The relations between the sexes are always in trouble. If they weren’t, the entire genre of musical comedy, and most of literature with it, would be impossible. But on U.S. college campuses today these relations have become ludicrously dysfunctional. We are told, very improbably, that the rate of sexual assault at our most privileged schools is far higher than in slums. Therefore, schools are instructed to adjudicate sexual assault through procedures that no criminal court would ever accept. Proceedings are “investigative,” hence opaque, so everyone can be angry whatever the outcome. These standards allow a male student to be convicted of assault where the alleged victim had texted “do you have a condom?” and, to a friend, “I’m going to have sex now.”
Then there are the national outrages over what turn out to be hoaxes, as at Duke and the University of Virginia. No wonder that a well-known feminist Harvard Law Professor, Janet Halley, and others have found our current procedures deeply unfair. But the adjudication issue is just the visible tip of the volcano; it is a sign that we are more than ordinarily confused about how to think about these things.
In such a mess, one would typically ask (oneself and relevant others) for a review of the bidding—in other words, a steadying or anchoring analysis that can tell us at least how we might usefully define and debate the issues. We should at the least want to avoid outright category errors, which regrettably are not so rare today in other domains of what passes for political thought. Different people will doubtless come up with different referents, but for me it starts with Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690), which, on the way to establishing the theory of liberal government, radically reconstituted the concept of the family and with it gender relations.
In chapter six of the Second Treatise Locke destroys the traditional, patriarchal family, and replaces it with something that looks fundamentally the same as a partnership to sell used cars. First, “paternal power” becomes “parental”; the mother is equal to the father. Then “parental power” becomes a duty, as opposed to a fact or a condition, whose justification is that children require protection while they don’t yet have the use of their reason. The children become independent agents, who can own property untouchable by Mom and Dad. They owe their parents respect and reverence only to the degree that they feel they received a good upbringing. At most, when grown, they owe obedience to parental wishes only if it is not “very inconvenient”—and they decide that for themselves. Still, Locke consoles, the parents keep the power to decide who gets what, which is “no small tie on the obedience of children.”
In one fell swoop, Locke turns the traditional family into a small corporation. Next, in chapter seven, male superiority gets it in the neck. Men and women are equal as rights-bearers, marriage is a contractual arrangement that can reasonably end when the nest is empty, women can own property, and the main reason for marriage appears to be “so their industry might be encouraged, and their interest better united to make provision and lay up good for their common issue.” Similarly, marriage, “a voluntary compact between man and woman,” consists chiefly “in such a communion and right in one another’s bodies as is necessary to its chief end, procreation.” Still, Locke adds, “it draws with it mutual support and assistance.” That’s about all that’s left of marital love.
As for male superiority, Locke grudgingly admits that when someone has to decide it should be the man as the “abler and stronger.” “Abler” would seem to be culture-bound in that men once acquired more experience by doing things beyond the hearth. So the essential difference comes down to “stronger,” which means, I suppose, that since men might beat up their wives, it’s better in a pinch to let them have their way short of that. As a concession to a recalcitrant reality, that’s not much for male chauvinists to hang on to.
All this comes from the fundamental Lockean claim, which is, following Hobbes, that the dominant drive in human beings is for survival, a commonality that matters more than any differences. The Declaration of Independence grounds itself on precisely this “inalienable right” to life, which cannot be alienated because any person will try to live no matter what has been promised to someone else. As such, men and women are, in principle, equal in the most important way.
Locke’s rights doctrine has proved over time to be the universal solvent. In abstracting from all differences and proclaiming universal sameness in rights, Locke proved a good prophet. Liberation movements from his time to ours have grounded themselves in claims of rights. And when Marx says that the bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, and falsely idyllic relations, it was ultimately Locke’s doing.
But Locke’s principles cut deeper over time than he and his early followers perhaps meant them to. The problem appears about a century after the Second Treatise in a reply John Adams wrote to a man who argued against the property requirements for the franchise. Adams admits that, “It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People.” But “to what an Extent Shall we carry this Principle?” Ultimately one might ask, “But why exclude Women?” There follow the reasons that Adams expects his correspondent to give: womanly delicacy and nurture of children. The poor are similarly confined to limited lives and little experience, Adams concluded, so we should leave the property requirements alone as well.1
Understandably, the principle ultimately proved stronger than what Adams thought were prudential considerations, and the poor and eventually women got the vote. But Adams’s question about how far this principle really should go has remained. Even that famous feminist John Stuart Mill, after staunchly denying that we could know what the nature of women is, still dismissed the fear that, if really free, women might not want to marry men: “I do not think that anyone in reality has that apprehension.” Surely, he thought, women would need men more than a fish needs a bicycle.
