President Reif, in a recent e-mail to the MIT community, described a certain list of acts as unthinkable. There are several ways in which this decree is problematic.
First of all, that nothing is declared unthinkable is an essential aspect of any knowledge-seeking community.
Here’s the thing about thought: it occurs within the head. Without action, it does not cause anything to others. Without being spoken, others can’t even be exposed to it unless they’re psychic.
Advancement in society occurs upon the willingness to question the standards and conventions that the world passes to us. As society moves forward, it is necessary to be vigilant in investigating what we have taken for granted and whether continuing to subscribe to an idea keeps us from attaining progress, both in science and in society. To question is the fundamental duty of the academic.
This is not to say that it is unimportant to question outside of academics. It may not even be a century prior that the consensus opinion in America was that acceptability of homosexuality is unthinkable. The nascent rights of homosexuals today are the product of a struggle that started with those that were willing to question the societal convention. When one establishes that people should not be allowed to think certain things, with mistrust of the people’s ability to restrain themselves on the barrier between the contents of their mind and the outside world, one is suggesting a substantial intrusion into rights.
President Reif, you are paving the road for a concept of thoughtcrime.
Another issue on the declaration of unthinkability is that it provides fuel for an attitude of denial.
Suppose your unilateral declaration regarding the nature of the MIT community is correct and that there are no people in this community that believe the ideas you consider unthinkable. In that case, the sole purpose of your e-mail was to reaffirm your audience of their rightness as well as the wrongness of the not-us. In this situation, you are merely feeding an echo chamber.
But what I suspect is more likely is the case that the number of members of the MIT community that do believe ideas you have declared unthinkable is nonzero. In this event, by simply asserting an unacceptability, from a position of great power in the community no less, without any serious rationale behind your statement, you provide the impression to the other that the community would not be willing to even deal with those with those ideas and to hold conversation about the issue. You cannot in good faith and sincerity declare that a community is a place for open expression after you nearly immediately prior declare a wide swath of ideas unthinkable. Rather, you incentivize their silence, to help them pretend that they do not harbor declared-unthinkable thoughts. But the thoughts live on. And if society will not be willing to ever have a civil conversation with them about their thoughts (which is very much the nature of this society in general), what you can expect is that the release of these suppressed thoughts occurs explosively. To the people who are on what you consider the correct side, you are providing a false security that a problem need not be dealt with, to suggest that pretending something doesn’t exist by declaration is better than engaging the problem. In the short term, this may work. Later down the line, this is less sustainable.
MIT is built by nerds. More than any place in the world, MIT should be a haven for those that do not understand society’s unwritten rules, and for those who question them. I may have yet to find the rationale behind some of them, but my current impression is that a lot of society’s rules (as well as things that seem to be society’s rules, since they are unwritten, after all) are unhealthy or inefficient. In fact, I think most people in this community probably feel so. Of course, the awkwardness of meta-discussion of society does not help to resolve these cloudy thoughts. As a person who is often exceedingly lonely, probably as a result of some societal rules that I don’t understand as several that seem to exist and that I object to, I can only imagine the level of loneliness that must be experienced by those that are significantly further behind in the grasping of societal ideas. A place like MIT may be the best chance there is for such people to thrive, and we should refrain from trying to take this away from them via force rather than attempt to communicate, as awkward as it may be, the nature of society’s constructs, to them. In this process, as long as the importance of questioning has not been driven out of us, we may find ourselves enlightened as to the helpfulness of certain societal standards as well, and make changes, at least locally, for progress in community.