Harvard, Plagiarism, and the Moral Relativism of Tribalism

Harvard, Plagiarism, and the Moral Relativism of Tribalism

Harvard University president Claudine Gay has resigned her post amid accusations of plagiarism and “duplicative language” in her academic works.

While the headline makes the situation seem simple, the accusations against Gay and her subsequent resignation did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, the events that led up to her resignation are morally, politically, and racially complex. 

What’s more is that they seem to betray the fact that morality—or at least our application of it with regard to our institutional leaders—has increasingly become a matter of tribal affiliation.

Prior to accusations that she had not properly cited other scholars in her academic work, Gay was one of three presidents from prestigious universities to testify before Congress regarding the alarming rise in antisemitic rhetoric and even physical intimidation of Jewish students on their campuses amid the unfolding conflict between Israel and Hamas

The answers these three presidents gave regarding such antisemitism were more than a little underwhelming. In particular, when Gay was asked whether calling for the “genocide of Jews” violated Harvard University policy, she responded, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”

To a certain extent, defense of the First Amendment might seem like an apt reply. However, touting high minded ideals about free speech seems a bit disingenuous given the fact that Harvard University is ranked among the worst schools for free speech, regularly disciplining faculty members and students who oppose progressive ideals, whether in speech or writing. 

In other words, the standing order of the day at Harvard is that if hateful speech aligns with left-leaning politics, it is protected. But if speech advocates for conservative or right-leaning ideals, it is silenced. 

And, for whatever reason, advocating for Palestinian freedom to the tune of Jewish annihilation is the advocacy cause du jour for some far-left groups—including some Harvard students and faculty. So, to a Harvard faculty member, unequivocally denouncing antisemitism is apparently not as simple and obvious as it seems. 

Given Gay’s abysmal performance before Congress, detractors had already been calling for her resignation. But adding to the already fraught situation was an uneasy racial component. A number of Gay’s opponents have referred to her as a “DEI hire,” given that she is a Black woman serving in the highest levels of academic leadership. 

This prejudice was a motivating factor in the intensified scrutiny of her academic writings, which eventually uncovered that she had failed in her academic duty to properly cite her sources. Further, opponents of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion now see Gay’s resignation as a symbolic win for the “anti-woke” movement and are thirsty for more. 

“The DEI-hire at Harvard has resigned. Christians, take note,” wrote William Wolfe, former Trump official and vocal advocate of Christian nationalism. “This is the exact same sort of pressure and campaign we need to bring to bear on our institutions to take them back from the same poisonous ideology that has ruined Harvard. We can do this. In fact, we must.”

In other words, to Wolfe, Gay’s failed tenure as Harvard’s president is the result of her never having been qualified for the job, because she was only selected to achieve diversity. 

To be sure, such an implication is fairly transparently racist. 

On the other hand, some of Gay’s supporters are seeking to minimize the legitimate accusations of plagiarism against her and blame her resignation completely on racism. 

“When a racist mob attacks a Black person, it finds a seemingly legitimate reason for the attack that allows for it to accrue popular support and credibility, and which allows the growing mob to deny they are attacking the person in this way because the person is Black,” wrote antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi. “The question to assess whether this was a racist attack isn’t whether Dr. Gay engaged in any misconduct. The question is whether all these people would have investigated, surveilled, harassed, written about, and attacked her in the same way if the Harvard president in this case would have been White.”

For my part, I believe that two things can be true at once. For starters, it’s undeniable that at least part of the scrutiny Gay has faced has been racially motivated. However, the question of whether she engaged in misconduct with regard to plagiarism is absolutely material to the merit of her forced resignation. 

Thrown in the mix is the paradox of advocacy for Jewish genocide being protected speech on the campus of Harvard, while advocacy for a traditional understanding of sex and gender is not. 

Regardless, to the public eye, Gay is either a leftist villain or a progressive martyr. And how a person feels about her is largely determined by their partisan affiliation. In other words, many Americans have become so thoroughly postmodern that their understanding of morality has become entirely relative. 

What concerns me greatly is that the church seems to be no different. Take another dustup over plagiarism that happened within the Southern Baptist Convention a couple of years back. 

The controversy surrounded then-SBC president Ed Litton, who had been consistently castigated by figures to his right over his advocacy for racial reconciliation and sexual abuse reform within the denomination. 

Given their opposition to him, some of these more right-leaning figures in the SBC began combing through video from Litton’s sermons, eventually finding the ammunition they needed. While Litton was still a sitting SBC president, it was discovered that he had taken sermon material delivered by J.D. Greear (another SBC pastor who was also the previous SBC president) and repeated it to his own congregation—verbatim, without attribution. 

Later, both Greear and Litton said that Greear had given Litton permission to use his material, and Litton apologized. But it is hard to deny that he plagiarized the content. And so right-leaning groups within the SBC called for his resignation—calls that were ignored.

Further, everyone who supported Litton and his vision for the SBC sort of just forgot about the whole thing. 

That very same year, Voddie Baucham released his book “Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe,” in which he excoriated the evangelical movement for allegedly embracing CRT and Marxism. Since Baucham has long been an influential figure in the SBC, his work was trumpeted among those who have been accusing the denomination of “liberal drift.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before Baucham’s ideological opponents combed through his work to credibly accuse him of plagiarizing the work of others, as well as misrepresenting the work of those who disagreed with him. 

However, because of Baucham’s influence, his supporters—many of them the same people who publicly called upon Litton to resign—were quick to accept the explanation from Baucham’s publisher that while the book’s citations were not formatted in an academic way, the work contained no plagiarism. This despite the fact that entire paragraphs were lifted verbatim from another work without attribution. 

Again, whether the average Southern Baptist was willing to admit that either of these two men engaged in misconduct with regard to plagiarism depended almost entirely upon whether they aligned with his political vision for the SBC. 

This is moral relativism. 

And we do it all the time. Whatever agrees with my political ideology must be morally virtuous, and whatever does not align with my political ideology must be morally evil. 

Growing up in evangelical spaces, I was often warned about the moral relativism of postmodernism. But I was always told that it would most likely be found in the classrooms of secular universities. And to be sure, it is there. But I am just as likely to find it in the pews of my theologically conservative church. 

And that’s because when we see the political power of our own tribe as being of paramount importance, we are not likely to become (or remain) moral people. While we claim to stand for the truth, we often stand for “my truth”—another aphorism I was often warned would accompany postmodernism.

My fellow Christians, we have to be able to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Yes, it is right and good that we would build coalitions of supporters around ideals and policies that we believe are for the collective good, whether with regard to our Christian institutions or public policy. But when we descend into tribal absolutism, excusing the sins of “the good guys” in order to maintain tribal unity, we lose all moral authority.

Truth and morality are not relative. And while this isn’t cause for legalism, may we be wary of those who spend all their time calling attention to the sins of those in other tribes while consistently ignoring or explaining away the sins within their own.