Waking in the Cold
Harvard, Cancel Culture, and Narrowing Possibilities in America
I. Doubts Come in Grey
On winter mornings over the 2 years I spent in graduate school, I often awoke to a greyness common in Boston. Within the dorm, which had all the charm of Soviet-era tenements, a singular, destitute corner window provided the morning light. When it seeped through on the coldest mornings in February and I lacked the motivation to rise, I would bow my knees out to the sides so my feet didn’t hang off the mattress, and nap there a little longer like a blanketed frog. I had arrived at Harvard with colorful dreams. Their absence kept me in bed longer on such mornings.
The greyness then was fog that settled over the semi-frozen Charles, fog that numbed ambitions. I had written a narrative of myself in deep, defined ink. I, the aspiring humanities scholar, would appease my parents with a practical business degree, two-odd years in the corporate cesspool, and then escape to fulfill a destiny of professorship, starting with a Master’s in religious studies at Harvard. The Ivy League Dream was part of the Indian-American Dream, and even if Divinity School didn’t give my parents as much to boast about as Business School, we had all decided that I’d made it. People were proud of me. They told me to visit home often. Arrogantly, I threw a triumphant farewell party to Texas and told anyone who’d listen that I’d be hard-pressed to live in the South again. Here lies aversion to science, lingering segregation, and a dearth of intellectuals. There, in the North, lies the genius that catapulted America to the world stage. There is where I could aspire to belong, then.
The ink had always been deep, defined. Before the first semester at Harvard ended, the place had accosted my sense of what I could become. One evening, I was sitting at the built-in desk of my dorm. My one window was to my right, and in the dark I could identify the outline of a grand tree that had watched over success and prestige for decades. I was in a sleepless, stressed out state, laboring over a term paper that my professor and her TA kept rejecting for not being ‘academic’ enough. The final straw upon weeks of self-doubt was yet another rejection of yet another version of the paper. I called my father and cried into the phone as he asked how I was doing.
Chinks in a previously self-sure armor were pounded in by three realities in the months preceding that phone call. The first such reality was, in comparison to my expectations, the emphatic mediocrity of Harvard, and by association, my idea of the North. This was no last haven of liberal intelligentsia. As American institutions go, it was conservative. It trod on insecure minorities whilst telling us to feel grateful to walk through its creaky gates. The students, by and large, were no different than the men and women I studied with at UT Austin: there were the brilliant few and the average majority. Without doubt, many of my classmates were better read than I, and had mastered the vocabulary of ‘wokeness’, if not its mature spirit. But where I expected to be dazzled by worldly nuance and innovation, I saw posturing and regurgitation. It often takes a Harvard student 2 minutes to ask an obfuscating, winding question where an otherwise educated member of society could ask the same in clearer, more direct terms in 15 seconds. In the reverse: it takes a Harvard student 10 seconds into a respondent’s answer to dismiss it, whereas anyone else has the humility to listen. I saw students rally en force and hurl invective at administrators to protest the chopping down of an old tree in the Divinity School yard; meanwhile, professors mistreated students of color and in some cases, even used the N-word during lectures, only to the chagrin of the black and brown few who were enraged. Harvard celebrities like Steven Pinker are even actively arguing they should be able to use the word.
Boston as a whole is similar in its self-image. Seemingly proud of fighting British tyranny with soggy tea, and Southern tyranny with the might of the Union army, it remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation, and the most in the Northeast. Where it lacked the dangers of a more sinister Southern racism, it made up for it with in-your-face assumptions based on race and blissful ignorance to truth. To give credit where due: the nonprofit ecosystem was thorough, and I was lucky enough to join some of the numerous and inviting groups for minorities.
The second reality that paled versus my expectations concerned the nature of elite scholarship. My favorite professor at Harvard was Dr. Charles Hallisey. His belief: “All disciplines in a university produce knowledge. The social sciences and sciences produce knowledge for others to use. On the other hand, humanities is the transformation of the knower in the process of coming to know. We want to practice allowing ourselves to become vulnerable, to go to places that are not normatively classifiable.”
What I loved about this notion of the humanities is the reason I ever dreamed of becoming a professor: a person can, with enough time alone, materials, and ingenuity, make grand discoveries about the self. If other disciplines obsessed over categorizing and classifying external truths, humanities was supposed to delve into mushy internal truths, to ask questions without answers. Time and again, beginning with the first term paper that exposed the naivete of my expectations, it seemed the reality would not be as Hallisey described it. A fellow Hindu student, struggling with the same term paper, was told to “pretend she wasn’t Hindu” in order to write an effective ‘research’ paper. What the hell? Any suggestions for analysis or understanding would be whittled down for not being ‘academic’ enough, until the only papers written were devoid of anything interesting. Guest lecturers from India who brought up new interpretations of religion and drew connections to personal life were ridiculed in whispers among the American faculty for not knowing Hinduism well enough. Entire dissertations, of hundreds of pages, are filled by cataloging and analyzing the differing conjugations or mentions of a single Sanskrit word across a text. Who cares? I had thought the driver of scholarship was big ideas, and I discovered it was often little details that could produce belabored analyses.
