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Columns

An Argument for Argument: The Price of Conformity

By Carine M. Hajjar, Crimson Opinion Writer
Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Harvard, an international hub for intellectual debate … where no one disagrees.

This is the Harvard I have come to know, especially in the classroom. But, apparently, it wasn’t always this way.

A professor of mine recently remarked about how no one argues in section anymore, and asked us why we were so “well-behaved.” During her time at the College in the ’70s, arguing was the norm, she shared.

If being scared to speak up is conflated with being well-behaved then, hell, at least I seem polite.

Even the more liberal students in the class (I’m assuming by their prior comments, and the fact that they go to Harvard) couldn’t deny it. One of my peers remarked that students are probably scared of being canceled, and everyone in the class nodded along.

I chimed in, noting the nebulous “wokeness” that students feel beholden to. Especially in humanities courses, I often soften or withhold my contributions to class, worrying that they are not up to the woke standard of the day.

These standards fluctuate every day. No one can keep up with what’s “okay” to say.

In one class, a student scoffed in disbelief at criticism of the most recent stimulus bill, incredulous that it could be questioned in any way. The stimulus? Really? One of the most monumental spending bills of the decade should be able to be questioned and thoughtfully debated in an academic setting. But the Harvard standard is that, at least for now, it’s hands off the stimulus bill, no questions.

Herein lies the problem: There are topics, mostly around capitalism, race, identity, and free speech that students simply refuse to debate anymore — my peers think they don’t need to be argued. We can all be “well-behaved” because the woke standard is set, often sealed with the “lived experience” trump card. If you want to debate it, you are part of the problem.

Often we walk into sections wondering what the teaching fellows’ (and our peers’) threshold of wokeness is. It’s a guessing game. For instance, it would be risky to argue against defunding the police in the classroom (let alone outside of it). The implicit fear is that you’d present as someone who doesn’t care about racism, even if you deplore it. So you just wouldn’t argue.

It’s easier to be quiet than misconstrued.

These implicit understandings are the reason that argument culture is dead at Harvard. They are the reason that I preface all of my opinions in class with: “A theory I’ve heard is …”, “Hypothetically, what if …”, “Yeah I agree with that but I could see someone saying …”, “I’m not sure if this is reasonable but I’ve read that …”

In fact, most of my peers nod along as I talk about the ambiguity of wokeness and the fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s something that I believe most Havard students see as a problem.

Yet we continue to conform — and, perhaps, rightly so. The social cost is too great.

Students are reasonable to fear the repercussions of what they say in class. Take The Crimson Editorial Board’s staff-ed from last September: When the Harvard Law School adopted a non-attribution policy for its students online, the Board, of which I am a member, was concerned that the policy would allow students to “eschew accountability for their speech” — an unfounded concern.

“Harvard Law students are on the brink of holding enormous power in our society — they must know that they are responsible for their words,” it reads.

Well, kind of. Students should be held accountable for what they say. However, the problem is that Harvard has created a culture where acceptable conduct is an ever-moving target and there is little forgiveness when you miss the mark. If we truly want students who will have “enormous power” to be responsible leaders, they should feel comfortable expressing their opinions in an academic setting so that they may be corrected and refined when appropriate. Harvard’s culture of fear makes it so that students remain silent when they could be engaging in enormously meaningful conversations: conversations that could correct ignorances and future missteps.

More importantly, if we don’t have the chance to slip up in the classroom or ask the tough questions, how do we become thoughtful future leaders primed for real-world dilemmas? We have created an educational environment that only caters to a fictitious woke utopia.

So what’s the answer? We all know it’s a problem.

The simple, but difficult solution is to speak up with certainty and not to shy away from sharing our views. The more that we engage in those taboo conversations, the more we will inspire those around us to do the same. Remember, most students probably feel the same pressure to stay silent, and most probably find it unreasonable.

Of course, this is not also a free pass to spew hateful beliefs. But I would like to assume that most of my classmates have good intentions. Even if some of their opinions are flawed, I’d like to discuss them anyway: to understand them, learn from them, and most importantly, argue against them.

So argue. Replace the “Hypothetically, what if ...” with “I believe that …” or, even better, “That’s wrong, and here’s why.”

Argue respectfully, argue truthfully, and most importantly, argue with an open mind.

Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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