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Rejecting students who support terrorism isn’t cancel culture

Universities have become way too intolerant of diverse viewpoints. But some viewpoints are morally reprehensible.

Students participated in a protest outside the Columbia University campus on Nov. 15.Spencer Platt/Getty

By the time I graduated from college in 2021, elite consulting companies, law firms, and investment banks had made inclusionary initiatives and DEI departments a cornerstone of their recruiting efforts. With “inclusion” as the mantra, companies may have overlooked less innocent aspects of progressive students’ activism, like their insistence on political conformity. But what happens when some of the same college students come out in support of terrorism?

Besides revealing a laughable double standard when it comes to “inclusivity,” the pro-Hamas protests and statements coming out of elite college campuses in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 laid bare a critical lack of moral reasoning and nuanced thinking. Student groups across the country not only blamed Israel for Hamas’s attack; they handwaved away the group’s rapes and murders. They promoted messages that idealize terrorism, like “Glory to our martyrs.”

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This is making some companies understandably uneasy at the prospect of hiring such students, even if they come from the companies’ favorite feeder schools. After more than 30 Harvard student groups signed on to a letter holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” Bill Ackman, the CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, demanded the university release a list of students involved in these organizations “so [the signatories’] views are publicly known.” He got support from the CEOs of other companies like Sweetgreen, EasyHealth, and FabFitFun.

Ackman’s original demand was rooted in justifiable moral outrage, but it went too far by asking for a list of the members of each Harvard organization that signed on to the letter to “insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.” Many members of these organizations had no idea about the content of the letter, let alone a role in publishing it, and were subsequently doxxed. Many of those people may well be critical of Israel without blaming Israel for the tragedy, as the letter does. This is the danger of the kind of blanket bans on speech that have become all too common today.

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How, then, should companies regard students in pro-Hamas protests? It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about. I have often written that cancel culture is a blight on open discourse, especially in the university, and it hurts a pluralistic society. I believe that “noxious ideas” should be protected on campus, at least to foster instructive dialogue that distinguishes right from wrong. Yet there has been truly despicable conduct among supposedly gifted student populations in higher education, and some students should indeed lose jobs over it.

How do companies walk the line between senseless cancellation and condemning hateful conduct? The answer is: carefully, on a case-by-case basis.

Companies can, and should, cut ties with students with the moral ineptitude to praise Hamas as martyrs and to endorse brutality for political ends, but they should refrain from the general bans that penalize nuanced viewpoints and curtail free speech.

A private company has the right to deny someone employment if their values are antithetical to the company’s. Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor in psychology and a founder of the university’s Council on Academic Freedom, doesn’t see a threat to free speech on campus if companies hold students accountable for supporting terrorism. He says the Harvard student group statement was especially objectionable because it was “dunce-cap-level reasoning” to hold the Israeli government entirely at fault. And it calls into question the students’ sensitivity to people unlike themselves and their ability to make conceptual distinctions.

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“If a public statement is being used as evidence of a person’s qualifications,” he says, “it’s not an infringement of free speech to judge such an individual as lacking in the intellectual sophistication and interpersonal sensitivity that makes them appropriate for a job.”

It’s also important to mete out consequences cautiously, in order to safeguard the kind of diversity of viewpoints that helps a pluralistic society — and businesses that serve it — thrive. A Harvard professor of government, Ryan Enos, told me that “it’s necessary in a capitalist economy in a free society that companies are allowed to make decisions that reflect their moral values.” However, he favors more leeway for students than Pinker, and the two have disagreed in the pages of the Harvard Crimson over how exactly to regard students’ pro-Hamas speech on campus. “You’re going to have a lot of competing values in a place where you just have a really diverse society with diverse opinions,” Enos says. To some extent, it’s important to have a company culture that reflects that diversity.

It’s best, then, for companies to deal with outspoken students individually, as some law firms have done. Winston & Strawn, for example, rescinded an offer to New York University student Ryna Workman, who wrote that “Israel bears full responsibility” and said they would “not condemn Palestinian resistance.” The firm wrote that the student’s statement was “profoundly in conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm.” Davis Polk, another law firm, provides a prime example of why individualized consideration is so important. It initially rescinded offers to three Columbia and Harvard students who led groups that blamed the terror of Oct. 7 on the “Israeli regime.” But the firm later said it was reconsidering its decision for two of the three students, who claimed they did not authorize these statements. The firm did not respond to a request for comment this week.

