Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Commencement Speakers, Polarization, and the Terrible Price of Moral Certainty

There have been a rash of high-profile commencement speaker incidents this year. Conde Rice withdrew from Rutgers, Haverford's invitation of former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been called into question, and now IMF Managing Director Christine Legard has pulled out of speaking at Smith College. It's getting to the point where choosing a commencement speaker has become one of the hardest things a college has to do.

Common to all of these cases were small, well-organized, loud campaigns by students and faculty against the speaker in question. Each of these campaigns was built around a central moral claim, communicated with the kind of vigor that only the Righteous (or self-righteous) can muster. Some examples from these various cases:

From the petition against Ms. Legard speaking at Smith:

"By selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class. Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against. By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF."
From a faculty petition calling for Dr. Rice's withdrawal from Rutgers:
Dr. Rice "played a prominent role in his administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime," and that "the lies thus promoted led to the second Iraq war, which caused the death of over 100,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of millions of others."
And from a letter from faculty and students calling on Haverford to disinvite Birgeneau from their commencement:
"As a community standing in solidarity with nonviolent protesters across the country, we are extremely uncomfortable honoring you," a group of 50 Haverford students and professors wrote to Birgeneau. "To do so would be a disservice to those nonviolent protesters who were beaten and whose actions you dismissed as 'unfortunate,' as if they brought the abuse upon themselves."
In each case, faculty and students are making statements about values - both the symbolic values attached to a particular individual and the espoused values of the institution. In each case, the complainants are concerned that their institution will be "tainted" by honoring and listening to someone who has done things that differ from (what they perceive to be) the institution's espoused values.

This strikes me as an extremely slippery slope at best, and a thinly veiled way to attack people you don't like at worst. I have my own feelings about each of the individuals named above and the things they have done in their careers. But for me and a small group of like-minded individuals (in each case, the petition or letter originated from about 50 people, which at a college or university is a very small group) to impose our views on the rest of the institution strikes me as simply indefensible. I know intelligent, reasonable people who would disagree with the arguments made above - these are things about which reasonable people can in fact disagree.

And that is very much a part of the problem here. By resorting to internet-fueled, social media-spread controversy, and in some cases threats of unsightly pickets and protests, these groups are essentially imposing a minority veto on the rest of the institution. They are exercising power which, even in an ideal democratically deliberative community, they have no right to. They are shouting down voices they disagree with on a simple premise: we're right and you're wrong.

This kind of logic fails a second test as well: it attempts to equate absolute moral principles with live human beings. This is nearly always a recipe for disaster, because very few humans fit neatly into our absolutist boxes. Ironically, it was the commencement speaker at my own graduation many years ago who pointed this out - so eloquently that I still remember his speech today. He told two stories - one of a Nazi SS officer who amidst all the terrible things he did as part of the SS saved a Jewish family in Northern Italy in the midst of the war, the other of Dwight Eisenhower who despite all the noble and heroic things he did ordered the public hanging execution of an orphaned American soldier as an example to American troops not to desert their posts. The punch line was clear: terrible people sometimes do good things, and good people sometimes do terrible things. The real moral world of human beings is far more complex than you think it is.

This is the point that these petition-writers, despite their advanced educations, have apparently missed. Christine Legard does not equate to the IMF, nor does Condelezza Rice equal the Iraq War - even if those things were morally unambiguous, which they are not. In the drive for moral purity and certitude, some folks seem compelled to insulate themselves from anything tainted with what they regard as morally corrupted. By that logic, they will soon find themselves alone in a room talking to themselves - hardly the kind of "liberal education" these institutions are supposed to champion.

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