Barrington Moore Asks For Student Restraint
The recent episide of the protest against the recruiter from the Dow Chemical Company may be a miniature replica of forces at work in the United States as a whole. It is also, I would like to suggest, a situation that has a good many parallels in recent and not so recent history. For reasons that are often a matter of debate among historians, and that certainly do not stem simply from economic privation, more and more people on certain occasions have come to feel that they have legitimate grievances against a system of law and order under which they can find no redress. As pressures build up in this fashion, individuals and groups of individuals are likely to break the law. In the movement of Negro protest, quite often such persons then find themselves accused of self-righteous intolerance, of taking the law into their own hands, of being the ones responsible for the breakdown of democratic processes. But how much patience should one ask of those with such grievances? In such situations it seems to me that the fundamental responsibility for the breakdown of law and order rests upon those who determine a society's policies and who benefit from them.
Such benefits are always unequal. No system of law and order has been politically neutral in practice. At the present moment in the United States, law and order protects those who conduct, support, and profit from a war that more and more of us regard as atrociously cruel and strategically stupid. It protects the right of Dow Chemical and similar groups to recruit students for this general purpose. To a vastly lesser extent it also protects those of us who feel outraged by this situation. In effect we are told that we may protest as much as we like--as long as our protest remains ineffective or aims at token reforms such as limiting the bombing in Vietnam to "selected targets" that have a way of increasing after every protest, or being satisfied with a civil rights movement that still leaves the overwhelming mass of the Negro population in squalor and misery. It is conceivable that our passion may limit our time perspective: that future historians may look back upon those of us who now feel angry as we look back upon the early forerunners of basic social transformation. But if that doubtful consolation awaits us (for the judgment of history is ordinarily what gets into second-rate textbooks), it is also wise to recall that those early forerunners did not always stick to "acceptable" means of protest.
Nevertheless the general situation does create a dilemma for those of us who find ourselves in passionate opposition to the general drift of American society--a position often reached with uneasy astonishment. As students and teachers we have no objective interest in kicking down the far from sturdy walls that still do protect us. For all their faults and inadequacies the universities, and especially perhaps Harvard, do constitute a moat behind which it is still possible to examine and indict the destructive trends in our society. There may be some students at Harvard, perhaps on occasion even a stray faculty member, who in a moment of rage and frustration might feel like tearing the university limb from limb. From the standpoint of a commitment to human freedom such feelings are by no means totally irrational, because the universities do much more to sustain destructive trends--through the contribution of professional skills to the war and in numerous other ways -- than any amount of verbal criticism or even reasoned exposure can do to stop them. However, these angry feelings are so far but momentary gusts of passion, even if they could be harbingers of a vastly more serious storm to come.
My knowledge of the radical students at Harvard is of course limited. Among those I do know I sense that every single one has an astonishingly deep commitment to quite traditional Western conceptions of freedom, especially the freedom to exchange ideas. Perhaps what gets these students into trouble is that they take liberal ideas seriously.
It seems to me that a common devotion to liberal ideals among activist students and the rest of the university may account for some curiously contradictory results during the course of the Dow episode. Such feelings were, I think, one source of the wave of punitive sentiment that at first swept over what I sensed to be an overwhelming majority of the faculty. Apparently many in the majority saw in the demonstrators, not a loose band of frightened youngsters momentarily holding hands to stop what I still think is part of the real threat to intellectual freedom, but a potentially totalitarian thrust that deserved exemplary punishment. At the same time, shared liberal sentiments, together with a network of personal friendships that only a Namier could trace out, made it possible for private debate to continue. In private conversations some faculty members could say to old friends with very different views that the students who took part in the demonstration really deserved to be placed on an honor roll instead of being punished. These networks of personal connections, which fortunately included the students, provided the framework for marshaling opposing arguments and opposing constituencies. It was along these informal networks that the democratic process operated. Those who held strong opinions on either side seemed to realize that truculent public assertion of principles could only damage their own cause. Presumably these diverse pressures focussed on the administrative boards. The latter had the task of finding a resolution that the faculty would ratify--if possible by an overwhelming vote--and that would not provoke an uncontrollable reaction from the students.
Everyone knows the outcome. It has its entertaining side--in fictions that everybody knows are fictions. Personally I am very unhappy about the arbitrary and capricious incidence of the punishments, because I think that certain groups of undergraduates have been forced to carry an unfair share of the penalties. On the other hand, the punishments themselves are vary much lighter than I had anticipated up until the very last moment. Furthermore, appeal procedures exist that may be able to correct manifest injustices. Thought the character of the punishment is indeed important, it is even more important to try to perceive and assess the situation in which we all find ourselves. It is on this score that I would like to offer some personal observations.
