How Harvard Should Handle the Kyle Kashuv Mess

The university and its critics can transform this polarizing culture war controversy into a constructive moment––if both take steps to placate the other side.

Kyle Kashuv
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many survivors became outspoken advocates of gun control. In contrast, Kyle Kashuv became an outspoken advocate of gun rights, appearing on Fox News and speaking at events to young conservatives.

He was set to attend Harvard after a gap year. But the university rescinded its offer, Kashuv announced yesterday, citing a controversy involving racial slurs.

“A few weeks ago, I was made aware of egregious and callous comments classmates and I made privately years ago—when I was 16 years old, months before the shooting—in an attempt to be as extreme and shocking as possible,” he explained on Twitter. “I immediately apologized.” Nevertheless, he said, “former peers & political opponents began contacting Harvard urging them to rescind me.” Upon learning of the controversy, Harvard asked him to explain himself. He replied with a letter that reiterated his previous apology and noted how much he has changed since surviving the massacre with his classmates.

“The Admissions Committee has discussed at length your account of the communications about which we asked, and we appreciated your candor and your expressions or regret for sending them,” Harvard replied. “As you know the Committee takes seriously the qualities of maturity and moral character. After careful consideration the Committee voted to rescind your admission to Harvard College.”

Just like that, America found itself cleaved by another “scissor”—a controversy that seems perfectly calibrated to polarize public opinion.

Coined in the short story “Sort by Controversial,” the term was defined most succinctly by Ross Douthat in the column “The Covington Scissor.” As he put it, a scissor tears people apart “not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.”

Social media are calibrated to surface these sorts of controversies. They disproportionately focus the public’s attention on that which most divides us.

In this case, the use of racial slurs violates one of the blue tribe’s biggest taboos, and the tribe’s members accurately observe that hypercompetitive Harvard routinely denies applicants for all manner of tiny shortcomings, many of which are less morally objectionable than the behavior revealed in this controversy.

Meanwhile, the red tribe, which feels that cultural elites are biased against it, can’t help but suspect that Kashuv’s skeletons wouldn’t have been unearthed and weaponized if not for his activism, and that Harvard would look past bad behavior from an already admitted student if he wasn’t a straight, white, pro-gun conservative. Its members accurately observe that almost everyone did or said something in private at 16 that doesn’t necessarily reflect on their character years later.

Rather than champion either side, I want to explore how those cleaved by this scissor might proceed in a way that doesn’t exacerbate America’s dangerously corrosive polarization.

For example: Harvard might conserve the valuable stigma that the college and its defenders want attached to racial slurs, while still alleviating the concerns of its critics, by affirming its desire for ideological diversity among its undergraduates and pledging to replace Kashuv with an openly conservative wait-listed applicant.

“This isn’t about his politics,” it could then credibly announce.

Meanwhile, folks on the other side might recognize that their professed concern about an unforgiving culture has implications that go beyond defending, e.g., conservatives who were revealed to have used abhorrent racial slurs.

Ben Shapiro writes:

There are ex-convicts who, quite properly, have been admitted to Harvard—they earned forgiveness. There are current students who undoubtedly have said things privately that would shock the conscience. There are likely administrators who have said things when they were 16 years old that embarrass them now.

Is the new standard that if you said something on a private message board when you were 16 years old that we should deny you the possibility of a degree at a top college, so long as those who join you on that message board decide to out you?

Perhaps Shapiro could rally conservatives who agree with his assessment to demonstrate that they earnestly want a more forgiving culture, not just to defend their tribe. They could join with liberals to eliminate a strikingly unforgiving policy that harms many hundreds of college-age Americans every year: More than 1,000 students annually lose access to federal financial aid under a draconian policy that makes them ineligible after a narcotics conviction.

Should a 19-year-old lose the ability to pay for college because he was caught smoking a joint or buying magic mushrooms or taking Ecstasy into a music festival?

“Scissors” are so peculiarly divisive precisely because mass reactions on both sides are rooted in some legitimate, widely held concerns. If enough people focus on those concerns while bracketing the features that made the matter polarizing, it’s always possible to blunt the scissor’s edge—to focus on popular, common goals.