As waves of protests have hit American universities, some commentators are concerned about the student agenda. At the Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote the representative take, calling the movement a “coddling of the American mind.” Protesters have targeted institutional misogyny and racism, but their opponents think they’re afraid. “Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter,” they write, “colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control.”
Lukianoff and Haidt, as well as those who share their criticism, aren’t giving student protesters much credit. They also don’t seem to know much about how the world of words operates. Society’s frame of acceptable ideas and language changes over time, and if there’s a marketplace of ideas, then student protesters have built one hell of a startup. Every institution in the country is suddenly worried about how it’s implicated in structural sexism and racism, even if only out of fear of a public relations catastrophe. But even if school administrators are narrowly self-interested in their response to protesters, students are changing America. A relatively well-publicized case in Illinois is a good model of how.
On Monday, November 2, Northwestern University philosophy professor Peter Ludlow resigned his tenure and stepped down from the university. Ludlow fled one step away from a faculty firing squad that, after a 20-month investigation, was prepared to remove him for sexually harassing two students. The resignation has gone quietly outside of Chicago, at least compared to other recent stories about college activism, but Ludlow’s exile provides an exemplary case study in campus language politics.
The original complaint was filed by a student in February 2012. After she emailed Ludlow about an art event relevant to his class, he suggested they go together. Ludlow bought the underage student drinks and, after refusing to drive her back to campus, brought her back to his place and into his bed. She woke up the next morning with his arms around her. Ludlow claimed that he thought she was 22 and nothing untoward happened.
After deciding to penalize Ludlow, Northwestern denied him a planned raise and promotion but did not remove him from his teaching duties. Campus protests over sexual assault, however, imposed their own penalties. Ludlow has been unable to teach since students threatened to disrupt his class in March 2014. Rather than face an announced sit-in/walk-out, Ludlow stopped holding class. In a move perfected by the Catholic Church, Ludlow attempted to dodge the accusations by jumping to a new job at Rutgers, but protests beat him there, tarnishing his brand and causing the school to rescind its offer. He remained at Northwestern until November, paid but not instructing.
The Ludlow case is perhaps best known not by its name but by the secondary story that developed when Ludlow’s fellow Northwestern faculty member Laura Kipnis used it as a central example in an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Without naming Ludlow, she referred to the accusation against him as “a slippery slope,” “melodrama,” and “a mess.” Kipnis brushed off a second complainant, a graduate student who had accused Ludlow of rape, as someone he had “dated.” Rejecting the idea that professors having sex with undergraduates was intrinsically exploitative, she wrote, “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of the accused philosophy professor.”
As a result of Kipnis’s mischaracterization, another student alleged to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that Kipnis had engaged in retaliation against Ludlow’s accuser, a violation of Title IX. Kipnis cried censorship—Was she forbidden from scholarship on academic erotics?—and the complaint was thrown out. The damage, however, was already done: When students started protesting her, Kipnis seemed to have proven her case for paranoia. “Feminist Students Protest Feminist Prof for Writing About Feminism” wrote Natasha Vargas-Cooper at Jezebel.
The Kipnis version of the Ludlow case gave more ammo to the “coddling of the American mind” faction. Students stood accused of misusing the idea of sexual assault, expanding it to fit any instance where they ended up feeling hurt or bad. Kipnis wrote that protesters who referred to Ludlow’s accuser as a “survivor” were engaged in a “horrifying perversion of the language by people who should know better.” Ludlow’s name, unmentioned by Kipnis, dropped out of the story.
For his part, Ludlow took to the civil courts to try and save his reputation. In addition to actions he filed against Northwestern and his accusers—all his suits were found to lack merit—Ludlow sued the media for using the word “rape” in connection with his case. In his complaint, Ludlow claimed that since all that was alleged against him (by the undergraduate) was touching over the clothes, publishing that he was accused of “rape” was unreasonable, unfair, and untrue.
That Ludlow was contesting the meaning of the word “rape” in court must have struck the small circle of scholars familiar with his work as odd. Ludlow was until recently an employed philosopher of language, and one of his areas of study had been the shifting meaning of words. In his 2014 book Living Words: Meaning Underdetermination and the Dynamic Lexicon, Ludlow argued that what words signify is far less stable than we imagine it to be. Language expands and contracts by way of analogical thought, maintaining important commonalities across “modulations.” Ludlow, unlike Kipnis, has been in favor of the “perversion” of language. At least in theory.
