“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying or harassment?”
That was the question presented to the presidents of three elite universities—Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania—in a recent congressional hearing. Each of the three women took turns answering the question but their responses were the same: it would depend on the circumstances and conduct. None of them was willing to directly say students calling for genocide of Jewish people would violate their school’s code of conduct.
Most congressional hearings pass without much notice, but the backlash to this event was swift and angry. School alumni, politicians, and business leaders have called for the immediate resignation or expulsion of these university presidents. “Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world?” asked Bill Ackman, a Harvard grad and billionaire hedge fund manager. “Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context.”
Rule by HR
How we should interpret speech often does depend on the context surrounding the speech. That principle applies not only to the speech of students on campuses but also to the speech of university presidents testifying before Congress.
What was their context? In a word, proceduralism. Proceduralism “justifies rules, decisions, or institutions by reference to a valid process, as opposed to their being morally correct according to a substantive account of justice or goodness.” As economics professor Tyler Cowen says, “Their entire testimony is ruled by their lawyers, by their fear that their universities might be sued, and their need to placate internal interest groups.” And as Katherine Boyle noted, “This is Rule by HR Department and it gets dark very fast.”
“Rule by HR Department” is an apt phrase to describe a type of proceduralism where an organization—a business, college, or even religious denomination—is excessively governed by its human resources (HR) policies and procedures to the point that these policies overshadow other considerations. While HR departments play a crucial role, an overemphasis on HR-style processes can lead an organization to forget the purpose is to serve people.
An overemphasis on HR-style processes can lead an organization to forget the purpose is to serve people.
This was a problem for these university presidents, who seemed to have misunderstood why they were being called to testify. They thought their role was to justify their school’s “valid process.” They were being called before an HR proxy (the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) and proceeded to give the type of response one gives to HR in such situations: a defense of one’s actions based on compliance with written policies.
In that sense, from an HR mindset, their answers were likely to be legally and technically correct. What they overlooked, of course, were the people—their Jewish students who feel threatened and their students who are promoting genocide.
HR Mindset vs. Moral Leadership
In her clarification video, University of Pennsylvania president M. Elizabeth Magill talked about the mass genocide of Jews and said, “In my view, [a call for genocide] would be intimidation and harassment.” Yet instead of calling out the students who were making pro-genocide statements, she shifted back into HR mode. She said that because of signs of hate across college campuses and throughout the world, the university must “initiate a serious and careful look at [their] policies.”
While a policy change may be necessary, her response leaves the most pressing questions unaddressed: Why are there so many antisemites on your campus in the first place? Did they come as hateful freshmen, or were they radicalized at college? And how are students spending years at your school and yet still comfortable calling for genocide on campus?
It’s understandable why these university presidents were caught off guard. They were appointed to their positions to be administrators, to ensure the college complies with the rules, both the written policies of the school and the unwritten expectations of their students. Yet what they were being asked to do, perhaps for the first time in their careers, was to be moral leaders.
Moral leadership can be defined as the ability of a leader to attract others by virtuous character and lead them toward a specific objective based on commonly shared moral principles. For almost a century, such moral leadership hasn’t been a requirement in most organizations, whether in business, government, or academia. Indeed, aside from a few exceptions—such as pastor or football coach—it’s rarely the expected form for a leadership role. The most organizations expect today is for their leaders to adhere to the same basic standard of ethics as the people they lead. The idea that authorities are to take the lead on moral issues or set a moral example by their behavior is considered outdated and quaint.
What they were being asked to do, perhaps for the first time in their careers, was to be moral leaders.
The reaction of the university presidents seems to show it never crossed their minds that they’d be expected to serve as moral leaders for the students. After all, even if they chose the path of moral leadership, why would their students follow? What objective does everyone at an elite university share other than, perhaps, maintaining their status as part of the elite? How do you lead a group that not only doesn’t share a moral vision but doesn’t even recognize objective moral standards?
C. S. Lewis warned us about this problem 80 years ago. In his essay “Men Without Chests” (the curious title of the first chapter of his book The Abolition of Man), Lewis explains that the “The Chest” is one of the “indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” Without “chests,” we’re unable to grasp objective reality and objective truth.
