In Response to Dissenters Like “Winston Syme”: You’re Censoring Yourself

“A book [or a protest movement] must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” —  Franz Kafka

Recently, a Harvard Law student going by the pseudonym “Winston Syme” submitted a Letter to the Editor labeling Belinda Hall protesters “bullies.” This article is a response from the editor-in-chief.

 “Oh wow, I got into Harvard Law,” I said. “It’ll be such an exciting place—full of dynamic discussion and politically active students, the Ralph Naders and Barack Obamas of the world.” (At least, I’m sure I said something like that….)

I was naïve.

Upon starting law school, I found a place brimming with interesting people—yet they were largely repressing their interestingness. Why? Because, they were too scared to speak. To engage. To be real. The sentiment runs like this: “How will I ever be a judge unless I’m a legal automaton who keeps opinions to himself?!” Or, in the Reclaim Harvard Law context, like this: “Oh my God, what if someone calls me a name—worse, implies I’m a racist?!”

Oftentimes, these are the same people who complain of censorship. The students (like “Winston Syme” or the asses behind Royall Asses) who object to some or all of Reclaim’s demands, yet never openly voice their convictions. The ones who refuse to enter Belinda Hall because they feel frightened someone will disagree with them in a way that’s uncomfortable, demeaning, or that paints them as a “white oppressor” abstraction instead of a human being.

If you’re one of those students, cowering within yourself in disagreement, you’re doing yourself a disservice—not because you’re wrong, but because you’re depriving yourself of an opportunity to learn and grow.

This article is for you—the students who, alongside Winston Syme, sit in quiet or anonymous dissent. I’ll attempt to convince you that while you’re admittedly right about a small minority of activists when you fear stigmatization and shaming, you’re wrong about the vast majority—who have generally become extremely accommodating of dissent. I’ll attempt to convince you that what’s happening in Belinda Hall right now is a good thing, especially if you disagree with some of it or all of it.

Why? Because Reclaim Harvard Law is bringing life to this habitually-stuffy campus.

A flower’s penetrating the ice.

You can either join the flower or stay locked under the ice, remaining silent or speaking out only from the comfort of anonymity in the cowardly manner of Winston Syme.

Getting Personal: How Engagement Changed My Views

Over the past few months, largely due to my position as editor-in-chief, I’ve spoken with a spectrum of students about campus activism. I’ve been assaulted from both sides—as a “SJW” from conservative friends for supporting affirmative action and diversity training and the shield change, as a pretender to neutrality (I prefer the term “nuance”) by left-wing ones for calling out illiberal name-calling on the Left. Yet the net-result of engagement has been positive. For as a result, my opinion on certain issues has either (1) changed or (2) become more informed. As a result of that result, I’m a better person. I have more a more competent take on Harvard Law, a fuller understanding of events that don’t impact me personally but that affect others—especially African Americans—every day.

On some things, of course, my opinion has simply become more entrenched. Like anyone with a modicum of historical understanding, I’ve always accepted there’s racial injustice. Indeed, I’ve seen it outside the law school while working at a public defender’s office. (Watch assembly-line “justice” ensnare countless black men in criminal court and tell me there’s no racial inequity.)

Yet I was not previously aware of, or awakened to, the degree of racism on campus. Speaking with students about how that injustice manifests in the classroom has lent me an empathy and awareness I’d previously lacked. It’s made me realize that even if you think Reclaim Harvard Law’s prescription is nonsense, its diagnosis isn’t: Harvard Law isn’t immune from racism.

Listen to what activists are saying—really listen: It shouldn’t be difficult to sense the shame and indignity that comes from constantly having your intellectual worth questioned, from habitually facing the implication that “you must think X because you’re a person of color,” from sitting in a criminal law class in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement yet hearing nil about racial inequality. Being a minority at Harvard Law—like being a minority anywhere—is hard. Anyone acting in good faith, from a place of compassion, should want to ameliorate that sad fact.

And, Winston Syme, ameliorating racial injustice against minorities involves listening to—wait for it—minorities!

Listening to Reclaim protesters doesn’t require casting away all personal opinion; indeed, engagement has caused my opinions on some issues to solidify in directions that a lot of Reclaim protesters dislike. For instance, like fellow liberals Bill Maher and President Obama I still believe—personal experience confirmed it—that a small minority of campus protesters aren’t receptive to dissent, occasionally pigeonholing people who disagree even slightly—sometimes by misusing concepts such as white privilege or white fragility, other times by shaming dissenting minority students, still other times by questioning the motives of students who are even slightly critical.

Still, the sorts of protesters condemned by President Obama and Maher are not representative—especially with respect to Harvard Law’s protest movement.

The Cowardice of Winston Syme/Silent Dissenters versus the Bravery of Reclaim Harvard Law

Speaking of the “censorship” issue: Many conservatives tell me they fear being called racist—that they’re frightened of being pigeonholed or told that since they are white or male or cis or whatever their opinion doesn’t matter. Winston Syme is one such person.

Two points: (1) There is a hypocrisy in saying others are censoring you when, in effect, you are really censoring yourself due to a fear of being labeled racist. (2) Most of the time, acknowledged exceptions aside, when activists reference concepts like white privilege, it’s merely to suggest you lack crucial background perspective that could result in a more informed viewpoint—not to delegitimize your viewpoint. By equating all references to critical theory with censorship attempts, you leave the realm of good faith nuance and paint with not just a broad brush, but a paint roller. You become a Winston Syme.

Put differently, saying one might lack perspective is not the same as saying one lacks the right to speak. If you become a broken record on free expression or academic freedom, you’re actually doing an injustice to the free speech rights of protesters. You’re using free speech in the same way some activists use white privilege—to delegitimize and pigeonhole anyone who disagrees with you. Except, instead of pigeonholing them as an “ignorant white oppressor,” you’re pigeonholing them as a “free speech-hating ‘fascist.’” How productive, Winston Syme!

Vaclav Havel famously said he’d rather share a drink with someone who’s searching for the truth than with one who’s found it. Maybe. But sometimes, when two cocksure ideologues converse, they settle on a new truth that neither had previously gleaned. See, e.g., Hegel. Students like Winston imply they avoid Belinda Hall because they think everyone there has already made up their minds. Maybe. But if you’re avoiding Belinda, haven’t you already made up your mind about the protesters? Aren’t you, the accuser, exemplifying the same sin you ascribe the accused: Close-mindedness?

At the risk of sounding repetitive instead of nuanced: The quiet dissenters, the anonymous ones like Winston Syme who avoid Belinda Hall—assuming, with little evidence, that they will be treated badly—are committing the same sin they accuse activists of committing. They are pigeonholing an entire group because of the actions of a few. (For example, even if you disagree with the protests against Dean Minow, only five Harvard Law students interrupted her speech—hardly a majority of Reclaim sympathizers.)

And that brings me back to the point I used to begin this essay: Agree or disagree with Reclaim; at least they care enough about something to inject some life into this sometimes-deadening environment. To stand up and to say: “This is what I think.” To be “an axe for the frozen sea within us” all. And to do so without cloaking themselves in anonymity like Winston Syme.

That’s valuable.

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