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.