Hillsdale College's Move to the Wrong Side of History
An abridged version of this essay was published as a letter to the editor in the Hillsdale Collegian on September 30, 2010.
Hillsdale College’s recently implemented policy enforcing a certain view of sexual morality is an affront to justice, individual rights, and the free agency of consenting adults. Moreover, it signifies this college’s decisive shift in the direction of paternalism and imposition of religious doctrine, tainting Hillsdale’s former eminent reputation as a bastion of liberty.
When I first came to Hillsdale, I, too, held anti-homosexual prejudices, though I never drew coercive implications from them. If you are interested in the shift in my views from 2005 to 2008, look up “Homosexuality: A Chosen Harm” and “Why the Right Should Stop Attacking Homosexuality”. As often happens with intellectual evolution, seedlings of doubt sprouted over time as I met respectable homosexuals, pondered the full implications of individual rights and dignity in a social context, and became ever more intolerant of religious intolerance. But the tipping point came when my future wife and I sat in a café with one of my best friends from high school. After we told him of our engagement, he also had an announcement to make: he was gay. And it was then that I had the startling realization… that absolutely nothing had changed. He was still the same person I had known for seven years, and he had been gay all along. Would I have preferred that he had not let me know, that he had stayed in “the closet” – forced to decide between jeopardizing a friendship and concealing an important and meaningful part of his identity? What sort of self-respecting person would subject another to such an odious double bind, and himself to willful ignorance? Reality brooks no contradictions, so something in my outlook had to change. I chose to change my views on homosexuality.
Hillsdale’s new policy would not give other students this same opportunity on campus. Ultimately, one can look at people in two ways: as individuals, or as “the other”; as complex, creative, deeply meaningful, and unique self-contained worlds, or as stereotyped caricatures. Hillsdale’s new policy embraces the collectivistic view of homosexuality as uniformly repugnant and contrary to morality. It represents a paradigm of thinking whose time had passed ever since a little recent episode known as the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers questioned established norms and used reason to strive toward a political and moral order that respects the dignity of the individual. The consequences were the liberation of slaves, the recognition of women’s individual rights, the dwindling of xenophobia and religious persecution, the acceptance of interracial marriages, and, in our time, the increasing understanding of homosexuals as human beings with the same rights and dignity as the rest of us. Hillsdale’s policy puts it squarely on the wrong side of history. In twenty years, it will be seen as a shameful blot on the college’s history and reputation. Many Hillsdale alumni, myself included, already see it that way. How could a college that pioneered in advancing the education of African-Americans and women have joined the old guard of intolerance after 160 years?
Moral behavior requires free human choice; enforced morality is no morality at all. The Hillsdale administration needs to set its moral priorities straight. In a world rife with barbarism and unjustified suffering, genuine love and gentleness are rare enough; suppressing these good attributes in anyone is a travesty. The administration would micromanage the most intimate choices of full legal and intellectual adults and keep them shielded not just from the examination of perspectives related to other lifestyles, but from the very fact of their existence. Certainly, some behaviors are better than others – but condemning all homosexual or premarital intercourse paints with far too broad a brush. Morality is contextual and complex; it requires knowledge of the circumstances of time and place, something no top-down enforcer can ever do. That is why the Enlightenment rejected moral regulation and instead encouraged moral discovery by individuals, including the ability of people to choose suboptimal behaviors and learn from their natural consequences. As for the homosexual students of Hillsdale, they have many examples of virtue to offer the campus; their presence and activity can spark important discussions and prevent pernicious ideological inbreeding.
You who value freedom, consider this: How trifling is a mandate to purchase health insurance, compared to a prohibition on what you may do with your own body on your own time? How can a college that prides itself on freedom from external control legitimately impose external controls orders of magnitude greater on its own students? How can an education for liberty be obtained by restricting liberty? Does an educational institution even have the right to restrict activities that occur outside the scope of services that its students, its customers, explicitly agreed to pay for – irrespective of whether federal funding is involved? Keep in mind that these controls do not extend just to homosexuals. The college’s policy appears to be aimed at restricting consensual acts among unmarried heterosexual couples as well, irrespective of monogamy or intent to marry. If successful, the policy would destroy many burgeoning relationships of exactly the sort that the Hillsdale administration claims to value. More likely, however, it will only drive the activities in question underground, saddling them with the needless but inevitable perversions that accompany any black market – punctuated by the occasional tragedy of innocent sacrifice. Look up the story of Alan Turing for an example.
Hillsdale has joined the Bob Joneses of this world and, to undo the damage, would require an about-face in policy and change in the composition of the administration. Otherwise, it will be just one of many stagnant, dogmatic enclaves of premodernity, freeing itself from the federal government only to bind itself in far more encumbering shackles.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.