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Columns

Can Objectivity Exist at Harvard?

By Jessenia N. Class and Robert Miranda, Crimson Opinion Writers
Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House. Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.

These days, it’s all about quick takes. Opinions are formed and expressed all across campus at a fever pitch, especially in an environment as newsworthy as Harvard. Each time a new, even mildly controversial article appears, an equal and opposite Twitter thread or group chat emerges almost instantaneously, quick to critique and condemn. While sometimes the topic in question appears to lend itself to a simple judgement, too often students are quick to rush to opine without knowing all the facts. Opinions are made on the basis of a single headline without even thinking about the larger story and editorial decisions behind them. It is nothing less than a cancel culture, hell-bent on swallowing ledes and handing down verdicts without appeal.

Part of this is because of our campus. The many ambitious students — otherwise known as future “citizen-leaders” — who form our community tend to come down hard on an issue, often to display the depths of their knowledge, perspective, or subjectivity. This is not to say that these opinions are not valuable on our campus. (It would be blasphemous for us to even think so, and write it in an opinion piece, no less.) This desire also isn’t absolute: It does not happen with every student, or on every issue. But it’s important to see what this opinion-based pressure implies: a lack of objectivity within our campus.

It’s sad to say, but it’s nearly impossible to be objective at Harvard. All too often, it seems many students don’t often consider the values of being objective and neutral in reading an article or considering an opinion. There are many possible reasons for this. We might feel pressure to make our opinions performative to conform to expectations. We may fear tone-policing or wish to avoid the shame of holding an unpopular or marginalized opinion. Perhaps most likely — and most dangerously — we’re simply unwilling to engage with the time-consuming process of reviewing all the facts of a given story and subsequently coming up with a well-thought-out opinion.

The effects of this constant pressure to be subjective are troubling. Stories abound of our peers fearing others’ reactions to their viewpoints, or buckling to pressure for fear that they be judged or critiqued. Stories of an echo-chamber reverberate, and promise to suffocate.

When we feel a knee-jerk reaction to stand with or for a cause, we lack the important step of approaching incidents with the objectivity they need. There is certainly value in being able to quickly read an article, dissect it, analyze its claims, and weigh its pros and cons. But we feel most students don’t do this. Instead of looking at something with an open mind, we tend to rush to the nearest possible conclusion that fits our preexisting conception of what our world is, or should be.

This is risky, because it skips so many critical steps in between for the sake of immediate gratification of having said something. Fact-checking, dialogue, and debate are incredibly important; these tenets of sound opinion-making cannot be cast aside in favor of superficial and trendy soundbites. News stories, facts, and events must be approached with objectivity and an eye for the facts for us to then construct our opinion on. Calling things out to call them out undermines the severity of such charges. When we speculate on values and intentions, when we say something is racist, sexist, prejudiced, or bigoted, these words must be deeply considered. The cost of these statements are too high to make, especially if they are made on the basis of quickly skimming an article.

Harvard in some ways recognizes this critical attention to opinion-making falling out of favor. The Dean of Students’ Office recently rolled out a policy for extracurricular organizations at the College, requiring a moderator to be present when hosting “controversial speakers.” These moderators are even given the power to shut down events under certain circumstances. Yet, even these policies are fashioned from the wrong intention. These policies prioritize damage control over dialogue; image over ideals; and convey a lack of trust for students here to figure out for themselves the best way to disagree and form their opinions.

Is this lack of trust wrong? We hope so.

This University’s values show a desire to challenge its students, to help them grow and learn in the light of higher education. But it doesn’t seem that’s the case with this new policy. Instead of allowing students to form environments where the opportunity for substantive debate is at least possible, this moderation policy almost certainly will stifle that.

We firmly believe in the importance of holding debate and forming opinions, however controversial or marginal they may be. But as counterintuitive as it may be, the only way to form a nuanced, subjective view is to embrace a sense of objectivity.

Of course, this isn’t the easiest metric for one to hold themselves to. But we believe it’s more important than ever, especially in an age of “fake news” and “cancel culture,” for our world’s future “citizen-leaders” to hold themselves to task and look at the facts, openly and honestly, before rushing to judgement. Otherwise, we will only cancel out more and more until there’s little left.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House. Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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