On April 1-2, the Harvard Extension Service and Learning Society will host a conference in Northwest Labs entitled Social Transformation by the Power of God. Although the title of the conference certainly does not shy away from the religious thrust of the event, what still escapes us is the link between a group that calls itself a Service and Leadership Society and the expectation of an “existential encounter that will renew and revive your passion to be agents of change.” We seriously question the “existential encounter” that might be brought about by speakers such as one Dr. Lance Wallnau, who has had the following to say about why Social Transformation is necessary: “So you've got your homosexual activity, your abortion activity here, Islam coming in, you've got a financial collapse—all of this, to those of us who are Christians, is an apocalyptic confirmation that when you remove God from public discourse, when you don't line up your thinking with kingdom principles, you inevitably hit an iceberg like the Titanic and you go down.” Especially on a campus that exemplifies diversity and tolerance in so many ways, egregiously anti-pluralist views such as those espoused by Wallnau and some of other speakers in the conference lineup tow an uncomfortable line between the exercise of free speech and an uncomfortable acceptance of hate speech.
While nearly anyone is welcome to speak on campus, context is key. Of course, we do not dispute the value of the First Amendment and believe that Harvard can and should invite to campus any speaker it wishes. In the case of speakers who are known widely for intolerant or strongly offensive views, however, they should not be put on a pedestal—quite literally—and be allowed to take advantage of speaking under a Harvard banner and the legitimacy that banner affords naturally affords them. For speakers with intolerant and offensive views, the University should construct any public event in which those speakers will play a prominent role as a challenge of their views rather than a celebration of them.
When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Columbia, for instance, he said famously horrible things, such as that Iran simply does not have “the phenomenon of homosexuality.” That “opinion”, while repulsive, was nevertheless expressed in a context that allowed it to be challenged and publicly dismissed. As John Stuart Mill said, “complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action.”
Unfortunately, this is not the case with the upcoming Extension School conference. By hosting a panel discussion whose participants will merely voice their opinions without being called upon to justify their past incendiary remarks, the event seems to accept incredibly offensive opinions without providing any internal challenge. In a sense, the intellectual integrity of the entire Harvard community is consequently on trial with this coming conference. Regardless of their subject matter, conferences must nevertheless be held to basic standards of intellectual honesty and accountability, and we simply cannot imagine what value the Social Transformation Conference will bring to our community.
Also, it is nothing less than dishonest to present this particular line of speakers merely as “leading voices for the faith-based social transformation of culture,” as the conference describes. Their model of social transformation is, in fact, highly controversial for a variety of reasons, including some of the speakers' homophobic and Islamophobic views. Besides Wallanu, Os Hillman, another speaker, has endorsed one of the strongest Ugandan proponents of that country’s 2009 anti-homosexuality bill, Julius Oyet. Hillman has even written himself of homosexuality: “Even kids were not immune to the new onslaught of the gay agenda when in October of 2007 the major character in the Harry Potter books and movies, Albus Dumbledore, master wizard and Headmaster of Hogwarts was revealed that he was gay. This is how the frog in the kettle gets hotter and hotter until we wake up one day and realize we have totally lost the culture and we have become a nation like Sodom and Gomorrah in which God had to destroy the entire city.” These important facts are not presented in a straightforward manner by the conference organizers, who present misleading official biographies of Wallanu and Hillman and seem to focus on marketing, rather than engaging and challenging, their speakers. (Keep in mind that in between every panel, conference attendees will have an opportunity to buy books from panel participants.)
The conference website guarantees that attendees will get to “Explore and discern your life-calling and purpose, and understand the connection between your faith and your vocation.” Leaving aside the fact that the conference is explicitly centered on a Judeo-Christian worldview (the conference will explain how, “faith-based social transformation efforts are changing our society using the time-tested principles of the Judeo- Christian worldview which has profoundly influenced the founding of this country as well as western civilization itself”), we question why this particular Extension School club is holding this conference, which seems to needlessly depart from its nominally secular mission.
More disturbingly, an official statement released by the organizers of the conference states that “We have been assured by our speakers that they have not supported any hatred directed towards any group, and that allegations to the contrary are untrue and/or misinterpreted.” These assurances should be strongly questioned—if Wallnau and Hillman’s expressions do not seem like hatred, we are hard pressed to understand what does. There appears to be a link missing between a Service and Leadership Society that hosts events like the 2009 Negotiation and Leadership Conference, and a Society which feels that the morals espoused at Harvard have degraded so far that we must open our gates to speakers with such disparaging views.
Appearing at Harvard legitimizes a speaker and his or her opinions; therefore, while people with many views are welcome to speak at Harvard, we find it morally dubious to allow speakers to proselytize, especially discriminatory views, and remain unchallenged. Especially in the wake of the return to ROTC to campus, Harvard must do everything in its power to show its compassion for and extend its eternal welcome to the LGBT community that forms such a vibrant part of campus life. Somehow, a conference so clearly informed by the Seven Mountains of Culture movement and that markets itself as an initiative to “reclaim the Education Mountain” for Jesus Christ does not bode well for any attempt the University might have considered in combating discrimination on campus grounds.
While we cannot anticipate the nature of the talks and discussions that will come to pass on April 1 and 2, we urge members of the campus community who are concerned by this supposedly imminent Social Transformation to attend the conference and embrace free speech as much as the conference organizers have in bringing this pointed agenda into an environment that strives for pluralism and tolerance.