If there are intransigeant elements among student radicals--and I do not happen to know a single one--I fervently hope they are able to perceive that the action of moderate elements on the faculty has helped to preserve the moat that protects us all. The faculty's overwhelming commitment to free speech in the university community is part of this moat, perhaps its most important pat. To attack it heedlessly is irresponsible and selfdefeating. That is so not merely because we who are vehemently opposed to many basic trends in American society may badly need its protection from time to time. The principle is important in its own right. This point bears repeating, even if one holds that the Dow episode involved a commercial privilege granted by the university for the convenience of its students and that the free exchange of ideas was not an issue.
At the same time there are grounds for concluding that the rules governing communication and circulation on a university campus are not moral absolutes to be applied with equal severity in all situations. In other words, the reasons for which people break a rule do make a difference, and in some cases a huge difference. That appears to be true of rules that govern social life in the larger world. To the extent that the university is part of the larger world the same reasons would hold.
To spell these reasons out in a short space is impossible. Those that have persuaded me, often very reluctantly, might be distilled and distorted into three general points. In the first place, it is morally and politically impossible to equate the violence of those who resist oppression--or oppressive situations anywhere in the world--with the violence of the oppressors themselves. In this connection I see the acts of those who obstructed the Dow recruiter as a symbolic and actually non-violent gesture (for there was no damage to persons or property) against the oppressive violence of American policy. Secondly, the historical record provides rather strong evidence, though certainly not proof, in support of the thesis that attacks on law and order, including revolutionary attacks, have under certain conditions helped to create new systems of law and order with greater freedom. In the third place, it is alas only too clear that Western democracy is not what many of us would like to think it is and are often taught to believe it is: the social and political mechanism that can resolve the clashes of human passions and interests peacefully, equitably, and slowly. In my view this notion is quite clearly a complacent misrepresentation of the present and the past. I would like to think that Western democracy still has a chance of becoming able to serve humane purposes. But that is another question. Again applying these general conceptions to the microcosm that is Harvard, I believe that there is at least a fair chance that the Dow episode might turn out to be a minor breakdown of law and order with constructive consequences. If that is the result, we shall all owe it to the students who took part in the obstruction.
The outcome of course depends upon what all of us in the university do, and also what we refrain from doing. As a sociologist I suspect that all of us are trying to work out a new set of folkways and mores, a tacit code that will allow some room for what might be called a right of symbolic obstruction. By refraining from severe punitive sanctions the administration has taken some important if still limited steps in this direction. The last thing to be expected in such situations is that the main participants will say or even realize what they are doing. In the future there may arise intransigeant calls for "stu- dent power," which in any literal sense in an absurdity. These may also be corresponding calls for nipping "subversion" in the bud by stronger punitive measures. For repression to work it is already much too late, even at Harvard. The "subversion" has already advanced much too far. Intelligent and tacit recognition of this fact by both sides may just possibly enable the process to work itself out in such a way as to benefit the overwhelming majority of the students and the faculty. Actually the subversion amounts, I think, to an effort to return to the traditional conception of a university as a place where young and old may come together in search of humane values, truth and beauty.
Professor Stanley Hofmann's proposal to set up a commission to look into the real issues represents at least potentially the most constructive step. Like many a commission before it, this one too could of course turn into a way of hiding the real problems and blunting criticism. If anyone believes that it may be a crowbar with which to pry Harvard completely out of its connection with the government and the war, I am certani he is due for a disappointment. Nevertheless there exists a substantial middle range of worthwhile possibilities between these two extremes. In a sober, responsible, yet probing manner such a commission might make clear to the university community the nature of its connections with the outside world. It is obvious enough that the source of search funds has a great deal to do with what questions get asked in the scholarly community, even if this aspect is by no means the only determinant. Severe ethical and political issues might arise in some instances. In the general climate of university opinion, here and at other universities, there are standards with which a community of scholars tries to judge such issues. These standards grow and change in response to circumstances. It is difficult to maintain that ignorance of the facts and circumstances will make for better standards.
Directly and indirectly the students in a university, especially the best students, have a tremendous influence on this general climate of opinion. If imponderable, this climate is probably the most influential single factor in determining individual decisions in a university and thereby deciding what the university really is. Naturally the faculty plays a decisive part as well. But I wonder if the students actually realize how much influence they do possess. Some years ago a colleague remarked to me that the top students determined the character of any given department. He may well have been correct. I have yet to know a scholar who did not respond in some fashion to the flow of written and oral arguments presented by good students. This situation provides the most significant opening for students who respond critically and negatively to the world about them. If they come to the faculty rigidly and dogmatically prepared to defend radical positions at all costs, they will get nowhere and defeat their own purposes. The consequences of this rigidity are often a tragic waste of essentially fine human materials. On the other hand, if they come in some degree prepared to be convinced as well as to convince, and if they are also willing to do the hard work necessary to demonstrate their intellectual mastery of the evidence, their impact can be enormous. Whether it will be sufficient now or in the long run no one can possibly foresee. Harvard is not the place upon which to rest a lever that will change the world. Nevertheless there is no need to let pessimism and despair become excuses for avoiding the tasks of reasoned criticism that we can still pursue here.