in social activities, where they get to know other women as friends and compatriots before asking them out, rather than propositioning complete strangers in school or the bar. Maybe it means online dating, or broadening their own standards, rather than swallowing the hollywood/porn “ideal” image as average.

    The double-whammy of self-loathing and lack of meaningful introspection creates this perfect brew of resentment that drives so much “Nice Guy” resentment and PUA/MRA misogyny.

    I agree with almost all of what you said. But I think you might be under-estimating (or under-emphasizing) the desperation that an unattractive man (person) feels.

    However, any person who considers themselves desperately unattractive might reconsider cold approaches (like in elevators) to strangers. Logically, if you don’t think women are turned on by your looks, then please consider trying humor, wit, charm or intelligence. That is, talk to a woman and let her see your attractive qualities if you think your face and physique alone will not get all fired up. It doesn’t seem like a good strategy for someone who believes themselves to be ugly to approach partners who have only seen them and have never had a chance to speak to them.

  14. leftwingfox says

    smhll: Possibly. I admit it’s impression and personal experience experience, and will gladly defer to the evidence on that.

    Agree completely with your second paragraph though.

  15. Charles Sullivan says

    Although this post is days old, I want to respond to some reactions to my comment. Whether fatness or ugliness is a social construct is irrelevant in this matter. And any advise offered for how a “fat’ “ugly” guy should go about getting a date is really missing the point.

    The point is this:
    1). Asking someone on a date often indicates sexual interest, and the desire for sexual contact (there is nothing wrong with this, in principle, and it can be done respectfully).
    2). “Unwanted contact of a sexual nature” could be interpreted as person A asking person B for a date, but person B finds person A’s request unwanted. Period.

    The issue at hand was that these kinds of rules at the level of the university would never pass muster as genuine laws because they are too vague. If a date by its very nature implies an interest in sex, then requesting a date can imply unwanted sexual contact, if the receiving party does not want to be asked for a date by the asker. No foul play needs to be involved, and no harassment either, but it could be judged as harassment.

    This is the problem with allowing harassment to be defined by what someone “feels” is unwanted. There needs to be a more objective standard.


  16. aziraphale says

    Charles Sullivan: If someone feels an advance is unwanted by them, then it is unwanted. Who would know better?. The question is whether the asker:

    1 should have known it would be unwanted
    2 didn’t care whether it would be unwanted
    3 persisted after being told repeatedly to stop.

    I’m sure option 3 counts as harassment. Not sure whether the others justify official action.

  17. leftwingfox says

    The point is this:
    1). Asking someone on a date often indicates sexual interest, and the desire for sexual contact (there is nothing wrong with this, in principle, and it can be done respectfully).
    2). “Unwanted contact of a sexual nature” could be interpreted as person A asking person B for a date, but person B finds person A’s request unwanted. Period.

    In that case, you shouldn’t have even brought up “ugly”. It’s a distraction from your issue and loaded with cultural baggage that needed to be addressed.

    In regards to the above, I would suggest that:

    1) I consider it good or those proposing to be aware that their advances COULD be considered sexual harassment. Especially within a school or work environment.

    2) Even granting your hypothetical: Do you feel it is more likely that a guy who is respectful in his request for a date will be prosecuted under this policy, or more likely that an abusive twit who is not respectful and not gracious when rejected will try to excuse their actions as “I just asked for a date”?

  18. says

    Lawyer and Oakland University Diversity Director Joi Cunningham instructed my Student Conduct Hearing Committee that they could not find me guilty of sexual harassment charges because my conduct, turning in my English homework, did not meet OU’s standards for sexual harassment. Had she instructed them on the unconstitutionality of overly broad “Intimidation” charges, I wouldn’t have been convicted of those. Despite written assurances from OU’s legal counsel that I would be able to defend myself at the hearing, the Chair repeatedly refused to allow me to enter any favorable evidence such as the letter from FIRE specifying the Supreme Court cases proving my homework protected speech and the OCR’s “Dear Colleague” letter affirming the 1A in Title IX schools.

    I guess the DOJ/OCR want the metaphorical student railroad to run a little faster.

  19. says

    Oh, and the written OU policy requiring recording student conduct hearings? The one where Professor Mitzelfeld admitted disregarding FERPA by calling a hen party of the English department where she released my assignment to those with no “legitimate educational interest”? The tape that would prove I was unable to enter relevant evidence?

    Mysteriously and conveniently missing.

    “Irrelevant.” according to outgoing VP Mary Beth Snyder (and friend of Mitzelfeld) because I didn’t request use of the tape in my appeal which, surprisingly, I lost.

  20. says

    Kaminer made a fundamental rookie mistake. She failed to read a footnote that pulls the rug out from under her entire narrative. And that error is being repeated in the discussion in comments here.

    Stephanie Zvan thankfully quoted the relevant section of the document (from pages 8-9 of the DOJ letter, above). But even she left out the key footnote, which is footnote 11 (page 9), which reads, crucially (emphasis now added in bold):

    If the University is defining “sexual harassment” as conduct that creates a hostile environment because a student or employee may face disciplinary consequences upon a University finding that sexual harassment occurred, then the University should clarify its discipline practices rather than define “sexual harassment” too narrowly, which will likely discourage students from reporting sexual harassment until it becomes severe and pervasive

    Note very carefully what this is saying. Everyone is assuming the DOJ letter is asking that the mere initiation of merely possible harassment (propositioning, saying something offensive, etc.) is to be prosecuted as harassment (and thus suppressed, and ruin “harassers” lives, and so on and whatnot), when it very clearly is not saying that. They want the mere initiation of merely possible harassment (propositioning, saying something offensive, etc.) to be grounds for issuing non-disciplinary warnings to potential harassers, and not disciplined. Meanwhile, the letter is saying the definition it calls too narrow is nevertheless perfectly suitable for defining which cases to take disciplinary action on. They just want the university’s written policy to make it possible to intervene before it becomes a disciplinary or legal case.

