Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y.L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.
Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”
No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s CEO, Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements that Mozilla and Brandeis released.
Instead, the Mozilla statement rambled in the language of inclusion: “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. … Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions. …”
The statement on Hirsi Ali was slightly more direct, saying that “her past statements … are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” But it never specified what those statements or those values might be — and then it fell back, too, on pieties about diversity: “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”
What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.
The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, nor its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.
This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y.L. Korn.
Harvard itself is a perfect example of this pattern: As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame pointed out when the column was making waves, Korn could only come up with one contemporary example of a Harvardian voice that ought to be silenced — “a single conservative octogenarian,” the political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield. Her call for censorship, Deneen concluded, “is at this point almost wholly unnecessary, since there are nearly no conservatives to be found at Harvard.”
I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a CEO whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, Brandeis’ right to rescind degrees as it sees fit and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, with a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.
But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.
And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.
It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or BYU is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.
I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.
Ross Douthat’s column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.