Flippant Ferguson

Ferguson’s statements were doubly hazardous because of the authority allotted to Harvard professors

“In the long run we are all dead.” With these famous words, in rebellion against classical economics, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes pioneered a school of thought that dictated that government spending could stimulate the economy and could play an important role in righting a flailing economy. Keynes was inspired by the devastating effects of the Great Depression on standards of living and its ensuing international turmoil.

But according to a comment made by Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson, Keynes had other motivators. In an off-the-cuff remark made at a recent question-and-answer session with financial investors and advisors following a lecture, Ferguson said, "Keynes was a homosexual and had no intention of having children. We are not dead in the long run …our children are our progeny. It is the economic ideals of Keynes that have gotten us into the problems of today." His comments were unequivocally misguided, inaccurate, and offensive. Ferguson has since apologized for his statements, calling them “stupid and tactless,” an apt summary of his thoughtless and hurtful remarks. Not only was there the implication that Keynesian theory is tantamount to a lack of empathy for future generations, an extreme simplification of Keynes’ philosophy, but sexual orientation or childlessness is certainly not indicative of one’s investment in the future.

Although we appreciate Professor Ferguson’s immediate apology in the wake of widespread criticism, he has, to some extent, retraced his steps. Rather than issue a wholly unequivocal apology, Ferguson’s “Open Letter to the Harvard Community” refuted the claim that “sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of [Keynes].” Certainly, individuals’ identities can influence their scholarship, but Ferguson’s statement to the Harvard community immediately after his blunder need not have put forward qualifications for his mistake.

Not only were Ferguson’s comments deeply offensive, but they also carried with them the authority of an endowed professorship in the Harvard history department. Ferguson’s blunder highlights the need for professors to be ever cognizant that flippant speech is doubly dangerous from the mouth of a respected academic representing a respected institution, reflecting poorly on both himself and Harvard. When speaking to an audience on the basis of expertise, professors must not stray from the thoughtful and professional tenor that does justice to the authority granted them.

Ferguson’s position as a prominent Harvard professor provides academic authority for all of his claims, regardless of the context they are made in. Flippancy becomes all the more dangerous for those whose words are granted automatic authority by their occupation. We are glad to see Harvard professors making a name for themselves outside of the classroom, but this must not come at the expense of thoughtfulness and prudence.

Given the wave of social change in favor of BGLT rights that this country has undergone in the last few decades, Professor Ferguson’s comments were a reminder of the special and undue scrutiny that gay people still face. We hope that the instant backlash the comments received is a lesson to all.

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