The Death of Discourse

When I received a copy of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Handbook last summer, I did what any diligent Harvard student would do: I read it. Or, to be fair, I skimmed it very carefully, and I found one important morsel. Having just finished a hellish senior year that involved a taxing battle between the student newspaper and the high school administration, I was glad to read that the Harvard faculty believed that “By accepting membership in the University, an individual joins a community ideally characterized by free expression, free inquiry, intellectual honesty, respect for the dignity of others, and openness to constructive change.” And for a large part of my experience here, this has been true. All of my classes have attempted (sometimes with more success than others) to challenge my opinions and my thought process. Nonetheless, as University President Lawrence H. Summers has recently learned, there are still many off-limits areas in our ideological discourse. American society has moved steadily towards an intolerable absolutist form of political correctness, and Harvard students and faculty are not immune from this trend.

Since January, an intolerant atmosphere has prevailed on campus. Summers’ remarks on the innate differences between men and women may have been politically incorrect, but the response of the Harvard faculty and the national media was even more disgusting. Despite a month of national coverage, most critics did not even address Summers’ comments, simply dismissing them as inappropriate for someone in his position. While I respect and support the few journalists who thoughtfully analyzed the claims and provided opinions from which we could form our own thoughts, the reaction of the rest of society should act as a warning sign to all who were watching. The day that our academic minds are stifled is the same day that our society stops progressing.

This increasingly absolutist political correctness extends far past Harvard. Many employers, for example, have instituted speech codes in order to prevent any speech or action that could offend anyone else in the workplace. Jonathan Rauch, a writer for The New Republic, explains that employers are not interested in fighting frivolous lawsuits in the judicial system; they want to avoid lawsuits altogether. Thus, rather than simply prevent the specific types of discrimination that the law addresses, they go one step further and eliminate anything that could conceivably spawn a lawsuit. The Maryland Commission on Human Relations advises, “Because the legal boundaries are so poorly marked, the best course of action is to avoid all sexually offensive conduct in the workplace.” This extensive vagueness threatens all workplaces (which, in essence, consist of every place where people spend any time whatsoever) with the possibility of unwanted and undeserved lawsuits.

Critics would argue that no one has the right to create a hostile environment for others. A boss who demands sexual favors for promotions or a co-worker who threatens to harm another worker should not be tolerated. Nonetheless, these valid concerns should be differentiated from an expansive political correctness that is, in reality, an attempt to protect people’s feelings. While threats or physical action against a co-worker are illegal and prosecutable, an ill-placed joke or an out-of-the-mainstream opinion is not. Harvard, at least on paper, recognizes this fact. The Handbook for Students states that “speech not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech, even though the comments may cause considerable discomfort or concern to others in the community.” By creating an environment where people believe that some of their beliefs should never be challenged, we create an environment where our thinking is inhibited.

Our society now evolves at an unprecedented rate, and it is simply pretentious to believe that anyone’s idea is automatically “right” without hearing the other side, regardless of how ridiculous that other side may seem. Virtually all ideas, including civil rights, gender equality, and sexual preference equality, were once the minority opinion. The solution is not to suppress an opinion, but rather to address it directly and on its merits. I still hold out hope that American society will be able to see both sides of any issue and make its own educated choice, rather than forcing out the opinion that doesn’t fit the current norm.

Ashish Agrawal ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Stoughton Hall.