Non-Judgement Day at Yale
Washington Post December 18 2001
Not to be judgmental about it, but two cheers for Alison Hornstein.
Hornstein is a student at Yale University, and she has written a column for
the Dec. 17 issue of Newsweek in which she attempts to come to terms with
what for her and her friends at Yale is the most troublesome question
arising out of Sept. 11: Did somebody do something really bad here?
This is not a question that most people have a hard time with, and that is
Hornstein's point. She is surprised and bothered to find that, in the wake
of the murders, many of her classmates had been unable even to address the
question. Why? Because to address it would be to make a moral judgement,
and to judge others is, for Hornstein's generation of properly educated
young elites, the great taboo.
Hornstein writes that the initial response at Yale on Sept. 11 was one of
horror: "But by Sept. 12, as our shock began to fade, so did our sense of
being wronged. Student reactions expressed in the daily newspaper and in
class pointed to the differences between our life circumstances and those
of the perpetrators, suggesting that these differences had caused the
previous day's events. Noticeably absent was a general outcry of
indignation at what had been the most successful terrorist attack of our
lifetimes. These reactions and similar ones on other campuses have made it
apparent that my generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking,
whether a moral wrong has taken place."
Hornstein is clear as to why she and her peers find it so difficult to
judge: They were trained all their lives to be this way. Hornstein spent 14
years in a public school in Manhattan "with students who came from a
variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds" being tutored in an "open-
minded curriculum." In second grade, she writes, she was taught that the
Inuit of Alaska were "essentially like us," even though they ate caribou
hoofs. In third grade, a teacher instructed the class in a parable of
violence -- one boy kicking another -- the moral of which was that the
kicker "had feelings that sometimes led him to do mean things." In high
school, Hornstein and her fellow students agreed that although they
personally found the practice of female genital mutilation to be abhorrent,
they must accept it as part of the culture of other societies.
At some point soon after Sept. 11, listening to Yale students and
professors offer rationalisations for the mass murders (poverty in the
Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, etc.) Hornstein had an epiphany. Some
things were just wrong. "Just as we should pass absolute moral judgement in
the case of rape, we should recognise that some actions are objectively
bad, despite differences in cultural standards and values. To me, hijacking
planes and killing thousands of civilians falls into this category."
Hurrah! A breakthrough! A moral judgement! Yes, Ms. Hornstein, murdering
thousands of people in fact is bad. But wait. A lifetime of instruction is
not sloughed off quite so easily as all that; Hornstein's bold moral
judgement is not quite so bold as all that. Look at her conclusion
again: "To me," it begins. To me. Hijacking planes and killing thousands is
not objectively bad after all. It is objectively bad only in Hornstein's
opinion. Indeed, she rushes to reassure on this point: "Others may
disagree." Others may disagree. And she adds: "It is less important to me
where people choose to draw the line than it is that they are willing to
draw it at all." Oh, dear.
It is astonishing, really. Here you have an obviously smart, obviously
moral person trying nobly and painfully to think her way out of the
intellectual and moral cul-de-sac in which the addled miseducation of her
life has placed her -- and she cannot, in the end, bear to do it. She
Ms. Hornstein, push on. Go the last mile. Go out on the limb of judgement.
Mass murder is indeed objectively bad -- and not just in your opinion.
Others may disagree -- but they are wrong. Indeed, they are morally wrong.
Ms. Hornstein, it is not less important where people choose to draw the
line as long as they will draw it somewhere; that puts you right back with
your silly professors.
Draw the line, Ms. Hornstein. Draw it where you know it belongs. Dare to
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