Harvard Law Students, Allow Me to Say Something Controversial: You Might Be Wrong

Editor’s Note: There is a blurb at the end of this essay on steps the Record will take to improve the tenor of the ongoing discussion at the law school.

Over the last few days, I’ve struggled to come up with an article that captures my conflicting thoughts about what’s going on right now at Harvard Law School. I’ve been depressed that the maturity of an important discussion on group identity has utterly failed to meet even the low standard set by my family’s internecine Lebanese dinner parties. So initially I came up with four words instead, words that are apparently controversial here at Harvard Law School, but thatwhen applied to allfacilitate respectful debate: “You might be wrong.”

I wince to realize that saying even this might be controversial in our current climate, where everyone is only too eager to make sweeping assumptions about the motives of their classmates. Even now, some of you are reading this through the lens of assumptions about who I am; these assumptions are coloring your perceptions of my motives, which are in turn coloring your willingness to process my argument with empathy, or even fairness. It’s okay; I do the same thing. We’re only human. Still, as I sit wrapped in a blanket, pre-coffee, staring at my favorite JFK poster on conformity being “the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth,” I realize that the fear of speaking because one might be wrong is also a “jailer of freedom” and an “enemy of growth.” Ditto for the fear of speaking due to possible blowback.

So let’s get to business.

On the one hand, I agree that many “anti-Reclaim” students, some of whom I know personally, are using free speech as a red herring with which to oppose the movement. As a distraction. Yes, many care about free expression, deeply so, but some are engaging with the free expression concept at the expense of important racial justice issues that Reclaim has been discussing for weeks. I hope that you take the time to really listen to what Reclaim has been saying with regard to racism on campus. Why not hire more diverse faculty? Why not initiate effective diversity training for staff? Even if a critical race theory class isn’t mandatory (I don’t think it should be), why not expand opportunities for students to learn about racism’s close and troubling relationship with American law? I’ve had discussions with a lot of you over the past few days, and I still don’t know your answers. Why not? Engage me on this instead of just the free speech issue. Please.

The free speech issue is importantbut the other issues are too.

I also hope that many of you who are “anti-Reclaim” acknowledge an obvious truth: Your background affects how you see reality. This simple intuition is captured by sometimes-misused concepts like white privilege. The recognition that background biases information processing doesn’t mean you have to reduce yourself to a gender or race. You should not do that. It simply suggests that one can learn from a healthy awareness of personal bias, from realizing that personal context informs what we can see and what we can’t see. If someone responds to your argument by saying “you are a white male” and stops there, they are being narrow-minded and idiotic; but I promise you, most Reclaim activists don’t use the white privilege concept in that elementary, offensive manner. Emphasis on the word “most.”

So go talk to Reclaim in the lounge; you’ll see! Heck, you’ll see and you’ll learn! But please, when you go to the lounge to speak with activists, talk about more than free speech. For Reclaim has brought several other important issues to light. (Like the fact, too-often conveniently forgotten, that the law can legitimize bad things, horrible things … things like slavery. Things like discrimination. Things like differential incarceration. Law is not morality.)

On the other hand, despite my strong belief that the two “sides” are not morally equivalent and that Reclaim is right in its prescriptions to a much greater extent than the other “side,” I have been thoroughly depressed by some of the historically and philosophically myopic claims made by Reclaimin op-eds in this paper, on its Twitter account—that imply that free expression is “nothing but a shield used to protect ideas that contribute to harming the oppressed.” That is, simply, wrong. Freedom of expression is the liberal innovation that has perhaps contributed most to the emancipation of the oppressed throughout human history. Just ask abolitionists; just ask civil rights protestors; just ask heretics in Renaissance Europe like Giordano Bruno, burned alive by confident fools too afraid to admit they might be wrong. Ask modern agnostics and atheists in some Middle Eastern countries. Ask Socrates. There are people all over the world right now, especially in the Middle East, fighting for their right to express a view without incurring horrific consequences; what a precious right we have here in the West. We should work to protect it. We should celebrate it. We should not denigrate the right to free expression. 

Free expression protects more than hate speech. Indeed, Dean Minow’s opening of the lounge to protestors when she could have clamped down from the beginning was partly due to her considered recognition of free expression’s importance. I’m deeply concerned that some Harvard Law students want to condemn Socrates to death. Again. Out of a fear of opposing opinions. This is intolerance disguised as tolerance. Let me suggest that, with few exceptions, you should not support illiberal means in pursuit of liberal ends; for those means cheapen the ends.

