The tyranny of the minority
THE LATEST brouhaha at Harvard, home of the perpetually offended, is over a motivational speech telling women that they can have it all: career, marriage, and children. The remarks, delivered by singer-actress Jada Pinkett Smith on Feb. 26 at the Cultural Rhythms show organized by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, were deemed too heterosexual by some. Or, in politically correct newspeak, ''heteronormative."
Here's a sample of what Pinkett Smith said, as recounted by The Harvard Crimson:
''Women, you can have it all -- a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. To my men, open your mind, open your eyes to new ideas. Be open."
On March 2, The Harvard Crimson reported that some members of the Harvard Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance had been offended by the speech and were calling for an apology from the foundation. In response, the foundation pledged to ''inform future speakers that they will be speaking to an audience diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, and class."
So what was the offense? In the words of alliance cochair Jordan Woods, ''Some of the content was extremely heteronormative, and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable." The other cochair, Margaret Barusch, explained that Pinkett Smith's comments, while not intentionally offensive, were insensitive due to their ''strong focus on how to effectively be in a relationship -- a heterosexual relationship."
''Heteronormative" means treating heterosexuality as the norm.
Maybe it's not a sensitive thing to say at Harvard, but statistically speaking, heterosexuality is the norm -- which just might have something to do with the biology of mammalian reproduction. Researchers estimate that 2 to 5 percent of the population is exclusively or primarily homosexual. In the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage was legalized in 2001, fewer than 2 percent of new marriages are between same-sex partners.
Of course, this does not mean that gays shouldn't have equal rights or legal protections for their relationships, or that homosexuality is somehow wrong; human nature has many variations. But it's a huge step from tolerance and acceptance (which still have a long way to go in our culture) to the demand for acknowledgment in every reference to relationships. Such an insistence is especially ridiculous in Pinkett Smith's case, since she was talking about men's and women's changing roles in partnership with each other.
One performer in the Cultural Rhythms show, Ofole Mgbako, wisely noted to the Crimson that ''you'll always in some way be exclusive." Indeed. Let's say that Pinkett Smith had been inclusive enough to use the word ''partner" instead of ''husband." Couldn't she still be accused of promoting the scandalous idea that it's the norm for women to marry and have kids? Should women whose life plans do not include marriage and children have taken offense?
At the other end of the spectrum, surely the student body at Harvard includes a few traditionalist women who plan to devote most of their adult lives to full-time motherhood. Should they have been complaining at the suggestion that one's life is not complete without a career?
Equality and inclusion for minorities -- religious, ethnic, racial, or sexual -- is without a doubt a laudable goal. But trying to eliminate everything that could make a member of a minority feel ''uncomfortable" can result in a tyranny as oppressive as the tyranny of the majority. You can't talk about Western culture for fear of offending people of non-Western background; you can't sing ''God Bless America" for fear of offending the nonreligious.
Right now, our culture is polarized between elite enclaves that embrace this radical vision of ''diversity" and fairly large segments of the population in which even basic tolerance toward some minorities -- particularly gays -- is still lacking. As Harvard student Adam Schneider, a former public relations officer for the alliance, wrote in an opinion piece in the Crimson, '' 'Heteronormativity' is hardly a pressing concern when issues like hate crimes and job discrimination plague LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] Americans more frequently and devastatingly."
Politically correct extremism can only further this polarization. Not surprisingly, the controversy over Pinkett Smith's speech at Harvard was great fodder for the conservative media. Why throw red meat to those who caricature the gay rights movement as hostile to both heterosexual marriage and free speech?
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.