Imagine a world in which no one said anything that might offend anyone else, in which no one challenged the orthodoxy.
Imagine that world, and you will get a glimpse of the world in which we'll live if the critics of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers got their way.
Summers was discussing the under-representation of women in the top tiers of academic science when he said something that was so offensive that it caused one woman to go into near-faint worthy of Scarlett O'Hara. "I felt I was going to be sick," said MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins. "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I was extremely upset."
Exactly what Summers said is at dispute, and that is part of the problem. Even though the luncheon address was supposed to be off the record, it was taped and a transcript of that tape should be released.
If there is going to be a debate, at least it should be based on what everyone can be sure that Summers said.
Generally, it is agreed that Summers suggested that among the reasons women may lag behind men in top academic positions are the demands of motherhood for some women and a possible innate difference between men and women. Oh, and he told a story about when he gave his own daughter two trucks in an homage to gender neutrality. She responded by naming the trucks Daddy truck and Baby truck.
That, apparently, is enough to make a feminist go faint.
Summers has apologized profusely for whatever offense he has given, which seem s to be unnecessary, but if he felt compelled to do so, that is his right. He also said he was not endorsing a position, only stating that there is research that suggests there are biological differences in men's and women's scientific abilities.
More troublesome, however, is Summers' suggestion that in the future he will muzzle himself. "Particularly on sensitive topics, I will speak in much less spontaneous ways and in ways that are much more mindful of my position as president," Summers said.
Those who are eager to hang Summer out to dry should consider the implications.
Think of all the things that were once accepted as doctrine. Women weren't considered capable of voting, much less holding office. White men were allowed to own black men. Married women were not allowed to teach in many U.S. school districts. In each of these cases, and hundreds of others, it took people willing to say things that were considered wrong-headed or even outrageous to change the way society responded to minorities.
Other side of same coin
Today, for instance, many people in the movement to recognize gay rights base their argument on the theory that some people are genetically inclined to be gay. Should a university president on another day at another conference be fearful of even suggesting that nature plays a larger role than nurture in determining sexual preference?
And certainly, if university presidents can't dare utter such things, no university should be conducting research into such theories.
Universities are supposed to be places where different possibilities to explain the human condition are debated and researched. When university officials are cowed into being less spontaneous, nothing good happens.