Challenge & Acceptance – An Alumni Perspective

[Editor’s Note: The letter below incorrectly attributes some statements to Dr. Haidt, and includes incomplete quotations for others. Attached are complete third party transcripts of both the video shown in class and Dr. Haidt’s apology.]

Joshua Cohen, MBA Class of 2013

Dean Henry,

I am writing as a recent LGBT alumnus and former member of the Outclass executive committee to express my concern and genuine sadness about comments made by Dr. Jonathan Haidt during this year’s professional responsibility course, and your response to those comments to the Stern community.

I think the best way to start this letter is from a place of mutual understanding.  Accordingly, I’d like to present you with some facts about the challenges that LGBT individuals face in 2014:

This isn’t to say that the situation for LGBT individuals hasn’t progressed dramatically in the past few years. But at the same time that gay people are being married on stage at the Grammy’s, they are being beaten in the streets of Russia.  A tremendous amount of institutional discriminations remains.

But what’s more pernicious, I’d argue, is the cultural discrimination, the negotiation that every LGBT individual goes through countless times a day: Should I be Out? How Out should I be? Am I presenting myself in an appropriately masculine or feminine way? Will saying or doing something “too gay” cause my colleagues, boss, friends, to dismiss me or not take me seriously?  It is a constant internal conversation that would be exhausting if it weren’t so firmly ingrained in our behavior.


To turn to the matter at hand, I will present Dr. Haidt in his own words.  I concede that the transcript below may not be a verbatim account of what took place, but I do not believe that this discounts my underlying sentiment.

[To clarify, the text below was not spoken by Dr. Haidt, It was spoken by an undergraduate experimenter, who was interviewing a research participant as part of a research study. The full text of the videotaped interaction is available here. – Ed]


Personally, I would find homosexual sex repulsive.  It is nothing that I would want to witness, but I don’t say it is wrong.

Because if people are inclined to that….and it is looking like it is more of a genetic thing…

Even though I would find it personally repulsive to watch, I don’t think because a person finds it repulsive, it doesn’t mean it is wrong. I don’t want to see it.  I don’t like it.


Jonathan Haidt:

[The full transcript of Dr. Haidt’s apology is available here. -Ed]

After my talk yesterday morning when I showed the video of the moral dumbfounding I heard from 5 students who were bothered by the discussion of the video about the consensual sibling incest . And then the comparison was made to watching gay sex. Several people were offended by that and they came to talk to me.

I resisted because I thought Scott is not being homophobic. He is making the point that it is perfectly ok and there is nothing wrong with gay sex and the fact that I don’t like it, that it bothers me to watch it doesn’t make it wrong.

I don’t think he is saying anything inappropriate.

Let me start by commending the individuals who spoke out against this video.  They challenged well-established structures of power (the faculty and administration) and risked ridicule and unnecessary attention from fellow classmates to stand up for their beliefs.  They are very brave.

I understand that Dr. Haidt is making an academic point and he is using a provocative and challenging scenario to do so.  But given the facts of my daily reality, Dr. Haidt’s choice to using a maligned minority to make his point seems at best intellectually lazy and insensitive and at worst plain bullying.

I ask you to conduct the following thought experiment: re-read the above passages and substitute any of the following words for “homosexual”:  Jew, Muslim, African-American, Chinese, Indian.

Imagine Dr. Haidt had shown a video in which an individual said “I find black people repulsive” and students were offended. Would the statement “I don’t think he is saying anything inappropriate” be an acceptable response?

Dr. Haidt goes on to say:

So I thought that there is really nothing wrong with what Scott said and then I started thinking about the wisdom of showing that video in class. And especially once I put myself in the position of a gay student here in the class listening. So I do understand even though I don’t think Scott was being homophobic… and I did see some of the nuances.  I do understand that it was not wise or appropriate or not strictly necessary to show that video in this class to make those points.

I have shown the video at least 50 times at academic conferences and classes nobody has ever raised an objection but odds are that there were students who were offended and they didn’t have the guts to say that wasn’t comfortable and to bring that to me.

And while I appreciate the form of this apology, I find the substance of it deficient.  It is curious to me that Dr. Haidt admits to lacking the wisdom to discern that the video he showed (has shown over 50 times!) was inappropriate and unnecessary, but remains confident enough in his judgment to continue to insist that the interviewee in the video is not being homophobic.  To my mind, there is a fundamental disconnect in Dr. Haidt’s logic that one might identify as hubris.