Much of this is unique to Harvard and unique to the current time, where scholarship is forced to become more and more niche to drive new insights. Of course, I barely knew anything about academia. I met plenty of good-hearted, brilliant folks who seemed quite satisfied with its constraints and mores, and figured the problem was me. So, I raised my reservations to many professors, who took a hard look at me and my goals and told me a PhD may not be what I was looking for. Faced with the idea of humanities that I loved, their attitudes were more akin to this pedantic dismissal of seeking meaning. Why couldn’t I have figured this all out before? Dreams are stubborn things, until they’re not.
This was all happening as I was attempting to write that godforsaken term paper, all happening as I set up a counseling appointment at the University center and then abandoned it at the last second. Instead of explaining any of that, of course, when my father asked how I was doing, I simply cried.
It has been an unvoiced belief of mine that people who are defined by their current circumstances are boring. People who live for the realization of a well-articulated dream are interesting. Don’t tell me what you do, tell me what you hope to accomplish. Don’t stuff me with the grey of daily existence when I want the color of daydreams. By the first winter in Boston, I no longer had colors to call mine. So, sometimes on those grey mornings when I bent my knees and stayed in bed, a whisper went through my mind: “what’s the bloody point of you?”
The third reality I had to face at Harvard was the ugliness of progressive culture compared to my expectations of a liberal utopia. By Texas standards, I might as well be a raging leftist commie. I believed deeply in the substance of Bernie’s campaign — both times. Upon arriving in Boston, I found my ideals quite similar to those around me, though my expression was less radical, and my policing much less pronounced. Being a progressive liberal in Dallas meant a constant challenging of my assumptions from those around me. Op-eds I’d written in the Dallas Morning News had even resulted in disagreeing conservatives finding and texting my personal number to tell me that no, Muslim lives did not matter. The opinion section was strife, but at least I could hope my arguments would lodge as tiny doubts in the minds of adverse readers. Being a progressive in Boston, by comparison, was supposed to be a comfortable bubble of amplified beliefs.
But conflict, unfortunately, is unavoidable. Fractions within the liberal bubble were wrought by the difference in just how progressive a person sounded. In the pseudo-intellectual battlefield, the person who knew the greatest vocabulary of wokeness was the victor. Never mind that some of these supposed knights of the woke revolution could not aim to understand you at a human level, or talk about anything that didn’t give them a chance at proving their social justice credentials. Contrary to the mainstream corporate narrative (wielded by MBA-evangelists with all the delicacy of a hammer on thumbtacks) of ‘build your network, build your possibilities,’ the narrative in icy Boston was one of jettisoning your friends to the exiles of ‘moderate liberalism’. One day, a Jewish classmate posted on Facebook about Israel’s 70th ‘birthday’: she made sure to mention that it was a complicated place she wasn’t always comfortable with, but that she wanted to celebrate in a small way the existence of a nation that sought to address the oppression of a people over millennia¹. That Facebook post, however, led to lots of hand-wringing and admonishing, devolved into insults, and eventually resulted in students yelling at each other in the halls of the Divinity School. What progressivism, if like-minded scholars can’t even converse without succumbing to the baser urges of scoring ‘shots’ for their team?
Once, for the release of Black Panther, I combined my friend groups and attended a premiere showing at a crappy theater in Cambridge. My friend who attended the business school and I arrived late and slotted into the seats next to my other friends, who’d brought someone new, a law student. The theater buzzed with anticipation when the lights went off, and we introduced ourselves to her. My friend only said as much as his name and what he studied. She tore into him for being a ‘celebrator of the status quo’ among other epithets, stopping short of calling him a capitalist pig. That’s it — all she knew was the letters of the degree he was pursuing and she had assumed him evil. He is one of the kindest, most giving people I’ve met. This example, then, is identity politics writ extreme, wherein the enlightened few assume everyone else is complicit in a grand moral crime.
Of course, these are not blanket statements and never could be. I did find forgiving friendship and support amongst classmates. I witnessed those incredible few, much better than me, back up their ‘wokeness’ with true revolution: pushing Harvard to divest from prisons, spending their free time helping the homeless population and those at risk of overdose. But the culture itself I will unabashedly deem toxic. Toxic because we poison ourselves against each other without offering a fellow citizen the faintest chance at productive disagreement and mutual edification. And it’s sadly a culture that’s clogging our social media feeds with the same pseudo-intellectual insistences on moral superiority.