This is the point where some of my friends will become angry with me. I’m not sorry. I’m very consistent in my view on free expression: A few weeks ago, I published a piece by A.J. Clayborne in this very paper that was critical of me. Why? Because, I recognized I could have been wrong in the piece he was responding to. Indeed, looking back now, with more knowledge and hindsight, I think I was a bit misguided. I’m glad I was able to learn from A.J. Henot Iwas right about some things. If I had censored A.J.’s piece simply because he said things that made me feel bad, I would have lost out. I would have negated an opportunity for personal growth. I would have injured not only A.J., but also myself.

I would rather learn than avoid discomfort.


To all of you, I suggest three things. (1) You might be wrong. Perhaps after reading this piece you are annoyed for one reason or another. Maybe you’re displeased due to simplistic, identity-based assumptions you’re making about my motives. Perhaps you’re saying “Mike just believes what he said because of his white male privilege” or perhaps you’re saying “Mike just believes what he said because he is a far-left Bernie supporter with Lebanese parents who hates conservatives and all that is good about America, including McDonalds!” (I love McDonalds.) Maybe these assumptions come from stereotypes or heuristics. Maybe not. Maybe you have excellent reasons for being displeased and are processing this article with System 2 rather than System 1. Whatever the case, since you might all be wrong on some things, take a moment to digest what I said before reflectively responding with instant opposition. It won’t kill you; it will make you a better person.

(2) I might be wrong. Heck, I might be wrong about the fact that I might be wrong! If you consider what I say, truly consider it, and still disagree, let’s grab coffee, beer, lunch, or some combination of the three and do something novel: Let’s talk.

(3) Whichever of us, dear reader, is wrong about these issues, I know one thing I’m not wrong about: Neither of us has all the answers.

Michael Shammas ’16 is the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Record.

A note on steps the Record will take to improve the tenor of the ongoing discussion:

Feel free to be as mean to me as you want. However, in full awareness that I am a lowly classmate, I encourage all of you to be nice to one another and to recognize that rather than representatives of warring ideologies, you are all humans with interesting perspectives, hopes, desires, biases, fears, etc. We’ve all got this one thing in commonour imperfect humanity in this imperfect world. Even A.J. Clayborne and Bill Barlow! 

Sure, humans love having a boogeyman to fight against. But given all we have in common, the negative human tendency to see each other as boogeymen rather than human beings should be discouraged. Strongly. As such, I encourage you all to refrain from taking any more videos of one another as our community engages in important discussions; as I said earlier, I suspect video-taping is counterproductive, for the health of the discussion, for our amazing school, and for the reputations and careers of students whom we should all care about.

Further: The Record is happy to host discussions that are productive and that truly contribute to an environment of learning and understanding. But our paper is not a sounding-board for people’s accusations, biases, hit pieces, personal vendettas, and so on. We have rejected multiple pieces by students who wished to remain anonymous because we believed that the pieces attacked members of our community in a way that should not be allowed absent an attached name. Thus, in the interests of improving the tenor of the discussion, the Record has decided to take the following steps:

(1) We will not publish anonymous pieces by individual students about Reclaim HLS. If you wish to write a piece, you must attach a name.

(2) Groups publishing pieces (related to this debate) must now publish the name of at least one person who is responsible for the piece. The HALT piece and the Reclaim piece published in the past week were put online before we finished formulating this policy. From this instant forward, even if the board of an organization submits a piece, there should be a name attached. If a group singles out individual students in a negative manner, then individual students should be responsible for what they are saying. We will not allow anyone to hide behind a group name.

(3) Some students have treated members of our staff, including editors, with unwarranted disrespect. From now on, in order to be published in our paper, respect for others you are interacting with will be a consideration. Again, be inconsiderate to me all you want; but our masthead is large and criticizing any single member for a collective decision we make is misguided and, more to the point, not a very nice thing to do. Please note that this point (like the others) is not directed to either “side” of the ongoing discussion. There has been disrespect coming in from a lot of places.

(4) In addition to not publishing videos taken of students without their consent, we will not publish photos taken of students without their consent. We are aware that other news organizations have chosen to publish both photos and videos; that’s fine. We are not those other news organizations; we’re a part of this community and we will treat fellow students like what they are: Community members.

Thank you all,