    The actual cases that would come to disciplinary action the letter then says should be limited to cases that are “severe or pervasive” (page 9); the letter even goes out of its way to explain that the requirement of “severe and pervasive” in the Misconduct Policy is too narrow (and, as the letter points out, contradicts the university’s own separate Harassment Policy which replaces “and” with “or” in accordance with law, namely Title IX and Title IV), that it should be prosecutable as one or the other, hence it should be worded as “severe or pervasive.” They would not waste time making that point if they actually were saying it needed to be neither before being prosecuted or subject to disciplinary action.

    Thus, all this letter asks to actually be suppressed is “severe or pervasive” unwanted advances, speech, etc. that creates a hostile environment. This would not affect events that offended persons could elect not to attend (like lectures on porn), for example. And thus does not threaten free speech at the campus in any egregious way at all. As for example.

    Kaminer missed this, and goes on a whole tirade based on an incorrect reading of the letter, all because she failed to read (or failed to grasp the point of) a single key footnote.

  21. says


    A man suspended from a Detroit-area university after writing about his attraction to teachers in a class journal sued the school Friday for $2.2 million and four lost credits, claiming his free-speech rights were violated.

    Joseph Corlett, 57, a home builder who enrolled in college because of the weak economy, said he was an A-student in a writing class at Oakland University in Rochester until he submitted a journal in 2011 titled “Hot For Teacher,” the name of a song by the rock band Van Halen.

    Corlett compared his female instructor to Ginger, a sultry movie starlet character on the 1960s TV show “Gilligan’s Island.” He feared being distracted and said, “I’ll never learn a thing.” He said another teacher who was pregnant was “hot, and not just from baking the bun in her oven.”

    The teacher informed an Oakland dean after reading the journal for the first time. Officials said Corlett’s writings violated a policy against intimidation or harassment and last year barred him for three terms, through winter 2013. The university said he must undergo counseling if he wants to return as a student.

  22. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    What a creepy perv and a rude example of why universities need sexual harassment policies. What makes this selfish dude think that he has any right to inflict his masturbatory fantasies on anyone who didn’t specifically ask to be named in them? What makes this dude think basic self-restraint and decent manners don’t apply to him just because he’s in an English class with a journal-writing assignment?
    Now he may, or may not, have some case based on First Amendment, since this may, or may not, be seen as a govt agency suppressing his free speech … but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he indulged in the behavior of a self-important harassing creep who forced someone to take part in his sexual fantasies.’
    Don’t read the comments on the HuffPo article because they all blame the teacher. Yep, blame the victim of harassment, yet again.

  23. says

    “They just want the university’s written policy to make it possible to intervene before it becomes a disciplinary or legal case.”

    Mr. Carrier:

    You naively believe universities will follow their written policies and procedures, completely ignoring the pressures of political correctness to get a conviction at any cost.

    Oakland University’s written procedure when a professor has a problem with a student is to meet with the student. Professor Mitzelfeld never met with me. OU’s procedure when a student and teacher are unable to agree is to allow the student to meet with the Dean of the particular college. The Dean of the English department, another friend of Mtizelfeld’s, refused to meet with me. Why would she? She had already heard one side of the story.

    Glen McIntosh, the Dean of Students, told me in person that the 5th amendment to the Constitution of the United States “doesn’t apply here” and urged Ms. Mitzelfeld to file charges against me. (It’s in writing, I FIOA’d the email. You can read it at

    Like some small businesses, there is “fiefdom syndrome” permeating our public universities. Administrators feel and act completely above the law, fairness, and the Constitution.

    Talk about “rookie mistakes”. Geesh.

  24. says


    Thanks for perfectly exemplifying why we need specific criteria, not feelings, for identifying sexual harassment.

    You left unanswered or chose to ignore the fact that a licensed Michigan attorney and administrator at Oakland University reviewed my assignment and made a professional assessment that it didn’t meet the University’s own standards for sexual harassment. Despite this, you claim that my case is “a rude example of why universities need sexual harassment policies”.

    To answer your first question, Professor Pamela Mitzelfeld “specifically asked” in her class syllabus for “first impressions” and I gave her mine. I “specifically asked” and was told repeatedly that there were no restrictions, which would include precluding “basic self-restraint” and “decent manners”.

    My wife of 32 years was one of the first 8 women to successfully complete an electrical apprenticeship at Local 8, Toledo, Ohio. On her back on a creeper inside a cable tray deep in the bowels of a nuke plant, she looked up to see “I’d eat Lynn’s pussy” written 6” above her face. Another time she found a note in her lunchbox detailing the physical harm she will suffer for having taken a job away from the son of a coworker. Hotshoe, those are examples of sexual harassment and I dare you to find a lawyer to disagree. Your prattling cheapens the suffering of real victims.

    There is no “victim of harassment” here to blame “yet again”.

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