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Diverse Problems

By Eric M. Nelson

Aristotle urges us to remember that "one swallow does not make a summer," and this is surely sage advice. But perhaps we at Harvard will be forgiven for assuming that the Undergraduate Council President's appeal for "Diversity on the U.C." in last Tuesday's Crimson announces the beginning of a new year of ideological conflict in our student government.

Frequent readers of this column will recall that, during the nearly two years I have written it. I have never published an essay on the Undergraduate Council. The reason is simple: I have served on the council for the last two years, and have felt uneasy at the prospect of being a critic as well as a member. However, our President's recent submission to the newspaper and the fact that the council year has not yet started makes me less wary-so here goes.

Lamelle Rawlins and I, despite frequently finding ourselves on opposing sides of issues, have always enjoyed a pleasant working relationship. Yet, because she is the president of our undergraduate government, her remarks in print deserve critical scrutiny. In what follows, I hope to provide some.

"Diversity on the U.C.," insofar as it means having the largest number of candidates possible from all different backgrounds, should enjoy the support and encouragement of all right-thinking people. But, in her article, Rawlins goes farther than that. She writes, "Right now, most of Harvard's students-as women and as people of color-do not have adequate representation on the council." Her reason is not that the current representatives are irresponsible, or negligent, or even downright dumb. Rather, she justifies her claim by stating that "last year, white male undergraduates were doubly represented by their student government...white men made up 50 percent of the council, but only 25 percent of the student body." Therefore, students who were not white and male were "underrepresented."

The unfortunate implications of this argument stem from its basic, logical flaw. Rawlins's case employs a subtle equivocation on the word "represented;" that is, she uses it simultaneously to mean two different things. On the one hand, she uses "represented" to mean having someone present on the council who speaks for you, while, on the other hand, she uses it to mean having your group's demographic presence reflected proportionally in the actual make-up of the council. Rawlins then conflates the two in order to suggest that the first is impossible without the second. But, as a believer in representative democracy, I just have to say "it ain't so."

In this college, as in the country at large, someone is well represented if his or her views are ably advocated by his or her representative. Our elections exist to secure the best possible spokesperson for the interests of our houses and districts. But this entire arrangement rests upon the notion that a person can be effectively represented by someone different from him or herself. If that were not the case, then all 6,000 of us would have to sit in Harvard Hall 104 on Sunday nights-we're all different.

To argue that a Latino woman from Adams House cannot effectively advance the interests of the broader House community (i.e. including those who happen not to be Latino women) fundamentally undermines the principle of representation. Under that logic, older people cannot represent younger people, Jews cannot represent Christians, the sick cannot represent the healthy.

I suppose the only way to get rid of Rawlins's perceived problem of over and underrepresentation would be to simply take each of the College's genders and ethnic, racial and religious groups and assign them a number of seats on the Undergraduate Council proportional to their percentage of the population. Women would get, say, 40 seats, Asians would get 17, Muslims would get 5 seats, and Jews would get 15, including, of course, those female representatives who happened to also be Jewish-we want no double-dipping!

Harvard should not go down this path. We should vote for whomever we think will serve our community best, irrespective of whether that person is a he or a she, a musician or an athlete, a Christian or a Jew, a member of our own ethnic group or someone from a different background. Then we could have true representatives, along with the contentment that comes from doing right.

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