Fiery, fork-throwing conversations—or, you know, shouting matches—with loved ones about hot-button political and social issues are such a common experience that it’s close to surpassing gathering around the fire and roasting chestnuts as the most clichéd family holiday setup.
While not the jolliest part of the holiday season, speaking with Bill O’Reilly-obsessed aunts, or uncles who are all about “feeling the Bern,” are normal activities that all semi-mature adolescents and adults are capable of managing—unless, apparently, they attend Harvard University.
On Dec. 10, Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in collaboration with the Freshman Dean’s Office helpfully released “Placemats for Social Justice” to guide students’ “holiday discussions on race and justice with loved ones.”
The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, reported that the placemats had been hung on dining hall walls after being adopted from ones created by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a “national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice,” according to its website.
Apparently, these Harvard administrators were worried that students who scored on average a 2229 on the SAT could not handle discussing basic current events with family members.
The general suggestions are melodramatic and patronizing, a mix of meditation instructions laden with heavy assumptions about students’ families:
“LISTEN mindfully before formulating a thoughtful response”
“AFFIRM Clarify the difference between the good intentions and the impact”
Implicit in these guidelines is Harvard administrators’ belief that every student has some version of Bobby Moynihan’s “drunk uncle” waiting to berate them at home.
And even if some students do have their own bloodline Archie Bunkers, should Harvard be making assumptions for how to deal with people with whom you share deep, personal bonds?
As a colleague rightfully pointed out, you know your racist drunk uncle better than Harvard does.
However, the far more egregious problem with the “Placemats for Social Justice” is the formulaic, deeply opinionated answers presented by Harvard administrators as the sole correct responses to complex, controversial issues.
For example, on the topic of “Yale/Student Activism,” the placemat poses the potential family member question: “Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?”
The question in and of itself is an overly simplistic, straw-man version of a complex, nuanced query about the college protests (it also only focuses on Yale when the protests have occurred at schools throughout the country).
The question also assumes any criticism of the protests would be race-based and avoids more complicated, and thus, harder to answer questions, like: “Why do some students feel colleges should monitor Halloween costume?,” “Why do students feel making demands and shouting at professors is an effective means of expressing their ideas?,” and “From where does the desire for ‘safe spaces’ originate?”
Perhaps, the answers to these questions wouldn’t fit on a placemat.
“When I hear students expressing their experiences with racism on campus I don’t hear complaining,” the placemat reads, assuming full support of the campus protests. “Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I may not experience. If non-Black students get the privilege of that safe environment, I believe that same privilege should be given to all students.”
The other three topics presented are: “House Master Title,” “Islamophobia/Refugees,” and “Black Murder in the Street.” With the last topic, the query is: “Why didn’t they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn’t have happened.”
The answer begins: “Do you think the response would be the same if it was a white person being pulled over?”
From the get-go, there’s the assumption that the person asking the question harbors racial biases.
All the responses to the four topics are based on the assumption that all Harvard students hold left-leaning social and political views.
The placemats in and of themselves indicate that Harvard administrators believe that they are entitled to dictate which beliefs are sanctioned on campus.
With the recent college protests, it has generally been the students pushing the limits on free speech and bans on microaggressions that challenge intellectual diversity.
Ironically, in this latest Harvard case, the threat is coming from administrators not the students.
Students appear to have been the ones leading the backlash against the placemats.
Eighteen members of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, the main student government group, released a letter, stating:
“We reject the premise that there is a ‘right’ way to answer the questions posed. We do not think the offices of the university should be in the business of disseminating ‘approved’ positions on complex and divisive political issues. Prescribing party-line talking points stands in stark contrast to the College’s mission of fostering intellectual, social, and personal growth.”
After initially telling The Crimson that the placemats enabled “constructive dialogue,” Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman apologized for them along with Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde in an email.
In it, the duo acknowledged that they “failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus on some of the most complex issues we confront as a community and society today.”
It is embarrassing for Harvard administrators, especially ones at the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, that students needed to point out that they were restricting rather than promoting diversity on campus.
No one from the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion responded to The Daily Beast’s questions regarding the motivation behind the placemat, or how the four topics were selected, or who wrote the answers.
“I don’t want to be difficult, but we’re really tired of this story,” Anna Cowenhoven, the director of communications at Harvard, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t believe anyone is speaking on the record. I think the message apologizing to students speaks for itself.”
Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust may have had the best administrative response to the placemats, telling The Crimson that they were simply “a really bad idea.”
“I don’t think the University should be directing people—students, staff, faculty—what to say or what to think,” Faust told The Crimson in an interview last week. “The University is a place that ought to foster robust discussion and disagreement, and welcome all perspectives, and that did not seem to be consistent with the message of the placemats.”