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Harvard is praised by many for its high academic caliber, yet it, like so many other universities, has become a breeding ground for a movement of coddling students. Harvard is now a place where administrators host a contest to change an alma mater song to make it more inclusive and student protesters hold up signs that read “Fight Transphobia” during a free speech event because they claimed that the speaker incites violence.
These kinds of responses remind us that one of the oldest, most prestigious universities in the United States no longer fosters free expression, and instead embraces a culture saturated with impositions that supposedly protect marginalized groups. Political correctness sympathizers may mean well, but their activities have the opposite effect. They are depriving minorities from exposure to different thoughts and opinions, which are crucial to our intellectual development in higher education.
PC crusaders often use tactics that shut down and silence those who speak of anything they deem oppressive. This includes Education Secretary Betsy DeVos being booed as she gave the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University’s graduation ceremony and students heckling New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as he spoke at Brown University.
It is difficult to determine how PC culture came about and why it gained popular traction across the nation, but what we do know is that PC sympathizers are motivated to protect minority identities, including race, gender, and sexual orientation. However, it’s condescending to assume that minorities can’t think for themselves and are in constant need of others to shield them from harm.
Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto professor, is known for condemning gender fluidity and calling for the end of all Women and Gender Studies programs. He was invited by the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative, dubbed the “free speech club,” to lecture on PC culture. During his talk, he said, “being a member of a group doesn’t mean you speak on behalf of the rest of the group.” And he’s right. Even though minorities often band together and fight for the same cause, it does not mean that all members of said minority are automatically in favor of it.
I share the same LGBT demographic with the protesters that stood and held up “Fight Transphobia” signs, but they do not speak for me—especially as they infringe upon free speech and expression. Being part of a protected class does not give us the privilege or right to shut down speech just because we do not like what we hear. As a demographic whose cause is founded on tolerance and acceptance, we are hypocritical for supporting PC culture.
What the protesters are actually doing is selfish. They are pushing their own agenda in hopes of preventing people, including a female minority like me, from being exposed to differing opinions that challenge them to think critically. Furthermore, the fact that they—and many other college protesters—equate speech with violence is concerning, since this logic can easily be used to excuse tactics that encroach on people’s free speech.
This is not theoretical. It has happened at many other universities. For instance, following the release of then-Yale professor Erika Christakis’ open letter about tolerance, her husband Dr. Nicholas Christakis held an open forum at the school in order to engage with students about free speech. He was met with shouts. “Be quiet!,” one student yelled, “It’s not about creating an intellectual space. It’s about creating a home here!” Everyone has the right to express their views, but to prevent others from speaking their mind or to shout them down is unacceptable.
I came to Harvard to learn from world-renowned scholars and interact with the world’s brightest students. Like other universities, Harvard’s purpose is ostensibly to foster an environment that nurtures civil discourse and tolerance. But how is this possible when Harvard is more concerned about their students’ emotional well-being than fostering intellectual growth?
During the fall of 2015, a group of students called Royall Must Fall felt that the Harvard Law School seal, which bears three bushels of wheat, created an unwelcoming environment. They demanded that administrators to change it, since the seal used “imagery from a slaveholder era.” Indeed it does, but the seal is in no way oppressing a marginalized group. It is part of history. As visiting Law School professor Daniel R. Coquillette said, “to change things is to act like [they] didn’t happen, and that’s a mistake.” Royall Must Fall won the censorship battle, and the Law School has already removed all traces of the seal from its website, social media, and campus.
It is through the voluntary exchange of ideas that we can better ourselves personally and intellectually. To achieve this, we must lay down our emotional guards and open ourselves up to ideas that challenge us. After all, the point of pursuing higher education is to learn as much as we can from others, and tolerate ideas that conflict with ours. That is the beauty of learning and tolerance. Our society would not have progressed this far without sharing, critiquing, and appreciating each other’s thoughts and opinions. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of that at Harvard and in higher education more generally.
Natalie Bao Tram Le is a masters student at the Harvard Extension School and a member of Students For Liberty.
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