This article was originally published in the Harvard Crimson.
I was recently on a panel of Harvard students at a conference when a high school student asked, "Are you ashamed that Bill O'Reilly graduated from Harvard?"
As someone who arrived at Harvard as a Tea Party supporter and subsequently moderated, I recognized the questioner as the kind of arrogant liberal that is unfortunately common on campus and who contributes to Harvard's rocky relationship with conservatives.
Last week's Crimson staff editorial entitled "Warning: Do Not Enroll" was just the latest flare-up, outraging conservatives across the nation who understood its message to be that they are not welcome at Harvard.
Thankfully, that was not its intended message. The editorial was a (failed) tongue-in-cheek condemnation of politicians who disingenuously attack Harvard for political gain. Its wording and tone certainly left it vulnerable to misinterpretation, but its core idea is difficult to deny.
I sadly can't read minds, but it's difficult to believe that Senator Ted Cruz is being honest when claiming that Harvard Law was packed with commies that no one else seems to remember. Or that Mitt Romney, who spent four years at Harvard to Obama's three, was being honest when he criticized President Obama for spending too much time at Harvard.
Chances are Cruz and Romney, like most politicians, are practicing the ancient art of pandering. Ridiculing egghead liberals at elite universities plays well with the Republican base.
Pandering has a price, though. Like Democratic pandering on entitlements, the actions of Romney and Cruz perpetuate America's political dysfunction. Harvard bashing is only one manifestation of many conservatives' disdain for the liberal coastal elite. This disdain's most harmful effect is that some conservatives now automatically dismiss research that contradicts their worldview as trash promoted by liberal hacks, rather than critically engage with it.
Perfunctory disclaimer: There are clearly liberal equivalents to these conservatives.
The reason the two parties seem to be on different planets is that, more or less, they are. They believe the world works in fundamentally different ways. Science offers the possibility of at least partially merging those worldviews, laying the foundation for compromise. Refusing to integrate new factual evidence into your worldview because you vote differently than the responsible researcher is indefensible and makes compromise even harder.
Yet conservatives are absolutely correct that Harvard mistreats them. It's no secret that many Harvard liberals, especially younger ones, are intolerant of opposing viewpoints. Conservatives at Harvard constantly endure insinuations that they are unfeeling, selfish, bigoted, or dumb for disagreeing with mainstream campus views. Whether it's prominent professors making fun of Republicans in lecture, Right to Life posters being torn down, or a campus-wide character assassination of a conservative student columnist, the message to conservatives is clear: you are not welcome.
This liberal illiberality is tragic. Too many students here waste a unique opportunity to learn from equally intelligent other young people who think differently than they do. On a campus that prizes diversity, diversity of thought is largely squandered.
I knew that I would be in the ideological minority at Harvard when I arrived, but I didn't realize that many liberal students would deny my opinions even basic respect. Rather than justify their assumptions to me when pressed, many liberals would simply shut down the discussion by labeling my opinions racist, sexist, homophobic, or "problematic" (a catch-all word used by my least favorite kind of liberal to dismiss anything that threatens his or her belief system). I started hearing "I'm not even going to argue this" more from my peers than my parents. Some plainly said they couldn't be friends with someone who disagreed with them on politics.
The more thoughtful liberals at Harvard, the ones that have so enriched my experience, understand that having smart conservatives on campus to challenge liberal orthodoxy and groupthink is fundamental to healthy liberalism. Stereotyping all people who disagree with you as uncritical only makes you yourself uncritical. A belief system is worth nothing if it hasn't withstood scrutiny.
Conservatives are rare here: only 13 percent of the class of 2012 leaned towards Romney. It would be dangerous for that number to drop further. Harvard liberals need to start making conservatives feel welcome before they stop enrolling entirely.
So liberals: Engage. Debate empirics. Explain assumptions you've never had to explain before, even if they seem obvious. They are not obvious to everyone. Most of all, treat conservatives with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt. Like you, most of them are not terrible or stupid people. They just disagree with you.
I told the questioner at the conference that no, I am not ashamed that Bill O'Reilly went to Harvard despite my political disagreements with him. Of course there are times I think he's being illogical or pandering himself, but mostly I think he is an intelligent man who cares about people just as I do. He simply understands the world to work differently and consequently believes different policies will best help society. May that more Harvard liberals realize the same of their conservative classmates.
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