Yale University presents itself as a haven for intellectual freedom, a neutral arbiter where ideas and ideologies can be decided on their merits by inquisitive students. The 1974 Woodward Report reflects this ambition: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.”
Clearly, this university does not view itself as a gatekeeper, judging which ideas are fit for consumption by students. While admirable, this vision of Yale contradicts its other stated goal of full inclusion for all students.
This idea is not found solely at Yale. Indeed, the Woodward Report quotes John Milton, who says, “Let her [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.” Here, small-l liberalism puts much faith in truth. I also think this underlines much of liberalism’s views on tolerance. Much in the same way that all ideas are free and available at the university, so too ought no person, no matter their age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity be excluded from participating in public life. This is the animating principle behind liberalism’s tolerance.
And yet, here is liberalism’s fatal flaw. Yale has a policy on equal opportunity which student groups abide by, which states, “Yale does not discriminate in admissions, educational programs, or employment against any individual on account of that individual’s sex, race, color, religion, age, disability, status as a protected veteran, or national or ethnic origin; nor does Yale discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” At first glance, this seems like an uncontroversial implementation of the liberalism described above. What could be wrong with that? Well, here is one example in which the easy language of tolerance may not hold precisely. Gender identity and religion are both groups by which Yale will not discriminate. However, many Christian denominations espouse claims regarding the individual that run counter to certain forms of gender identity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, when expanding on the Sixth Commandment, “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” The Church holds a strictly gender essentialist position, which precludes recognition of gender expression that differs from one’s assigned sex at birth. This is true for other churches as well. I know of at least one group at Yale which holds single-sex Bible study.
Restrictions on gender identity clearly violate Yale’s claims of inclusion; however, these religious groups are likewise a protected category. And therein lies the problem: Liberalism is not always about perpetually expanding the circle of inclusion. Often it is about balancing the legitimate interests of different groups. To what extent should we prioritize religious teachings on gender over gender expression? I am confident that many at Yale would say not at all. However, my point is to illustrate that the language of liberalism is imprecise.
There are certainly cases in which protected groups have conflicting interests. It is a falsehood to claim that Yale or any governing institution can truly be neutral. Yale needs to be a gatekeeper, at least to some degree. If Yale views these groups as protected classes, then Yale obviously needs to take positive action to protect these groups, both from external forces and from one another. This is a reframing of liberalism. It is not blanket tolerance, in which tolerance emerges from the ether and exists with no friction. Conflict can and does arise, and Yale, in order to preserve these groups, must make judgement calls.
In some sense, value-neutral liberalism is an appealing proposition. It doesn’t actually require anything of us. All we have to do is practice some vague form of tolerance in which we neither act against groups nor make moral claims against them. However, because something is easy doesn’t mean it is good.
We exist in a world where we have radically different conceptions of the good, some of which affect the aforementioned groups. Milquetoast liberalism makes perfect sense in a world where all groups and ideas are in accord with each other. However, this is not the world we live in. Thus, we are left with hard questions about how we deal with dissenting minority groups. Would a nondiscrimination clause on the basis of sex entail disbanding all-male a cappella groups, fraternities and sororities? Would a similar clause on sexual orientation preclude LGBTQ-only spaces from existing?
An open society requires a liberalism that is aware of the balancing act required to maintain it. Such a liberalism would be honest and allow us to approach these questions clear-eyed, rather than clouded by feel-good catchphrases.
TOMMY SCHACHT is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .