In April 2014, members of the Dwight Hall cabinet voted to deny Choose Life at Yale full membership in the University’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice. CLAY had spent the year as a “provisional member of Dwight Hall,” saying that its pro-life activism constituted community service and advanced the cause of universal human rights. But Dwight Hall’s representative cabinet said otherwise, and CLAY ultimately retreated with dashed hopes and dashed funds.
The cabinet made the right call. Allowing CLAY a seat at the table would have done more than legitimize a controversial understanding of human rights; it would also have alienated a diverse suite of community service organizations, needlessly politicizing the already-too-political category of social justice. And at Yale, politicizing social justice is the last thing we need.
Too bad Yale’s premier social justice umbrella group did not apply this same standard when the Reproductive Justice Action League at Yale petitioned for membership just six months later.
Dwight Hall, it turns out, has no problem affirming a highly partisan — and unapologetically left-wing — conception of justice. Consider Andre Manuel’s ’16 exhortation, “Vote no on CLAY” (April 15, 2014): “To allow CLAY into the Social Justice Network would signal that we consider its work social justice,” even though “a necessary component of any coherent definition of social justice is bodily autonomy and … the protection of reproductive rights.” Or, in fewer words: “My definition of social justice, which did not exist prior to 1973, is obviously correct. QED.”
Such reasoning enshrines the worst of Yale’s political ethos: moral hubris and an unhealthy aversion to pluralism.
Dwight Hall has the potential to bring an ideologically diverse group of students together in the common pursuit of helping members of our community. It coordinates and consolidates human capital to amplify the impact of community service and does so through grass-roots activism. Both liberals and conservatives, then, have ample reason to endorse Dwight Hall’s institutional structure, which pursues social justice at the same time that it enables private virtue. Provided, of course, that its operative conception of “justice” is not flagrantly partisan.
But its conception of justice is unquestionably partisan. In accepting RALY and not CLAY, Dwight Hall essentially advanced the following proposition: Killing a fetus is OK but saving one isn’t.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s possible to entirely depoliticize social justice. Dwight Hall must, of course, make value judgments about what does or does not count as “vulnerability,” “harm” and “fairness.” The value judgments involved in abortion are special, however, in that they involve a claim about who or what deserves the protection of the state. One could argue (though I would not) that the Community Health Educators articulate a tendentious sexual ethic to impressionable adolescents or that Amnesty International has an unacceptably wide definition of “human rights.” But neither organization exists for the sole purpose of advocating a particular view about when human rights begin. CLAY and RALY both do. In this sense, they are much more political than virtually any other on-campus group.
Dwight Hall’s asymmetric treatment of CLAY and RALY demonstrates its undisguised contempt for liberal pluralism. Yale graduates will inherit an America racked by division and disunity. Bipartisanship, and a concomitant appreciation for ideological diversity, will be essential to crafting durable solutions to our nation’s many ailments. Rather than emphasize these virtues, Dwight Hall has effectively traded liberalism for leftism, choosing instead to proselytize one very narrow vision of what social justice looks like.
No doubt some will object: “But that vision is true! What kind of bigot, in 2016, would ever dream of denying women their most basic reproductive rights?”
As a pro-choice atheist, I have news for you: Smart people have always and will always disagree about whether life begins at conception, whether killing an innocent person is ever morally permissible and whether “reproductive rights” exist at all. We can have these debates all day, but it would be a shame to let them get in the way of us working together to ameliorate human suffering. Yet that is exactly what Dwight Hall has done — and what its pernicious culture of hyperpartisanship promises to do, if it continues its ever-accelerating metastasis to national politics.
Dwight Hall should not reverse its position on CLAY. Though it does not need to articulate a comprehensive doctrine of social justice, it does need to articulate a coherent and consistent one. Including both CLAY and RALY would only breed factionalism. Pro-choice students would understandably be uncomfortable with legitimizing pro-life activism under the banner of social justice; pro-life students would understandably be uncomfortable taking money from an institution that, in their eyes, legitimizes mass murder.
Dwight Hall should simply take the issue of abortion off the table. That means denying CLAY entry, should they petition for membership a second time. And it means expelling RALY, who never should have been admitted in the first place.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction Oct. 6: This column inaccurately states that the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale is a full member of Dwight Hall. In fact, RALY remains a provisional member of Dwight Hall pending a cabinet vote, should RALY choose to ask for full membership.