Last Monday morning, the News published an opinion piece about Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield, who was due to give a lecture to the Directed Studies program that very afternoon on “Science and the Humanities.” The key sentence in the column was this: “Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr., professor of government at Harvard University, is racist, homophobic and misogynist.”
What confidence there is in that sentence! What definitive knowledge of a person’s essential character, especially in the simple verb, is, which leaves no room for escape. The author did not shy away from defining the man, even pinning him down by using his middle name, as his mother might have done in scolding him when he was a child. But do we have a mother’s right?
I might be more hesitant to sum up a man after having gathered only a few sentences from his 87 years, especially when there are 14 books available to look at. If we do focus on those few sentences, though, I hope we would notice that each one was originally voiced as part of an argument. But, the column does not acknowledge, much less reply to, those arguments. Instead, it prefers to assume that Professor Mansfield’s quotes can only be explained by prejudiced bigotry.
I agree with the column when it suggests that we need not try to be open-minded about “views that dehumanize others.” But which views are those? Judging that question prematurely, by asking only whether a view has caused offense, will make it too easy for us to avoid or condemn ideas we do not understand. Let me say what should be obvious: It is possible to challenge campus pieties on race, gender and sexuality without denying anyone’s humanity.
The accusations of dehumanization in the column are serious. I am writing today because the number of similar accusations in our public discourse seems to be sharply on the rise. What standards of evidence and reasoning should we require of one another when making such accusations? I think the News editors could have improved the column by asking the writer to provide more details about the professor’s positions or by asking her to make her accusations more precise — perhaps against particular arguments rather than the entire man.
And if we are going to make a broader assessment of a man, we should probably look not only at a few quotes but also at his behavior. In the 25 years that I have known him, Professor Mansfield has been widely recognized as a person who treats every individual with respect and decency, without prejudice. I believe he treated the author of the column this way when she attended a small lunch with him on Monday, after her column had been published.
The column’s other main assertion is that the Directed Studies program, by inviting Professor Mansfield to speak, demonstrated that it does not truly value students “who are not straight white men.” But the D.S. program actively reaches out and supports students of every race, gender and sexuality, as well as every background and ideological position — and we will continue to do so. We reach out, not by catering the contents of D.S. to any one particular group, but by inviting people from all groups to join the conversations we are having about the books we read. These are books that students from widely different backgrounds continue to experience as formative and transformational. Most D.S. students know — because I quote him so often — how much I love W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that there is one “kingdom of culture” open to all of us, and how strongly I share his view that we can all strive to “sit with Shakespeare.”
I know we live in a moment when the worst sorts of bigotry have revealed themselves to be alive and dangerous in this country. We should guard against these prejudices vigilantly and work to remove the legacies of bigotry that remain ingrained in parts of our society. I admire the author of the column for her righteous passion.
But a zeal for justice can lead to new injustices, too. The spirit of accusation is a dangerous one. It flattens human beings; it denies an individual’s development and complexity, and it often obscures more than it clarifies. Judgment, and even punishment, are sometimes necessary, but I hope we can judge carefully and a bit more reluctantly, with less confidence that we have found in this or that individual the devilish embodiment of all our fears.
When we hear mixed reports about a speaker, as students did about our guest the week before he spoke, why not look first for something good? Why not be curious about why a teacher thought it worthwhile to invite that particular guest? Why not begin, at least, by wondering if we might learn something by thinking about what the guest says?
My sense is that a good number of students in D.S. found Professor Mansfield’s lecture to be thought-provoking. I was glad to have invited him to speak. Most of all, I was proud of the D.S. students who asked profound and probing questions during the event and afterwards. I think they demonstrated to all of us just how well students can engage with unfamiliar ideas when they feel encouraged to think before they judge — to think freely and for themselves.
BRYAN GARSTEN is a Professor of Political Science and Humanities and the Chair of the Humanities Program. Contact him at email@example.com .