I earned a certificate in philosophy and ethics from Harvard University Extension in the last couple years. So I am on the campus-wide mailing list. I received a slightly odd email the other day, and it reflects on issues such as elite colleges and universities, political correctness, hate, homogeny and heterogeneity, character, personal development, life lessons, and what the real world is like.
In the email, the dean writes:
“Dear members of the [Harvard College] community: Yesterday, a member of our faculty returned to her office in the company of graduate students to find a note tacked to her door bearing hateful and obscene language that insulted her ethnicity and immigrant status, challenged her right to be at Harvard, and wished her ill. FAS colleagues and members of the Harvard University Police Department were present during the day to provide support, and a formal inquiry into this matter is now underway.
We write to you now to state unequivocally that we condemn this hateful act and all forms of hate speech, and that we will answer attacks on members of our community with every resource at our disposal.
Attacks of this kind are both personally damaging for those who experience them and an assault on our faculty’s fundamental commitments to academic excellence. Acts of bigotry and malice harm us all because they corrode the trust and respect that is essential to the open exchange of ideas. Those who commit acts of hate seek to disrupt our academic mission. As faculty, students, and staff, we all have a stake in ensuring that this is an educational community that lives the values of tolerance, civility, and inclusion that are essential to our work.
This has been a very difficult 24 hours for this faculty member and the local department. As we all find ways to support one another and to recommit ourselves to the values that define who we are as a community, we would ask that we do so in a way that is mindful of the need for privacy of those directly impacted.”
My thoughts are, if I were the visiting faculty member (or whatever this person’s role is), I would feel offended and hurt. Absolutely. I may call the police, but probably not, because hate speech is odious but not particularly threatening. I don’t think it is a crime, actually. I think it is protected by freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
I replied to the email, fully expecting it to be unread: “Let’s keep everything in perspective. Don’t create a bunch of ‘safe spaces’ into which the mentally fragile students can take refuge. Just work it through and move forward. This country is populated with 33% absolute jerks, and you’re going to get one or two dozen at Harvard! May this be training for how the real world works, with all its natural and man-made disasters.”
So, breaking that down: have you heard of a thing called “safe spaces” on campuses? It’s pretty looney. Basically, for the emotionally fragile students who are from the “I’m special and the world is supposed to be my goddamned oyster, so don’t create waves for me! I’m trying to study economics so I can go work for Goldman Sachs (or alternatively, I’m studying post-modernistic critiques of LGBTQ sociological constructs and I want to work for a non-profit in San Francisco and live in a live-work loft above a free range coffee house and walk to work)” crowd.
I think that there is a generation now of folks who expect that offense is to be found everywhere, and that “micro-aggressions” and “white privilege” and “conservative bias” are the most critical issues in the world. I am thinking of someone like Marie Antoinette from centuries-past, eating cream puffs in her parlor while a salon is about to take place, live classical music playing, while her two miniature poodles wait patiently for hand-outs. Both she and some of these students that conservatives lambast as “snowflakes” (due to their fragility and self-perceived specialness) have in common the fact that they just don’t have the character to live in the real world.
This generation and maybe the one before it grew up with the proverbial idea that self-esteem is priority #1, that they have privileges because of their very nature, and that they deserve a trophy for simply participating (in a sport, a competition, or what have you). It’s kind of the opposite of a meritocracy, because in a contest where everyone gets to feel like a winner just for playing, it obviously won’t separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. It will not create a natural winnowing process where those who are more talented, work harder, and have better luck will succeed to a greater degree than the lesser-able individuals.
But it is also kind of a perversion of a meritocracy because this is also a time when money, family status, and other factors (sometimes whiteness and maleness and straightness, but also sometimes being non-white, female, and LGBTQ, paradoxically) do confer a kind of advantage. Think of the recent college admissions cheating scandal. If you think that a kid who attends the University of Southern California under a water polo scholarship because his parents donated all kinds of money to the right person and to the University (and whose kid doesn’t even play the goddamned sport!) isn’t privileged, you’re kidding yourself. It’s the epitome of privilege, which means there is no true merit to the individual in question.
It is the opposite of merit when ten players in a sport get ten trophies, all for Participation and none for Winning, and a perversion of merit when one can game the system either because they are a member of a privileged family (wealth, connections) or class(females and African Americans who don’t fully qualify for a given occupation qualifying under lower standards, for example).
America should be a meritocracy, and the rules should be completely fair. Some folks will be disadvantaged, because this is the real world. They can have some special compensating factors bestowed upon them by the system in question, but it is going to be fraught with difficulty by its very nature. Clearly, the rules aren’t completely fair if everyone wins in a competition and if money buys access. This is one reason why tuition-free junior college and state college is a wonderful idea: it’s impactful for students in the lower social classes, it doesn’t really disadvantage those in the upper social class, and it’s very broad-based, almost blind.
