Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. '53 is the focus of yet another controversy at Harvard. That's certainly nothing new. What was new, fortunately, was the campus reaction.
Last week, Mansfield testified at the Denver trial of the Colorado state constitution's Amendment Two, the law that prevents Colorado cities from enacting gay rights statutes. We believe this law is discriminatory, and should be repealed.
As a conservative scholar of the Constitution, Mansfield was called to defend the law. Under cross-examination, he decreed that homosexuality was "shameful" and that gays and lesbians "eventually undermine civilization."
Mansfield statements made many people angry--and hurt. It's not surprising; Mansfield seemed to be living up to his reputation for contentiousness. After all, this is the man who last spring attributed Harvard's grade inflation to affirmative action and, a year earlier, called women's studies a "little ladies' sewing circle."
During campus controversies, especially those involving Mansfield, we often find ourselves urging student group to respect others' right to free speech--even if that speech is hurtful. In an open community, we must have open discussion. The beauty of free speech is that the longer erroneous views are discussed, the more their errors become apparent.
Thankfully, the student group most directly affected by Mansfield's most recent statements has proven that it understands the value of free speech.
The College's Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Association was outraged by Mansfield's testimony and his later, similar comments to The Crimson. The group mobilized to counter Mansfield's views. But besides the meetings and posters, the BGLSA offered something that is too often missing during campus debates: a sincere defense of Mansfield's freedom of speech and, even more importantly, an invitation for him to discuss the issue.
In a letter to The Crimson, the BGLSA staunchly defended Mansfield's right to speak: "Professor Mansfield has a right to his opinions, and he is entitled to exercise his right to free speech--no matter how controversial, offensive, or simply incorrect his speech may be." As a gesture of civility, the group has even invited Mansfield to a tea to discuss his views.
In this specific instance, the BGLSA has provided a model for handling disturbing and potentially contentious controversies. Its moves enhance the prospects for open discussion rather than choking the discourse with hostile exchanges.
The BGLSA's reaction is especially inspiring when one considers the nature of Mansfield's claims. This time, Mansfield was not merely questioning the legitimacy of someone's grades; rather, he was questioning the very legitimacy of a group's existence within society.
In its letter to The Crimson, the BGLSA questions Mansfield's evidence, not his right to his opinions: "On what basis is Mansfield qualified to make sweeping generalizations about the sex lives of bisexuals, gays, and lesbians?" Instead of merely denouncing Mansfield for thinking improperly, BGLSA members call on him to defend his views with serious scholarship.
We agree with the BGLSA in questioning the validity of Mansfield's statements. Despite what many Americans may think, despite what Mansfield thinks, we think an individual's value to society is not determined by his or her desire to procreate.
The BGLSA should make that point loud and clear. To the degree that homosexuals feel ashamed or unhappy, as Mansfield suggests, it likely has something to do with the persecution that they suffer and continue to suffer.
We hope that this time, Mansfield will display the responsibility to substantiate his controversial claims, and to engage in further discussions with the BGLSA. We hope, too, that other campus groups will follow the BGLSA's example, by countering hurtful claims with rational discourse. We cannot expect the Harvey Mansfields of the world to change their views; we can, and should, ask them to explain.