By “men without chests,” Lewis is referring to human beings who lack moral character, conviction, and sentiment—the traits that reside, figuratively, in the chest. In Lewis’s view, the head alone cannot determine morality. Reason must be paired with proper sentiment and human feeling arising from the heart and chest region. Without those traits, people lose the ability to discern right from wrong or understand objective value. They become “men without chests”—lacking the emotional heart needed to be fully human and act morally.
How do you lead a group that not only doesn’t share a moral vision but doesn’t even recognize objective moral standards?
Young people are unlikely to gain “chest” naturally; they must be trained up in the way they should go through moral education and moral leadership. The result of a chest-less education, as Lewis warns, is a dystopian future. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” Lewis says. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
Many young people, on both the progressive left and populist right, and especially those in elite universities, have in place of their “chest” the creed of what can be called “conceptual Marxism.” The template was provided in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The idea of social classes is too British, too 18th century for an American context. But replace it with “social groups” and you have the dominant archetype of American social and political life. As Alan Jacob explains,
The key phrase: “in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” The essential point is not that there are different social classes, but that the differentiation is always (a) binary and (b) morally asymmetrical. One class oppresses the other. There are no negotiations, no balance of powers, no possibility of collaboration or reconciliation. Moreover, “the history of class struggles” is the only history—it’s not the main event, it’s the one event. Nothing else matters; nothing else exists. Oppressors do nothing but oppress. It is their only form of action. . . . It is not possible for the oppressor class to have virtues.
Oppression of one group by another does occur, of course, which is why protections of the oppressed against oppressors are embedded in modern HR practices. Again, the problem isn’t with HR departments per se but with the HR mindset that has become dominant in almost every area of organizational leadership.
If you start with the oppressor-oppressed worldview and then add the proceduralism of the HR mindset, you end up with the modern organizational leader, exemplified by the elite university president. They don’t have the moral authority to lead or educate the “children without chests.” The best they can do is establish a new policy, such as “Calling for the killing of Jews violates the university’s code of conduct,” and then wait for HR to resolve the situation.
Christian Alternative: Imitation
Christians can offer a better way. We can be salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16) by committing to two related tasks—exemplifying moral leadership and making men and women “with chests,” that is, helping them develop the emotional heart needed to act morally and be fully human. We accomplish both by being leaders worthy of emulation and telling others, as Paul does, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
It’s much easier to tell someone ‘Read your Bible’ than to say, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.’
Paul taps into one of the deepest truths of human nature: we emulate what we admire. The moral philosopher Linda Zagzebski says the people we most admire tend to fall into three categories: heroes, sages, and saints. Heroes exhibit strength and courage, in either physical or social acts. Sages exhibit great wisdom and insight. And saints exhibit self-denying love for God and others.
The person who exemplifies all three categories at the same time is, of course, Jesus. If we’re to be like Jesus then we should strive to be all three—a hero, sage, and saint. But most of us will exhibit greater talents or tendencies in one of these areas. We need to determine what virtues we require to develop this role—whether sage, hero, or saint—and then work to become worthy of emulation in that area.
Just Following Orders
Having people emulate us is a baby step in having them emulate our Lord and King. But it is a crucial mission. A culture devoid of Christ needs a loving alternative model to the binary oppressor-oppressed mindset, for that mindset only leads to one end. As Jacobs points out, this is how hatred of the Jews works: “Jew and gentile are ‘oppressor and oppressed’; it is not possible for Jews to have virtues; genocide is baked into the system.”
The HR mindset, when attached to oppressor-oppressed matrix, is unable to condemn such genocide. It can only follow procedure. As the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann wrote during the Nuremberg Trials, “[I did not] give any order in my own name, but only ever acted ‘by order of.’” Eichmann had the HR mindset. He was too focused on following the procedures and policies to protest the genocide he was implementing.
That’s why being different is essential for Christians today. In being examples of how we love our neighbors, we offer the only true hope to the anti-human oppressor-oppressed matrix. And by being moral leaders worthy of emulation, we offer the most effective alternative to the HR-mindset.
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