A message from Wendy Shalit ’97 in response to this post from Professor Norman Birnbaum ’46.

I don’t typically respond to personal attacks. When you try to get people to consider a different angle on a topic, being attacked comes with the territory and sometimes it can even be a compliment.

However, Professor Norman Birnbaum’s gratuitous and entirely inaccurate attack on me exemplifies a larger disease in our society. This disease typically has four stages:

1. Defining tolerance so narrowly as to render it meaningless: “If someone agrees with me, I will tolerate him, but not if someone’s views threaten my own.” In fact, tolerance is only meaningful when two people disagree. Yet for some, disagreement creates too much cognitive dissonance and the idea of reexamining–and potentially, having to abandon–their preconceptions is too painful. In order to feel better about themselves, they must find a way to lash out at those who dare offer an opposing viewpoint.

2. In lashing out, always rely on rumor and your own creative bellybutton in constructing a parody of the person whom you are attacking. Never actually quote the views of the enemy, as that would interfere with the parody you are trying to construct, and then you might actually be led to (God forbid) change your mind. It’s far easier to debate something that was never said. For example, in Professor Birnbaum’s case, he writes that I was against “unisex dorms” (false); that I “objected to feminist views in the classroom” (also false, I objected to being labelled an “essentialist” and not being permitted to speak about sex differences in a class discussion); and that I “explained [I] was from an Orthodox Jewish family and offended by these things” (also false, I grew up in a Reform-Jewish family and ate in the non-kosher dining hall throughout my tenure at Williams–although it’s certainly interesting that accusing someone of being religious is the worst possible charge nowadays).

Professor Birnbaum relies on words like “overwrought” to describe me–which is quite unscientific, considering that he graduated Williams in ’46 and has never met me, nor lived in a dorm where the only option was a coed bathroom. How does he know I was overwrought? It’s at least theoretically possible that the dorm situation at Williams in the late 90s was somewhat less than stellar, and that someone who hasn’t been in the dorms for over 60 years might be a teensy bit out of his depth in making judgments about contemporary dorm life.

3. Once you have finished painting your caricature, and labeled it–in my case, “overwrought, anti-feminist easily-offended-Orthodox weirdo”–you can now relegate the person’s views to a category beyond considered judgment. Thus, Professor Birnbaum wants to send me retroactively to “Yeshiva” as he calls it–he must mean Stern College for Women, since yeshivas are for boys–and declares that I should never have come to Williams. How revealing. If I hadn’t been born Jewish, would he have sent me to a nunnery? Do students with conservative views and ideas about improving campus life have no place at Williams?

4. Once the enemy has been banished, it’s time to snicker and smirk in the comments section. All is sweetness and light, and–wonder of wonders–all cognitive dissonance has been resolved without ever having to consider whether the opposing viewpoint has merit.

I think it’s important for everyone to recognize the stages of this disease, which is by no means limited to academia, and not easily curable. It’s also important to remember that someone who has progressed to stage four of this disease cannot be accurately described as tolerant, open-minded, or even liberal in the classical sense of the term. The correct term for suppressing openness and opposition, sorry to say, is fascist.

I also want to add for the record, that I’m so grateful that I did go to Williams. I’m grateful for all the wonderful professors I had (like Professors Jacobsohn, Fix, Gerrard, Jackall, and Weintraub). I’m grateful that I stuck it out and that I was able to have an impact on campus; I’m grateful to the College for bringing me back in 2001, to speak to hundreds of students, many of whom personally thanked me for pushing the administration to make changes, and also for making campus discourse a little less of a monopoly). Most of all, I’m grateful for my bad experiences at Williams–for the live mice shoved under my door as a commentary on my “prudish” views; for some of my peers who never met me but felt it necessary to give me the finger as I passed them in the street; for the professor who disagreed with me and told me I needed psychological help. Surviving these experiences triggered reflection and helped me discover what kind of person I wanted to be. And hey, isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?

Finally, the next time you are thinking of me–and I notice that you think about me quite a lot at EphBlog–perhaps you might consider sending anemones (my favorite flower), instead of inventing things about me. Or at the very least, if not in the interest of truth then in the spirit of generosity for which E. Williams is lauded, send me questions for clarification.


Wendy Shalit ‘97

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