On dissent


I once sat in an English seminar at Harvard College and listened to my professor spend a full fifteen minutes arguing that anyone who could support President Bush must be a “fascist,” that people in “red states” are probably too “ignorant” to know any better, and implying that all conservatives must be racists and homophobes. This was not part of a discussion – no one was offered a chance to respond; indeed, it was assumed that no one could possibly disagree. Nor was this diatribe even marginally related to our poetic subject of the day. I tell this story not to whine about being marginalized as a conservative in the Ivy League – that topic has been so overdone it bores even me by now. However, I can’t help but think that the vast majority of the faculty that met on Tuesday claiming a “crisis in confidence” over Larry Summers’ comment on women in the sciences would have found my English prof’s litany of cheap shots entirely acceptable. In fact, I’m sure many of them would have lauded his “courage” in being a “voice of dissent.” I know this because, now in my seventh year at Fair Harvard, I’ve heard many of them make similar comments in similar circumstances.

As a female conservative thinker, I have to say that I felt more “intimidated” to be the sole representative of an ideological minority being called fascist, stupid, and racist by the man who would be grading my papers on Auden – without any room for rebuttal even if I had had the courage to make it – than by Summers’ reference, before a room full of powerful faculty, to legitimate research suggesting that if men learn differently from (not even better than) women, it might be one of many reasons for the gender disparity in the sciences. For the record, I don’t think either man should have said what he did: my English professor because he was using a position of power to silence debate by way of un-nuanced insult, and Summers because, as President of the University, part of his job description is to unify, and the remark was sure to create division. (My very wise friend reminded me of the speech at our undergraduate commencement entitled “American Jihad,” to which I objected not because of its actual content or message, but because the mere associations of the word jihad, whatever its real meaning in context, were enough to pain those graduating who might have just lost loved ones the preceding fall, on September 11. However true or false Summers’ point, I’m willing to admit that his position made the context equally inappropriate.)

Nonetheless, I have learned from my years at Harvard that scholarly life will often present me with views I disagree with, views that often offend me to my moral core. I am offended when professors refer to the murder of Israeli schoolchildren as “resistance.” I am offended when told that I support the equivalent to rape by opposing partial-birth abortions. I am offended by those who belittle the men, younger than myself, who die far from home fighting the Taliban. And, often, I am offended by those fellow conservatives who say they believe homosexuality is some kind of moral aberration. Yet never would it occur to me to seek a faculty member’s removal from office for such offenses. Nor would I, like MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, flee the room for fear of becoming “physically ill.” (I would certainly have missed an awful lot of classes if I chose that tactic – Professor Hopkins must have the good fortune to rarely encounter opinions she disagrees with!) If the mere exposure to a world-view that differs from their own is enough to “intimidate” tenured faculty at the best universities in the world, I think less of them. And if our faculty moves to seek Summers’ removal I will, in a way, think less of myself. I have always accepted moral offense as a byproduct of free discourse at this university. I have been critical of the contexts in which it has been offered, and the faculty-student power dynamics often involved. I have strenuously debated the substance of that which offends me, perhaps causing reciprocal offense in so doing. Yet never, out of anger or, yes, intimidation, have I desired the censorship of those I disagree with. If this commitment proves meaningless after all, then I have been a fool for believing in it. But we will all, I think, be diminished by its loss.

Erin Sheley is a 2L.