The Courage to be Civil
Olympia J. Snowe’s sudden and unexpected announcement that she was retiring from the Senate sent shockwaves throughout the nation that went well beyond the electoral calculus. The retirement signaled a recognition that something had been lost in American politics, that the political moderate was part of an era that had passed. Following her announcement, Snowe criticized the Senate for failing to be a body “that ensures all voices are heard and considered.” In the wake of her statement, many fingers were pointed—at the Tea Party, MoveOn.org, and other political organizations—to explain the loss of respect within politics. Yet, by design, the Congress represents the nation and people that elect it. When Americans stop respecting opposing opinions, we can’t expect Congress not to follow our lead. Unfortunately, Harvard, too, is far from innocent in America’s race to incivility. We can’t turn around what happens in Washington without first changing what happens in the Yard.
As the “Kremlin on the Charles,” Harvard is famous for its liberal reputation and infamous for its intolerance of dissenting opinions. When prospective freshmen arrive at the activities fair each year at Visitas, the most common question they ask at the Harvard Republican Club’s table is not “What activities do you have?” or “How many members do you have?” but “Can I be conservative here?”
Posters from the Harvard Republican Club, Harvard Right to Life, and True Love Revolution have all been targeted recently. The vast majority of all three groups’ posters are consistently torn down within hours of being put up. HRL’s “Cemetery of the Unborn” display outside of the Science Center was even vandalized in 2008. One instance of missing posters could possibly be explained by other, non-malicious factors, but multiple years of vandalism against Harvard’s three main conservative groups cannot.
Posters may cover the surface of Harvard’s campus, but the lack of respect within the institution runs deep. Students participating in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps have reported that some professors “exhibit hostility toward students who wear their uniform to class.” Members of the Class of 2014 reported to the Harvard Republican Club and its mentor faculty that their faculty advisers and Peer Advising Fellows had discouraged them from taking classes taught by conservative faculty members, not because the classes didn’t fit within their interests or schedules, but because the instructors were conservative. The destructive ripples of such interactions extend far beyond a course schedule.
When freshmen arrive on campus, they are encouraged to begin discussing topics both big and small during mandatory Community Conversations with their entryways and proctors. They are told to appreciate diversity and understand different perspectives but are then marginalized and isolated by the very community and staff that are meant to welcome then. When freshmen mentors criticize professors for the sole reason that they are conservative, the message sent to freshmen is clear: those who disagree with us are not welcome here. It leaves the freshmen that disagree with Harvard’s liberal mainstream two options: Hide their beliefs for the next four years or take the risk and challenge the status quo. To freshmen attempting to find their way and determine their identity as lone adults for the first time, the intolerance is terrifying and paralyzing. Many elect at this moment never to reveal their true opinions throughout their entire time here.
For students here who break with the liberal majority, taking the road less traveled requires accepting much more than just fewer travel companions. The road also involves the personal attacks, the vandalism, the constant judgment, and the discrimination. Conservative freshmen arrive on this campus with the expectation that they will be challenged, and they should. As former HRC President Mark A. Isaacson ’11 pointed out last year, being challenged in intellectual dialogue can be an immensely rewarding experience. But such debate requires an initial respect for opposing viewpoints, which we have lost.
As a result of the culture that students and the administration have built at Harvard today, real intellectual discussions occur in increasingly isolated circles among blockmates and friends. Trust that should naturally exist between students and mentors requires time to build before students are willing to reveal their true beliefs. Debates do not occur or become increasingly one-sided, and those honest discussions that are supposed to lead to further enlightenment in seminars and in common rooms never occur. When conservative groups are driven from public debate and ROTC students are driven from the classroom, we all lose.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.