Today I Learned – 10/14/16

(Note: Though technically it is the 15th, I am using 14th as the date because this happened to be a late, unpublished reflection on the night of the 14th).

Today I Learned about the subtle – but profound – distinction between “wrongfulness” and “harmfulness,” and I owe it to this piece in The New Yorker. The piece shows a clip of writer Malcolm Gladwell’s speech at The New Yorker Festival, where he shares a story about his childhood to elucidate this distinction: He and his brother sneaked into a neighbor’s cornfield and built a fort, which infuriated his father, not because of any harm that these actions caused the neighbor (he states that the harm was only about $1 in damage), but because it was the wrong thing to do regardless of the harm (or lack thereof).

Wrongfulness in itself, he argues, does not take into account whether actual harm (in the act of wronging) was done. Harmfulness, therefore, is distinct from wrongfulness. To declare something as wrong is to express a definitive ethical and/or moral disapproval about that action; however, to declare something as harmful is to say that it was more than just wrong, but that it also resulted in some form of damage. He says that today, all of our moral judgments (I would take it further to include legal judgments) are made by calculating harmfulness, not wrongfulness.

The original reason that he made this distinction was to share his views on the ongoing debates regarding the name of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He states that he is on the side of student activists who oppose the school being named after after an “unrepentant racist,” but that the premise upon which the students make their arguments, i.e., that the school’s name causes them harm, is simply not plausible. He suggests that a more effective strategy would be to merely state that it is wrong to name the school after Woodrow Wilson, rather than attempt to implicate harm.

I found this argument very intriguing because it goes to the root of a question that college campuses (and perhaps the general public) have been grappling with in recent years — the question of justice: How do we best measure it and practice it?

With a heightened awareness of this country’s troubling history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, coupled with the democratization of people’s voices thanks (partly) to social media, we’ve been exposed to alternative perspectives from otherwise marginalized groups (women, ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, the LGBTQ community, etc.), thereby forcing us to reexamine issues that we’ve taken for granted. Wilson was a political pioneer in many ways, but he was also an avowed racist. How do we reconcile these two facts? How do we evaluate harm in its historical context in contrast to how we evaluate harm today? Is Gladwell right in his critique of the student activists at Princeton? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I think they are all worth exploring. I think that regardless of the tactical choices of the student activists, and irrespective of the ostensible implausibility of their premise regarding harm, that they deserve to be listened to.

Malcolm Gladwell’s writings have had an enormous impact on me. I’m currently reading his book ‘Outliers,’ which is the third installment of a tripartite series of books (the first two being The Tipping Point and Blink) which looks at how extraordinarily successful people (in various fields) reach their level of success, and how people who exhibit unique idiosyncrasies come to do so. He shows the reader how it has more to do with environment, timing, and circumstance than plain-old practice and hard work. I plan to write a review about it sometime in the future, so I’ll go into detail then. In the meantime, I am glad I was exposed to this particular article which taught me to reexamine the ways in which I view wrongfulness and harmfulness.

– Asad

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