In Adams and Mill we get the first faint hints of the difficulties we are in now. The ruthless reductionism of the Lockean argument, which turns everything into a voluntary contract between independent agents, is certainly attractive in many ways, especially compared to what came before. But it is plainly inadequate. In a sense, Locke took us from a conception of women as barely more than church-consecrated chattel to one of women as having possession of that key element of then-still-novel modernity itself: individual identity and agency, a self beyond a soul. But he did this through an abstract quasi-market analysis of the relations between the sexes. Hence next had to come the romantic corrective (of which Mill gives a hint) and, above all, the combative Marxist critique of that brutal market-based abstraction itself.
Equal Rights as Reciprocal Justice
That old fight is a familiar one. But there is another dimension that might even matter more and rarely gets noticed: reciprocity. Aristotle talks about reciprocal justice in Book II of the Politics but doesn’t say much about it, only that it “saves cities.” What I think he means is that, in addition to the tit for tat, quid pro quo kinds of justice there is a vaguer form that is also absolutely necessary. He starts with the observation that political communities assert identity and therefore sameness of the members in some crucial way, while, at the same time, people are necessarily different. This means that the law of tit for tat can’t work quite the same way for everyone. That means in turn that there has to be a general understanding that the way the law works differently for different people is fundamentally fair. Thus the sergeant can order the private around and not vice versa, but the private isn’t his slave and has claims, too. This resembles what modern political science calls “legitimacy,” but for modern political science anything that people accept can be legitimate—Aristotle means something more substantive, a reality of mutual respect.
As it happens, Lockean rights theory is our version of reciprocal justice. In asserting equality of rights it makes acceptable inequality of results, if achieved within a law that respects rights. However, because reciprocal justice isn’t tit for tat, every understanding of it is vulnerable to critique. What about those unequal results? Hence Anatole France’s Marxist wisecrack about the law forbidding both rich and poor from begging for bread.
This vulnerability can be met to a degree by the ever-greater subdivision of the rules for special cases. But it can only be met in principle by replacing law with administrative discretion, where the wise judge gives each what each deserves. The choice to correct the merely abstract and contractual character of Lockean rights theory, which seems to miss something when it comes to the relations of the sexes, intentionally or not becomes an attack on reciprocal justice. Justice ceases to be found in the relatively free interplay of rights-respecting individuals and becomes an allotment, meted out by self-proclaimed wise administrators. A “city” is still possible, then, but not a free one.
Historically, as long as the American Dream worked, the unequal results of equal rights didn’t stir much outrage. Americans were hopeful and thus not envious or morally indignant. But when the love of equal results triumphs, what makes it possible—administrative rule—turns out, paradoxically, to involve a ruling-class ideology precisely in Marx’s sense—which is to say, a rationalization of power.2 Politics becomes all or nothing—do you rule or are you ruled?—and the result is what Aristotle feared: the transformation of reciprocal justice into at best a disguised and ongoing class struggle that is not in the least good for “cities.”
Our Three-Headed Critique of Liberalism
Three cognate tendencies have arisen in the United States to combat Locke-fed milk-and-water liberalism in the name of true justice. First, as mentioned, is the Marxist strain. Marx, acutely aware of the injustices that any ruling class commits, wished to dissolve politics altogether by means of a salvific proletariat, which would usher in a change in human consciousness that approached what he called “species being.” The state would wither away and administration would thus be apolitical and innocent.
Second, American “pragmatism” and “progressivism,” thrilled by the potential of science to rationalize human life, attacked the outmoded limitations on the state that liberal constitutionalism presented. Rule by experts was to replace the clumsy Madisonian system of rival factions and governmental branches balancing themselves out. The ruling class wasn’t a problem because it would merely transmit the findings of science, and, less charitably, because it would be composed of the pragmatists and progressives themselves.
But, third, when hope for the proletariat had faded (as it had even for Lenin, who thought the proletariat capable of nothing better than “trade union consciousness”), and when the luster of scientific planning had also been dimmed through experience of its failings, rescue came from the France of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in the form of what Allan Bloom called “Left Nietzscheanism.” It was Left in being radically egalitarian and Nietzschean in being irrationalist. This combination, oddly, was reassuring, because it meant one could rule from “commitment”—which is to say, out of good moral intentions rather than actual knowledge (which was anyway impossible).
