Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Harvard letter

One of the flaws of liberalism is what you might call the "autonomy contradiction". There is a problem in making autonomy - a freedom to choose according to my subjective wants - the highest good. What if my want is a non-autonomous good? Liberalism then either has to accept the fact that I choose other than autonomy or it has to limit my autonomy and prevent me from choosing this good. In the end, liberalism is likely to reach a point at which it says "you can choose anything you want, as long as you choose liberal autonomy" - which is not very "autonomous" at all.

There was an example of this last year when Harvard University acted to restrict students from joining single sex fraternities and sororities. These organisations are not even university groups, but are off campus private associations. Even so, the Harvard authorities decided to punish students who are members of these groups by limiting their leadership and scholarship opportunities.

The fact that Harvard liberals dislike single sex groups is not surprising. If what matters is that we are autonomously self-determined, then liberals have to make our sex not matter, as that is something that is predetermined. If sex is something that is not allowed to matter, then it will be thought wrong to discriminate on the basis of sex (in the literal sense of the word "discriminate" - the ideal will be a situation in which people won't make distinctions between men and women, particularly in a social context). There will be a fear that if there is any discrimination, such as the existence of single sex clubs, that it might lead to a discrepancy in life paths or life outcomes ("inequality").

And so the Harvard authorities found themselves facing the autonomy contradiction. They want to get rid of single sex clubs as part of the larger liberal ideal of abolishing sex distinctions. On the other hand, they preach a mantra of autonomous choice, by which students should be allowed to choose according to their own subjective preferences.

How did Harvard deal with the contradiction? In a number of ways. First, the authorities have given the single sex clubs time to change into unisex groups. According to Harvard, this means that students have been given "choice and agency" in leading the changes:
at least as an initial step, we should proceed in such a way as to give students both choice and agency in bringing about changes to the campus culture.

The choice to belong to a fraternity is being taken away, but students get to be involved in the process of choice being taken away and this is supposed to uphold their "choice and agency".

Another response to the contradiction is this:
Ultimately, students have the freedom to decide which is more important to them: membership in a gender-discriminatory organization or access to those privileges and resources. The process of making those types of judgments, the struggle of defining oneself, one’s identity, and one’s responsibilities to a broader community, is a valuable part of the personal growth and self-exploration we seek for our undergraduates.

The Harvard authorities are claiming that autonomy still exists because students get to choose between fraternities or sanctions, and that in being placed in this dilemma students have to define who they are. Someone went to a lot of trouble to think this up, which shows how keen the authorities are to try to retain a belief that they are not trashing their liberal ideal of autonomy in seeking to ban private association.

The final response to the contradiction is to admit that there is a contradiction:
Preserving choice and agency also honors the thoughtful concerns we have heard expressed about the need to balance competing interests wherever possible. The tensions between freedom and equality, between the rights of the individual and the welfare of the community have long challenged American society and have been the focus of much of the USGSO debate. As a professor of history noted in last October’s Faculty meeting, “the freedom of association enjoyed by some of our students comes at the cost of excluding the majority of our students from those associations.”

The last line is an eye opener. I would have thought that freedom of association necessarily involves "excluding the majority". Harvard University itself necessarily excludes the majority. So does an association of artists in Bavaria. Or an association of Dalmation owners. Or a Mormon mothers' club. Do we really begrudge the existence of associations that we ourselves can't be included in? To get to the point of inclusiveness desired by the professor of history, you would have to considerably erase the distinctions between people. Liberalism in this sense requires less, rather than more, diversity.

I'll leave the Harvard authorities there, struggling to reconcile the principle of autonomy which simultaneously requires them to ban single sex clubs and uphold choice and self-determination.

The traditionalist stance on this issue is relatively straightforward. If you do not start out with the same assumptions that liberals do, you will not have the goal of making our sex not matter. If you are not intent on erasing the distinctions between men and women, you will then be relaxed about the natural inclinations that men and women have to enjoy masculine or feminine social environments.

Traditionalists see the unfolding of our masculinity and femininity as significant aspects of our identity and of our life purposes. It therefore makes sense to create masculine and feminine spaces, as a means of cultivating this aspect of who we are and of encouraging our self-development.

Fraternities in particular are potentially valuable in creating a space in which the masculine virtues can be cultivated (though there needs to be a certain focus to such groups for this to happen). It is within a male group, particularly one that is dedicated to a significant aim, that qualities like loyalty, courage and honour tend to take hold.

