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Gawking at the Ivory Tower

By Silpa Kovvali

Keeping her mouth shut isn’t something Stephanie Grace does particularly well. If it were, she almost certainly wouldn’t have found herself on the Harvard Law Review or graduating from law school to a federal clerkship. She also wouldn’t have found her picture on Gawker, a page I refresh several times a day, next to the headline “Meet Stephanie Grace, the Harvard Law Student Who Started a Racist Email War.” Last November, Grace apparently got into a debate of sorts over dinner and followed up via e-mail. Later, she expressed regret over the message, remarking: “I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.”

While I generally find myself squarely in the Gawker camp, I couldn’t help but cringe when I read their vitriolic take down of the 3L. Before even identifying her, the site playfully asked its readership, “Don’t you love it when the Ivory Tower crumbles?” After discovering her identity, Gawker revealed to an audience of 16 million the young woman’s name and academic history alongside her photograph, later proclaiming, “Let’s all look at this horrible Harvard Law Racist Emailer, who will never drink and Gmail ever again.” It’s entirely possible that I simply don’t want to watch the Tower crumble while I’m still in it, since as Maureen O’Connor of Gawker wrote, “It seems like the word ‘outing’ only comes up when the subject is a person that an upper-middle-class, educated blogger would consider a peer.”

But I think there’s more at work behind my distaste, summed up fairly well by one commenter who remarked, “There is disturbing, sadistic titillation in this.” The problem is that we’ve all seen this before. And it’s generally coming from the other side. Sarah Palin once argued that not attending an Ivy League school made her a qualified vice-presidential candidate. That’s right, the same Sarah Palin regarded with derision by Gawker for her derision of liberal elitism. Bill O’Reilly frequently attempts to distance himself from his Harvard degree, and Gawker was right there cheering Jon Stewart on when he called him out for this hypocrisy. But Gawker can’t have it both ways, denouncing Ivy League-bashing when it’s coming from an unpopular figure and then taking a sick pleasure in it to up their page views.

Gawker was quick to defend itself from these scoldings, claiming “Why did your brain go there? Because you’re an eensy bit racist, is why. In 2010 these people’s rocks should be overturned, because they’re jerks and sometimes public shaming is just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully next time she’ll think before she wonders if, and that’s a big IF guyz!!!, black folks might just be born stupider.”

If you’d asked me, before I arrived at Harvard, whether I were a racist, sexist, or a homophobe, I would have firmly denied all these charges. But during the past four years of my life I’ve adopted radically different views on affirmative action, I’ve realized that societal constructions such as virginity and promiscuity are outdated and harmful, and I’ve tempered previously held notions of heteronormativity. Apparently, I was a little of all three. When we immediately jump to shame into submission those who express views we deem racist, we reinforce a binary in which people are either prejudiced or not. But that’s simply not how “isms” work. None of us have been raised in a post-racial or post-gender society, and this has had an impact on our worldviews.

Which is precisely why it’s so important to have these conversations. When we encourage people to keep possibly prejudiced views to themselves, they never have to confront or defend them. I express such remorse about this loss because, if there has been an overarching theme to my time at Harvard, it’s that when you put two people in a room who disagree, wonderful things can happen. If there’s been a theme to my last week at Harvard, it’s that, apparently, if you put a tape recorder in that room then somebody’s going to get the shaft. Next time you’re about to get into that debate over that e-mail list, aren’t you going to think twice?

Most dangerous of all, this attitude turns those who hold biased views into victims of a politically correct culture in which they can’t express themselves, and so never get a chance to learn from a thoughtful response. All of a sudden, television networks are reminiscing about the good old days instead of focusing on real issues like the achievement gap between white and black youth, and who’s better off? Nobody has really changed their mind. All Stephanie Grace learned was that if you venture an opinion in an e-mail to a friend, the Dean of Harvard Law School might publicly denounce you. So maybe the Ivory Tower is crumbling after all.

Silpa Kovvali ’10 is a computer science concentrator in Eliot House.

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