The dominant mode of thought behind the prescription of gender-related rules in our colleges today is a merger of all three. But it has also somehow merged with a kind of extreme Lockeanism, without any of the hesitancy of Adams or even Mill. President Obama’s famous reliance on the “arc of history” well expresses the general sentiment. It is an example of good intentions clothing themselves in unearned historical claims and political hopes so that the only task left to complete seems to be one of implementation.
Lockean rights theory already started taking a beating here during the New Deal. But for me, the moment when administrative discretion overpowered fundamental equality of rights occurred in the 1960s with affirmative action. It was not so much the policy itself as the need to theorize about it that produced a host of (bad) arguments blurring the difference between rights and discretion as much as possible. These reassured us that nothing much had changed when indeed a great deal had.
Title IX itself was a product of that era and thinking. Drafted by two Democratic U.S. Representatives, James O’Hara of Illinois and Edith Green of Oregon, it merely called for non-discrimination on grounds of gender in college athletics. But the regulations that were initially implemented seemed to go places the drafters never intended. O’Hara, for instance, even introduced a resolution disapproving of some of them, while Green also grew highly suspicious that the equal opportunity laws she had sponsored had been bureaucratically perverted.
Thus from the start Title IX was a typical case of the transformation of the Lockean model into the new progressive-administrative one, which was only too happy to ditch due-process concerns if they got in the way of “result-oriented” “social justice.” (Thus, Ronald Dworkin famously argued that the equal right of someone to compete for a place was merely the right to be considered and disposed of according to appropriate racial or ethnic categories, if those categories were designed to create greater overall equality defined by groups.3) This meant, concomitantly, that the citizen could no longer be an active pursuer of happiness, but became a passive recipient, since the only real agents in this model are the administrators. It is precisely this approach that has characterized further administrative extensions of Title IX, which by now extend well into the sexual domain. However, and also paradoxically, this has even enabled the employment of the Lockean model in all its abstraction in ways that had never been used before.
Hyper-Locke Lives On
If one reads more than the Second Treatise it is clear enough that Locke had lots of time for traditional culture, so long as it went through detox. His education of a gentleman isn’t the same as Aristotle’s, but the gentleman is still recognizable, as is the lady. They lived on in the United States in ever-attenuated form up to perhaps, say, The Philadelphia Story, where infidelity is seen as not such a big deal, but Jimmy Stewart (the commoner) shows himself to be a natural gentleman by not taking advantage of a drunken Katherine Hepburn since “there are rules about that.”
But the movement of emancipatory sexuality that came about through the invention of the pill threw all that out. Further, every wave of feminism, whatever high-toned critiques of liberalism its intellectual radicals propose, gets its energy from the old Lockean sources, namely outrage against being treated as different and therefore inferior in any way. Thus my female students have always been deeply suspicious of any kind of “difference feminism” pivoting off of some sort of imputed female essentialism; they smell a trap that will return them to subjection. But the prospect of realizing absolute equality—the claim beneath the old, practical Lockean understanding—has led them to discard the latter’s restraint.
An example I saw recently, in an issue of our college paper that resounded with concern about sexual assault on campus, is worth mentioning. Our advice columnist received a letter from a female graduating senior who asked about propositioning a male graduating senior whom she had never had the nerve to talk to. She wanted to “smang” him (yes; that’s what it means). The advice columnist warned her about the possible embarrassment of rejection, but urged her to go for it anyway if he was really hot. The right to be a sexual buccaneer just like men, and to treat sex as essentially a trivial but pleasant business, is a precious one to many women, all in the name of equality of rights.
Yet this too is largely ideological self-obfuscation. Equality matters enormously to women, but the choice to imitate Don Juan, à la Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City is, I believe, celebrated more in theory than in fact, as many a campus case of post-intimacy regret testifies. The Lockean abstraction from everything but the right to survive (and its consequent elaborations) does not do justice to the reality of men and women and how they relate intimately. And typically, after some discussion, my freshman women students admit that, if only reluctantly, for fear of where that admission may lead.
But radical contractual Lockeanism is not just an ideology, only partly believed, among students. It is also the weapon of choice of administrators. One example involves the captain of the Yale basketball team, who was expelled for sexual misconduct and is now suing Yale over it. According to his lawyer, the male student had sexual contact with a fellow (female) student four times. The first three were consensual but on the fourth occasion the complaint says that the woman had told him she wanted to “hook up” but not have sex. According to his lawyer, she returned to the male student’s room and spent the night there. She did not lodge a complaint until a year later, when a Title IX official entered it.
