Northwestern University, situated in a bosky North Shore suburb of Chicago, has, or used to have, anyway, a particularly pampered, spoiled customer base — sometimes referred to as the ‘student body’ — mostly drawn from other similar suburbs. I would have said it was the Nordstrom’s of higher education; but this may be a poorly calibrated comparison. I invite better-informed suggestions.
Laura Kipnis, a very engaging writer, has the mixed good and bad fortune of being a tenured professor there. She has recently found herself in hot water because she has written a couple of sprightly and entertaining articles in the Chronicle Of Higher Education — now, unfortunately, paywalled — about the demented excesses of thought- and speech-policing on American college campuses these days. Summing it up, she has found herself the subject of Title IX sex-discrimination complaints because she wrote an essay in the aforementioned Chronicle; and she subsequently wrote an account, alternately horrifying and hilarious, about the hugger-mugger Star Chamber proceedings to which she was subsequently subjected by her employers.
This shitstorm of campus imbecility around trigger warnings, harassment, discrimination, comfort, safety and what not, like all social phenomena, is overdetermined. Partly the Unis have brought it on themselves with their ambition to be totalizing environments, where every aspect of the customer’s experience is carefully controlled, and nothing unpleasant is permitted to intrude. Disney World is the obvious prototype.
Then too there’s just good old-fashioned entrepreneurship, in this case grievance entrepreneurship. The kids who are making all this noise are, I suspect, a not very numerous part of the customer base, but they seek opportunities for self-aggrandizement and an influence on events. Of course in the contemporary US there is no better lever for such self-promotion than a grievance. The ‘Nineleven Families’ might be cited as the locus classicus here, though at the same time it must be admitted that they suffered an actual harm, unlike these twaddling embryo Inquisitors at Northwestern.
The noisy minority, however, does have a way of bringing a larger penumbra of camp-followers with it. At the last college graduation I attended, about half the credentialees had taped the numerals ‘IX’ on top of their mortarboards. I gather this was meant to communicate that rape was a Bad Thing.
The cost-free advantages of a gesture like this are fairly obvious. It feels ever so mildly, though safely, always safely, transgressive, and yet it’s in aid of an eminently uncontroversial proposition. Win/win!
I like to think the kids are alright, as I may have said before, so I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about how coddled they are or how aggressive and entitled they are, as some other old-fart observers of this collective mania have done. I think the institutions are mostly to blame.
At any rate, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ with it. As the man said.