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Individualized approaches, which should include ample dialogue with the job candidates in question, allow companies to consider nuanced viewpoints. Instead of demanding a list of students in clubs that have made controversial statements, companies can look closely into each candidate’s extracurricular activities on campus and the statements they’re making on social media. They might find that some members of the clubs are pro-Israel or completely disengaged. Others are pro-Palestine without being pro-Hamas or thinking that Oct. 7 was entirely Israel’s fault or shouting “Glory to our martyrs.” (Though if a private company believes that being publicly critical of Israel goes against its culture, it of course has the right to deny someone employment, no matter how nuanced their views are.)

Engaging in due process fights back against the dangerous blanket condemnation that characterizes cancel culture. Dan McLaughlin at National Review writes that cancellation describes what occurs when someone faces “concrete adverse consequences as a result of politically controversial speech or expression.” What happens if companies ban all candidates who hold “harmful” or “immoral” views? “Harmful” and “immoral” can be easily conflated with “politically controversial.” Of course, any company would want to root out something “harmful.” But McLaughlin wisely cautions that even standards that sound “reasoned and sensible” will “be exploited by bad-faith actors.” “If you concede that you could cancel Hitler, anyone can be Hitler.” And yet even he sees cheering for Hamas as a rare example of something worth having a job offer rescinded over.

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A rally at Harvard on Oct. 14.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Weaponizing standards for “harmful” campus discourse has become so toxic that students with “heterodox views” — often conservative, or pro-Israel, or pro-life — are shamed into silence by their progressive peers. What if companies follow suit and stop hiring students who believe there are only two genders, because such students are supposedly denying a trans person’s right to exist? What if they don’t hire pro-life students for supposedly denying women their liberty? “We should be very cautious in declaring any kind of speech outside the pale of polite society, because pretty soon we’re going to find a lot of people think a lot of speech is outside the pale of polite society,” says Enos.

Another issue with cancel culture is that it doesn’t allow for growth, change, or clarification. Take the example of Ilya Shapiro, who, after being appointed executive director of Georgetown University’s Law Center, was lambasted online and placed on administrative leave for criticizing President Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

Shapiro, who preferred the candidate Sri Srinivasan, was critical of Biden’s selective application of intersectionality and said the result was the nomination of a “lesser black woman.” It’s poor wording, to say the least. Shapiro apologized for the “inartful” phrasing and clarified that he considered “one possible candidate to be best and thus all others to be less qualified.” It would be a “miscomprehension,” he wrote, to read his tweet as saying he “considered all black women to be ‘lesser than’ everyone else.”

Shapiro was eventually cleared by Georgetown on a “jurisdictional technicality” and reinstated after months of largely pointless investigation. He resigned days after being cleared, though, blaming what he called an “untenable” environment on campus. As a member of the Georgetown community, Shapiro should have been given additional grace and space for dialogue to explain his position rather than allowing him to be attacked by a mob that made a bad-faith reading of his comments.

Often, the canceled are held accountable for past viewpoints that have since changed or are not given the benefit of the doubt when they apologize for having held offensive positions. What if a five-year-old post by a job candidate says “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”? Through dialogue, companies can determine if students have by now better educated themselves to understand the genocidal context of that slogan.

Pluralistic societies must tolerate diverse viewpoints. But there are viewpoints that are morally reprehensible. Trivializing the murder, rape, and kidnapping of Jewish civilians is one of those viewpoints. Promoting “Glory to our martyrs” on campus property is another. Publicly ripping down posters of innocent kidnapped civilians is yet another. It shouldn’t be considered canceling to deny employment to someone cheering terrorists.

If universities aren’t able or willing to teach students the moral clarity to understand this, perhaps it is up to the private sector to do the job.

This column was updated on Nov. 30 to correct the spelling of Dan McLaughlin’s name.


Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at carine.hajjar@globe.com.