Putting Absolutes In Context


CONSTRUCTING high-sounding moral arguments against the protesters who stopped an Adams House showing of Birth of a Nation Saturday night is an easy task, but not an especially fruitful one. These arguments depend upon appeals to moral absolutes--the right to free speech, the sanctity of art, the repressiveness of censorship.

These principles are crucially important, but they don't exist abstractly, only as they are applied in real life. To apply them properly, you have to think seriously about the specific situations in which they manifest themselves. A serious consideration of Saturday night's action suggests that it was poorly planned and poorly carried out--but not that it was reprehensible or outrageous for any abstract moral reason.

Birth of a Nation is a political movie, espousing political ideas--the incapacity of black people, and the consequent right of white ones to teach them their place--that remain influential today. A showing of such a movie is an appropriate time for mobilizing against these ideas and advocating ideas opposed to them. The potential of Saturday night's action needs to be judged in this context--not in an artificial isolation permitting it to be lumped with every action that has ever set an explicit limit on free expression.

SATURDAY NIGHT'S protesters did not silence D.W. Griffith, they did not prevent past and future showings of his films, they did not suppress racist ideas or ideas with which they disagreed. On the contrary, they said they'd welcome showings of Griffith's film in different, more avowedly controversial contexts, and on Monday afternoon they agreed to just such a showing. Even if the protesters' desire were to suppress Griffith's movie or ideas, they couldn't. It's silly to identify their action with official strong-arm tactics, or with other potentially dangerous attempts at dictatorial rule, because the contexts of the attempts are too different. Governments can mobilize enormous institutional force to repress dissent. Saturday night's protesters had comparatively minuscule power--although it may have seemed great for the moment, and they should have taken that into account in planning a disciplined and clearly nonviolent obstruction. And what power they had was directed at a generally prevailing orthodoxy.

That racist ideas do prevail among the orthodox--though they differ in important ways from those of Griffith's time--lies at the heart of any accurate criticism of Saturday night's action. The action was wrong not because it raised the issue of racism too forcefully, but because it didn't raise it forcefully enough--the demonstrators failed to present a meaningful discussion of racism at Harvard after they stopped the movie.


Even if the sole criterion for judging Saturday night's action were its impact on the free exchange of ideas, the failure to raise issues in a coherent way would still be the real criticism to be leveled at the demonstration. By forcing people to confront something important, the demonstration could have helped to break through the fabric of seeming acquiescence and apathy that enshrouds not just race-related questions here, but also most of the other issues regular discussion of which would signal the existence of truly free debate. For all its professed devotion to liberal ideals of full debate, Harvard does not foster a climate in which free discussion--at least of important Harvard political issues--flourishes.

FOR EXAMPLE, there has been far too little meaningful discussion of issues Saturday night's protesters should have addressed--the second-class status Harvard accords the Afro-American Studies Department, the astonishingly low black enrollment in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University's inability or unwillingness to implement a significant affirmative action plan. Harvard appoints committees to study issues like these. Sometimes--as in the exclusion of Ewart Guinier '33 from the committee planning the DuBois Institute--with dissenting voices screened out in advance.

The committees meet from time to time, they hold polite discussions among themselves and occasionally ask for some moderate student input, and they finally write reports or make recommendations, which the administration often refuses to make public. Harvard makes little attempt to involve the people most affected by its policies, or even--by acknowledging that its policies, really do affect people--to intensify the limited discussion it encourages. Instead, Harvard does its best to trivialize or obscure important issues, just as it dickers over the mechanics of Harvard-Radcliffe merger while its admissions and financial aid offices go on discriminating against women. Students dissatisfied with trivialized discussion have to create their own forums, and they sometimes have to act dramatically to make them viable.

That is what Saturday night's protesters almost did what they could have done if they'd prepared things better instead of just leading their supporters in meaningless victory chants. As it is, Saturday night's action represented bad planning and tactical mistakes, but it merits no substantive condemnation.

Crimson editorials, which run unsigned in the left-hand column of this page, represent the majority opinion of a meeting of the newspaper staff. Dissenting opinions expressed at meetings appear over their authors' names; other signed pieces express their authors' opinions.

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