One of the examples that Ludlow uses in Living Words is the debate over whether or not Pluto is a “planet.” Since there’s no commonly accepted strict scientific definition for the term, Pluto’s status has been up in the air in the past years. Ludlow offers four reasonable criteria for a shift in a term like “planet”: They should be analogically related to undisputed cases (like Earth and Mars, Pluto is a round mass orbiting the Sun); changes should respect the bulk of accepted cases (you can’t just invalidate all the planets); nor should they expand the meaning too much (you can’t add 10 new planets either); lastly, changes should focus on important properties (excluding all non-blue planets from the category just for their color would be bad).
After “planet,” Ludlow’s next example is “rape.”
A major change to the term rape in late 20th century America was the expansion of its applicability to assaults within the bonds of marriage. Until the 1970s, centuries of precedent held that wives, having pledged their undying consent at the altar, could not be raped by their husbands. For Ludlow the philosopher, the question was how appropriate the change was and how it maintained meaning. Citing anti-rape activist and scholar Susan Brownmiller, Ludlow follows commonalities among rapes in and outside marriage, like the violation of bodily integrity, freedom, and self-determination. That the assault occurs between spouses is of comparatively little consequence.
“The evidence showed that cases of marital rape were like other forms of rape, not just in the loss of freedom and dignity but in the kind of psychological harm done to the victim,” Ludlow writes. “The original meaning of a word is not privileged, and the decision to privilege it is in fact an active decision to choose a particular modulation of the word while at the same time trying to escape the responsibility of defending the choice of modulation.” He goes so far as to warn against prefix terms like “gray,” “stranger,” or “date rape” since they threaten to narrow the meaning by implying that they are somehow less-than-rape.
Putting aside the audacity and gall necessary to quote Brownmiller at length while being investigated as a serial rapist, Ludlow barely had Living Words printed before he was on the record putting his theory to a legal test. But unlike in his book, Ludlow was arguing against modulating “rape,” specifically against modulating it to apply to him. After the Chicago Sun-Times published an article about the case with a headline that said a professor was accused of rape, Ludlow sued them and a few news outlets that had repeated the language. The question at hand could not have been more relevant to Ludlow’s career, the same career that was at stake. The Chicago Lampoon, a local right-wing parody site, published the headline “NU Prof. Peter Ludlow Sues Media: ‘I Did Not Rape That Unconscious Student in My Bed.’”
In making her decision, Circuit Court Judge Kathy Flanagan used analogic reasoning that could be described, under different circumstances, as positively Ludlowian. “The complaint includes allegations of unwelcome sexual advances, lack of consent, and conduct of a sexual nature, as well as allegation that the professor told the student that it was inevitable that they would have sex and that the student woke up with his arms around her,” she wrote, tracking commonality across modulation. “Thus, the use of the word ‘rape’ in the headline of the article has the same gist or sting as the allegations of sexual assault and other allegations in the federal complaint.” That there wasn’t an accusation of penetration was, Flanagan found, no more relevant than a planet’s color. Living language had come back to haunt Ludlow.
“It is important to understand that, while we are talking about the modulation of a word’s meaning, we are not merely talking about a word’s meaning; modulations in word meaning have consequences.” When he wrote those words Ludlow did not know how much they would mean to him, but perhaps he should have. Arguing against the letter of his own work may have been a final indignity in Ludlow’s career as a philosopher, but the student protests that removed him from his tenured position provided Ludlow with a deep critique of his formula and the “coddling” commentators.
In Ludlow’s account of “marital rape,” he describes the motivating factor for the term’s expansion as “empirical evidence.” Once they were listened to, he says, survivors of marital rape made the similarities between their experience and the classical idea obvious, and the meaning expanded. “In the face of empirical evidence like this,” he writes, “it simply does not make sense to opt for the narrower modulation of ‘rape.’” By turning meaning into a question of “simple” empirical reality, Ludlow tried to duck the politics. For whom would it “make sense” to opt for the narrower interpretation of rape? A rapist, for one.
Before Northwestern students were able to force Ludlow from campus, they taught him a lesson about how words really modulate. The struggle to expand the meaning of “rape” to include Ludlow’s attack on his former student was just that: A struggle. It was fought through the school administrative bureaucracy, the courts, and decisively by students putting their bodies and voices in the way of business as usual. Language is alive, but how it grows is a function of conflict and power. It’s a lesson I don’t imagine the man who will now be known as rapist former-philosopher Peter Ludlow will soon forget.
When Lukianoff and Haidt wrote in the Atlantic that colleges should “equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control,” what they meant is that college should equip students to endure a world full of words and ideas that they cannot change. Colleges, however, are faced with students who aren’t interested in that kind of training. Instead, students and young people outside the academy are building the power necessary to change the way Americans think, talk, and act. It’s no wonder people who rely on the old definitions are worried. Some of them should be.
Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry. He lives in Brooklyn.