Thursday, March 06, 2008

New Position at Harvard: Office of Bullshit Dissemination

I read with some amusement an item by Michael Graham in the online edition of the Boston Herald the other day. According to this piece, Harvard University bars men from its Recreational Athletic Center for six hours each week in order to "accommodate" members of the local Islamic community who want their womenfolk to be able to use the facilities in the absence of testosterone overloaded Bostonians--the male ones, anyway. Bob Mitchell, a spokesman for Harvard University in this matter, must be a huge fan of George Orwell, because here's what he said in defense of this policy:
“we’re permitting women to work out in an environment that accommodates their religion.”

By banning all men from the facility, right?

“It’s not ‘banning,’ ” he insisted. “We’re allowing, we’re accommodating people.”
Although it may be difficult to imagine any rational person saying that with a straight face, the sentiment expressed is the sort of thing that is actually not the least bit uncommon in certain environments, and the people who come up with such policies take them very seriously. Is Bob Mitchell just a moron with no sense of irony, or is the position he is seeking to defend actually, in some sense, defensible?

There is a sense, of course, in which every act of banning something also allows something else, just as every act of allowing something bans something else. This is a straightforward feature of the logic of banning and allowing: as long as there are such things as contradictories, this feature will be inescapable. To allow free speech is to ban censorship; to ban free speech is to allow censorship. To ban abortion is to allow the right-to-life position; to allow abortion is to ban the right-to-life position. You get the idea. Now, most rational people understand that this is a two-way street, but there are some who insist that anyone who is upset by what banning something permits, or what permitting something bans, is out of line. For example, suppose we ban hate speech, thus allowing victimized groups greater freedom from hate speech. In doing this we, to a certain extent, ban free speech, and the defenders of free speech will say that we have gone too far. Suppose we allow hate speech, on the grounds that even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Some will say that the Bill of Rights is supposed to promote the pursuit of happiness, which is impossible when someone lives in fear because of all the hate speech directed at them. The defenders of free speech may then reply that these folks are too sensitive, that they need to grow up and get with the program, etc.

It may seem like a trivial issue, actually, but I find that more and more civic discourse is reducible to this kind of difference of perspective. The phenomenon that is called in some quarters "homophobia", for example, stands as a rather obvious case in point. Depending on your point of view, to say that same-sex sexual contact is intrinsically disordered is either a profound theological truth or an actionable instance of hate speech. Naturally, if you happen to believe that it is true, you expect to be permitted by the law to say it out loud; but if you think it is hate speech, that can only be because you think (a) it is false and (b) it is the moral equivalent (or much worse) of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire. In Canada, recently, activist Rob Wells filed a complaint against a Catholic magazine for, well, stating the Vatican's view of homosexuality. Or, to change the issue in question, in the video below, you can watch Bill Clinton go absolutely apeshit when challenged by some prolifers in Steubenville last week.

What he wants to say, of course, is that he (and, by implication, his wife, if given the chance) supports legislation that will reduce the number of "real abortions" rather than legislation that will criminalize abortion simpliciter. But he says it in the crazed argot of today's political scene, where it is necessary to demonize one's opponents as standing for something not merely different, but actively contrary to some imagined good and hence, in a sense, evil. One wonders, of course, why abortion should be restricted in any way at all if it is not wrong to get one. Hilary once, famously, said that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare", emphasizing the last condition as though it somehow ameliorated the other two. Why on earth should it be rare, if there's nothing morally wrong with it? I suppose someone might suggest that, while not morally wrong in itself, it is the sort of thing that a young girl might choose to do impulsively and regret later, but the same could be said for getting a tattoo, and yet I hear no one calling for restrictions on tattoo parlors to make tattoos safe, legal and rare. If you think that there is something about abortion that makes it the sort of thing that ought to be rare, you really ought to examine your reasons for thinking that it ought to be rare and ask yourself if those are reasons that indicate that it may not be morally licit to begin with, in which case it should not be permitted. Banning choice allows life, in this case, and one must decide which one values more, the right to choose or the right to live. Given the narcissistic times in which we live, however, it is already appallingly obvious what most people think on that one. If it's a question of me being able to make my choice, as opposed to somebody else being permitted to live...well, that's a no-brainer these days.

The abortion debate has been rather badly twisted by those who think that permitting ought to be the default answer to every question of policy in a free and pluralistic society. To ban abortion is to prevent something, but to legalize abortion is to allow it, and "allowing" is better than "preventing" in a democracy. These are people, of course, who do not see an abortion as the termination of the life of an independently existing human being, otherwise they wouldn't have the balls to put it in these terms, but the underlying dynamic is present in many other policy debates, from the question of whether Nazis should be permitted to march through a neighborhood of Jewish holocaust survivors to the problem of air-travel restrictions during wartime. We're an individual-rights obsessed culture, and so we prefer individual liberty to collective restrictions, and we frame our policy preferences in that way.

Now, ordinarily I would have put the powers-that-be at Harvard among those who, by default, prefer allowing over banning, since that seems to me to be, by and large, the liberal view. Allow abortion, allow Nazis to march, allow homosexuals to marry, etc. We can do these things, after all, without approving of them ourselves (the famous liberal mating call: "I'm 'personally opposed' to [insert moral evil here], but I would not dream of 'imposing' my morality on others"). Hence, in the instance of the QRAC, our Owellian toady put the problem in terms of "allowing" Muslim women to work out in private rather than in terms of banning men from the premises. It's a funny thing, of course, because he seemed rather blissfully unaware of the fact that "allowing" such a thing logically entailed "banning" something else simultaneously, but that is not the only thing funny about it. It's also funny because, in every act of "permitting" there is a context that includes what is permitted and to whom it is permitted. As Graham rather gleefully points out in the Harvard case, we're talking about an institution that would simply scoff at the idea of closing any part of the campus to men in order to appease--oops, I'm sorry, "allow"--Christian women to do something more "modestly". We're talking about an institution that, on the one hand, filed suit to keep military recruiters off campus because of the military's attitude towards gays, but on the other hand had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about accepting a $20 million gift to promote the study of Islam from Sheik Al Waleed bin Talal, whose religion condemns homosexuality and whose country punishes homosexuals in ways that the U.S. military wouldn't condone for the treatment of traitors. This is an institution that is almost literally falling all over itself in an effort to be politically correct, and has yet to realize what a hopeless task it has set for itself.

"Permitting" Muslim women to work out in the enforced absence of men is to "permit" something to one particular interpretation of the Islamic religion and, simultaneously, forbid something to a rival interpretation. There are Muslim women in this country who do not agree that women must be segregated from men in just the way that Arabic countries insist they must be, and one might think that Harvard would prefer to "allow" these women who disagree with the Arabic interpretation to work out with their male companions if they so "choose", but apparently some forms of choice are more "permissible" than others.

Well, one point of view that one is unlikely to find among the liberals at Harvard is the market-oriented one that says, if the male students contribute anything to QRAC in their student fees, then they should not be banned from the premises during any of the facility's regular hours of operation. If Muslim women want to pay an extra fee to keep the facility open at different hours, that's up to them and the facility. Good luck seeing anything that non-Orwellian at Harvard.

1 comment:

CrimsonCatholic said...

I hate to break it to you, but I'm fairly certain that the position of Bullshit Disseminator has been around for several decades. However, I believe it might have only become a permanently endowed position upon the resignation of Lawrence Summers for having the temerity to suggest that there might be differences in the academic preferences of men and women.