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The Double-Edged Sword of Social Justice

By Luke T. Atkins
Luke T. Atkins is in his second year at the Harvard Extension School.

There are two types of social justice. The first one is real, palpable, peaceful change instituted for the benefit of marginalized groups and causes. Therein we find #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, BGLTQ rights, Kaepernick kneeling for the anthem to protest police brutality, Greta Thunberg raising climate change awareness, and so on. The other type is nefarious. It is self-serving and, ironically, unjust. It keeps us from transcending the very barriers that proponents of social justice aspire to overcome. And it manifests in many forms.

It’s when people bully and ostracize others under the guise of protecting minority groups. It’s when people actively look for ways to misconstrue a person’s words or actions, demean them, galvanize the masses, and hence promote their own interests (attention, retweets, etc.). It’s when people create a rhetorical peanut gallery of frivolous dialogue while clandestine, truly harmful policies pass with little scrutiny. It’s one of mob mentality. Here at Harvard, we see this latter form as much as the former. And if we are committed to equal rights, we need to change that.

A prime example is last year’s decision not to renew Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. as a faculty dean. Students actively rallied, demonized him, and demanded that Harvard fire him. Why? All Sullivan did was get hired to defend someone in a court of law. This country is founded upon certain prescribed freedoms — one is the right to a lawyer, as well as a fair trial. Nothing like this happened when Harvard Law School’s Professor Emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz represented O.J. Simpson, accused of double murder, in his trial, nor when he was recently hired to represent Donald Trump in his impeachment. Yet when Sullivan represented Harvey Weinstein, social justice advocates promulgated a double standard, going mad over his decision. Moreover, John Adams himself, a chief intellectual behind the founding of the United States, set a bold precedent in representing British troops after the Boston Massacre. It was an enlightened one, as it ensured the protection of individuals in all cases — publicly perceived to be guilty or not. We can’t suddenly abandon these ideals of benevolence and equal rights; it is contrary to the intent of social justice.

A more widespread form of fake social justice — on- and off-campus — is the culture of political correctness. PC culture is something that must be done away with. It hinders free speech, conjures controversy out of things that shouldn’t be controversial (e.g., most comedy), and stifles people from challenging one another when they subject themselves to perpetual “safe spaces.” Holocaust deniers are, even as absurd as their beliefs prove, protected with free speech and a right to assemble. But when a comedian makes a petty joke, people often look to take offense to it so they can try to “cancel” that comedian’s career. A recent example of cancel culture in the Harvard area is when conservative commentator and writer Ben Shapiro gave a speech at Boston University. Protestors met this with vengeance; they tried to “cancel” it, just because they disagreed with him. I’m no fan of Shapiro, but I can’t stop him simply because he “offends” me. Legally, I can protest his free speech, but that doesn’t mean I should; he spreads his message peacefully, with ostensibly benevolent intentions.

Granted, if someone is making threats or causing harm, it totally makes sense why one would want to address such a problem to protect powerless or otherwise marginalized people. But, in general, we can’t simply bully people with whom we disagree; sometimes, they just haven’t been properly exposed to enough culture and education to rid themselves of stereotypes. Attacking people won’t change their minds. What can change people is empathy, shared experience, and demonstration that we’re more alike than we think.

When someone is being racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic, don’t meet it with hate. That’s just reciprocal prejudice. Meet them with an open heart; show why you disagree with their views in a constructive way. Show that we’re all human — with the same fears, joys, frustrations, tastes, and hobbies. We even have the same memes. It may not work, but you’ll serve society more than you would by meeting ignorance with organized hate or ostracization. If you hear students’ classroom discussions here at Harvard, see what’s on social media, or notice campus rhetoric, you will see that there is a degree of intolerance for conservatives, Christians, Republicans, and others of minority political and religious stances. This is antithetical to liberalism and multiculturalism, which are all-inclusive concepts. I dream of a world wherein everyone has the same platforms and privileges to express themselves and live in a truly egalitarian world. To quote Evelyn B. Hall’s summary of Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” So don’t be judgmental, quick to conclusions, or hateful. Be respectful, empathetic, open to interpretation, and constructive.

Luke T. Atkins is in his second year at the Harvard Extension School.

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