This was my response to the controversy over the Congressional testimony provided by the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn on the subject of campus anti-semitism.
As an alumnus of MIT, I chose to direct myself to the president of that institution…
7 December 2023
To Sally Kornbluth, President of MIT
Ref: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s <or Harvard’s or Penn’s> code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
I am an alumnus. And, yes, I am disappointed — to the point of fury — over your response to the question.
I understand and acknowledge — I even champion — the notion that free speech means tolerating speech that you hate, not merely speech you agree with. In fact, I suspect I am a much stronger supporter of that notion than you are.
And, so, I accept that there is a reasonable — in fact incontrovertible — argument that, no, merely and individually positing something hateful as a general proposition, not as a specific call to action, may not and should not, on its face, comprise a violation of any “code of conduct” or of any rules regarding “bullying” or “harassment”.
The problem is — to use the word that has gotten you and your fellows into such trouble — context.
Because, the context in which the question was asked and answered is the recent environment on campuses across the country, including on yours, in which
- Nearly anything even remotely objectionable to almost anyone has been and continues to be treated precisely as if it would, indeed, be a violation of a code of conduct and comprise “bullying” and “harassment”.
- Such expressions of contempt are coming not from individuals but from mobs that commandeer shared campus spaces and use their raw numbers and audible volume and uncompromising vehemence to intimidate anyone who disagrees with what they are shouting into an aghast silence.
Does the phrase, “microagression” mean anything to you? “Trigger warning”? “Safe space?”
I commend to you this article, posted at The Bulwark, which asks the question: How would that question have been answered if the subject was any other racial or ethnic or gender group?
Let us imagine the question rephrased:
Does calling for the genocide of blacks constitute bullying and harassment?
“Does calling for the wholesale slaughter of gays constitute bullying and harassment?”
“Does calling for the genocide of Mexicans constitute bullying and harassment?”
“Does calling for the massacre of handicapped individuals constitute bullying and harassment?”
“Does calling for the genocide of Hindus constitute bullying and harassment?”
Would we have to scratch our heads and ponder context if the question were posed in relation to any other group?
I had been planning a posting myself on the same topic, but broadened to include things much less substantial than actual genocide:
- “Does calling for all African Americans to be deported “back to Africa” violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does claiming that there were actually benefits to modern day African Americans, overall, from having had their ancestors brought here as slaves violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does saying that women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom, not in business or academia, violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does suggesting that, perhaps, the reason women are underrepresented in the sciences is that they are underrepresented in the tails — both high and low — of the statistical distribution of intelligence violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does saying that there are only two sexes, male and female, violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does asserting that marriage should properly and legally only be allowed between a man and a woman violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does saying that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does wearing a MAGA hat on campus violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does hosting a “Sombrero Party” or a “Babealicious Party” at a fraternity violate your code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”
- “Does wearing a Halloween costume from an ethnic heritage that you don’t happen to share violate your code of conduct or rules against bullying and harassment?”
All of those are certainly offensive to some people, and many of them are truly offensive to most people. And I suspect that, at least as little as two months ago (and perhaps even now), most (if not all) of those questions, would have been answered immediately and in the affirmative — at least if they had been asked first and in isolation, without you and your fellow respondents knowing ahead of time that the real context of the question was actually about genocide of the Jews.
In fact, I would venture that most or all if them probably, indeed, have been answered in the affirmative as a matter of recent historical fact on one campus or another — perhaps even on yours…
It is only reasonable to defend repugnant proclamations as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of a principled policy of support for “free speech” if you actually and consistently have such a policy.
Defending repugnant proclamations on that basis when you, instead, have a well documented history of suppressing free speech to assuage the feelings of a panoply of highly offendable favored constituencies sounds exactly like what everyone is seeing it for: a defensive self-justification for treating one particular disfavored constituency with contempt.
This has been characterized by others as a matter of hypocrisy, and that’s not totally inaccurate (ref: My final 2 paragraphs).
But, really, it more an issue of moral authority. When it comes down to it, the question from Elise Stephanik (yes, she lacks her own moral authority…) was less about genocide than about where our Overton Window should lie: “I am outraged! Should I not be?”
And, the responses were less about genocide than about an answer many of us found troubling: “No, you should not be outraged– or, more precisely but rather more subtly, your desire to act on your outrage should be tempered by this competing moral principle!”
To make such an assertion, however, requires that you have the moral authority to assert on behalf of that competing moral principle. And, at the very least, that means you have to able to speak from a position of having demonstrated your own commitment to that competing moral principle.
When faced with situations that are murky or difficult or fraught with contradictions — when our own knowledge and experience seem inadequate, when we are simply ignorant or when our hearts and our heads seem to pull us in different directions and we are unsure of which to follow — we often look to “established experts” and “leaders” of various types to guide us. We accept that guidance not merely because of some perceived expertise but because of a perceived moral authority — an authority to guide us not merely on what is “true” or “effective” but on what is “good” and “proper”.
In some other world, the Presidents of three of our most prestigious centers of academic excellence, institutions nominally dedicated to the extension, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, would seem to be exactly the kinds of “leaders” and “experts” we might call upon for guidance.
Yet, the fact is, because of what has been happening on their campuses on their watch, those three had no moral authority to lecture us on the value of “freedom of speech”.
Their testimony was akin to Donald Trump asserting the moral authority to lecture us on the value of honesty…
© Copyright 2023, Augustus P. Lowell