Donald Trump was made a millionaire by the age of 8, and as you can see, that didn’t turn out that well. Money spoils people who grow up with it almost as a rule. I know that my nieces and nephew are endangered and disadvantaged as they grow up: one, they don’t have vaccines to protect them from significant communicable diseases, but also, they are learning that because their mom, my sister, games the system and claims that they have medical conditions that prohibit the taking of vaccines, they are special. The rules don’t apply to them. Money buys favors. They are superior. Mom will always help them.
These are handicaps for my nieces and nephews to the degree that this country operates as a meritocracy. To the degree that America is not meritocratic – indeed, that money, whiteness, an elite education, good looks, and family connections do get them out of various situations and provide certain special advantages – then those anti-meritocratic advantages they are seeing as they grow up will both advantage them, and disadvantage them. Their immune systems and their character will be less robust than they would have been if nature had more power in dictating who they became. Scars make the flesh tougher, in fact.
Sophia McClennen writes this: “As with millennials, the common practice has been to describe these stressed-out kids as snowflakes who have been ruined by helicopter parents, smartphones, and an outrageous sense of entitlement. The fix, as this logic goes, is for these kids to just suck it up, grow thicker skin and stop whining all the time.
This attitude, of course, is super convenient for older generations who don’t want to take seriously the idea that they may bear some responsibility for the stressful environment facing young college kids, one where their futures feel precarious and pressured. It is much easier to think that the problem is them, not the system they live in.”
She is referring to some interesting and legitimate stressors that aren’t about being weak, entitled, or emotionally fragile in an article aptly titled, “Why Are Students So Stressed Out? It’s Not Because They Are ‘Snowflakes”
Overall, I lament that life is so hard for young people, students, old people – basically anyone who isn’t privileged. There are a lot of overweight, undereducated, unlucky, foolish, petty, ignorant, and entitled people in this country, young and old. Even the rich have “rich people problems” and those hurt, too. “No one gets out of here alive,” it is said, and we all face problems. “Shit happens” bumper stickers exist for a reason.
We are experiencing some pretty serious problems in society, and in the world. Some feel we are simply “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” in fact. It seems a bit rich to make such a huge deal out of one, hateful note. Do the administrators of Harvard not want the students to learn that the real world is a tough place? Do they not want them to ever get a bloody nose? Bloody noses hurt, but you recover. If you grow up always wearing a helmet and with daddy and mommy saving you from bruises, eventually, like Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, and Stephen Semprevivo, you learn that you’re not above the law, that your shit does in fact stink, and that justice is going to find its way to your doorstep. I’m not saying that kids should be subjected to bullying, some kind of Spartan training regimen, and allowed to lay around for hours in wet, dirty diapers. That won’t raise a strong and healthy person as much as it will defeat their little spirits. You can’t subject a sapling to intense pressure and threat, but you ought not to keep a sapling in a glass jar for the first year, either.
How do saplings grow into redwood trees? It takes time. Storms are going to come and go. Droughts, fires, human encroachment. Only the best, the strongest, and the luckiest make it to full height, where they can compete against other trees for precious sunlight. But in so doing, such meritorious trees develop strength enough to hold up a school bus in its thick branches.
Let’s take the serious things in society seriously, and let the less important ones register much lower on our Offense-O-Meter. Philosopher Lou Marinoff notes: “Some of the most politically incorrect people on the planet, such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, are staples of late-night TV. Enjoying the temporary immunity of the court jester, their job is to good-naturedly butcher everybody’s sacred cows. But you’d better not repeat any of their jokes on the job or in the classroom, in case someone takes ‘offense’ today at something millions of viewers laughed at yesterday.”
No, I would say that the Administrators of Harvard should not be creating any safe spaces to protect against these kinds of “micro-aggressions” by mean white kids. They should ideally note that a student said something crass, and that it’s not how Harvard boys and girls are supposed to behave. But, counteract that with a positive learning environment and other “psycho-social-emotional-spiritual-nurturing” factors. It could fairly be noted that America is a tough place, and many fail and suffer unnecessarily and immeasurably. We are on the precipice of morphing all the way into an autocracy, even as we have lived under a veritable oligarchy for all these years. We are two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. The seas are rising. The debt is rising faster.
No, calling a teacher a spik or a camel jockey doesn’t qualify as a reason to get the police involved to “provide support.” That makes Harvard look pathetically weak and a haven for the privileged and the artificially-advantaged. “Political correctness is the idea that assumes that the worst thing we can do is offend somebody,” said actor Alfred Molina. There is a difference between political correctness and clearly offensive or hateful speech. But they both involve mere words, not discrimination, damage, or the like. Ever heard “Sticks and stones…” The teacher could have crumpled the note, thought “Wow some folks, even at Harvard, were raised so poorly. That guy must be living a small, benighted little existence” and moved on. It didn’t need to make her cry, lead to police involvement, or keep her awake at night.
