In defense of Robert George

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.

16 Responses to "In defense of Robert George"

  1. JV Blanchard  February 20, 2014 at 10:12 AM

    Philip:

    Concerning the first paragraphs of your letter, please refer to the other ones published today for contrasting views.

    I want to address your insidious attack on my esteemed colleague Mark Wallace, because for me it marks the true low point in this sad affair. First, I hope you grasp the irony of establishing a parallel between Heidegger and George's views. Thanks for that: as far as I am concerned, indeed, Heidegger is in good company here. But mostly, you first judge Mark Wallace for what you see as a double-standard: finding it acceptable to present Heidegger in class, and raising concerns about the presence of George on campus. Listen: there is big BIG, FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE between putting a text, no matter how objectionable, on a syllabus and having President Chopp's Institute for the Liberal Arts giving a platform to an anti gay-rights activist who uses the window-dressing of natural law philosophy to impose his religious views on civil society, all that framed, after last year's events, as a teaching moment and a celebration of the liberal arts education.

    Now, let's get to this other aspect of your attack, that Mark did not spend time on Heidegger's background in class: do you realize what you are implying here for the sake of making your accusation of a double-standard more effective? EWWW! Clearly many of us who objected to the so-called collection on Monday night were startled that the Institute would organize this event, but I have not seen such personal attacks on these members of the Institute on public forums. Actually, I am co-teaching this semester with one of the member's of the Institute who invited George on campus: I'm proud of being that colleague, and it never dawned on me to make the kind of insinuation you made about Mark. You should apologize.

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  2. Peter Nilsson  February 20, 2014 at 12:53 PM

    "George and West came to campus to discuss the merits of liberal arts education and how to foster constructive dialogue." Let's be real here--if George and West really wanted to foster dialogue, they wouldn't have delivered a monologue for such a long time, to the exclusion of the voices from the community they allegedly came to help (see Nora Johnson's piece: http://www.swarthmorephoenix.com/2014/02/20/its-not-about-free-speech/)

    "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." In his homophobia, George is clearly wrong and we are clearly right. To even consider his homophobia as deserving of the floor in any discussion, is, in itself homophobic. There is nothing more to hear about this issue, there was no need for discussion ever, it is over, matter resolved, queer people are people, George is wrong, we are right. End of discussion.

    This is a red herring, but I'll address it anyways, since the answer is simple: "This made me think: If George has no place speaking on our campus, why does Heidegger?" Heidegger did not come to speak on campus. I don't really care for Heidegger at all, but this is just a plain false comparison you've given.

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  3. Sara Blazevic  February 20, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    A far better analogy, Philip, would be considering how the Institute for the Liberal Arts would respond to a proposal to bring an anti-Semite or a member of the KKK to campus.

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  4. Old Grad  February 20, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Sara:

    My goodness. Someone who takes the same position that Barack Obama had on same-sex marriage well into 2012 is the equivalent of an "anti-Semite or a member of the KKK"?

    This sort of name-calling and intellectual bullying has no place at Swarthmore.

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  5. JV Blanchard  February 20, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    @Old Grad

    Barack Obama was not an anti-gay rights activist, contrary to Robert George. I would also remind you that LGTBQ people are the ones who get bullied, tortured, and killed for what they are, in this country, in Russia, in Uganda... Not so far-fetched a rhetorical gesture from Sara, and definitely not "name-calling and intellectual bullying." A signal that you also understand this reality would have been appreciated.

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  6. Anonymous  February 20, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    "In his homophobia, George is clearly wrong and we are clearly right. To even consider his homophobia as deserving of the floor in any discussion, is, in itself homophobic. There is nothing more to hear about this issue, there was no need for discussion ever, it is over, matter resolved, queer people are people, George is wrong, we are right. End of discussion."

    When I read that sentence by Queen, I considered responding ironically, "But we ARE clearly right and George IS clearly wrong!" Looks like Poe's law strikes again.

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  7. Philip Queen  February 20, 2014 at 7:51 PM

    Professor Blanchard,

    Thank you for responding to my letter, and thank you for also notifying me personally. It seems however, based on the strength of your reaction, that you have somehow misunderstood my point concerning Mark Wallace.

