Here we go again. For several years now we have watched as the cultural Left has argued that political correctness does not exist; or, if it does exist, that it’s not a threat to free speech; or, if it might sometimes possibly be a threat to free speech, that policing virtue is more important than protecting free speech; or—but you get the point. One particularly clever champion of this species of cultural warfare has even declared that there is no such thing as free speech, that it would be a terrible thing if there were, and hence that “right-wing” critics of political correctness are not only wrong but also insidious. Q.E.D.
Unfortunately, reality keeps breaking in. The latest fissure comes to us from that venerable bastion of orthodoxy, the Harvard Law School. In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece called “Harvard Law Caves In to the Censors,” Harvey A. Silverglate, an alumnus of the law school, described the new “Sexual Harassment Guidelines” that the Harvard Law faculty put into effect last October. (The guidelines were adopted by the faculty with only one dissenting vote.) Weighing in with eleven single-spaced pages of rules and regulations, eight pages of enforcement procedures, and fifteen pages of “related materials,” this totalitarian charter aims to enforce politically correct attitudes about sex and “gender roles” by sanitizing speech, scrutinizing it for evidence of incorrect prejudices. As of last October, then, “any … speech … of a sexual nature that is unwelcome” or has the effect of “creating … a hostile … environment at Harvard Law School” is verboten.
Note the vagueness and encroaching generality of the language: any speech … unwelcome … hostile environment. This is a commissar’s pettifoggery, elastic enough to ensnare anyone deemed to require a little consciousness raising, ideological indoctrination, or simple chastisement. Henceforth, as Mr. Silverglate noted, “students with a sharp tongue (or perhaps just an independent mind) walk on egg shells at Harvard Law School.” In the case of Bardell vs. Pickwick, poor Mr. Pickwick was fined £750 and thrown in jail because his landlady had (deliberately) misconstrued an innocuous note as a proposal of marriage; at Harvard Law School, the crime is not breach of promise but insufficient political rectitude. The results, however, are just as preposterous—though considerably less funny—than what Dickens portrayed in his comic novel. After all, Dickens had intended to be farcical.
Mr. Silverglate wrote to Robert Clark, the dean of the Harvard Law School, to express his concern about the chilling effect that the new sexual harassment guidelines would be likely to have on free speech. Dean Clark replied, first, that this “discussion” was “a sign of the times” (and so, presumably, beyond his control) and, second, that things could have been a lot worse: the guidelines actually adopted were as nothing compared to some that had been rejected. But this of course is cold comfort when one considers that already under the current guidelines someone’s entire career can be ruined by an “inappropriate” word.
It is important to understand that the “sexual harassment guidelines” adopted at Harvard Law School, like similar speech codes adopted at other campuses, have nothing to do with encouraging good manners or fostering civility and seemliness. We are all for good manners, civility, and seemliness. But speech codes are not about etiquette. They are about power. Indeed, they are primarily instruments of intimidation and political redress, designed to aggrandize certain favored groups (the self-appointed “victims”) while simultaneously penalizing other, less-favored groups. And, as Mr. Silverglate notes, at Harvard, as elsewhere, such guidelines are likely to be applied “with the all-too-familiar double standard, where only students with politically incorrect views will be charged and convicted.”
Moreover, there is what we might call a metastasizing tendency in all such codes and legislation, a tendency to encroach on more and more aspects of life. This is part of what makes them totalitarian. Accordingly, no sooner had Harvard Law School promulgated guidelines to control speech bearing on sexual matters than a first-year student complained in a student newspaper that the faculty had been “short-sighted” to adopt a policy on offensive speech about sex while failing “to adopt a comparable policy on the basis of race.” It is only a short jump from here to the infamous inanities of the code adopted a few years ago by Smith College, in which “lookism”—the unaccountable prejudice that some people are more attractive than others—was enrolled in the catalogue of punishable offenses against virtue.
It is a sorry spectacle. For generations the Harvard Law School has been training some of the best legal minds in the country. That such a distinguished and immensely influential institution should cravenly capitulate to the trendy political blackmail of political correctness is grounds for grave concern. Vigorous debate will more and more give way to a timid, calculating wariness. Then, too, since whatever happens at Harvard has repercussions far beyond the storied purlieus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, we can expect many other institutions to emulate Harvard’s errors. Mr. Silverglate is right that the Harvard Law faculty is “about to learn that once principle is sacrificed in the name of expedience, there is no end to the demands from ever-proliferating groups of self-described victims seeking to cleanse the campus—and the classrooms—of unpleasant speech, not to mention uncomfortable ideas.” This may be, as Dean Clark puts it, “a sign of the times,” but if so it is an evil omen indeed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 6, on page 1
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