Harvard’s Lesson in Self-Praise and Faux Engagement
By Kelly Thomas | February 22, 2017, 9:31 EST
I made a mistake last night. I went to an event at Harvard Kennedy School.
No, that wasn’t my mistake, that came later, when I asked a question.
Let me backtrack.
The event in question was hosted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics; it was undoubtedly one of those scintillating roundtables promised to prospective students in shiny admissions brochures. Titled “Moving Forward Together: Gender and Politics after the Inauguration,” the discussion featured an all-female panel and was even co-sponsored by College Republicans and Democrats and Harvard’s Network of Enlightened Women (Though I later found out this was mis-advertising on the part of the Institute).*
I walked in, prepared to witness a delightful firestorm of ideas, of an ilk befitting the nation’s top university. After all, the event description promised to “welcome a diversity of political perspectives to foster conversation and cooperation on our campus in the new presidential era.”
There was even a woman on the panel who had volunteered for Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts. Granted, she was lined up with four liberal or quasi-liberal panelists, but at least they had made an effort at political diversity.
An hour later, I had been lulled into a stupor by the ceaseless stream of nauseating self-congratulatory remarks from four of the progressive panelists, while the fifth member of the panel, the woman who had volunteered for the Trump campaign in Massachusetts, sat quietly. She listened as her fellow presenters went around the room checking their privilege and reflecting on their “authenticity,” while listing the many brave ways they were both resisting the great reign of terror we are now living under while also making sure to talk to people who had brought this great travesty to pass.
“Once I got over the initial devastation of the election, and picked myself off the floor, I had to check my privilege and reassess my party,” said one panelist, who asked that her name not be published. Yet in the same breath as she announced her sheer terror at the horrors sure to come in the next four years, she added that she felt now was the time to “truly engage” with those she disagreed with politically.
The mostly-female audience nodded, further affirming her heroism at being able to stomach having a discussion with those who had wrought such devastation upon her.
Another panelist shared that she had made a list of goals after the election, enumerating how she was going to fight and resist the new president. She then recounted how she spent inauguration day at Fort Defiance in Arizona, telling the room how she was so moved that the Navajos were so understanding of her sorrow, even though, she admitted, what they had suffered was so much worse than what she “was going to suffer” under the Trump administration.
The panelist who had supported Trump’s campaign stared ahead as her colleagues continued speaking of the devastation awaiting us in between their statements enjoining the room to reach out to those people who had put us all in this horrible position.
Then, one of the panelists, in a brief moment of lucidity, mentioned that perhaps there is an “Us vs. Them mentality” in the feminist movement, and that perhaps there needs to be greater inclusion of religious, conservative, or pro-life women. She said there seemed to be a lot of finger-pointing from Hillary supporters, who felt like those who had not voted for the Democratic candidate had “betrayed the sisterhood.”
It was at about this time that I asked my question. A word to the wise: at such thought-provoking and intellectually rigorous events such as this, it’s best to keep your questions along the lines of “what advice do you have?” or “What do you think our next step is?”
No one had given me that headsup, however.
I instead asked how events, like the Women’s March, could be made more inclusive if even such amicable discussions such as this one, which was held under the auspices of having an engaging conversation with differing political views, contained subtle attacks and sheathed malice directed at the conservative side, with nary a thought given towards the intellectual validity of the conservative arguments.
Somehow, my question sparked a series of outraged expressions — and noises — from the liberal women on the panel. They all spoke over each other, assuring us all, and themselves, that they were very open to dialogue and anxious to learn and respect others… and to check their privilege. They were very keen on checking their privilege.
I mentioned some of the quotes they had used previously, regarding the “horrors that were sure to come” now that there was a conservative majority in D.C.
The response was a mixture of panic that somehow a journalist had been let into an open event, followed by another jumble of assurances that this was a room for engaging and coming together.
Though what exactly it was that we were supposed to be engaging with, I never did find out, as nothing resembling actual policy was discussed. I had clearly been duped into thinking that an event held in the highest echelons of America’s ivory tower, ostensibly to bring together a variety of viewpoints, was to be anything more than a self-affirming evening in which the majority of the panelists and the event coordinators could pat themselves on the back for being open-minded enough to sit at the same table as one of the enemy, while simultaneously making veiled attacks at the Republican party and carefully avoiding any topic of real substance.
The event ended shortly thereafter, though not before one of the event organizers made sure to ask the panelists what advice they had for us gathered there.
They told us to engage with each other.
Then they came up to me to make sure I didn’t actually write down anything they had said.
*Editor’s note: Although the event description published by the Institute of Politics listed Harvard Republicans and Network of Enlightened Women as co-sponsors, the leaders of both group contact the author after the article’s publication to say that they were listed against their wishes, and that neither club had anything to do with the event.
Kelly Thomas received her B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and her M.A. in Terrorism, Security and Society from the War Studies Department at King’s College London, exploring the intersection of religious expression in the public square and the fight against terrorism. Read her past articles here.