    I certainly did not intend to attack Professor Wallace, and those who I ran the letter by before publication did not see it as one. I am a firm believer that, in publishing something, one opens it up to public discourse, and thus is consenting to be responded to. So when I responded to Wallace’s letter without calling him names, or making any character claims except perhaps of hypocrisy, I don’t believe I did anything insidious, nor have anything to apologize for.

    Now when you speak of me insinuating something about Professor Wallace, judging by your reaction, are you thinking I was trying to insinuate Professor Wallace has anything to do with Nazism? I hope not, because that certainly was not the intent, but your response does make it sound like it. I was surprised, being familiar with Heidegger’s life, that Professor Wallace made no real mention of his Nazism, but upon reflection realized that since his serious contribution to philosophy is so often downplayed by his political beliefs, it was the most effective way to teach his work in a class. The real surprise came, then, when Wallace placed so much emphasis on George’s political beliefs (which really are in no way parallel to Nazism, and you should consider reinspecting the atrocities of the Nazi party before throwing such comparisons around). It seemed, and still does seem, hypocritical for Professor Wallace to have emphasized the political views of one while glossing over those of the other. I believe those who called for George to not be allowed to speak on campus did not consider the wider precedent they were setting, and my letter was an attempt to point out the broader effects of that precedent.

    We disagree over the relation between teaching a text and letting a speaker give a talk, and we also disagree on whether George’s presence on campus was fundamentally related to his stances on gay-rights. I am fine with this disagreement, but do wish with full sincerity you realize that, beyond pointing out hypocrisy, I made no insinuations about Professor Wallace or his character.

    I hope this clears some things up,
    Philip

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  8. JV Blanchard  February 20, 2014 at 8:19 PM

    @Philip

    Thanks, this clarifies things. By the way: homosexuals died in the camps, too.

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  9. Upset Queer student  February 20, 2014 at 9:09 PM

    I would simply like to say... Thank you, Mr. Blanchard for responding to this attempt at justifying Mr. George's presence and right to speak here on campus. The following from Mr. Queen's apologist piece particularly frighten me:

    "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"

    Mr. George appeals to and refers to his "well-rounded" education in his hateful fight against the LGBTQ community. And what is more dishonest than appealing to the very basis of everyone's - "right" and "wrong" - educations and viewpoints, the "humanist" Liberal Arts education - as a rhetorical tactic, a tool, to section out a segment a humanity as less valuable than the hetero- majority? He attempts to lend a dangerous false credibility to those who want to deny other human beings invaluable rights. And that, despite how "eloquent" his approach, makes Mr. George dishonest and unworthy of, so to speak, having Swarthmore's fancy-liberal-arts-college feather in his cap. Unfortunately, Mr. Queen seems to be unaware of how Mr. George's gentleman form subtly hides a simple hatred, Mr. George being akin to a William F. Buckley Jr. in a way.

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  10. Relieved guy  February 20, 2014 at 11:56 PM

    Philip,

    Seriously: this article is INCREDIBLE. Don't worry about the criticism - you probably shouldn't be surprised that this would happen. I think that everything that happened before and after the collection shows that Swarthmore will need much more than this to show its students what living in community actually looks and feels like.

    It is really easy to read an article with with anger and imply things that were not there. Any person who actually read the article in a rational manner, and with the ability to ponder arguments (something that people clearly need to learn) would realize that you are not implying anything about Nazism. What happened to you right now is probably the very same point you were trying to make. George was talking about community and liberal arts... people saw homophobia. You were talking about hypocrisy... people saw Nazism. It is easy to see things in a different way if we don't change our glasses. But that is the price Swarthmore is paying for having created an atmosphere where people offend each other for the sake of making it a "safe place." Safe for who?

    I just want to say that having people like you, that are still courageous to express their opinions in a community that "boycotts" everything that goes against its beliefs, is actually really relieving. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Thanks for being part of this campus. Thanks for expressing the opinion of many other students.

