There’s been a lot of talk recently about liberal-left folks’ worries of PC attacks, about feeling afraid to speak your mind for fear of being attacked or ostracized or misunderstood, so I’m creating a space for people to raise issues that they don’t feel comfortable broaching openly. Got a question? Ask me. Got an opinion you feel is unfairly excluded from lefty debate? Speak up. We’ll start the conversation, and we’ll see where it goes.

A disclaimer before we start: I’m just a middle-aged straight white guy who’s spent some time thinking about some stuff. I can’t give you permission or absolution. All I can do is tell you what I think and give other people the chance to do the same.

•          •          •

Today’s question was prompted by my tweets about faculty-student sex yesterday, in which I argued for a flat ban on sexual relations between students and professors. Here’s the question, sent to me by Twitter direct message:

I’m curious to know if you think that that kind of relationship is comparable to a relationship between a prominent student activist in a radical community and someone brand new to this community & social justice / if consent lines are similarly blurred in that kind of situation?

It’s a good question. I’ve got a half-finished piece somewhere about peer-to-peer sexual harassment in student organizing circles, and I think it’s an issue we don’t talk about enough. So, okay. Here we go.

As I said on Twitter, professors who pursue students for sex corrode the teacher-student relationship — not just the relationship with the student who is being pursued, but with all the other students who find out about it. My view is that profs shouldn’t have sex with their students because it’s incompatible with their professional obligations to them and because a teacher’s professional obligations to their students trump their personal interest in them.

Even in the presence of freely-chosen, enthusiastic, mutual consent, in other words, professor-student sex is a really bad idea. And that’s a very unusual situation. Even where institutional relationships exist between two people, it’s rare to regard consensual sexual relationships between adults as immoral. I can imagine exceptions, I suppose, but in general I’d say that if two student activists are freely consenting there’s nothing wrong with them hooking up.

So let’s look at the issue of consent.

In order for consent to exist, it must be freely chosen. If you don’t have the capacity to meaningfully consent, consent can’t exist. If you’ve been been forced or coerced, consent doesn’t exist. Consent consists of a free choice made by someone who possesses the capacity to choose.

Coming back to the organizing environment, my primary concern would not be with lines of consent being “blurred,” as you put it, but with those lines being breached by coercion or predation.

If someone has a lot of social influence in a given group, that gives them power, and that power may be used abusively. They may manipulate situations in order to create the opportunity to exploit others sexually by isolation or incapacitation. They may exert pressure on others to give in to their advances. They may use their influence to silence their victims and their victims’ supporters.

In each of these scenarios, though, we’re talking about behavior that would be abusive even without the power differential — it’s not that sex which would be consensual in another context is now rendered problematic by one party’s power, but that the person’s power gives them opportunities to engage in and get away with behavior that would be wrong in any context.

To put it another way, in this context I’m generally less interested with how encounters look from the outside than in how they look to the participants. If each party sees themselves as actively, enthusiastically, freely choosing a sexual relationship, I’m not going to second-guess their judgment. The hookup be a good idea or a bad one, it may end well or poorly, it may help or harm the movement, but in most situations adults should be presumed to be capable of making their own sexual choices.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do y’all think?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about liberal-left folks’ worries of PC attacks, about people feeling afraid to speak their minds or ask questions for fear of being attacked or ostracized or misunderstood. I tend to think those concerns are more panicky than the evidence supports — the dangers, I think, are less severe than a lot of people believe. But I get it too, and I’ve felt it myself.

And so I’m creating a space on this site for people to raise issues that they don’t feel comfortable broaching openly in their own communities. Got a question you’re worried about asking? Ask me. Got an opinion you feel is unfairly excluded from lefty debate? Speak up. If I share your view, I’ll say so and take the heat. If I don’t, I’ll say why without flaming you. Either way, I’ll give you a platform and open up a dialogue. We’ll start the conversation, and we’ll see where it goes.

You can ask questions (or make statements) in comments here, or submit them over at Either way, you’re free to submit them anonymously or not, your call.

I’ve just finished the first Q&A, and I’ll be posting that next. I’m going to try to put up one each day for as long as I’ve got material.

One disclaimer before we start: I’m just a middle-aged guy who’s spent some time thinking about this stuff. I can’t give you permission or absolution for anything. All I can do is tell you what I think, and give other people the opportunity to do the same.

I just tweeted a bunch of stuff about intra-left fights and people’s fear of being shunned because they say or believe the wrong thing. Briefly, while a lot of attacks on “PC” are actually cover for real and important political disagreements, I also recognize that some folks who honestly do want to do the right thing — by whatever definition — are scared to death of making some sort of misstep that will bring the wrath of the just down upon their heads.

I’ve written before about how getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world, and about how folks can recover if they find themselves on the receiving end of public condemnation, but right now I’d like to open up a space for people who experience those kinds of fears to talk about them, and to ask questions.

If you want to talk about this stuff, let’s talk. If you haven’t commented here before, I’ll have to manually approve your first message, but after that everything will go through automatically. I promise I’ll reply to everyone, and I promise not to be mean.

Oh, and anyone who wants to can comment anonymously, too.

A few days ago I wrote about an incident from last fall in which author and attorney Wendy Kaminer used a racial slur illustratively in the course of a panel discussion on freedom of speech on campus, and in fact encouraged the audience at the panel to call out that slur.