Sociologist Douglas S. Massey believes that “under the banner of postmodernism, deconstructionism, critical theory, or more popularly, ‘political correctness,’ what has become known as ‘the academic cultural left’ prosecuted their own private culture wars.” Scholar and liberal, Eric Alterman feels that in so doing, “liberalism was easily portrayed by its new enemies as an Orwellian parody of its former self.” He cites Massey as showing that “suppressing free expression to ensure liberal orthodoxy and seeking to instill through indoctrination what it could not achieve politically at the polls.”
Real harmful stuff has gone on in the past, and continues right up through today. Analyzing racism in Hollywood, former basketball star Charles Barkley said this on his very interesting Race in America: “Just as Hollywood was built on racism, America was built on racism. Stereotypes begin with the belief that we aren’t all created equal, and, sadly, those negative images affect the way other people see you. But more importantly, the way you see yourself. And that’s devastating.” So, students being alarmed at the first hint of trouble isn’t just “much ado about nothing.” Today, African Americans are dying younger, gays are facing discrimination, Jews are still not absolutely accepted members of society, and atheists are below Christians in the pecking order.
Professor of political science Eric Alterman notes that “the militant foot soldiers of ‘identity politics‘ began with what undoubtedly a worthy notion: that individual experience is shaped by larger structures of power and oppression, and that these therefore need to be identified and challenged. Unfortunately, this practice devolved into a parody of itself as proponents seized upon curbing ‘offensive speech’ on college campuses as the number-one priority of their political energies….” This, while Reagan and Gingrich and their ilk really were affronting minorities through actual policy. Think of police officers killing unarmed black men, or the diminution of voting rights, or the way jobs disappeared from Detroit and left an impoverished wasteland. In relation to these real issues, one’s manner of speech – and the truth or falsity therof – is small potatoes.
But, I would urge us all to not sweat the small stuff. News stations and especially websites like Twitter and Facebook have a way of sowing discord, amping up partisanship, and inculcating a sense of unease in its participants/viewers. Real, but minor, issues can seem to take on much larger importance when under the strange microscope of social and mainstream media.
As a person affiliated loosely with Harvard University, I am relieved that Harvard was not implicated in the college admissions cheating scandal! Unfortunately, Jeffrey Epstein was often shown wearing his Harvard sweatshirt! Clearly, the Epsteins of the world are always applying to Harvard and other elite institutions. These universities should be conscious of the fact that these future blights on society are in its midst, and take some efforts to curb their growth. And, they should realize that these students are supposed to be the best of the best, so what kind of superior individual needs a safe space in which to recover when they overhear an ethnic minority being ridiculed? The world is going to provide some egregious comeuppance to many of Harvard’s alumni if this is the caliber of character that the university is developing in its students!
I do want to emphasize, however, that I don’t support racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. I’m a liberal, and these small-minded mental habits are not good things. I often shake my head when I see how conservatives perceive these things: often, they just “don’t get it.” I commiserate with the late, great Howard Zinn when he wrote that “It is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”
But I suppose I felt some commiseration with folks on the right when I read that letter from the Harvard dean about one, nasty opinion left anonymously on a teacher’s door. We want to evolve into the kind of country where power is distributed evenly and according to merit, not class and race and so on. But, we probably want to say to students on campuses such as Harvard, at the same time: “You are at an elite college, and you got here because you’re smart and you worked very hard; act elite – that is, of high caliber – that is, of great fortitude, character, class, self-discipline, and honor. Don’t let an odious opinion by some loser ruin your whole day; it’s too minor of an issue to occupy much mental space in a future six-figure-salaried individual such as yourself! The world is a tough place, so put on your pads, toughen up, and learn some stuff at this great institution of higher learning before you have to live in the adult world.”
Writer Michele Borba has this to say about how children are raised: “The ‘Every Kid Gets a Prize’ phenomenon is a staple of modern-day parenting. Even coaches and the sports industry are jumping on board. The local chapter of one national sports association spends roughly 12 percent of its yearly budget on trophies just to make sure that every kid feels special—even if it’s just for ‘showing up.’ But beware: our good-hearted trend may actually backfire and diminish-not nurture-our children’s self-esteem, character and resilience.” (LINK)
It reaches its nadir with nonsense like this: “A friend’s kids went to an elementary school where ‘Honor Student’ awards were handed out alphabetically so that (as one of his daughter’s teachers explained) ‘Everybody gets the award, and there are no favorites: it’s alphabetical!’ When my friend pointed out that his daughter’s last name meant she’d go last — ‘and that’s hardly fair,’ he said with his most worried/frustrated/grim face — the teacher grew nervous, and stuttered through an alternative: ‘Maybe we could go boy-girl-boy-girl?’” (Michael Sigman).
