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March 24, 2005

Discrimination And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

Of all the surreal moments surrounding the Harvard debacle, the most baffling has been this: why on earth did he apologize? In an eloquent letter to a former student, Professor Ruth Wisse, who should be designated a national treasure, speculates about Summers’ motivation:
...here we come to the most intriguing question you raised at lunch: why did Summers feel it necessary to apologize, as he did repeatedly the minute the first newspaper reports appeared, and then again in facing the faculty on February 15, and then again and even more abjectly at a second faculty meeting a week later? Why didn’t he defend his views, or at least his right to express them? After all, this is a man who had served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. He had seen how a President who had treated women shabbily had not only defied his critics but won the grudging respect of the country for brazening it out. Why should Summers, the lord of a much smaller fiefdom, apologize for a mistake that you and I and many others didn’t think he had made in the first place?
...I think that, had he considered himself innocent, he would have stood his ground. In my opinion, the truly ghastly aspect of this whole affair is that the accused man actually believed he had committed an offense. Summers apologized not because, like Nikolai Bukharin, he was forced to, but because he was convinced he had done something wrong.

Wisse quotes Summers' letter to the faculty:

“I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully,”
I have learned a great deal from all that I have heard in the last few days. The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers. They have also powerfully underscored the imperative of providing strong and unequivocal encouragement to girls and young women interested in science. . . . I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.
I see no reason to doubt Summers’s sincerity; he usually says what he means and means what he says. Taking him at his word, then, I conclude that he was not sorry for having offended liberal orthodoxy; he was sorry, genuinely so, for having given some sort of offense to women, for sending them “an unintended signal of discouragement.” Having first done our sex the courtesy of treating us as peers, he was now determined to treat us as a victimized species. Henceforth, he would tailor his thoughts to the ability of women to bear the hearing of them.
Not only did the president apologize, he rolled out a six-point program that would make affirmative action for women a top priority in hiring and promotion at Harvard. To anyone who has followed the career of group preferences in America, the process at work here was depressingly familiar. First come the threats—in this case, the tears—of the designated victims; then come the anguished efforts of well-meaning liberals to alleviate the pain; then follows, inevitably, the stirring of further, unappeasable resentments. “The person one pities is a person one may like but does not truly respect,” writes John W. McWhorter, one of a number of courageous blacks who have seen through the misplaced charitable inclinations that lie behind the American regime of affirmative action, and the web of lies and crippling self-deceptions that ensues from it.

This is the sad coda to a long, sad story.

For remarks made among fellow academicians in what was supposed to be an informal and collegial setting, Larry Summers stands accused of the crime of sexism: discriminating against women.

But there is a terrible irony here. For you see, Summers did not discriminate then. He treated the women present that day as his intellectual and professional equals. His error, if indeed he did err, lay in assuming that the women in that room were capable of discussing complex ideas in a rational and dispassionate manner.

Their reaction seems to have disproved that hypothesis. It forced him to reassess their capabilities based on the available data. Like any good administrator, Summers did exactly what the faculty requested of him: he listened. He learned from his mistake.

The irony of it all is that, although Lawrence Summers may have been innocent of sexism on that day, he is undoubtedly guilty as sin today. Because he clearly no longer believes women are equal to men.

We must be treated gingerly: protected from the harsher realities. From ugly facts, or distressing academic theories, or hypotheses that make us feel like blacking out.

Women had Larry Summers' respect, once. We have lost it, now.

That is what Dr. Nancy Hopkins has wrought. I hope she is proud of her handiwork.

Posted by Cassandra at March 24, 2005 01:10 PM

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It's also sad how many women in academia stood up to say "Disrespect me, please! I can't handle speculation and opinions different from mine. Please treat me that way."

Posted by: Masked Menace© at March 24, 2005 02:07 PM

Posted by: spd rdr at March 24, 2005 02:13 PM

"Help! Help! She's being repressed! {from under the desk}

I so did not say that...

Posted by: Cassandra at March 24, 2005 02:25 PM

Summers is a spineless weeny and deserves all the abuse heaped upon him.
Jumpin' Jehosophat! What did he say that he has to wear sackcloth and ashes about?
Soon, all our behaviors will be sanctioned by law, in some way or another.

All human behavior will be regressed to the mean, whatever that is.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 24, 2005 04:47 PM

Well put Cassandra.

Posted by: Pile On® at March 24, 2005 05:55 PM

Don, funny you should say that - there are a few phrases or metaphors I always fall back on at work when explaining complex ideas to clients and one of them is my "least common denominator" explanation. It's very similar to your 'regressed to the mean' - I had two or three questions I used to get for years that I could never shoot down until I hit on the LCD explanation and now I never have any problem - everyone 'gets' it.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 24, 2005 06:50 PM

All Summers had to do was defend the defensible. Clinton, on the other hand, defended the indefensible and got away with it. Good thing neither of them worked for a major publicly held company. If that had been the case, they would both have been unemployed before you could say, "not sufficiently PC."

Posted by: RIslander [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2005 07:44 PM

Great post, Cass. Center of the target.

Posted by: TigerHawk [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2005 10:09 PM

Actually, I just thought of another reason why Summer apologized. If he didn't, he might have exposed Harvard to downstream liability.

We have all been thinking of Summers as the leader of a university. Actually, he's the CEO of a corporation. His corporation is no more insulated from spurious claims of discrimination than any other. If the CEO of any public company made the statement that Summers made, he would be insane not to retract it or apologize for it at high speed. To do otherwise would put a permanent weapon in the hand of every trial lawyer to represent every disgruntled employee. After all, if you can show that there is discriminatory intent "at the top," you increase the settlement value of the case. I bet Harvard's general counsel told him that he really needed to apologize, or people like this woman would have more leverage.

If I'm right, this is yet another example of the diffuse but destructive impact of the trial bar.

Posted by: TigerHawk [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2005 10:18 PM

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