Not Everything "Depends on Context."

Sometimes bad things are actually just, like, bad.

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Every few months, video footage from a Congressional hearing goes viral. In most instances, the footage is carefully clipped to push a certain angle or story that paints someone in a bad light, and when you watch a longer version of the video, you realize that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the clip portrayed.

Because of this, I’m skeptical of most viral, anger-inducing videos that I see on Twitter. So, when I saw Bill Ackman share the viral clip below from Congress’s hearing on antisemitism, I thought to myself, “There’s just no way this video can be as bad as everyone is claiming it to be. There has to be more to it than this.”

So I went to C-SPAN and watched ~an hour from the hearing, figuring that with a bit more context, Ackman’s clip would make more sense.

I was wrong. The presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT were all asked, point blank, “Does the calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s / Harvard’s / MIT’s rules or code of conduct?”

All three presidents hesitated before giving abstract answers claiming that it “depended on context.”

How did higher academia reach the point that Ivy League presidents couldn't simply denounce calls for genocide?

I have some thoughts.

Over the last 20 years or so, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives have become massive movements at universities, and their goals are to promote "the fair treatment and full participation of all people," particularly groups, "who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination."

Some DEI initiatives have been a good thing.

My class at Columbia Business School, for example, is comprised of hundreds of students from dozens of countries and countless walks of life. Our clusters, or groups of students that we take our first semester classes with, are diverse blends that represent the broader class profile, and we are encouraged to share our personal stories with our clusters in presentations called “CBS Matters.”

Thanks to these initiatives and the welcoming environment of our broader student body, some of my closest friends are from Argentina, Colombia, India, and Nigeria.

Other DEI initiatives have been aggressive, but they provided an opportunity for universities to take a moral high ground. Harvard, for example, rescinded admission offers to at least 10 admitted students in 2017 for exchanging grotesque and dark memes in a private group chat. Harvard’s Mandatory Title IX training also warns undergrads that they may be subject to disciplinary proceedings for 'sizeism,' 'fatphobia,' 'cisheterosexism,' 'ableism.' (The site linked is a bit sensationalist, but the point stands.)

I’m not here to say whether these latter initiatives are good or bad. They just are.

In recent years, Ivy League schools have also made a point to issue public statements surrounding racial and human rights issues.

When George Floyd was murdered, for example, every school issued a public statement denouncing racism toward African Americans. The same was true when Roe v Wade was overturned.

But up until this point, these public statements have been risk-free actions for the schools. The statements were good, yes, but they were also shallow. It’s easy to take a stand when the general public feels the same way you do.

Pretty much everyone would agree that racism and a reduction in women's reproductive rights are objectively bad things. Yes, I'm glad that universities are anti-racism and pro-women's rights, but these statements weren't particularly brave.

Most public-facing DEI initiatives have centered around either lip service public statements or aggressive condemnation of offensive language, and schools could tell themselves that they were making a difference while facing zero risk at all.

Then October 7th happened.

October 7th wasn’t like previous conflicts, because no matter what these schools said, someone was going to end up angry. Denounce calls for “Intifada,” and you'll alienate your Muslim students. Fail to do so, and your Jewish students are going to be horrified.

The administrations of these schools haven't faced a real racial, ethnic, or religious conflict in decades, so they've been able to coast on risk-free public statements and vapid exercises for years.

Now that they face a real conflict, they cannot comprehend how to navigate it.

The pursuit of pseudo-inclusion and the fear of offending one group has led administrators to believe the key is to just talk their way around conflict and only make public statements when 100% of stakeholders would agree.

It’s easy to burn some 17-year-olds at the stake like a Salem Witch Trial for their shitty senses of humor. Maybe the punishment was harsh, but no one was going to come to their defense. But with the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying anything is going to piss someone off, and now that these universities are facing a situation where taking a stand does matter, they can't do it.

In front of Congress, university presidents defaulted to their abstract what-about-isms of, "Well, it depends on how you define calls for genocide."

NYU Stern professor Jonathan Haidt had excellent commentary on the situation:

As a professor who favors free speech on campus, I can sympathize with the "nuanced" answers given by U. presidents yesterday, about whether calls to attack or wipe out Israel violate campus speech policies. What offends me is that since 2015, universities have been so quick to punish "microaggressions," including statements intended to be kind, if even one person from a favored group took offense. The presidents are now saying: "Jews are not a favored group, so offending or threatening Jews is not so bad. For Jews, it all depends on context." We might call this double standard "institutional anti-semitism." University presidents: If you're not going to punish students for calling for the elimination of Israel and Israelis, it's OK with me, but ONLY if you also immediately dismantle the speech policing apparatus and norms you created in 2015-2016.

If you’re going to rescind admission offers because some kids shared dark memes, and your mandatory Title IX training threatens students with disciplinary action for creating non-inclusive academic environments, you can’t use “Well, it depends on context” for the first real issue to hit your campus in decades.

If you want to play the free speech card, fine. But you can’t use it selectively, only pulling it out when the stakes are high and the conversations are difficult.

Writer and anonymous Twitter account Jesse Livermore shared some good thoughts as well:

Whenever asked a "yes or no" question, where it's obvious what your answer should be, but context needs to be given, say the right answer first, THEN give the context, implying that it's obvious.

DO NOT go straight to the context, especially not in an evasive tone. If you get interrupted or cut off when giving the context, it's not a problem--you can either filibuster through it, or, if that fails, and the interrogator tries to trap you later, you can go back to giving the context that you were not allowed to give.

What the 2nd and 3rd ones should have said, IMO: "YES, absolutely. Calling for the genocide of Jewish people violates our bullying & harassment policy. I want to be crystal clear on that. Now, with respect to calling for Palestinian 'intifada', as you asked President Kornbluth, obviously, the context would matter. We would not automatically interpret that as a call for the genocide of Jewish people in Israel."

Was the Congresswoman trying to trap the university presidents with her questioning? Probably. Should the presidents have to hesitate and work around questions as direct as, “Mrs. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct?”


All of the presidents have since released statements trying to clear the air, but it’s too little, too late. I understand that these presidents are under immense pressure, especially being under oath, and I understand that their universities have strong free speech policies that they are attempting to uphold. But you can’t, as a university president, have a quick trigger when attacking low-hanging fruits of “offensive speech,” and then try to cower when the stakes are finally higher.

As Jesse stated above, the presidents should have, at a minimum, immediately condemned calls for genocide, and then discussed whether or not that was what was occurring on their campuses. But they didn’t.

In the face of a simple, obvious, straightforward correct answer, they failed.

I’m well aware that people have varying strong opinions on Israel and Palestine, but calling for the genocide of anyone on a college campus is, in fact, a bad thing. If you replace the word “Jews” with Muslims, Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, Hindus, or any other race, nationality, or religion, the answer should be the same.

It’s easy to “take a stand” when the stakes are 0, but all of the diversity and inclusion talk is nonsense if you can't take a stand whenever it matters. Real students with real lives are scared on real campuses right now, and their concerns are far more important than the hypothetical offenses that universities have spent years persecuting. “Safe spaces” be damned.

It's a shame that, out of fear of sounding offensive, university presidents can’t call a spade a spade. Not everything depends on context.

- Jack

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Jack's Picks

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  • Rob Henderson joined Chris Williamson for a super interesting conversation on a bunch of topics such as “Why does everyone act like a victim,” “What women look for in men,” “Why we’re betting at solving other people’s problems than our own,” and more.

  • Six months ago, Trung Phan compared Taylor Swift’s stardom to the rise of The Beatles. A timely read considering she was named Time’s person of the year.

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