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Response to the Harvard e-mail controversy

By All Hands

Last week, one Harvard law student forwarded a fellow classmate’s six-month old e-mail to people guaranteed to take offense to it.  The original e-mail’s damning line, which has been seized upon by Above The Law, Eugene Volokh and others, is this:

“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”

We are not writing to discuss the merits of this original e-mail, but rather the response it has generated.  The above quote can fairly be described as the line that launched ten thousand blog comments.  Beyond the sources mentioned above, scores of people have weighed in on the issue at Gawker, Jezebel, Feministe, Bossip, Steve Sailer’s Blog, Roissy and other message boards.  Some are now calling, fairly actively in some cases, for the e-mail’s author to lose her upcoming clerkship on the 9th Circuit.

This outrage is predictable and protected by the first amendment.  While being offended is the cost of living in a free society, people who are offended are entitled to recourse using their own free speech rights.  When religious groups are offended by some aspect of culture, they band together to effect change, or at least heightened awareness and sensitivity.  Even if the outrage surrounding this e-mail is irrational, it’s a natural response to profound criticism; chiding outraged people for expressing their distress would be glib.

Shaming tactics, however, only work when there is mutual respect between parties that can be lost through a breach of trust.  When someone’s parents or friends shame them, it is effective because the shamed wishes to be viewed positively by those he or she values.  When the shaming group is anonymous to its target, there is no respect to be lost.  Rather than engaging the controversy with attacks and shaming language, those aggrieved could have engaged in reasoned, logical discourse, as we attempt to do now.

We do not begrudge the offended their response to this incident.  We do not think that it is the most effective or productive means of response, either.  By pushing sentiments like the e-mailer’s underground, we delay and deepen the effects of such beliefs.  Perhaps the time to discuss race without the cloud of racism hanging overhead has not yet come, but refusing to engage ideas, however uncomfortable they are, with evidence, facts, data or anything but counterattacks and dismissiveness ensures that the post-racial society we strove for in 2008 is no closer to existing today than it was then.

The issue addressed by the e-mailer is a complex one of scientific and social significance.  This subtlety and nuance of these issues largely have been lost amidst the backlash from her speech.  Indeed, she should expect backlash, and may well deserve it.  However, given the fact that this was presumed to be a private email, and it only became a widely-publicized event because of a personal spat, even that is called into question.

But as with all rights, the ability to do something does not necessarily make it a good idea.  However justified we all may feel in saying what we want, it does not shield ourselves and others from the consequences of doing so.  Just as the emailer and her critics’ speech affected one another, the aggregate effect of this incident and its fallout affects all of us and how we as a society respond to difficult questions of race.  Being mindful of the precedent these controversies set, it would be better for all involved to swallow their pride, however bitter it tastes, and engage in discourse together.  For it is in the dark, in the vacuum of contextualized information and feedback that taboos create and reinforce, that ignorant and harmful views are born.

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