If the accused student’s lawyer is relaying anything like the truth, then this is a sadly typical scenario. Cases where a previous relationship exists, where degrees of consent to degrees of sexual activity are present from episode to episode, and where, most disconcertingly, the alleged victim comes back for more and doesn’t even want to register a complaint, are familiar to many of us on campus. The line of argument used to explain away the apparent ambiguities is also familiar: As one expert puts it, “The bottom line is you can’t determine whether or not someone is a victim of sexual assault based on their behavior, even though people would like to do that, especially the defense,” and “biological responses to trauma can be hard for investigators on college campuses to understand and even hard for the victims themselves.” In addition, “some victims will continue to behave outwardly as if nothing is wrong, going to parties and posting smiling photos on Facebook, even soon after an attack.” Perhaps so, but it is hard not to try to interpret behavior when looking at a situation or to rule out the possibility that a simpler explanation, namely ambiguous feelings, may be justified.
The obvious problem is that for ideological reasons our culture pretends that sexual relations are trivial, casual, and a mere matter of contractual behavior, when they are clearly often much more than that. In truth, they carry the potential for passion and humiliation, self-assertion and indignity. In addition, they are undertaken, even sober, when humans are at their least rational. But we no longer have a way of talking calmly about what is really going on, because all the old ways of doing so are seen as tainted by injustice.
That is why the administrators, far from bearing the burden of Solomonic wisdom they lay claim to, and differentiating each case according to its subtle merits, typically lurch in the opposite direction. (Bureaucrats generally like simple standards that allow them to avoid being second-guessed.4) Like extreme Lockeans, they wade into the morass of such situations—where intentions are amorphous, inarticulate, and changing; where lines are drawn sometimes only provisionally and sometimes not at all; where questions of responsibility and degrees of consent, and even capacity to consent, arise—and ask instead for the pure, true, reliable showing of unambiguous consent. What this produces is the doctrine of “affirmative consent” or “Yes Means Yes.” Taken seriously, as it has been at several colleges, this would in effect require not only a sobriety test of both or all participants, but ideally the presence of a notary public to confirm statements of permission prior to every physical action. It is an absurdity in the realm of erotic relations, but it makes perfect sense within the business model of Lockean contractualism that prefers not to look beyond the level of free agents freely making legally enforceable contracts.
Because it puts a heavy burden on the initiator, usually the male, the Lockean contractualist approach could make sense, but only if backed by a culture that took sexual relations seriously—in other words, that still disapproved of drunken men and women bedding each other casually. That disapproval, though hardly ancient, comes from a culture that is now defined as a traditional one and is therefore toxic beyond utility on all but a few campuses. So, in the face of the desires of youth (and not just male youth, as the advice column example shows), all the authorities can think of is an unrealistic absolute proof-of-consent standard that plainly does not work much better than the death penalty for sheep-stealing worked in early modern England.
Worse, as Naomi Schaefer Riley has recently argued, it confounds truly serious with less serious delicts. Thus Riley cites a letter from a friend of the recently notorious Stanford culprit who asks, “Where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists?” To which Riley replies, maybe a little too polemically, “This is the effect of feminist rhetoric on campus. When everything is rape, nothing is.”
The Progressive Line
The abstract liberal consent principle, however, is invoked within the framework of the three-headed “progressive” approach. The latter has its own difficulties. Still, there are a couple of things for which credit is due. Where liberalism seems to insist on sameness at the expense of difference (cf. Marx’s critique), progressivism, precisely because it wants to make universal sameness truly, not just theoretically, real, has to pay attention to those differences. In itself that might be a good corrective to Lockean abstraction. It goes beyond Locke in caring about more than contractual consent; it is acutely aware of indirect, unstated, hidden effects that, in the case of gender, bring us back to some of the psychological and emotional issues that the new culture has tended to hide. While its excesses, involving demands for “trigger warnings” and the stigmatizing of “microaggressions,” need to be fought resolutely if liberal education is to survive, one can see in it an attempt to return by a new path to the old considerations of feelings that a brutal hyper-Lockean culture has trampled on.
