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To the Class of 2023: On Self-Censorship

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Not long ago, an Iranian woman in my class told me that in her country, one had to be careful about what you said in public, but could say what you wanted in private.

“At Harvard, however, it’s the reverse,” she said.

This is the self-censorship some Harvard students complain of. Only some complain because the complaint is directed against the rest who dominate conversation and do not want to hear opposition. These dominant students may not begin as a majority, but the activist few create the majority who accept their view and then impose it on those who disagree, forcing them to censor themselves.

The punishment for not censoring yourself is to lose the company of fellow students and to be disregarded and shunned. You are not put in jail, as happens in Iran and other countries, but you are deprived of the fellowship you want from college life.

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I don’t know how widespread the necessity to censor oneself is felt, but I think the judgment behind it is pretty accurate. In practice, Harvard is a one-party spot, much more so than even the practically one-party state and one-party city in which it resides. But is this such an unhappy fact?

Self-censorship might seem to be a part of self-control based on the need to respect others. Everyone knows what tact is, and as one matures one gains experience of the great truth that it often pays to keep your mouth shut. You may be proud of the many wise and witty things you say, but with your mouth shut you will not be embarrassed by the few foolish remarks you let slip. From the standpoint of tact, self-censorship might seem to be an education in prudence and responsibility.

Perhaps the complainers about self-censorship should be boasting of their ability to exercise prudence. They are getting a better education than the many who live unprotesting and almost unconscious in the Harvard bubble. Conservatives, I like to say, get more from Harvard by having to be critical of its boring, politicized conformity — and by being forced into self-censorship. Upon graduation they can go elsewhere and enjoy a freedom they have prepared for themselves.

Yet if self-censorship is a benefit, should it not be made more general than it is? All should experience the feeling of taking a course where one sits in silence as an unaddressed minority. Why should genuine education be reserved for conservatives? But this reasoning might suggest that everyone should spend a term in jail to learn what it’s like. Then let’s move from the benefit to the harm of self-censorship.

Today, self-expression has much greater sway than self-control. To be free, it is said, you must be able to express yourself and be safe while doing so. To express yourself fully means to fashion your own identity. And to do that, the danger of being offended in your identity becomes a vital point: You must be free both to take offense when you are disrespected and to give offense when your own identity demands it.

Everyday slight offenses loom as large as major ones that are rare. Self-expression permits, even requires, that the names people use be inspected for the harm they cause. Once respected names like Woodrow Wilson and John Winthrop may need to be abandoned and tossed into the trash can of non-history. Pronouns, too, need to be revised so as not to offend persons formerly known as women; no more impersonal he or him, no more chairman or freshman.

Do people object to such changes, made without their consent? Mostly not, but if they did, they would be informed that justice overrides their sense of offense, and they must consent to the kind of censorship that actually puts words in your mouth. They must learn the new expressions and learn to like them. Self-censorship raises your consciousness and wakes you up so that you can join the woke.

Is anything lost by being woke? Yes, let me suggest there is. Instead of arguing the point, one begins to search for character defects and pounce when they are found. You blind yourself by taking offense because in doing so you are led to simplify the justice you think is so unquestionable. Instead of thinking about what justice might require, you try to shame opposition out of existence.

Believing that justice is easy to think, you begin to believe it is easy to apply. You conclude that slavery was as easy to abolish as to denounce today after it is abolished. You regard those who gave their lives in a Civil War to gain that end as less just than we are now, bravely changing names and pronouns. You agree that Harvard has a legacy of slavery rather than the legacy of anti-slavery you can see every day with a glimpse of Memorial Hall.

My argument against taking offense ends up by taking offense. I got there in defense of the honor of Harvard, which I have always loved a little more than it deserves. Now, facing my 70th reunion, it must be time to calm down and retire, accepting my own self-censorship.

To the Class of 2023: Make a life for yourselves that you can be proud of. And by the way, to keep our classrooms full, we teachers are always grateful to former students who have children.

Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government.

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