So for traditionalists the general aim is to have more, rather than fewer, single sex social spaces.


  1. The choice to belong to a fraternity is being taken away, but students get to be involved in the process of choice being taken away and this is supposed to uphold their "choice and agency".

    It's like when a mugger says, "Hand over your wallet or I'll shoot you." You have a choice. You have agency. You still lose your wallet but at least you were involved in the process.

  2. This is a totalitarian joke. And yet these people do not see themselves for who they are.

    Stalin would be proud: YOu can vote for whoever you want ..... as long as its the party. They even had elections.... (you do get choice), but of course there's ONLY one party you would want to vote for right?? Right??

    This is how a tyranny cloaks its evil.

    Your choice to obey us or not. But obey you must. Why not help us mask our true nature??

    Diversity™ means everyone MUST think alike about the agenda of 'diversity™'

    1. " And yet these people do not see themselves for who they are."

      Well put.

  3. "Someone went to a lot of trouble to think this up". Yep, you almost have to admire this feat of sophistry on the part of Harvard. The contradictions of the administration's statement are definitely there. But, mark, on your point of men and women needing their own spaces to cultivate their respective virtues, I agree completely. However, I don't know if the fraternities achieved this. I've never been to the U.S., but everything I've ever seen or heard of these fraternities suggests they did nothing but corrupt the youth of America.

    1. That's possibly so. If you just put a whole lot of uni students into a club, without a higher purpose to work towards, or some sort of traditional ethos to hold to, then you might end up with something more low natured. But I have no experience of the American campus fraternities - hard for me to judge from this distance.

  4. This is a prime example of why we cannot avoid identity politics.

    Leftist Indian Wajahat Ali attacks his co-ethnics for being too friendly towards whites. White conservatives are still reluctant to shame white liberals into racial loyalty.

    1. This is a prime example of why we cannot avoid identity politics.

      What worries me about embracing identity politics is my feeling that that is exactly what the ruling class wants us to do. Once that happens all dissidents can easily be labelled as Nazis and white supremacists, and easily destroyed.

      What the ruling class doesn't want us to do is to notice that the one identity they don't want us to embrace is a class identity.

    2. I disagree, Corbyn, Sanders and Ardern have done well advocating an anti-rich politics. Aus Labor hasn't found a leader like this yet.

      If civic statists want to regain some legitimacy, they could at least routinely accuse non-whites of racism.

      I do think that any kind of "pan-racial" loyalty is nonsense, the 20th century proved that in Africa and Asia.

    3. I disagree, Corbyn, Sanders and Arden have done well advocating an anti-rich politics.

      I think that the response by the political/media establishment to Sanders and Corbyn confirms my point. In the US the establishment has doubled down on identity politics because they were terrified that the left-wing populism of Sanders would propel him into the White House.

      And in Britain, where the media appears superficially to be very strongly left-leaning, you'd expect Corbyn to be hailed as the Messiah. But the British media has not been overly friendly to Corbyn.

      Sanders and Corbyn are the wrong sort of leftists. They're the bad sort of leftist, the sort with actual left-wing political views.

      Class consciousness still exists in a rudimentary form despite the best efforts of the globalist/SJWs. Sanders and Corbyn have shown that class-based politics can still gain some traction, which explains the frenzied efforts of the media to push identity politics even harder.

  5. This is straight-up extortion. The faculty is, by abuse of their authority, exacting a price from the privileged, advantaged students that find themselves at a temporary disadvantage. Will some students challenge this on the clear matter of principle at issue? They can't all be brain-dead, can they?

    But of course, no one with half a brain goes to Harvard to get an education that they could improve on elsewhere for half the price. They go to Harvard to get a seat at the table. So, it is likely that the students will ignore the principle and will instead appreciate the fascist wisdom of the choice and embrace its force as "an act of life", as intended. Most of the students are still children after all, and this sort of authoritarian instruction as a pragmatic power play will serve them well if they fully embrace it.

    It's a punitive expedient forced on students by an authoritarian Harvard faculty.

    Am I too cynical?

  6. "A Jew" said to be "passing as white male" named new Harvard president, disappointing some who hoped for color.

  7. This is exactly how liberals understand democracy. Any people that choose to self govern in opposition to liberalism are “undemocratic” and destroying democracy. Vox Day provides an example: