Counterpoint – In Defense of Sensitivity

Neil Mahapatra, associate editor of The Harbus, in his article this week titled “Stop Being So Sensitive” raises a number of issues, some relevant to the health of our learning process, a number that are controversial in the present day given the historical narrative of America, and most certainly failing to appreciate the individuality as it is defined in America or as a vital part of our community.

Admittedly, I struggled to respond to Neil’s article recognizing the wisdom a former co-worker and mentor shared with me a long time ago, “Not every statement or question deserves a response.” In light of this wisdom, I simply chose not to respond to some of his assertions in this counterpoint article. However, I would like to say that we should find a public forum to discuss the issues raised by Neil (those addressed and not addressed here) for the benefit of our discourse and the progress of our community. I look to The Harbus as a venue to make this so.

Neil makes the point that our classrooms at Harvard Business School have a tendency to become quiet and careful during discussions revolving around or directly about “race, gender and religion” to quote a friend of mine. For this, I think he is right. This school is predicated on the fact that it wants and has the capacity to develop leaders who make a difference in the world. Hence, these sensitive discussions are warranted. As I know the world, it is a place marked by the complexities of globalization and a knowledge-intensive economy which fundamentally requires the ability of nations and corporations to more effectively identify and develop talent irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, class, etc. If the individuals educated here will be required to develop human capital and manage a diverse workforce, then we have a responsibility to prepare them for these challenges despite our fears of how messy these discussions may be or how much we fear the impact on our success in this endeavor.

“Political Correctness”
During this year’s South Asian Business Association’s Diwali festival, I came to appreciate the use of the label “brown” which Neil uses in his article to define himself. I was formerly unaware of the label, but now I know how he wants to be identified so I will respect that. But maybe he should extend that same respect to others, just a polite suggestion. You need to understand that, at least where I am from, being politically correct is more about having manners enough not to be uncouth in dealing with others. That you would expect the absence of these manners to improve the diversity of who people socialize with seems spurious at best. In America, language as it is used to denote identity both historically and present day (if Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is even remotely based on reality) has been troubled with questions about who owns the language-the minority group being referred to or everyone else. I hope this is sufficient for the time being to underscore that care in the use of language, specifically related to identity, is important at least in America and most certainly in class. Remember we are a community based on “respect” and “honesty.”

“Calling a Spade a Spade”
Neil should also take note of the etymology of his assertion, “Lets just call a spade a spade.” After conferring with my classics professor from college, it is my understanding that, “The major Greek lexicon cites the proverb only from late sources (Plutarch, Lucian, and a 15th-Century collector of proverbs). which of course can be used to describe the speech of a tactless person.” Ironically, the very conversations you and I both wish to occur in the classroom often do not because of the fear of honest commentary that results in a train wreck for the section because of an honest but rude, tactless, or otherwise reckless comment. I can agree that we can lighten up a little in class, but we can forget those rules I used to impart to my GMAT students at Kaplan about how to recognize illogical fallacies and all-encompassing assertions. On the GMAT mistaking the scope of an argument might cast you some points, but in the classroom, when dealing with issues associated with identity, they can cost you friends and your reputation. A lot of people, from students to staff to faculty, are efficient in recognizing this from such that only the most seasoned dare to venture in to these areas and others only do so when they tread lightly. We can have more tough discussions by giving each other “the benefit of the doubt” but even this can be short circuited when people follow the associate editor’s guidance to throw away any form of “political correctness” with reckless abandon and carelessly begin “calling a spade a spade.”

“Positive Discrimination”
First off, “Positive Discrimination” sounds like a Madison/5th Avenue spin on the concept of providing a level playing field in the competition for opportunity in America. Neil makes the claim that the “American Dream is alive and well” and yet he does not understand that while everyone may be entitled to it, they may not have access to it. Any number of communities in Appalachia or our inner cities can attest to this as well as Harvard College’s leadership role in addressing the stark gap in access to American higher education among this country’s most talented youth when you take in account family income. But you suggest that this sort of commitment would be “Positive Discrimination” and that this has “gone too far.” You are certainly right to suggest that education is the “silver bullet,” but you are aiming at the wrong target! I feel comfortable with the notion that most Americans are, “Taught that people genuinely are equal to others.” The problem as I see it is that our actions as a country speak so much more to the contrary with respect to public education, every American’s option on the American Dream. I challenge you to take a look at this week’s issue of U.S. News and World Report: America’s Best Leaders and you will see that close to half the recipients are focused on fixing public education and ensuring that American youth arrive into adulthood with their options exercisable and not expiring worthless (note that Mayor Michael Bloomberg HBS ’66 is committed to this cause and was so recognized). Furthermore and more directly to your concerns, honorees that have focused on public education have done so with an unabashed and flippant disregard for the notions of “oppressively low expectations” and “achievement gaps across race, class and ethnicity.”

