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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Let me begin with an uncontroversial claim: There is virtue in humility and in seeking to understand other people’s motives.
No one disputes this on its face. Surely, most can agree that rejecting this principle would toxify our civic life and cripple our effort to coexist harmoniously.
But every day, in school, politics, and social life, we eschew moderation and attempts to understand in favor of indignation and disgust — even at institutions dedicated to seeking truth.
Take originalism, the preferred interpretive framework of most of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices and the basis for its recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson overturning the constitutional right to abortion. When Roe v. Wade fell, The Crimson Editorial Board issued a scathing condemnation of the majority’s conclusion. That piece, as with much other protest, was strongest when it was moral, highlighting the importance of the right to the health and autonomy of women.
But in equal measure, the piece was weakest when it was legal. This Board did not mince words about the “farcical legal theatre” behind the opinion, reflecting its apparent belief that there is no legal basis for the decision. Accordingly, it made only casual use of technical terms like “fundamental right” at the heart of long-running doctrinal debates to draw sweeping legal conclusions that its reasoning could not support. This needlessly obscured the powerful moral argument at the heart of the piece: that women’s bodies should not be conscripted to carry unwanted children to term.
It is, of course, entirely reasonable to have serious grievances with the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, and that doesn’t require any knowledge of the law. But how many Harvard students have engaged with the judicial philosophy that underpins it? Instead of truly interrogating why originalists think the way they do, we have reduced a complex legal ideology, worthy of our scrutiny and critique, to “gaseous misogyny.”
As the vitriol of the culture wars has grown more venomous, our natural response has been mistrust – an utter lack of faith that those with whom we disagree are acting in good faith. While not always unwarranted, it has contaminated every corner of American life.
This especially includes how we talk to one another. Quality discourse requires believing that the other has something of value to say. It is difficult to possess this kind of intellectual humility when one’s opponents appear so ill-intentioned and, well, wrong. It is easy, by contrast, to feel humble when our convictions seem incontestable. To many, pro-choice attitudes can only result from a callous indifference to life, or pro-life views from a misogynistic sort of religious dogmatism.
Do not take me to mean that people should not feel galvanized, even disgusted, about political affairs. Political beliefs are expressions of deeply personal, important values and experiences that are worth fighting for. Few issues exemplify this more strongly than the right to abortion.
My fear, rather, is that mistrust has led us to lose sight of powerful, politically neutral principles essential to living together constructively. I believe that recommitting to the following two maxims would go a long way towards healing our culture: One, embodying intellectual humility does not require one to believe that they are wrong, and two, charitably interpreting the motives of those with whom one disagrees does not require compromising one’s deeply held beliefs.
The understanding that no one person has every answer is an essential counterbalance to the excesses of passion and purpose. Often, being more attuned to why people think what they think will not reverse one’s beliefs or even substantially alter them. But the very act of listening allows us to distinguish the vast majority of our ideological opponents from the worst of their partisans.
To be clear, being charitable to the stated motives of others does not deny the reality that many individuals do not act in good faith. I am not suggesting, for instance, that you take Senator Josh Hawley’s tweets at face value. I am also under no illusion that your ideological opponents will always extend this same courtesy to you. But why would they ever do so if nobody made an effort? To disarm other people’s instinct to distrust, we must signal that we are willing to engage, not without qualification, but with an open ear and genuine desire to understand.
Both of these principles require us to affirmatively choose trust. That won’t be easy. But I believe adopting them is the only way for us to exit this vicious cycle of ideological polarization. If we can move away from the notion that those in our lives with seriously different views are bad people, fundamentally incompatible with us in civic and social life, we can both reinvigorate our political discourse and more fully realize the benefits of our diversity.
Our nation has more than 330 million people. Collectively, we represent far too broad a range of values and experiences to prosper in a culture that lionizes “owning the libs” and punishes compromise. This means you should speak your mind — about Dobbs v. Jackson or whatever else draws your fervor. But try having trust, too. See what insights it allows you to uncover. Our fracturing political system depends on it.
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.
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