The original cancellers were the conservative right. Their cancelling took the form of exclusion from the normative privileges of society for those who represented a race, class, gender, etc. that was not approved by their worldview. In essence, they have always striven for narrowness in the world: only certain people qualify to vote, only certain people qualify to get rich and hold power. The conservative right even weave their own cancellations into legal contracts against minorities and get away with it. Using their own tricks against them has actually been an effective strategy by the left. When we cancel far-right extremists like the Milo’s and Alex Jones’s of the world, we deny them large, important platforms just as the oppressed have always been denied one. Their diatribes can subsist on their god-forsaken radio channels.² This is righteous, and though the conservative right will decry it under the guise of free speech, their true worry is that we have successfully turned their obsession with exclusion against them. But we should not turn around and find that we’ve abused those who could’ve been our allies. A person does not always need to know the latest Twitter wisdom on pronouns to be good; indeed, we should be rejecting a childish, binary vision (as this article points out) of society where everyone who isn’t exactly as ‘woke’ as you are is deemed bad or evil. Mature progressivism will ask of others to grow, it will acknowledge past growth, and it will broaden its audience instead of limiting it. What good are 100 ‘perfectly woke’ people in altering the trajectory of our culture and politics when we could instead have hundreds of millions of imperfect people who have been convinced to right societal ills.³
Within my time at Harvard and Boston, both in academia and in its socio-political culture, what I railed against, what the three disappointing realities of my time there represent, is the narrowing of possibilities. True intellectualism and true progressivism, in my opinion, aim to broaden possibilities of the mind and possibilities of society. We want a world where the boundaries of scholarship expand beyond the old guard’s methods or definitions and give space, at least in the humanities, for feeling, for remorse and subjective joy — let’s not pretend there’s only one right way to analyze a sonnet or religious hymn, because that brings us back to the path of believing there’s only one right type of person to do it. We want a world where the boundaries of society and power expand beyond the playground-age ideas of my team and your team, in the same way we seek expanded definitions of gender. Broaden perspectives, and don’t revolt if another’s is not the exact same as yours. Broaden hearts, and don’t be surprised if not everyone’s heart has the same space. Broaden minds, and remember the power humanities gave us to think for ourselves.
III. An Admission
Try as I may to disparage Boston, now, when people ask me, I must admit what I liked about it. Of course, there were names and faces that taught me so much, both professor and peer. There were laughs and meals shared with brilliant people I wouldn’t have met anywhere else. There were the nights when I fell deeper into love with my girlfriend, staying up too late to hear her voice on the phone. Historical buildings, kung-fu classes, expansive museums, favorite restaurants. Lonely, blissful journeys like my daily walk:
Each day, I left my dorm at the Business School campus, crossed the Charles Bridge river to attend classes at the Divinity campus, and returned by the same bridge. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me: by all accounts of my resume and upbringing, I should’ve been attending the business school, but I crossed the river every day to leave that path behind. In a pattern that has held in my life, I was not enough in either place to fully belong. The joy was in crossing the bridge. Pausing each time to look at the flowing water. The ink had always been deep, defined. But perhaps that was not the way I ever needed it to be.
Once, amidst those grey mornings of doubt, I was heading to class along the same path with my friend Thomas when we were accosted by the year’s first snowfall. It flurried around us and enveloped the city and its passing shadows in an instant. We pulled up our hoods, two hot-blooded brown men who didn’t know the snow in our bones, and smiled at each other’s mustaches of white flakes. The grey was gone, replaced by a blinding white cloud. I sunk my feet into it with each step, checking for reality, and pulled off chunks to taste, smell, feel, throw. In front of me, no others had walked through the snow yet. So, the path became mine to make. The grey was gone, the ink was no longer so defined, and there were not yet colors to dream with. But there was this, the blank white expanse of creation in front of me. Whispers saying to write the narrative anew, but write it in pencil. To be forgiving with others as I learned to be so with myself. And, when the flurries stopped, the sun shining above as if just for me, telling me to step on, learn something new, form and un-form myself like the snow unfazed by the violent marring of my steps.
That is what I loved about Boston.
- We can denounce Israel’s leadership and its relentless encroachment upon Palestinian land and humanity, but we should also not begrudge a humble celebration of Jewish homeland
- Of course, James Baldwin has the right measuring stick here: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
- Consider the adoption of BLM by the mainstream: though it has been predictably imperfect and wrought with hypocrisies, it still represents a major step forward when a company like Bank of America can donate $1 billion to the issue, or when Washington finally drops the Redskin name)