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Difficult questions about “A message from MIT’s faculty”

mitSome MIT faculty, led by Roger Levy and Nancy Kanwisher, posted a short message regarding what they believe in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. More than 400 faculty have now signed it. As an MIT alumnus, I read this statement and wondered about the platitudes it contains: why make this statement, and why ask faculty to sign it? The answers may make you uneasy.

The platitudes in this statement are problematic

The 233-word statement is well-written and direct — it’s free of jargon, passive voice, and weasel words. If you think only about the words, it seems clear and effective. But its filled with platitudes nobody disagrees with. The fact that these faculty need to make statements of this kind says a lot about them, and the times we live in. I’ve appended my comments in italic.

A message from MIT faculty reaffirming our shared values

Comments: This title isn’t quite accurate. This is a statement from some faculty at MIT, not all of them, and is not the official position of the Institute.

The President-elect has appointed individuals to positions of power who have endorsed racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and denied the widespread scientific consensus on climate change. Regardless of our political views, these endorsements violate principles at the core of MIT’s mission. At this time, it is important to reaffirm the values we hold in common.

Question: Why not mention the president-elect by name? More importantly, why are the two accusations — appointing racists and bigots and climate change denial — presented as parallel? These are very different things. One of MIT’s values is open discourse — doesn’t that include a failure to believe in climate change? (If, like most Republicans in congress, the president-elect had denied client change but had not appointed advisors who were bigots, this message would not exist.)

Why is it important “at this time” to reaffirm MIT’s values? This is an attempt to show unity at MIT behind one viewpoint. But I don’t believe that unity exists. Surely there are professors and students that voted for Trump on the campus, but they’re not included in this letter. Looking more deeply, I think this is an upsetting time for many Americans, and that the folks who created and signed this letter wanted to feel as if they were doing something. This is a response to an emotional need on the campus.

We, the undersigned faculty at MIT, thus affirm the following principles:

  • We unconditionally reject every form of bigotry, discrimination, hateful rhetoric, and hateful action, whether directed towards one’s race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability, citizenship, political views, socioeconomic status, veteran status, or immigration status.

Comments: A courageous stand against bigotry. But as with most platitudes, no one will disagree with this. Trump himself could sign a statement to this effect and keep doing what he’s doing — he’s already said that he doesn’t believe Steve Bannon is a bigot.

  • We endorse MIT’s values of open, respectful discourse and exchange of ideas from the widest variety of intellectual, religious, class, cultural, and political perspectives.

Comments: Another platitude — no one is against open and respectful discourse. Why is this here? Is it targeted at Trump’s style, which is far from open and respectful? Or is is an attempt to show that by respectfully censuring Trump, these faculty are adhering to their own standards?

  • We uphold the principles of the scientific method, of fact- and reason-based objective inquiry. Science is not a special interest; it is not optional. Science is a foundational ingredient in how we as a society analyze, understand, and solve the most difficult challenges that we face.

Comments: You might think “we believe in science” is a platitude, but in today’s political discourse, it’s not. Trump in particular seems to find facts — scientific or otherwise — to be a smorgasbord where you can pick what you want, regardless of quality. Still, in the MIT community, everyone believes in science, so why say it?

For any member of our community who may feel fear or oppression, our doors are open and we are ready to help. We pledge to work with all members of the community – students, faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, and administrators – to defend these principles today and in the times ahead.

Comments: This gets to the real message. If you sign this, you agree to help people who now feel oppressed. (“Oppression” is one of those words which, in a political context, ought to make you skeptical about what you’re reading.) Consider the plight of the Trump supporter on the MIT campus, though. Might that person feel like they’re in an oppressed minority?

An honest rewrite of this message

If the writers of this message really wanted to be clear, they would acknowledge that what they’re saying is obvious — and why they still need to say it. They’d end up with something like this.

A message from some of MIT’s faculty

A lot of us — and our students — have become uneasy since the election of Donald Trump. To make ourselves feel better, we wanted to write down what we believe in — even thought it ought to be obvious.

  1. We’re for science, and scientific inquiry. Because of the president-elect’s tenuous relationship with facts, we don’t trust him.
  2. We’re against bigotry. Of course. But now that racists and misogynists all over America are feeling that Trump’s election gives them license to be shitheads, we just wanted to say that. If you’re part of the MIT community and somebody threatens you on this basis, come to us and we’ll try to help.
  3. We’re for responsible discussion of differences. And we sure wish that the people in Washington, starting from the new president on down, would learn that skill.

One more uncomfortable question

Now every faculty member at MIT has a choice: to sign this message, or not to.

What does it mean if you don’t sign? What if you agree with part of the message, and not another part? What if you don’t think loyalty pledges like this are a good idea, and you’re against them on principle? What if you’re a Trump supporter, even though you disagree with some of what he has done?

By posting this, the faculty who created it have attempted to support one group — people who feel oppressed by Donald Trump’s election — and in the process, have created another oppressed group: faculty unwilling to sign a pledge.

Is this one of MIT’s core values, or is it in violation of one?

I understand the impulse that led to this message. But it’s worth thinking about its unintended consequences.

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  1. I think the rewrite is brilliant. The whole thing reminds me a little of Tom Lehrer’s joke about National Brotherhood Week: “There are people out there who do not love their fellow neighbor, and I *hate* people like that.”

  2. I grew up in a rural area and still hold many ties to that area. It’s behaviors like this pledge that made many of the people from places like that support Trump. Driving wedges, even in the name of benevolence, is a risky business that, if undertaken, must be done with a balance of directness and finesse. The MIT version of that attempt had neither. It was heavy-handed and ham-fisted, at best.

  3. What was the point of this pledge? For the signers to feel good about themselves and reassure each other that they’re the good guys. Nothing more.