That granted, however, if the progressive consciousness is trying to attain that better sensibility, it is making a terrible hash of it. Part of the problem is that it is as tone deaf as the hyper-Lockean approach. Rather than deal with individual situations with understanding and finesse, its idea of difference is limited to the now-standard “race, class, gender” triad, and is keyed to relative “privilege.” So difference only goes so far as the most advantageous group allegiance one can claim. Another part of the problem is therefore the gross, superficially Foucaultian but ultimately Hobbesian simplification of everything into an issue of relative power, which produces abstraction of an even more distant kind. This version of progressivism uses group differences and power relations as its categories of choice because of its utopian project. Raising consciousness to win the war against phallocentric-cisgendered-capitalist-patriarchal-whatever is the goal of the most active, and in that struggle the last thing anyone really cares about is the nuances of an individual case of two people having sex that goes wrong.
Still, another part of the problem goes back to the matter of reciprocal justice. Liberalism, the system of equal rights and unequal results, is the guardian of reciprocity and reciprocity is the entry ticket to being a stakeholder and an active member of society. However imperfect such a system (necessarily) is, it establishes rules that limit the accumulation and arrogation of power. In its simplest form it says, “what goes for one goes for all.” Its replacement by a social-engineering view (even one that employs decontextualized Lockean rationales at times), and especially one driven by indignation and a utopian project itself grounded on nothing more than moralistic “commitment,” means no real limits at all, either to what is punishable or how far the punishments should go. Reciprocity saves cities, Aristotle said, because without such a common code, politics devolves into disguised or open civil war. And then a much simpler and apolitical way of thinking becomes the default mode: There are good people and bad people, and the good people have to make the bad people be good, whatever those bad people may believe. Thus the joys and miseries of righteous warfare replace the duties and liberties of citizenship. (One might think, in this context, about the zeal with which the current bathroom wars are being fought, which speaks above all to the symbolic destruction of tradition.)
Progressives don’t seem to think clearly about this either. They analyze “the system” with zeal, but not so much their own desired role in it. And while their intention may be to restore decency and respect to sexual relations, and to save them from the brutality of the pure market-contractual consent model, their ideological rigidity and weakness for abstraction, not to mention their deforming zeal, make that impossible. They seem to be reinventing the wheel, like Walt Kelly’s Howland Owl, so that it always comes out triangular. And, as in all utopian or apocalyptic movements, since peace comes only with absolute triumph, there are no principled limits, only tactical ones. The chances of anything that resembles real decency, respect, or graceful behavior between the sexes seem slim in the middle of a moral crusade.
The Case of Laura Kipnis
Laura Kipnis is a film studies professor at Northwestern who works on sexual politics and gender issues. A product of an earlier era of feminism, she wrote a piece last year called “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academia” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. There she reminded contemporaries that, in her day, “hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum” and expressed dismay about “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” where even “inappropriate jokes” are ground for offense. (Aren’t all jokes inappropriate by definition, she wonders.)
That article unleashed a whirlwind. First, mattress- and pillow-wielding students visited Northwestern’s president to charge Kipnis with terrifying them and causing “visceral” reactions. They asked for a “swift official condemnation” and the courageous president announced he would consider it. Title IX complaints were lodged, one by a graduate student who claimed to be representing the whole university since Kipnis’s piece had had a “chilling effect” on “students’ ability to report sexual misconduct.” She was also charged for being guilty of “retaliation” based on a Title IX-based rule that prevents those accused of sexual misconduct from retaliating against the accuser. (Where is Kafka when you need him?)
Since Kipnis wasn’t accused of sexual misconduct, the accusation was absurd, but not everyone saw it that way. Kipnis describes the lengthy, expensive, and frightening ordeal she was then put through by investigators who told her as little and as late as possible about the charges, refused to let her have counsel present, and generally carried on like members of the Star Chamber. Well after she recounted her ordeal, she was told she had been acquitted of the charges. Of course, as is often the case, the process itself was the punishment.
The Kipnis story shows the progressive model in action. There is no sign here of malice, or even of ideological animus, just fair-minded officials trying to do their jobs. The problem is that the premises on which they do those jobs are so misaligned with reality that the result hovers between banality and absurdity. Since the potentially downtrodden must have every opportunity to get justice, no charge can be dismissed and all must be fully investigated. (Also, the officials know that they need to show how sedulous they’ve been, just in case their verdict fails to do justice to the ambient longing for “justice.”) And since there are no clear rules about what harm is, a vast penumbra of potential culpability arises and hence becomes the perfect medium for incidents of staged outrage. If the standard is feelings, then whoever claims to be hurt has a prima facie case that needs sympathetic attention. Further, since every example is a win or a loss for the movement, partisans of the accusers have every motivation to be as belligerent and litigious as possible.