Psychological researcher Jonathan Haidt and First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff wrote a book that sounds pretty apropos, though I have not read it: The Coddling of the American Mind. They believe that good intentions and bad ideas are setting a generation up for failure, and that college campuses are the epicenter of this crisis. The following is from a review in The Guardian about the book: “Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt focus on students demanding ‘protection’ from arguments they find challenging and the professors and administrators who cave in to them. The first section elaborates what the authors call the ‘Great Untruths’ that supposedly dominate college campuses: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker; Always Trust Your Feelings; Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People. Their targets are ‘safetyism’, the language of microaggressions, identity politics and intersectionality. Generation ‘iGen’, the one that comes after millennials, is, according to the authors, suffering a mental health crisis because of smartphone addiction and the paranoid parenting style of the upper middle class.”
I will end with a quote by Sophia McClennan: “While it may well be true that the era of trigger warnings and safe spaces demands tough conversations about the degree to which a college student should feel ‘safe’ on campus, there remains little doubt that the pressures these kids face are systemic, structural and certainly not all in their head.
Older adults, of course, prefer to claim that the problem is a generation that is unprepared to function like grown-ups, because recognizing that these kids have real reasons to stress would require us to take responsibility for our roles in the world they’ve inherited. And who is mature enough to do that?” Ω
Here are some additional quotes to consider:
“Instead of enforcing a deadening uniformity of opinion, as the humanities’ culture of political correctness now does, a revitalized humanism would put the conventional pieties of our moral and political world in question. It would compel students to consider whether justice is a higher good than beauty, whether democracy has room for nobility, whether our reverence for human beings should be qualified by a recognition of original sin. It would force them to confront a wider and more disturbing diversity of opinion than the one they now do in their college and university classrooms.”
“Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms.”
“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” ~ Hanna Gray
“The cost of college today has almost nothing to do with the cost of an education, and everything to do with the cost of buying a credential. That’s all a diploma is. Some are more expensive than others, but none of them reflect the character of the recipient, none are necessary to live a happy and prosperous life, and none of them come with any guarantees.”
“When it’s your turn to get your ass kicked on Twitter, you should probably get your ass kicked on Twitter and shut up. I can’t sit around all day at age 64 and go over this stuff like [it’s] the Zapruder film [the JFK assassination tape].” ~ Dennis Miller
“To swallow and follow, whether old doctrine or new propaganda, is a weakness still dominating the human mind.”
“The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the ‘gadfly’ of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs, and change the ones they could not defend.” ~ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
“Facing a campus that is not nearly as reactionary as they would wish, ultra-conservatives rail about how academia is permeated with doctrinaire, “politically correct” leftists. This is not surprising since they describe as “leftist” anyone to the left of themselves, including mainstream centrists. Their diatribes usually are little more than attacks upon socio-political views they find intolerable and want eradicated from college curricula.”
“I remember as a freshman in college in a political science class I raised my hand to answer a question and after I finished the professor said, ‘Well, now we know what your father thinks,’ and went on to the next student.”
“If fear did not have to play such a prominent role in my everyday life, wouldn’t I be able to accomplish more?”
“I’d like to talk about some things that bring us together, things that point out our similarities instead of our differences. ‘Cause that’s all you ever hear about in this country. It’s our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about—the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the fucking money!” ~ George Carlin
“Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society. …A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.” ~ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
“People who are regimented all their lives are psychologically enslaved. Their aptitude for autonomy is so atrophied that they develop an acute fear of freedom. The obedience training at their jobs carries over into the families they start, thus reproducing the system. Once you drain the vitality from people at work, they’ll likely submit to hierarchy in politics, culture and everything else. They’re used to it.”
“We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”
“Trophies used to be awarded only to winners, but are now little more than party favors: reminders of an experience, not tokens of true achievement. When awards are handed out like candy to every child who participates, they diminish in value. If every soccer player receives a trophy for merely showing up to practice and playing in games, the truly exceptional players are slighted. The same applies to teams. Regardless of individual effort or superior skills, all who participate receive equal acknowledgement.” ~ Betty Berdan
“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.”
“As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, ‘Character is the main object of education.’ The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is ‘organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.’”
“I have in mind the cultivation of the habits of respectfulness and tolerance on which responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy depends. Colleges and universities do this not so much by preaching the virtues of these habits (though they do that too), as by creating an environment in which students are required to interact with others quite unlike themselves — often for the first time in their lives — and to develop the attitudes of open-mindedness and toleration that this demands.”
“There is a fine line, that if crossed, turns ‘self-confident’ to ‘egotistical’; one needs to remain conscious of that to make sure he/she does not cross to the dark side.”
“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes – because I know I’m not dumb. And I’m not blonde.”
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” ~ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
“Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradles. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.”