“Until minorities can see beyond their insecurities (which in today’s climate are essentially unfounded) and are more relaxed about making fun of themselves.then little real progress can be made in race relations.”
Is it not the case that humor in this regard comes at someone’s expense? While there are comedians who are adept in helping us bridge the gulfs that are created in response to sensitive issues, when it is all said and done, someone has to pick up the tab. This year’s Diwali festival seemed to follow your advice by changing course from last year’s more serious tone and instead going for something lighter. The humor between acts during the festival was almost singularly devoted to self-deprecating humor about “browns”? I am not a professional comedian despite my best attempts and certainly am not getting paid to tell jokes for money, but I am not sure that the comedy-show route to cultural understanding is the panacea you purport it to be, and it has not yet proved to be the yellow brick road here in America for minorities. The point is that the self-deprecating comedy club you suggest minorities join is syndicated into environments where it can be taken out of context and serve to expand the gaps it sought to close.

“Begin to have constructive, meaningful dialogue about improving homogenization in this country.”
The c
haracter of American Democracy is defined by the individuality of its people and its resentment of encroachment on the individual’s entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” by any form of tyranny, most especially that from the majority. The challenge of our endeavor as a country is, in fact, our competitive advantage in the world and a catalyst for innovation in enterprise. We endeavor to weave a tapestry that recognizes our individual identities and our collective belief in the American Democracy. If we focused on improving “homogenization,” we would be asking each thread in our tapestry to give up its individuality and choose to be dyed in the bath of group think and restricted outcomes.

“It is highly likely that you are the type of person that will be the first to blame institutional intolerance.”
Many Americans value hard work and personal responsibility and still they have understood a need to give people a leg up, not the handouts you describe. You should well know that talent does not alone satisfy the requirements for many opportunities and it is the very ignorance you call “not being ‘our type'” which has the most systemic, un-subtle way of keeping organizations from “casting a wider net for talent.” To speak to this issue Richard l. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff in their book Diversity in the Power Elite cite, “Rosabeth Moss Kanter [the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School who] has suggested that the need to reduce uncertainty in large and impersonal institutions leads to the strong emphases on conformity in behavior and homogeneity in background. It is the uncertainty quotient,” she wrote, that causes management to become so socially restricting; to develop tight inner circles excluding social strangers; to keep control in the hands of socially homogenous peers; to stress conformity and insist upon a diffuse, unbounded loyalty; and to prefer ease of communication and thus social certainty over the strains of dealing with people who are different.” The Harvard Business School would crumble under its own might if it were to take your advice in choosing to be insular and homogenized to the point where it could not recognize leadership and talent regardless of the identity of the individuals wherein these traits lie.

“It is fairly hypocritical to cluster together in groups and also to expect equal rights to land on your doorstep.”
I think the issue of how people choose to socialize is largely personal. The fact that I choose to spend time with people who share an understanding of my identity as a first- generation college student, or being a Southerner, being black, being Baptist, being an investor, etc. should no more surprise you than my desire to spend time with people who do not share my interests or identity. Why should any of that impact whether or not I am enfranchised to have “equal protection under the law”? I understand that this may be a stretch in other countries, but it is a principle that makes the United States of America what it is today and not the world that Booker T. Washington offered compromise for in 1895 when he said, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Neil, in my community there is room for differing opinions and tough conversations, and yet I feel that in the world you speak for there is little room for diversity that makes the Harvard Business School work and operate a multi-dimensional, case-based discussion. You make good points, but do not underestimate the medium in which the message arrives. My roommate and I are careful to recognize this from an early Cosby show where Bill Cosby notes that even the best steak in the world will taste and be received badly when served on the lid of a dirty trashcan. In the classroom we have to appreciate the converse as well that tough issues, properly prepared and sometimes slow-cooked like the BBQ I often make, meets with compliments to the chef who serves them up and an appetite for more.

At press time, Neil Mahapatra had not had the opportunity to respond to Johnathan Kelly’s article.

Do you think political correctness has gone too far, or does affirmative action help us achieve true equality? Express your views in a letter to the Editor and email it to Please state whether you would like your letter to be published anonymously.