That incident — and the op-ed that Kaminer wrote about it last week — came up last night at a debate I participated in on whether “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus,” and I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the issues raised there in greater detail than the debate’s format allowed.

First, I’d like to address a complaint that was made on the stage. One of my opponents, Kirsten Powers of Fox News, claimed repeatedly that I misrepresented Kaminer’s actions when I described to them last night. I’m pretty confident that I didn’t, and that what I said there was consistent with both my characterization of the event in my earlier essay and with a transcript that I’ve checked against an audio recording of the Kaminer panel. Until the IQ2 video is released I can’t be 100% certain, however. When the video is available I’ll put my comments up here so that readers can judge for themselves, and in the meantime I’ll just say that the account of Kaminer’s actions that appears in my previous post is one that I stand by.

Second, there is the question of censorship. Last night I noted that Kaminer had accused her ideological opponents of “censorship” three times in her op-ed, though she did not, in my view, identify a single instance in which anyone’s speech had been censored. This was, I suggested, symptomatic of a tendency among critics of liberal-left identity politics to tar legitimate debate as “violent” or “censoring” or “silencing.”

In response to my claim, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued — and again, I’ll put up quotes when the video is available — that Kaminer had in fact been censored, because a transcript of the debate had expurgated words that the transcriber found offensive.

I find this argument unconvincing. Here’s why.

The transcriber of the panel was a recent graduate of Smith College operating on her own initiative. Hers was not an official transcript of the event, nor was she representing any public entity. She was simply a person interested in the subject who wanted to bring wider attention to what had been said. To call her a “censor” because she chose not to spell out every slur that was uttered is incorrect — the right to free speech includes the right to use asterisks or brackets in one’s work, even when quoting others.

Last night I asked Greg if he believes that it is censorship for a newspaper to maintain a policy of not printing the word “nigger.” He said he believed it was. I believe that it is not, and if, when our debate is broadcast on NPR, the slur I had to utter to ask the question is bleeped, I will have no cause to complain that my free speech rights have been violated.

There’s another issue raised by the Kaminer piece that we were only able to touch on briefly last night, and that is the fact that her charge of censorship was not limited to the transcriber discussed above. In her op-ed Kaminer recounted a litany of negative responses that she and others received. She was, she said, accused of committing “an explicit act of racist violence.” Smith College’s president subsequently expressed regret that students “were hurt” by her remarks. In a similar incident at Brown University a debate about rape culture was criticized in the student newspaper as undermining “the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors,” and the college president invited students troubled by the planned debate to attend a different event instead.

Here’s what Kaminer said at the close of this litany, in her first use of the word “censorship” in her op-ed:

“How did we get here? How did a verbal defense of free speech become tantamount to a hate crime and offensive words become the equivalent of physical assaults? You can credit — or blame — progressives for this enthusiastic embrace of censorship.”

Clearly, “censorship” in this passage is not referring to a student’s amendments to a transcript. It’s referring to critics who called Kaminer a racist and declared her speech to be violent, to a college president who characterized her words as hurtful, to a student newspaper that criticized others’ views on rape, and to a college president who invited students to attend a lecture.

None of these things are censorship. All of them are speech acts. For Kaminer — a member of the board of advisors of the civil libertarian group that Greg Lukianoff heads — to characterize such speech as censorship is wrong. It’s factually wrong, and it’s morally wrong.

Both Lukianoff and Powers expressed concern about the chilling effects of intemperate criticism last night. Powers, in particular, argued that using the term “racist” to describe speech that is not racist can silence speech. I disagree with that — if I retain the right and the capacity to speak my mind, the fact that someone else criticizes my ideas, however harshly, cannot be said to have silenced me. But if we are going to make the case that criticism from a student journalist or a mild rebuke from the president of a college with which one is not affiliated can be silencing, how much more silencing must it be to see oneself and one’s allies described as censors by a civil libertarian attorney in the pages of one of the nation’s leading liberal newspapers?

The question posed in last night’s debate was whether liberals are chilling speech on campus. By the end of the evening I think all of us agreed that free speech is under attack on many campuses, and that many of those who are doing the attacking would describe themselves as liberal. In that sense, the proposition that was put forward was accurate.

But that’s not the sense in which commentators like Wendy Kaminer or Jonathan Chait or other critics of “PC culture” would construe the claim. To them, liberal and left campus culture is distinctively hostile to freedom of speech, and the very speech that emerges from that culture — robust, aggressive, freewheeling debate about contentious social issues — is offered as proof of that hostility.

Wendy Kaminer is not censoring her critics when she accuses them of being enemies of free expression, any more than they are censoring her when they condemn her own intentionally provocative speech. But the view of campus leftists as enemies of freedom that she and others promulgate is, as I argued last night, a grossly distorted one. Moreover, it’s one that hampers our ability to engage in clear and substantive discussion around issues of great importance to our society.

And I’d like to see more of free speech’s defenders saying so.

Still trying to get embedded video set up here, but if I can’t, you’ll be able to click through to this site to watch tonight’s Intelligence Squared debate on the question of whether liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus.

The debate is at six o’clock tonight at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I’ll be paired with professor Jeremy Mayer arguing the “against” side, while Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Kirsten Powers of Fox News will be arguing “for.”

If you do watch live, I encourage you to follow along on Twitter — the hashtag is #IQ2USLive.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

Twitter Updates



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 410 other followers

%d bloggers like this: