Don't Be Judgmental -- Sue!


The latest salvo in the campus ideological wars is Antioch College's promulgation of a ridiculously specific code of sexual behavior for students. Why did this Ohio school think it had no alternative but to micromanage co-eds' sex lives by means of a written code?

This latest attempt to deal with the fallout of the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s is another example of how the American campus, once the domain of angry radical protesters, is now the domain of angry radical litigators. We have to wonder about the strange kind of litigiousness now being purveyed to students of higher education.

The Antioch College Sexual Offense Code, written by the students themselves, is an unintentionally comic product of what columnist Ellen Goodman calls "the current campus obsession with sexual assault." In the words of the Antioch Code: "Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct in any given interaction regardless of who initiates it." That'll fix the date rapists, or so these young Solons of the sexual revolution apparently believe.

Antioch's legalistic foray comes hard on the heels of the speech codes adopted by many colleges and universities during a previous academic obsession with "hate speech." Two speech codes were struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional.

Note the pattern: Where there is a problem (sex without whole-hearted consent, the utterance of bigoted comments) a written code of conduct, a law, an official edict, will take care of it by giving human beings written stage directions that they ignore at their peril.

Those who fear that a new puritanism is taking over the nation's universities have it slightly wrong. For the Puritan settlers' moral standards were enforced, in the most significant sense, not legally but socially; punishment was more by public ridicule than by trapping miscreants in the statutory flypaper of the parchment regime.

There was, to put it mildly, a certain legitimacy to social expressions of disapproval.

Flash forward to today's America, and the acceptability of voicing distaste for, say a person sleeping with his ex-girlfriend's adopted daughter, is infinitely weaker. We don't need a return to Calvinist theocracy, but a -- of moral backbone wouldn't hurt. As it is, approaching a fellow citizen and saying, "Your behavior needs improvement," is a recipe for being branded an ayatollah, a prude, a my-children-are-no-business-of-yours meddler.

If there had been such a meddler at the University of Michigan a while back, then a woman who suffered an obnoxious slight might have seen her dignity upheld on the spot, in front of her classmates, instead of having to launch cumbersome harassment proceedings against two out-of-line campus cut-ups. She was in a film class. Two male classmates screened a movie they made, in which they had superimposed her face over the image of a woman pouring milk over her genitals and masturbating.

Evidently the professor in this class did nothing we would have recognized as reasonable -- say, chewing the students out, followed by flunking them for the course. Apparently he or she did nothing at all. Instead, the female student filed a formal complaint in the office of some anti-discrimination dean.

Now typically, these new anti-discrimination enforcers operate with murky mandates that do not necessarily accord due process to accused offenders. I don't know how the case in Ann Arbor turned out. But whether the two budding Fellinis ended up being summarily expelled from school or, alternately, being saddled with some demeaning little exercise (write a four-page essay about how insensitive you are), neither outcome is satisfactory. On-the-spot rough justice by a responsible adult (the quiescent professor) would have been better than all the ideologically charged hullabaloo of a formal adjudication.

But then, the professor probably felt it "uncool" to cramp the students' creativity by being "judgmental." And there lies the problem. When individuals rarely take it upon themselves to uphold community standards of decent conduct, those standards wind up in the care of bureaucrats. And beware of what the bureaucrats will invent.

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, when a society defends its precious liberties but ignores the responsibilities that go with liberty, the members of that society "unwittingly invite a worse tyranny, for legislation is then called upon to do what society might otherwise have done less obtrusively and more benignly."

It is a precisely because progressives have gone so overboard in stigmatizing moral judgment that their first recourse, when they want to make a moral point, is to go ballistic with invasive laws, edicts and codes. A freedom-loving culture that considers personal acts of moral suasion to be tyrannical is bound to fall back on impersonal legal gimmicks that are themselves dangerous to individual freedom.

Lauren Weiner is a free-lance writer.

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