I’ve done a little follow-up research on Dorothy Rabinowitz’ piece on political correctness at Harvard Law School. On the whole, this appears to be a pretty typical example of the dialectic that has played out at countless universities across the country. First, someone says or does something that is arguably offensive; here, a student used “Nigs” as a shorthand term in his notes on a discussion of a case. This became an issue because his notes were posted on some kind of internal web site. Second, an organized victims’ grievance group–here, the Black Law Students’ Association–purports to be shocked at the awfulness of it all, and says the school’s administration is responsible because it hasn’t done enough to indoctrinate students or limit their speech rights. And third–here is the critical step–the administration responds in the only way it knows how, by appointing a committee (stocked with members of the complaining group) to assess ways of enhancing diversity, etc., at the school. This article in the Boston Globe sheds additional light on the controversy. On the whole, the Law School has been somewhat less craven than the average administration, and its faculty includes more vigorous defenders of free speech than is usually the case. Note in particular the role played by Alan Dershowitz. And, while the newly-formed Committee on Healthy Diversity has announced that it intends to draft a speech code, Dean Robert Clark has already said that he would be very reluctant to actually implement such a code.
Ms. Rabinowitz’ article focuses largely on the Law School’s new requirement that incoming students attend a session on how to have “difficult conversations.” She does not note that this isn’t quite as much out of the blue as it may seem; for a number of years, a group at the Law School called the Harvard Negotiation Project has taught courses and published books and articles on various aspects of negotiation. They have written a book called “Difficult Conversations,” which is described on the Law School’s website as “a national bestseller now available in more than 15 languages.” So it was relatively natural for the Law School to turn to its own faculty’s work product, which might not be quite as goofy as it sounds. Of course, whether these “difficult conversations” sessions serve any real educational purpose is highly doubtful; the Globe’s article concludes by quoting a student who noted that: “At the first session of one workshop, the conversation dealt with how to break up with your boyfriend.”
The Globe article also clarifies one fact that is puzzling in Ms. Rabinowitz’ account. She refers to a second controversy arising out of a professor’s statement in class that “Marxists, feminists and blacks had contributed nothing to tort law,” which on its face is odd. The Globe quotes the professor, much more plausibly, as saying that “feminism, Marxism and black studies” have contributed nothing to tort law. As so clarified, the statement is true.
Having said what I can in defense of the Law School, it is obvious that it is a far different place from what I experienced in the early 1970’s. At that time the atmosphere was not unlike a Marine boot camp. Students were expected to be able to make and defend arguments and to stand up to often-withering cross-examination by professors. This was based on the idea–which now seems almost quaint–that such training would stand them in good stead once they got out into the real, dog-eat-dog legal world. Sensitivity to our feelings was not something that we expected, nor was it something our professors delivered. And, in that faraway time, I don’t recall that professors treated black students much differently from white students.
The aspect of this controversy that I find most troubling is the treatment of Professor Charles Nesson–a young Turk when I was a student, now a senior statesman. During the flap over an allegedly offensive email that followed the “Nigs” episode, Professor Nesson suggested a mock trial of the offending student with himself acting as defense counsel. This suggestion was considered so far beyond the pale that Professor Nesson has been relieved of his first-year teaching duties. Such an outcome is incompatible not only with free speech, but with the most elementary understanding of the role of a lawyer in an adversarial system of justice.
Oh, one more thing–the professor who has sided most vociferously with the anti-free speech forces is Randall Kennedy, a leftist whose latest book is titled: “Nigger: The Strange History of a Troublesome Word.”
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