The most common, and perhaps most valid, criticism of Robert George after his dialogue on campus with Cornel West was that he did not answer our questions. I believe we are not in a position to fault George for this, as our questions did not answer his talk.
George and West came to campus to discuss the merits of liberal arts education and how to foster constructive dialogue. And I don’t think anyone can deny that George spoke clearly and eloquently on the subject. Adroitly mixing classical and modern influences into his own thought, he emphasized the importance of a well-rounded education in the creation of a well-rounded individual. From this, he powerfully expounded a humanist vision of academia, in which individuals have a duty to not only be well informed and consider challenges, but also to be honest with themselves about their reactions to arguments from every side. It was inspiring and even important for me to hear a convincing case for placing intellectual honesty above the search for objective, notional truths.
George’s most salient point, however, was that, without interlocutors first agreeing upon terms, a discussion cannot be productive. More than just failing to agree on terms with George, we as a student body failed to agree to even have a discussion. And that’s frightening. In response to a talk on rational discourse, we asked about transgender children not being let into the right bathroom, being wrong about same-sex marriage and being taught wrong viewpoints on poverty. We asked, in essence, how George could speak to us of intellectual pluralism when he was so clearly wrong and we were so clearly right. While we do have a moral obligation to act in the face of what we view as injustice, if we cease to engage with other opinions we run the risk of someday being on the wrong side without realizing it. We need to acknowledge that what we consider right and wrong is probably not what most of the world considers right and wrong. We need to acknowledge that people with different viewpoints may be doing everything they know how to do to be good. We need to acknowledge that, without discourse, we cannot continue to be in the right forever.
Before leaving the matter at that, however, I want to express my surprise on seeing Professor Mark Wallace’s response to the talk in last week’s Phoenix. Wallace sympathized with the view that George, due to his beliefs on same-sex marriage, had no place speaking on our campus, but did so only weeks after teaching the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger in his class Religion and Ecology. Specifically, I am surprised that, in light of his views on George, Wallace made only vague reference to Heidegger’s “wacky political views,” skirting over the fact the philosopher was an unapologetic Nazi. No one raised any objection to the teaching of Heidegger, and his viewpoints are still productively used in class discussion. This made me think: If George has no place speaking on our campus, why does Heidegger? If any Jewish students had felt hurt by what Heidegger took part in, would teachers like Professor Wallace remove his work from their syllabi? If George’s views on homosexuality are so important, then didn’t Wallace have an obligation to clearly disclose Heidegger’s Nazism? It seems to me that, until banning all thinkers with worse views than George from campus, we are not in a position to question his right to speak on campus.
Philip Queen is a sophomore at Swarthmore College.