OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The question of genocide

It would be a good exercise for any American. Imagine yourself as president of Harvard--or MIT or Penn. But let's say Harvard.

You've just been asked aggressively by a Republican at a congressional committee meeting to answer yes or no: Does calling for genocide against Jews, which has happened in demonstrations on college campuses this frightfully regressive American season, violate your campus' policy against harassment and bullying and thus constitute grounds for punishment of a student?

I'll start, acknowledging that I've had time to formulate and fine-tune this response. The presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn didn't have that luxury last week. Or maybe they did, if they'd had enough savvy to anticipate such a question from Republican culture-warriors on the prowl.

Here goes:

"My answer is yes without equivocation. Such statements amount to harassment and bullying, of course. That's an understatement.

"I'd like to elaborate to make the point that the question is not hard personally and should not be difficult institutionally.

"Context and nuance are always important. But there is no nuance in any conceivable context that acquiesces to a call for genocide against people because of their religion, or for any reason.

"The constitutional freedom of speech in our country is glorious. We must be vigilant to protect it. We also must be vigilant not to abuse it.

"We must understand that our treasured First Amendment frees one from government sanction for offensive speech. But it does not insulate one against student punishment at Harvard.

"Its essence is to guarantee and protect the right to dissent in political speech. But it is not a license for criminal advocacy.

"Some have said that a call for genocide against Jews would be clearly actionable on a college campus only when it 'passed over into conduct,' presumably meaning to actual genocidal acts. But that is to contend that a public call for mass murder is just innocent talk, though of course you reserve the right to call mass murder a crime should it come to that.

"That would be too late.

"This is not an issue of whether Harvard or other institutions have become hostage to a new illiberal liberalism--illiberal in its intolerance. That's a proper broader debate. But genocide is not for partisanship. It's for its own immediate and universal condemnation.

"It is true that the specific Harvard policy refers only to harassment and bullying and nothing more specific or defining. So, yes, any punishments made under it would require a case-by-case interpretation of whether the action the speech advocated amounted to harassment and bullying.

"Surely, though, we can all agree--or most of us can--that publicly calling for genocide encompasses harassing and bullying the people targeted by the call. I would not remain in association with any institution that tried to say less, and I do not believe the institution I am proud to lead would try.

"But it's equally important to stress that legitimate political debate that offends must be protected. Protests that condemn Israel's full arsenal of retaliatory acts against Hamas--and the United States for effectively sanctioning that full arsenal--represent a values debate in a free and open society, which is what America is all about and which Harvard exists to advance with the highest levels of enlightenment.

"I thank the congressperson for enduring my elaboration. Lest there is still any uncertainty, let me make tersely clear: The question was whether advocating genocide violates our Harvard policy against harassment and bullying. The answer is that it sure as hell does."

Now, there is a tougher question: Should Dr. Claudine Gay, the Harvard president who hedged her answer by invoking context and conduct, have met the same fate as that of the similarly answering president of Penn, who corrected herself, apologized and resigned for the good of the school?

Harvard's governing board opted Tuesday morning to keep Gay on the job. It dealt with competing Harvard-based petitions--one side defending academic independence from pressure by politically motivated members of Congress, and the other side saying the point was not academic independence, or politics, but basic morality.

That's Harvard's business. But it is one's right as an American to voice an opinion. It's one's human responsibility to ponder the moral question.

I'd condemn Gay's answer strongly. I'd defend the university as a haven for free expression but not for hate, crime and political partisanship when moral values are in question.

Then I'd let her stay because politicians don't get to make campus decisions and she deserves a chance to go forth and never again blunder so basically and thoroughly.

There is one more question: Are modern-day progressives killing themselves politically by the mere appearance of softness on genocide? Again, the answer is easy and an unequivocal yes.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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