CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A rising issue at American universities is "political correctness." Activists on both sides at Harvard make their cases.
Democracy has been described as four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Unmoderated majority rule means that the mistakes, the ignorance and the prejudices of the majority will become law. Minorities will be devoured, and the resulting society will be one of enforced and fearful homogeneity.
In this country, if challenges to the majority voice of "mainstream" American values are not permitted and protected by law, our culture will lose its fundamental strength, that of many voices conversing and dissenting to forge new solutions.
What is the majority anyway but a temporary coalition of minorities? What will the four remaining wolves decide to have for lunch the next day? One of yesterday's wolves, now become a lamb. In the end, the defense of the rights of one is the defense of the rights of all.
The ideal is pluralism, the peaceful coexistence of people holding divergent, often irreconcilable, interests and ideals, including people of different genders, races, sexual preferences, political affiliations, cultures, and religions. Pluralism demands the respect of every individual by the group, however offensive the individual may seem to some.
As the unique junction of divergent interests that will never again have such close contact and direct communication, universities are charged with special responsibility in this regard. Harvard College, like any university, is a microcosm of the increasing pluralism of American society. The admissions committee has chosen students who will represent multiple viewpoints, with the purpose of inciting dialogue between them.
Beyond academic education, universities should also expose their students to values, and lifestyles different from those in which they have been raised or find comfortable. It is a social service when universities graduate people who have learned tolerance and respect.
This intensified pluralism does not sit well with some, especially those who are accustomed to privilege: straight, white, Christian men who have never before had their voices challenged.
On entering college, they are affronted by people whom they have always been able to ignore, now represented in the university as their equals. Finding that their voices no longer enjoy the artificial privilege created when minority voices are stifled by intimidation, these people often become reactionaries. They claim to be oppressed when actually they only feel the constrictions of equality. Respect for the needs and worth of all groups within a society may require that a dominant group concede some privilege, it is true, but only if it has stolen that privilege from others.
A woman in the workplace does not mean a man out of work. Similarly, the right of gay people to love and raise children is no infringement on straight people's right to do the same. Problems arise only when one group wants to exert unjust control over another's capacity to work or have children.
As has been the case at Harvard, reactionaries sometimes become irrational, paranoid and aggressive, feeling that the university has taken special measures to discredit their values and silence their collective voice. But this would be counter to the aim of college. There is room for, and a genuine need for, everyone's opinions. The university provides a rational and unbiased forum in which they can be heard.
Those who bear the brunt of homophobia, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and chauvinism of every sort would rather the opposition be expressed openly than remain hidden or latent. When brought to the surface, it can at least be identified and countered. No one wants to silence reactionaries. Their voices are as valuable as anyone's, but freedom to speak does not mean freedom from opposition.
As a senior proctor told us in our first year, Harvard has chosen students for their "sharp edges," the differences that enable them to contribute something unique to the university community. Sharp edges mean that sometimes members of the community will offend each other, but sharp edges also serve as spurs for thought.
The minorities of a society are often its most driven and creative members, its pioneers and iconoclasts. They offer choices, light new paths and represent ideas that, though they may offer the greatest gifts, would otherwise be overlooked.
That is why our country has laws to protect the rights of minorities, and that is why, especially on university campuses, everyone's voices, and especially minority voices that be silenced in other parts of society, must be tolerated and protected. Reactionaries may not realize it, but the very people whom they wish to oppress are fighting for the right of even reactionaries to speak their minds. All that is demanded of them is fairness, not surrender.