For almost 100 years of our country’s history, slavery was an institutionalized, legally sanctioned and brutal reality. We all know how it ended — over the course of the Civil War, Northerners realized that it was not enough to hold on to the Southern states; slavery itself had to end.
Perhaps less well-known is the movement supported by radical abolitionists to promote secession of the free states to form a nation that would be untarnished by America’s original sin of slavery. The heart of their thinking was this: we are morally pure, but slavery is morally abhorrent. By sharing a government and a nation with slaveholders, we pollute ourselves. We contaminate our moral character.
They were right. From returning escaped slaves to allowing them to be counted as three-fifths of a person, Northern states were complicit in this great moral failing.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that the Civil War could ever have been fought if the free states had simply withdrawn. To the extent that such a sin as slavery could ever be absolved, it was absolved by the blood of those who fought against it, much more than it ever could have been absolved by those who simply wished to divorce themselves from it.
But the withdraw-from-what-we-hate attitude is very much alive today, fueled by the notion that by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we somehow endorse their actions and corrupt our own.
I have no doubt that a poll of Yale’s student body would show that many students think of former president George W. Bush as an arrogant isolationist, who, by refusing to talk to America’s enemies, made them stronger, not weaker. Certainly this was the vogue position during the 2008 campaign, when large majorities of Yale students supported pro-dialogue Senator Barack Obama.
Now, however, it seems equally vogue to count larger and larger groups of people with whom we should not associate. Gabe Murchison ’14 and Hillary O’Connell ’14 (“Defend trans students, YCC,” April 10) attacked Yale’s decision to invite ROTC back to campus because of the military’s refusal to accept transgendered individuals in its ranks. And throughout the Yale-NUS debate, opponents of the college, despite valid concerns about the effects of Singapore’s restrictions on free expression, have essentially argued that because Singapore’s government restricts Singapore’s citizens in ways with which we disagree, we should not partner with it in any way lest we be seen as endorsing its government.
I am sympathetic to these concerns. As Shaun Tan astutely argued (“Truth is Arrogant,” April 9), the fact that Singapore’s government holds different views from us does not make its views valid. Whether we speak of Singapore’s restrictions on free speech or homosexuality or the military’s restrictions on transgender rights, I would hope Yale could claim a moral upper hand.
Still, we do not make anyone come around to our way of thinking by refusing to engage with them. In his piece, Tan derided Fareed Zakaria’s citation of the former Singaporean Minister of Education’s contrasting America’s “talent meritocracy” with Singapore’s “exam meritocracy.” Tan rightly argues that the point of exams is to gauge merit, so how can an exam meritocracy be as valid as a talent one? As I read it, though, the Minister was endorsing our focus on talent over Singapore’s attention to test scores — he was arguing that his country was deficient, and that it could improve itself by looking to ours. And yet, Tan paid no attention to the admiration inherent in the quote, instead lamely arguing that Singapore lacks our standards, so those that want to partner with it can’t possibly recognize its deficiencies.
Of course, there are cases when engagement legitimizes bad people. Those who sought to negotiate with Hitler were infamously wrong-headed. Still, there is a difference between cooperation and moral indifference, and apart from the most extreme cases, we can better spread our values by talking to as many people as possible. True moral rectitude involves a willingness to engage with the world. It does not spring from a sanctimonious insistence on distancing ourselves from every potential source of moral contamination.
Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.