The HBS community learned about engaging with and embracing differences at HBS and beyond.
“Actually taking the time to listen intently to viewpoints that are not commonly held by the HBS community has great value. However, the Perspectives event was so much more than that. Arthur Brooks and Jan Rivkin challenged the audience not just to listen but to love those with whom we do not ideologically agree. Everyone in attendance is better off for hearing their guidance. We learned a profound truth, that it’s not about changing your opposition’s mind, it’s about embracing the people who constitute the opposing position as valid and worthy of respect. We need more talks like this.” — Zack Hoyt, HBS Class of 2020
On November 13, the SA organized the first ever biannual “Perspectives” event, with the aim of sparking candid and eye-opening conversations that will challenge us to listen generously and grow as people. Second-year HBS student Melcolm Ruffin, reflected: “Our daily case discussions are all about sharing different points of view; however, there are still certain topics that feel taboo. The ‘Perspectives’ event tried to break down some of those false barriers in efforts to create a truly inclusive and vulnerable environment at HBS.”
The event kicked off with the reading of three (out of many) letters that were submitted by the student body prior to the event. Below are some snippets from the anonymous letters that exemplify why this event was held in the first place:
“Dear HBS—As a conservative, I don’t feel free to express my political views here, but why would I expect to? It is clear what you are supposed to think, and stepping out of line costs so much social capital. Given that so much of the HBS experience is about building relationships, I often find the dilemma of trying to fit in to get the ‘full experience’ or staying true to my roots, my values and myself. HBS is supposed to train us to be leaders and how to lead across differences. In reality, I don’t think a lot of people here want to associate with people that have values different from the typical professional in New York or San Francisco. In case discussions, I’ve even heard classmates express that people with different political views wouldn’t be welcome to work in their business. Some of my own classmates would rather I be unemployed than work with them. If I know the costs of stepping out of line are so high, why should I not just put my head down and keep walking straight? Sincerely, ‘Just trying to fit in’”
“I believe strongly in James Baldwin’s quote, ‘We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my right to exist…’ I do not feel free to share any dissenting political views to classmates or colleagues at HBS. I am a moderate who holds views on an issue-by-issue basis. I find it extremely frustrating to try to debate items where I fall ‘right’ of the line on a specific topic. In those instances, conversations are shut down. Tribalism sets in and arguments (and even people sometimes) are labeled as wrong, ignorant, or even evil. While it happens on both sides of the aisle, I feel it most strongly when arguing a dissenting opinion to members of the ‘progressive’ left.”
“I’m an international student. I feel that most of the time people at HBS have a stereotyped perception on the politics of my country and I rarely have opportunities to share my opinions.”
These letters set the tone for why having this conversation was so important on HBS’s campus: sharing political views is something that many feel they can’t do openly. As second-year HBS student Yusuf Tasli explains, this event was not about highlighting any one political perspective: “I really enjoyed that the discussion was not about particular political or social perspectives but more on a framework for how we can interact to make progress as a society. Effective communication starts with listening and giving each other a chance to be heard. Our thoughts only turn into perspectives that matter if they have context and relativity to other ideas.”
After the initial letter reading, Arthur Brooks took the stage to discuss the polarized political conversation that is sweeping the United States and beyond, the dangers of that polarization, and how building a respectful and open competition of ideas can be a positive force in each of our lives. He blew the audience away in his specific and tactical explanation of the problem, and how we can all be a part of the solution in both big and small ways.
Brooks stated that the root of the problem is “motivation attribution asymmetry,” which arises when people on different sides of a conflict feel that they are motivated by love, and that the other is motivated by hate. This, of course, cannot be true on both sides, and he stated that, “If you want to convince someone of your point of view … you can do it only one way, with love.”
So, how do you actually do this in practice? “Virtually all conflict comes from improperly concealed contempt,” Brooks said. This immediate response that we have is a habit. So, breaking that response means that we must break the habit. How can we do this? By substituting warm-heartedness for hatred. What if you don’t actually feel warm-hearted? Fake it ’til you make it!
“If we want to save this country and make this a better school—a beacon of light for open dialogue—we need to remember that we are brothers and sisters and that our love for one another is more important than our political differences. That’s what we can bring to America.”
HBS second year student, Cong Xu, reflected on Arthur’s words: “Perspectives addresses a problem that we’re all too familiar with, in particular given the current political environment not only in the US but in countries around the world. Hence, I was initially skeptical that the event was going to propose any real solution. However, speaker [Arthur] Brooks provided a much more nuanced perspective on the underlying root causes for the lack of dialogue between the left and the right, and also proposed a solution that all of us can implement by urging us to withhold our habit of contempt in any discussion and instead replace it with an expression of openness and kind heartedness.”
Next, Jan Rivkin took the stage. He set a vision of all HBS students being “leaders who make a world of difference in a world full of differences.” He emphasized that the world we live in today is full of people with varying opinions, backgrounds, and ways of working. As future leaders, it’s vital that everyone in the HBS community develop the ability to thrive, with empathy, in this context.
“Without diversity of thought—people in the room with different points of view—case discussions fail. If people in the room have different views but can’t express their views or challenge ideas, case discussions fail. If people express different views but attack people instead of ideas, case discussions fail,” said Rivkin. “The world our students will lead will be marked by vast human differences in political perspectives, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and other dimensions. We need you to be able to take those differences and turn them into sources of creativity, imagination, and value. We want you to be able to make the most out of differences.”
Lastly, the floor was opened to the audience to ask questions and to provide their perspectives on the conversation. Mike Murphy, Director of MBA Student & Academic Services at HBS, noted, “I was so impressed with how Arthur Brooks and Jan Rivkin set the context for the importance of meaningfully engaging around polarizing political issues here on campus. The questions raised by the students got to the heart of the challenge in doing so. The audience was a great mix of students, faculty, and staff. I found this to be one of the most unique and important conversations that I have attended in my 14-year career at HBS. I can’t wait to see where we go from this great beginning!”
So, what’s next? Continuing the conversation. Many sections are having (or have already had) follow-up discussions on this topic over lunch. The SA is holding a “coffee chat” with Jan Rivkin on December 2 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Batten Hall Hive 206. They are also working to organize a follow-up “coffee chat” with Arthur Brooks in February. Eat & Engage and EVOLVE small-group dinner discussions are focused around the topic of political polarization and the value of sharing opinions that previously have felt “unsafe” to discuss. Our request for you? Be intentional about engaging in a productive conversation with those who have different views from you. Break the habit of rolling your eyes at someone else’s opinion, and instead, meet them with love and respect. What better time to practice than over Thanksgiving break!
Melanie Sperling (MBA ’20) is currently a second-year student at Harvard Business School and the Student Association’s Chief Community Officer. Before attending HBS, she worked at the One Love Foundation, building the organization from a team of two to a team of over 30 employees with four offices and a national presence. Sperling was One Love’s Chief of Staff, serving as the liaison between the CEO and each department. She managed special projects, including launching One Love’s #LoveBetter campaign and creating One Love’s educational content. She provided key insight on strategy, hiring and resource management, and strategic growth, and she is currently a member of One Love’s Regional Leadership Council in Boston. Sperling has a passion for social impact work and graduated from Duke University with a major in Psychology focused on education and adolescent development. Throughout college and business school, Melanie interned at Social Finance UK, the BELL Foundation, New Profit, Inc., and Girls for Gender Equity.