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Shades of Gray

Over lunch this weekend, my fianc‚ asked me, “What’s going on about the war on campus?”

My first thought was, “There’s a war on campus? Do they want to take Spangler?”

Then I realized he meant the threat of war with Iraq. I struggled, and failed, to come up with a good reply. I haven’t heard any comments or debate, and certainly haven’t seen any public demonstrations.

Furthermore, I haven’t really felt anything is missing. I finally said, “Uh,
nothing. Should there be?”

I felt a little awkward about my answer. After all, it’s an important issue, and we can’t be so buried in casework that we don’t know what’s going on in the world. We’re intelligent and informed enough to have opinions on the relevant topics, and probably possess some healthy curiosity about counter-opinions.

I asked a few classmates if they’d overheard or been involved in discussions about Iraq or other hot political issues on campus. Their answers were very similar to mine (“No – should I?”), and, despite a natural opening to exchange political opinions with me, the topic was quickly dropped. I finally attempted to deliberately initiate conversations about Iraq and encountered at best lukewarm engagement.

To be clear, I’m not one to advocate heated debates for the sake of debate. I’m also not inclined to easily share my own views. I simply wonder why we as a whole seem so politically quiet.

Perhaps the key lies in the high value we place on relationships. One of the reasons we’re here is to broaden out network, and everyone knows that talking politics can seriously jeopardize the friendship-forming process. And the HBS atmosphere of heightened ethical sensitivity reinforces a cautious approach to sensitive topics. I suppose this is diplomacy.

Another factor might be what we admire in the business world: facts, decisions, and action. Talking about the potential war with Iraq would involve questionable facts, and discussion would ultimately spiral into a debate of opinions. None of us are in a position to make decisions or take action. If anything, I feel a bit powerless and don’t much like that fact. Is this apathy?

I’m not sure what to conclude. I could say that we’re relatively quiet because we value decisions, actions, and relationships over opinions and debate. This sounds respectable. However, I wonder if what’s actually happening is something less palatable: a culture of diplomacy and ethical caution fostering apathy. What do you think? Do you care?

January 27, 2003
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