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‘Majoritarian Morality’ and Civic Values

By Chelsea Richardson ’18

In a recent article for The Clerk, David Canada argues that while plagiarism is objectively wrong, determining what constitutes racism and other bigotries is subjective. Canada fails to see that his designation of plagiarism as morally wrong is also subjective; it’s just a majoritarian morality that has been around longer. Every civic value we commit to as a community is normative and subjective. That includes restorative justice, consensus, respect, honesty, and integrity. These principles are subjectively chosen by the intentional community of Haverford to guide our moral existence. The same process is now being applied to acts of discrimination and harassment–but we instinctively view it as something different because it has not yet been naturalized as an obvious social norm.

Every political community commits to a set of normative values, such as the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, which reflects the substantive values of political liberalism. It is not ‘objectively’ wrong to deny someone due process or seize something without probable cause; these normative principles are subjective by nature. This is why we have so much disagreement in the international arena as to what constitutes human rights: the norms governing moral action and the moral responsibilities of the state are constantly evolving and being shaped by newly considered interpretations of our norms.

If we are going to eliminate every principle based on ‘majoritarian morality,’ as Canada calls it, we will be left with no civic values. Our political community will be baseless, with no form of civic solidarity to stand on. We can debate the merits of whether anti-discrimination principles should be part of our civic community, but we cannot debate the merits of whether subjective principles should be part of the Honor Code. Every legal code or constitution is grounded in normative principles about what should and should not be. The Supreme Court cases Canada cites are grounded in normative ideas about the value of free speech. Should we dispense with the value of free speech, since its moral basis is subjective?

We seem to have forgotten that normative values form the groundwork of every political community. Similarly, normative value judgments inform our everyday decision making, even when we don’t think about it. For instance, take CPAC’s recent cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at its annual convention. While CPAC found it unacceptable for UC Berkeley to cancel Milo’s speech based on moral concerns regarding his racist, White Supremacist, xenophobic, transphobic, and overall repulsive worldview, it made a similar moral determination when it cancelled his speech at its own convention. When CPAC found out that Milo espoused beliefs that violated its own predetermined moral principles, i.e. an objection to pedophilia, it canceled his speech. This was a morally justified decision, grounded in a normative guiding principle of conservative logic: pedophilia is wrong.

Free Speech?

Another problem with Canada’s argument is its reliance on Constitutional jurisprudence. As most of us know, the Supreme Court’s rulings apply to acts of Congress, not private educational institutions. But, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Haverford wants to emulate Congress and remain beholden to the Supreme Court’s rulings. If this were the case, the Social Honor Code’s nondiscrimination clause would still not violate the First Amendment.

Throughout the US, we have workplace harassment laws that are actually quite similar to the nondiscrimination clause in the Social Honor Code. Incidences of sexual harassment, for example, do not constitute free speech because they are “fighting words,” or create a hostile work environment. While some far-right commentators have argued that harassment in the workplace should be protected under the First Amendment, the courts have generally ruled in favor of this exception when it comes to harassment and discrimination.

One of the examples of potentially threatened free speech in Canada’s article is the expression of an Islamophobic remark. Though reprehensible, this doesn’t actually constitute discrimination or harassment. By definition, harassment is recurring, intentional, and demonstrably harmful to the receiving party. Harassment produces a hostile learning environment just as it produces a hostile workplace environment. This is also why laws against bullying do not violate the First Amendment. While we all have the right to political expression, we do not have the right to harass and discriminate.

More likely, Canada is concerned that the community would use this clause to bring a student to trial for an unintentional, offensive remark, or a controversial political statement. If this kind of situation were brought to Honor Council, I am confident that it would be dismissed, since it does not constitute harassment or discrimination. Especially if the confronted party expresses remorse for any harm they may have caused or indicates a willingness to engage in respectful conversation, there would be no reason for a trial. On the other hand, when, for example, a student repeatedly and intentionally misgenders their trans hall-mate and purposefully excludes them with hateful, transphobic rhetoric, that student has violated the Social Honor Code. Harassment and discrimination have no place in a political community founded on the civic ideals of trust, concern, and respect.

In fact, when the Muppets panel began deliberating, one of the main problems was the lack of remorse or accountability on the part of the confronting parties. They seemed to agree that what they did was offensive and wrong, but viewed attempts at restoring mutual trust between the two parties as unfairly punitive. In reality, the Muppets panel utilized restorative justice principles to encourage mutual understanding and respect between the confronted and confronting parties. Canada characterizes the resolutions set forth by the Muppets panel as administrative punishments, but I see them as restorative measures aimed at educating the confronted party about race and gender in America. A willingness to learn about the painful history of blackface in America is, quite honestly, not much to ask for. As a community that has selected trust, concern, and respect as our civic values, we should be more than willing to learn about something as disrespectful and harmful as blackface.

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