Donald Trump, Laura Kipnis, and the Intolerable

No one I know who voted for Donald Trump has told me that he (or, conceivably, she) did so.   But then I hang out in the wrong circles: lawyers, academics, immigrants, gay people, and adults who are able to read and write. Still, I am sure there must be some. I suspect several of my rich American friends, most of the constitutional ‘originalists’ I know, and far too many ‘Christians’.

None of these actually approves of Trump, his values, or his conduct. On the contrary, they held their noses when voting, because they thought the alternatives worse, and because they thought Trumpism would secure the things they do approve: the wealth and power of the rich, a Supreme Court free of liberal-minded people, and a country in which women and LGBT minorities know their place.   That is to say, the sort of people I know who voted for Trump did so, not because they approved of him, but because they were willing to tolerate him.

Now, that does not eliminate, or much mitigate, their moral responsibility in helping support one of the most unjust, corrupt, and vile regimes of any aspirantly democratic society.   They share in the blame for its increasing corruption, not because of what they favour, but because of what they are willing to tolerate in the name of what they favour. They tolerate the intolerable—and mostly they still tolerate it—and that is wrong.

Which brings me to Laura Kipnis, and her illuminating, powerful, and controversial polemic, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.   Daring to question some complaints against a Northwestern professor hounded out of his academic post as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct—and, more important, daring to question the fairness of some universities’ procedures created to address sex discrimination—Kipnis  now finds herself exposed to a variety of complaints and lawsuits, essentially for supporting, or at least tolerating, the intolerable.

There are reasons to doubt that these claims will succeed.   But even if they fail, many will urge that this is because free speech, academic freedom, and procedural fairness are, in the US, treated with more affection than is gender equality. The more we insist on procedural fairness—a presumption of innocence, a right to confront one’s accusers, and to test their evidence—the easier life will be for harassers and rapists, and the harder for victims.

That is true, and because (alleged?) harassers and rapists attract little sympathy, it is a truth that dominates discussion about sexual predators on campus. After all, whose side are we on?

It is a good question. But a good answer to it should mention, not only the interests of the (alleged) victims and the accused, but also a group that no one ever mentions: the bystanders.

A graduate student whose instructor or supervisor is suspected of sexual misconduct will attract  suspicions.   Even when, and especially when, she is not a complainant, it may be assumed that this is because she is compliant. Or, if not compliant, then at least tolerant of a supervisor who is a harasser. Now, graduate students don’t have a lot of power, but most of them have enough power to ditch a supervisor who behaves in such ways. They do not need to show that he assaulted them. It is enough not to want to work with someone who assaults other students.   One willing to work with such a person when she could change that can fairly be assumed to tolerate his conduct. And, like voting for Trump, this is to tolerate the intolerable. (‘I know he is a sexist—racist, homophobe, adulterer, liar….—but he really is the world’s expert on the Roman Law of Dogs, so it is fine for me to keep working with him.’)

And this takes us back to procedure. A false accusation of harassment, racism, homophobia, infidelity… damages, not only the accused, but those who, in virtue of their own decisions, can  be supposed to tolerate the accused’s behaviour.   So fair and accurate procedures are important, not only for the sake of those who may be wrongly accused, but also for the sake of innocent bystanders, who may be wrongly accused of tolerating the intolerable.  It is time for them, and not just the wrongly accused, to speak up in favour of fair procedures.  They too have an interest at stake.







3 thoughts on “Donald Trump, Laura Kipnis, and the Intolerable

  1. Leslie, Almost all of the originalists signed a statement opposing Trump, and of the one’s I know who didn’t sign, all of them opposed trump. This statement was incautious, and I ask that you amend it.


    • Thanks for this, Larry.

      I hope it won’t sound merely defensive if I say that my original post does *not* tar all originalists (or rich people, or ‘Christians’–let alone Christians) with one brush. I comment only the closet Trumpians I know: among whom most , many, or ‘too many’ do in fact tolerate him. I know that you and Akil and some others loathe the regime now in power. But you are too few! And too many of you few, as far as one can tell from so far away, *are still* tolerating an appalling, immoral, and dangerous regime. (You are too smart a philosopher, and lawyer, Larry, not to know that one can fiercely oppose someone while tolerating him. That’s the very essence of toleration.) It is a fair question–I put it to myself all the time–‘what is a mere law Professor to do? ‘ There is no general answer: it depends on one’s own position, power, skills, etc. But we begin, surely, not merely by saying something is wrong, misguided, unconstitutional, imprudent etc.. but by declaring it absolutely intolerable and then, as far as it is one one’s power, by ending it.

      You don’t mention the (main) focus of the post: that some us (OK, well, me) have known that we have colleagues who are sexual predators but, while (usually privately) fiercely criticising them, went on tolerating them for years. I have come to think it a fair criticism of my own conduct that I tolerated colleagues whose conduct and views are plainly intolerable. I did criticise them. But it called for more than that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Les,

    Thank you, but you did make a statement, that you “suspect” that “most of the originalists” you know “voted for Donald Trump.” A large number of academic originalists signed a statement publicly opposing Trump. The group is small; there are only three or four dozen academics who are originalists. I believe that I personally know each and every academic originalist. Of those who did not sign the statement, I have personal knowledge that almost all of them opposed Trump–because I have spoken about this topic with them. I know of only one originalist who voted for Trump–and I strongly suspect that this person is the only originalist who did so. Of course, your report of your “suspicion” is simply a report of your mental state–and I believe your report is sincere. But it is not a well founded suspicion. Your suspicion is almost certainly wrong. It is almost certainly true that almost all of the originalists that you know did not vote for Trump.

    I don’t know which originalists you know. Perhaps you are speaking about non-academic originalists. If so, you may well be right, but given that nature of the blog and your background, I think most readers would assume that you were speaking of academics and not ordinary citizens or politicians. So I continue to believe that a correction would be appropriate. Thank you for considering this request.

    My comment is only directed at this aspect of your post. I have no quarrel with the rest.



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