Meanwhile, the parties contend for the favor of the rulers, and the rulers, even when well intentioned, need to operate within as cumbersome a set of procedures as possible in order to justify themselves to the movement they mostly represent. Further, in the absence of any real system of reciprocal justice, like the equal rights model with its limited admission of claims of harm, cumbersome procedures become the way in which administrators can pretend that what is in the end pretty much pure discretion—especially when the standard is “preponderance of the evidence”—is more than that. The Wizard needs his curtain. Unfortunately, so jury-rigged are the proceedings that, as in the story, the veil is always pierced. Hence the system patently lacks legitimacy, but that is a condition that tends to be recognized mostly by those on the receiving end of its absurdity.
Where To From Here?
So far I have been talking about the subject in terms of political theory. In truth, the field that represents sexual relations at their best is art. And this is likely no coincidence. Pascal distinguishes between the esprit de finesse and the esprit geometrique, and the relations between men and women, when they work to general satisfaction, involve the former more than the latter. These relations have to be a wheel that rolls, not a triangle that thumps along. So it is in Jane Austen, and maybe in Mozart’s Figaro or Magic Flute, that we see what these relations look like when they are gotten right. There we find in action the highly particular and indeed beautiful modes of mutual give-and-take that are too nuanced and individualized for rules. Not that some rules, even occasionally rigid ones, aren’t needed. To the contrary, they are needed (especially for the young) precisely to protect that realm in which individuals can work things out privately, uniquely, and according to who they are then and there—the best way to further lasting mutual trust and affection. Love (a word now in questionable taste, I know) needs some protective room to breathe; always has, probably always will.
Such rules and understandings about how things ought to work are the products of what we call culture—that is to say, a way of life, a literature that embodies it, and a set of assumptions, many of them traditional and some philosophic or religious, that animate it. Like reciprocal justice, cultures also balance sameness and difference. Thus what goes for Tamino and Pamina doesn’t go for Papageno and Papagena, but they parallel each other nonetheless. The problem is that in repeating this kind of reactionary, hackneyed folk wisdom, I label myself irrelevant because—and I admit, sometimes for good reasons—all of this has become unacceptable, even nauseating, to practically everyone. The cultures we inherited, after all, denied equality, were sexist, and were polluted by a level of injustice that enrages us. Yes, there is something heartbreakingly beautiful about the Countess forgiving the Count at the end of Figaro, but power relations are such that arguably she has to. Comparatively uglier and less Mozartean though it might be, we want her to have the right to divorce the philandering bum and take him to the cleaners.
Since the spirit of finesse comes in a polluted package, we have turned to philosophy and with it the geometric spirit and its invariable abstractions, no matter how much it talks about being “concrete.” We take no solace or any lessons from history or tradition, and we ignore the fact that philosophy, too, is wedded to both. Maybe this “philosophic” turn is itself at the root of the problem of our incoherence, our inability to look straight at the phenomena of sexual relations among the young and deal with them in their own terms. The words one uses to talk about such intimate things are now forbidden. That is why Laura Kipnis cannot talk frankly about the psychology of student/teacher sex without arousing fury. Indeed, I fear that any attempt to speak about the phenomena naively, directly, or even to start over again using some other vocabulary, is currently impossible given how deeply invested we are in simple and moralistic combats. And yet there is no way forward except to try to do just that. But how to avoid triggering Cerberus? It would take an Orpheus, and I don’t see any likely candidates.
But since this is a campus phenomenon there is one peculiar remedy that could be tried, and that is old-fashioned liberal education in the humanities. Perhaps students might even read books to find wisdom and to bracket as they are searching the pre-known truths of indignant egalitarians. To do that, professors like Laura Kipnis and other emancipated, liberal academics who have recently expressed shock at what they have indeed produced would have to relearn the value of what one philosopher called a “pristine openness”—both before the human phenomena and the books that talk about them most deeply. Doing that, of course, would be really philosophic.
1Cf. Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: the Moral vision of the Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago University Press, 1988), pp. 215-16.
2For a look at how this works see Milovan Djilas’s The New Class, about the corruption of Communist leaderships.
3See Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 180-1, 227; and Dworkin, “Why Bakke Has No Case,” New York Review of Books, November 10, 1977, pp. 13-15.
4As far as I can tell, officials at my own college, Kenyon, are doing their thankless best to take complexities into account.