Moreover, it seems to me that Dr. Haidt is taking a disturbingly narrow view of homosexuality.  He seems to be reducing a complex identity and set of challenges to a series of sexual acts:

Dr. Haidt:

Certainly it is the case that sexual interest, sexual arousal and sexual repulsion is very personal and something we can’t legislate and certainly it is the case that lots and lots of men love watching two women have sex and really hate watching two men have sex. So I am sort of focused on that.

But pornography is not sexuality.  And sexuality is not the extent of anyone’s identity.  However by framing the conversation in this way, Dr. Haidt has created a very uncomfortable, very alienating environment to LGBT students.  Is any other group of students required to sit through mandatory lectures about their sex life in Paulson Auditorium?  It is academically sanctioned public humiliation.

And this is why, Dean Henry, I am saddened by your response to this situation.

In your note to 2nd Year MBA students dated February 3, you frame your argument in terms of “Challenge and Acceptance.”

You state that:

While reasonable people can disagree about where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate—indeed, that is the nature of intellectual inquiry, what it means to challenge the mind—on the whole, I think that our community grapples with these issues in a manner that redounds to our credit.

But to frame the argument in this way is to blame the victim.  You are saying that perhaps the aggrieved students have too sensitive.  I can assure you that this is not the case.  Anyone who has endured a lifetime of being called “Dyke” or “Faggot” can handle much stronger stuff.  The point is that in an academic we should not have to.   This is not a case of reasonable people disagreeing.  This is a case of Dr. Haidt being plain wrong.  At best, he is being insensitive and tactless.
(In fact, Dr. Haidt has a history of tactlessness around this issue, witness this video in which he equates a marriage between two women to eating sushi.)

Even still, assuming Dr. Haidt were correct in his argument (he is not), he’d be wrong in using the LGBT community as the instrument for making his argument.

We put up with so much already.  Please, make our lives just a little bit easier.

Yes, intellectual inquiry and academic freedom are of paramount importance. But should this freedom be privileged over a more basic freedom for an individual to be his or herself?  What is the point of Dr. Haidt’s lecture if it causes someone to feel just that much more uncomfortable being Out at Stern?  What is the value of whatever Dr. Haidt is trying to say if it results in students keeping quite and refusing to express their opinions for fear of ridicule or exposure or unnecessary attention?   Dr. Haidt’s comments caused several students to speak out, and again I commend them (though really, why are they being put in a position to have to fight this fight?) but I can guarantee that these comments will cause an equal number of students to retreat back into the closet.

And this is why, Dean Henry, I believe it is imperative for you to swiftly, directly and publicly repudiate Dr. Haidt’s behavior.

If you truly believe that it is:

vital … for each of us to develop greater empathy in order to contribute to the vitality of our Stern community,

and that

the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes when your competitor cannot is a powerful source of differentiation.

then I challenge you to be proactive and start at the top.  Show the entire School that Stern is a place that truly values diversity and inclusion and that we do not allow “Rock-Star” professors to “big-time” valued members of our community.

Additionally, if faculty members:

fall short not for want of effort but rather because of how difficult it is to fully understand and therefore empathize with the other’s experience.

then as Dean of Stern, you must ask whether said individuals have the qualities required to be placed in a position of authority over students.  Yes, it can be difficult to empathize with the other’s experience, but Stern is a school that values the combination of EQ+IQ.  This is exactly the thing at which we should excel.

The opportunity to shape young minds is a tremendous privilege.  Those granted this privilege must be held to a very high standard. To my mind, Dr. Haidt has clearly failed in his responsibilities.

But what is worse, Dean Henry, is that you are failing as well.   Who, exactly, was the subject of your February 3rd missive?  It was addressed to the MBA2s, but the problem does not lie within the student body.  In my experience, Stern students have been very accepting of diversity.   In this instance, the problem lies directly with Dr. Haidt, but your refusal to call him out on his behavior has let something that should have been a minor hiccup develop into a serious issue.

The fact that this those of us in the alumni community are even aware that this problem exists is proof of weak leadership.


Finally, while I know that you did not mean to be pejorative when making the following statement:

I know from personal experience how hard it can be for people to accept those who are different.

Let me be clear: as a gay man I am in no way different from a heterosexual man, a black man, or any other type of man. I am an individual, and yes I have my own personal history and unique sets of challenges, but I am not an Other.

Joshua Cohen, MBA
Class of 2013

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