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  11. JV Blanchard  February 21, 2014 at 8:04 AM

    @Relieved guy

    I still find the Heidegger/George parallel established by the author of the letter troubling. As I understand it, it relies on a weak, if not false, comparison between between the teaching situation and the “collection,” and that raises questions about the author’s good faith in accusing Mark Wallace of hypocrisy. Then, the author tries to set up Jewish students against queer ones: in doing that, he ignores the fact that homosexuals died in the camps, too. Not to recognize or at least acknowledge this historical fact in the set up again makes me question what is really at stake here; for sure it denotes an indifference toward the past and ongoing history violence against LGTBQ people. It’s this reality of violence and this kind of neglect that makes the queer community at Swarthmore react so forcefully to the Robert George appearance, because we see it as contributing to violence. You want Swarthmore students to learn what living in real community feels like: how about at least recognizing the reality of oppression, to begin with.

    I want to tell you that in another context, here at Swarthmore, I might have well been defending Robert George’s right to speak, but not in the situation that Nora Johnson described so well. Surely I would study his writings in class. You might be surprised also to learn that I am a well published historian of the Catholic Church, and I have great respect for the faith and what many of its members have accomplished in its name. This is not about free speech.

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  12. Danielle C.  February 21, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    Thanks for writing this. It's sad that you were the only student or faculty member willing to publicly defend the West/George event in the Phoenix.

    I'm very worried about the state of free discourse at Swarthmore.

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  13. Relieved guy  February 21, 2014 at 5:58 PM

    @JV Blanchard

    "for sure it denotes an indifference toward the past and ongoing history violence against LGTBQ people" - seriously. where do you see that? I read the article over an over again and I see no indifference. I see rational argumentation. Try doing that.

    "You want Swarthmore students to learn what living in real community feels like: how about at least recognizing the reality of oppression, to begin with." - Oh, please. No one is denying the reality of oppresion here. No one is agreeing with the arguments of Robert George. Stop assuming things that are not being discussed here. Stop deviating from the subject.

    "You might be surprised also to learn that I am a well published historian of the Catholic Church, and I have great respect for the faith and what many of its members have accomplished in its name." - I still wonder what point you are trying to make here. Do you wnat catholic people to thank you because you have great respect for their faith? Do you want people to be amazed by the fact that you are well publicized? No one is talking about the rights of catholic people or whatever religion here.

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  14. Sam Zhang  February 22, 2014 at 1:09 PM

    You write, "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."

    So write Robert George the same letter. Tell him that people with different viewpoints might be good, after all, and that what he considers right and wrong might not be what most of the world considers right and wrong.

    We had a constructive dialogue, Philip. Inviting Robert George on campus was an act of dialogue. Dissenting against that was an act within the same dialogue. This entire process has been a constructive discussion about the invitation process, about what it means to lend our name to someone's conversation, and about how dialogue is predicated on a set of assumptions that everyone has to agree to first. I'd like to hear your thoughts on that, rather than this Mark Wallace-Heidegger bullshit.

    I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about antisemitism on campus (anytime makes a spiteful claim about "white people", I wonder if they're thinking of or simply forgetting the Jews, for example) but leave Mark Wallace and Heidegger out of it.

    I mean, you could try to make the case it was an act of microaggression, but then I'd like to hear more about your thought process in coming to make this public, rather than speaking to him. You must have felt his antisemitism was beyond saving, or something?

    The more I write this the more I realize how ridiculously anti-dialogue this article has been. You had a problem with a faculty member, so you write about it to the entire campus? That's constructive dialogue?

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  15. Anonymous  February 22, 2014 at 3:35 PM

    I am not Philip, but here are some of my thoughts.

    "So write Robert George the same letter. Tell him that people with different viewpoints might be good, after all, and that what he considers right and wrong might not be what most of the world considers right and wrong."

    I'm not sure what gives you the impression that Robert George is not aware of this. In some of his books (The Clash of Orthodoxies) he includes exchanges with some colleagues with whom he disagrees. While he clearly states that he believes they are incorrect, and attempts to spell out why, I don't think he ever doubts that they hold their positions for genuine reasons. (And it goes without saying that they constitute a part of the world that disagrees with him.) The charge of failing to engage rival viewpoints can't really be leveled against George here; the rationalization of ignoring his arguments has been made on the part of the Swarthmore community.

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  16. Jacob Hartog '00  May 4, 2014 at 10:26 PM

    I'm very late to this party, but find Professor Blanchard's tone towards Mr. Queen bullying and inappropriate.

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