Thursday, September 30, 2010

Marty Peretz and the Intent/Effect Principle

Crossposted from the HPRgument.

Harvard University is a private institution with a private set of needs, among them financial needs and the ever-present need to remain true to its institutional identity. If you’re interested in the question of whether the Social Studies Degree Committee should create a research grant in Marty Peretz’s honor, then that’s where you have to start, with the fact that all actions this university takes — whether hiring a professor, admitting a student, or giving out an honorific title to a former professor and controversial public intellectual — are actions made in reference to its perceived institutional needs.
Funding high quality undergraduate research is an important institutional need, obviously. Equally obvious is the fact that what Marty Peretz wrote (“Muslim life is cheap, most notably to muslims”) is grotesque and wrong. Those two points, at the very least, are utterly clear.
What’s not clear, however, is the balance. Do the costs of Peretz’s words in terms of Harvard’s institutional character really outweigh the benefits of the grant itself?
I fear the opposite: that denying him this grant would do damage to the very institutional aspirations we’re trying to protect — namely, to our commitment to intellectual diversity and the free and open exchange of legitimately different points of view.
If we’re really committed to intellectual diversity, then we have to commit ourselves to its consequences. Diversity is not easy. People will get hurt. In fact, that’s what real, substantive diversity is all about, in a sense — it’s the condition of constant antagonism, of people of genuine difference coming together in expedient alliance because of some shared commitment to some higher end, whether that’s a workable American democracy or the “pursuit of veritas,” but struggling all the while. Learning to live in that condition, quite frankly, is one of the raison d’etre of this University.
Peretz’s ideas were grotesque and wrong. But they were, at the same time, manifestations of the sort of difference we embrace in our commitment to diversity. Words can make us angry — that’s a good thing. It means we’re learning. It means we’re getting somewhere.
But surely — you argue — there are things that simply cannot be said in a community of learning, right? That ought to disqualify you unambiguously from any award?
Yes, of course. But in the process of drawing that line, we need to practice intense skepticism of our own sensibilities; we need to make sure that in telling people not to say certain things, we’re not just enforcing the triumph of our biases.
To help, I suggest a simple principle: speech that hurts people in effect is different from speech that hurts people by intent. The latter is never acceptable at a university. The former, meanwhile, is a direct consequence of diversity itself, of high contact struggles between people of genuine difference. Ideas of this sort — those that have the effect of hurting people, but the intent of being true — cannot be illegalized on a university campus. Indeed, it’s for the sake of those controversial ideas that the University exists at all.
By all means, let’s disagree vigorously. Let’s call people out for being ignorant and bigoted when they’re being ignorant and bigoted. But the intent/effect principle says that we don’t take them away from the table until it’s utterly clear that they’re no longer intending to pursue truth, and have crossed over to the territory of “intending to hurt.” In the case of Martin Peretz — whose blog post was manifestly the product of a serious academic worldview, one based on premises and conclusions that can be argued, paradigms (such as the “clash of civilizations” thesis) and evidence that can be disputed; who has issued two apologies so far; and who has a lifetime of writing and teaching behind him — that line has clearly not been crossed.
The University is a peculiar place — it guarantees your safety from the people who might hurt you with words by intent (hate speech, discrimination, etc), but not against the people who might hurt you with words by effect. The University cannot guarantee anyone’s comfort. If it could, this would be Disney Land for People Just Like Me, not a University at all. Academics, by necessity, is a bloody vocation. The old genteel metaphor, “patricide,” the killing of your intellectual forefathers as you go forward on the frontier of knowledge, doesn’t even begin to describe it. Indeed, you’re killing yourself, your old self, every day, every hour, of real learning. No one interested in education’s offerings can be spared this blood loss. No one here at this University ought to feel entitled to be spared it — the unease of the new, the uncomfortable, the forbidden.
That, among other things, is what this University is about. The shield on our seal symbolizes not the safety of truth, but its martial qualities.

No comments: