Hunting for Hate Speech

Gladden J. Pappin ’04 has claimed that homosexual behavior is “immoral,” “perverted” and “unnatural.” His opponents have now had over a month to devise a well-reasoned, substantive refutation to what is an obvious fallacy. A refutation, perhaps, along these lines: “Pappin’s puritanical obsessions are baseless because he condemns other people’s private, mutually consensual sexual activities, which have no bearing on his own well-being.” Pappin’s opponents, however, have not said anything even remotely close to this, but have instead demonstrated their own intolerance by labeling his letter “hate speech” and refusing to engage its content any further.

The label of “hate speech” inherently stifles debate. Those clamoring about hate and bigotry seek not to refute the substance of Pappin’s argument, but to erase it entirely from forums of academic discussion. Harvard students, as intelligent and discriminating as we are, do not require the guidance of supposedly “tolerant” campus groups like the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters’ Alliance (BGLTSA) and BGLTS advisers in order to discern what is valid argument and what is not.

The response to Pappin’s letter on campus, if indicative of our respect for minority opinions, has been frightening. Undergraduate Council member Joshua A. Barro ’05 called Pappin a “lonely idiot,” and Mather House BGLTS advisor Peter B. Green demanded that a University official reprimand Pappin for his opinions, arguing that it was time “for a real representative of the University to step in.”

This blatant call for the suppression of minority opinions resulted from a tutor-sponsored talk on “tolerance,” and Green’s eagerness to silence Pappin should cause us all to wonder just what sort of tolerance these decriers of hate speech have in mind. On the surface, Green and the other tutors who sponsored the meeting are advocating respect for people’s differences. But in reality, their disrespect for Pappin’s right to disagree with their vision of inclusiveness indicates a dangerous and corrupted definition of tolerance: respect only for opinions consistent with one’s own. It is precisely this construction of tolerance that makes liberals’ frequent calls for tolerance classes and sensitivity education so chilling.

The more interesting debate that emerges from Pappin’s letter, which called on administrators to enforce “moral decency” at Harvard, is whether morality is absolute and who should set moral standards at Harvard. If those who would ferret out “bigotry” from the darkest recesses of our community have their way, we will never have common ground for discussing morality. Liberal opponents of Pappin will doubtless claim that they are moral relativists, tolerant of all belief systems, but in fact these petulant liberals are just moral absolutists who want their own way. What frightens the legions of tolerance so much is Pappin’s vision of Harvard as a campus of moral absolutes where liberals don’t get to make the rules.

Members of the BGLTSA have also demonstrated their own refusal to engage the substance of Pappin’s argument. At a Dec. 11 meeting in response to the letter, they suggested that the letter was a sign of escalating “homophobia” at Harvard. To further draw attention to the problem of homophobia, on one of the most accepting and inclusive campuses in the United States no less, they distributed signs reading “BGLTQ Safe Space,” for the few courageous advocates of tolerance among us to display on our doors.

The true irony of the whole Pappin controversy is that, if the BGLTSA and our tolerant tutors were to take down the meaningless signs and go after the substance of Pappin’s letter, they would win. Pappin denounces homosexual acts as “perverted” in support of his larger point: that Harvard College should “act in loco parentis by upholding for us…a moral framework.”

Even if one believes that moral education belongs in the schools, rather than at home under the guidance of family, the obligation of educational institutions like Harvard diminishes once students are adults. We are already responsible for the choices we make, and as a result, Harvard’s role in our intellectual growth does not involve, as Pappin suggests, mandating our definitions of “moral decency.” By now, we should have arrived at those conclusions on our own.

Sadly, it’s not just Pappin, but the outraged crusaders against hate speech as well, who pessimistically assume we are morally deficient. In a letter to The Crimson calling for (what else?) “tolerance,” David M. Thompson, a Physics doctoral candidate, demanded: “How can we ensure that Harvard undergrads…graduate from this university with an appreciation for contemporary morality? In my fantasy, I envision a Core curriculum that includes a mandatory class on the basic issues of human rights and tolerance for others.”

In Thompson’s dark fantasy lurks the same suppression of dissent that tolerance classes usually promote. By suggesting that Pappin lacks “appreciation for contemporary morality,” we have to question what exactly Thompson’s definition of “appreciation” is. Since Thompson wrote in the throes of moral indignation that Pappin does not agree with him, “appreciation” clearly means conforming to Thompson’s own views on “contemporary morality,” lest one be labeled an intolerant bigot.

Arguments that are “hate speech” need no such label to be considered bad arguments. As members of an intellectual community, each of us already has the capacity to identify bigotry where it exists and to distinguish valid argument from hate. We don’t need outspoken proponents of “tolerance” to do it for us. What we do need is dissent from students like Pappin, who challenge us all to examine the limits of our inclusiveness and to question the bitter hypocrisy of whom we choose to tolerate and whom we choose to silence.

Luke Smith ’04, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator in Quincy House.