I often point out to my ethics classes that when the ethics alarms don’t sound, one can make decisions that result in ethics zugswang, which is the hopeless bind where there are no ethical solutions, only unethical ones. Then the only practical objective left is damage control: determine which course is the least unethical. An ethical result is no longer possible. It was precluded forever by the original ethics failure.
I can’t think of a better example of this process than the Kennedy School’s botched appointment of Chelsea Manning as a ” visiting fellow.” It was an incompetent, foolish, reckless decision that a half-wit should have known would cause an ugly and unnecessary controversy. What was the school thinking?
I can only speculate. Either the school was looking for “buzz’—it got that all right— , or was trying particularly odious progressive virtue-signaling to the anti-war crowd that still hangs out around Harvard Square clutching their love beads, or most indefensible of all, was giving a gratuitous nod to the current transgender fad. Whichever it was of these, it should have been obvious that the choice was a terrible idea, and it says a lot about the school’s leadership and procedures that nobody in a position of influence shouted, “Wait, are you kidding? Chelsea Manning? She’s a convict and a felon who leaked secret information to enemies of the United States!” Manning, as I noted in the Morning Warm-Up covering the story, isn’t a scholar, a deep thinker, or a stable or a trustworthy individual. Selecting her was bound to upset other more qualified teachers at the school as well as any American not partial to traitors, and it did. It also devalued every previous fellow at the Kennedy School, by demonstrating that being a Kennedy School fellow wasn’t a credential signifying special talent or admirable qualities. Not if Chelsea Manning qualified, it wasn’t.
The fury over the appointment erupted so vigorously in public, and, I suspect, even more vigorously behind the ivy-covered doors in Cambridge (my mother spent most of her working life at the University, and ended it as Asst. Dean of Housing: the Marshalls know how Harvard works), that the reversal wasn’t as big a surprise to me as it seems to be to some. Nonetheless, the criticism levied by many has justification. Wrote Jonathan Turley, for example,
“The only thing worse than Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government appointing Chelsea Manning as fellow was the school’s withdraw of the fellowship…My concerns are not really focused on Manning but the danger of universities tailoring its academic programs to public opinion. I have written extensively about the hostile environment for conservative speakers on campus. Invitations have been withdrawn due to opposition groups and protests. This case is even more concerning because it was a formal invitation to join the program as a fellow. The invitation and then the withdrawal leave total confusion as to the purpose and academic content of these fellowship positions. Harvard appears to have carefully avoided any principled ground in both the appointment and the withdrawal.”
All true, and yet: What exactly was Harvard supposed to do? It was in ethics zugswang. The original decision was indefensible. It was irresponsible and incompetent; unethical through and through. How it came to be made is a matter for Harvard to analyze in the inevitable post-mortem, but that the decision itself was unworthy of any academic institution is beyond serious argument. So we stipulate: the appointment looked bad and was bad, and would do more harm to the reputation of the Kennedy School if it stood than if it did not. At that point, the ethical imperative of “Fix the problem!” attaches. There was a bad decision. Harvard was made aware of it with a metaphorical slap in the face. It did not, as Turley said, reverse a valid decision because it was unpopular. It reversed a bad decision because it was a bad decision, and bad decisions should be reversed. Leaving them in place is more unethical than not doing so. Stubbornly refusing to reverse an unequivocally bad choice sends a message that leadership is rigid, incompetent and cowardly, and leaves the impression that leadership prefers to follow the deadly pattern–Vietnam, the Charge of the Light Brigade, etc,— of Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” rather than taking its lumps.
Also stipulated: the statement by the Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, was vague, inept and inarticulate. Come on, Dean, tell us why the appointment “was a mistake” so we know that you know. And don’t insult our intelligence by saying that “many people view a visiting fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.” Please. A dean at Harvard, which itself stokes the belief that its degrees, faculty appointments and very name is “an honorific,” just figured this out? Elmendorf is lying, or he is an idiot.
Wait! If the Kennedy School is run by idiots, then a fellowship appointment isn’t an honorific! Such are the hopeless mazes of logic engendered by ethics zugswang, when any move does harm, and nothing will work except freezing time, like in that Twilight Zone episode about the magic stopwatch.
This, Fair Harvard, is why ethics alarms are so important. Ignore them, pursue non-ethical considerations and ignore the ringing, and you may reach a point of no return, where all roads lead to pain, and no solution avoids harm.
Harvard’s government school did the right thing, except that it was only right in comparison to the alternative. It’s resolution hurt Manning, the institution, and yes, created a terrible precedent by appearing to capitulate to political criticism. In the end, however, it is almost always better to admit that a decision was bad and reverse it than to refuse to change on principle. Whatever the principle is, it’s less ethical than “Fix the problem.”
1 Of course, other problems remain, like an apparently incompetent dean.
2. The gender-transformed Bradley now Chelsea Manning is cute! I hadn’t seen her for a while, finding her deification by America-haters infuriating and avoiding details about her post-prison existence whenever possible.
One can’t help wondering whether earlier therapy might have avoided this whole mess, and kept a lot of dangerous information out of the clutches of Wikileaks.
3. Manning’s retort to her disinvitation was predictably lame. She tweeted that she was “honored to be 1st disinvited trans woman visiting fellow,” as if her gender status had anything to do with the reversal (though I believe it had a lot to do with the original invitation, which was one reason the invitation was idiotic). Then she tweeted, “so @harvard says @seanspicer & @Clewandowski_ bring “something to the table and add something to the conversation” and not me.”
When in doubt, resort to implied Trump-bashing. How to please your fans, girl! I don’t know what those two dorks bring to the Kennedy School table, Chelsea, but unlike you, they don’t bring a smug pride in betraying their country.
Her tweet is a #22 rationalization: You have worse people than me as fellows! Even if true (it isn’t), that’s a pretty pathetic defense.
4. You have to admire the nostalgia-producing anti-military-industrial state flair that leftist lawyer Chase Stangio, one of Manning’s lawyers, channeled to torch Harvard:
Sure it’s mean and unfair (I don’t know what the hell he’s blathering about regarding Harvard’s “occupation”) and I’m surprised he didn’t mention the Unibomber, but hey, stand up for your client! Calling someone like Manning a “beacon of humor and brilliance” is more than a little over-the-top, as if she is new Dorothy Parker, but what the heck: if you are going to slam doors leaving a room, slam them loudly.