Princeton professors Cornel West and Robert George are scheduled to visit Swarthmore next semester to discuss the importance of healthy conversation between those with differing opinions. That sounds all well and good, another nice collection for the intellectuals to attend—nothing out of the ordinary. The only problem is that Robert George overshoots “acceptable” levels of conservatism quite a bit, and many people are opposed to him visiting.
First, I’d like to say that I’m a democratic socialist, a progressive, and a secularist. Robert George helped found the blatantly anti-gay National Organization for Marriage and is a conservative Christian. To put it respectfully: I think George is very, very wrong and misguided.
But he should be allowed to speak at Swarthmore. You need to be around different opinions, otherwise everything stagnates—that includes opinions you don’t like. It’s difficult to confront troublesome beliefs when you never actually talk to or listen to someone who holds those beliefs. Just assuming that you know what they think and writing them off before any defense can be made is not the way to deal with the issue. Taking sociology classes and having riveting conversations with friends over dinner is a wonderful step to take, but you can’t in all honesty say that you’re open-minded and ready to learn when you don’t even want to deal with the possibility of being confronted with opposing viewpoints.
There is a world outside of Swarthmore. It has lots of conservatives, not just confined to a school club and an online newspaper; it has staunch Republicans, and uptight blue bloods, and people who think that being gay is icky. If college is supposed to prepare us for the world, you’d think that it would help to acknowledge those things in other contexts besides direct and uncompromising activism. It’s nice to live in the Swat bubble, relatively guarded against the more extreme aspects of unpleasant society; but that’s not what the wider world is like, and you can’t sustain constant moral outrage about all of it. You’d die of a brain aneurysm at age 25.
I want to make something clear—I think the concept of automatically respecting people’s beliefs is ridiculous. You don’t have to respect anyone’s beliefs. You don’t have to respect mine or Robert George’s (hell, I don’t respect his), but you have to listen to them. People seem intent on just shutting out everything George has to say because they’ve already formed an opinion. You have every right to call the ideas bigoted and terrible if you’re so inclined and protest them if you want to, but it seems like harping on everything he’s said in the past and giving no acknowledgment to what he’s trying to say currently.
You can’t say that people who you’re opposed to should just not be allowed to speak in your presence. Being in an environment where everyone has similar political leanings sounds great as a concept, but other opinions exist—not all of them pleasant. I know that liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore being a shining example, have a certain attractiveness in how liberal they are, especially to people like me who come from widely conservative places. But it stops being a breath of fresh air when people outright refuse to listen to the other side because “that’s not how we do things.”
Apparently Robert George is a nice guy and a good professor. I don’t care. He has the right to believe whatever he wants. And if he’s invited to this campus, he has a right to talk about that at Swarthmore. That’s why we let the Westboro Baptist Church have their protests and say all of those hateful, ignorant things. The right to speech is not exclusively given to people who you agree with. It’s not even given under the prerequisite that people only say good, insightful things. But it’s a right that should be respected. I am profoundly opposed to everything Robert George stands for as far as politics goes, but I cannot in any way stand behind stifling what he has to say.
I’ve at least got to give George props for one thing: It’s pretty brave of him to be willing to talk about having unpopular opinions. Not just talk about them, but have an open dialogue about them and teach other people how to have open dialogues in the future. He’s ironically showing a lot more openness than many of us here at Swarthmore are.
People say he’s too opposed to Swarthmore’s beliefs and would offend people if he spoke here, but how would people react if Swarthmore didn’t let Noam Chomsky visit because he was too much of a socialist and would offend the conservative students? I am in full support of Swat’s LGBT community. I know that George being on campus may make them uncomfortable, but making people uncomfortable isn’t enough of a reason to shut someone out.
Perhaps the example of Robert George is too extreme—too absolutely contrary to what Swarthmore stands for. This kind of controversy has happened in the past, though, with conservatives of more moderate ideals than George. You’d think that a college so devoted to being tolerant toward people who are different would put forth some kind of a glimmer of a mirage of an effort of being tolerant toward people who are different.
It’s not even stated whether or not he’ll talk about his beliefs specifically, just that he and Cornel West will discuss having different opinions and how to properly deal with that. They have a history of working together as professors and colleagues, so they’d clearly have some insight to offer on the issue of getting along. If he was just some guy coming here to talk about how being gay is bad without taking any questions or comments afterwards, I’d be saying something different. But that’s not the case.
Being hostile and unwelcoming to someone who is actually trying to start a conversation isn’t the way to make our side look any better than his. And it’s no way to change anyone’s mind. I don’t particularly respect George, but I respect what he’s trying to accomplish by coming here. Some people may protest his very presence, but I will welcome Cornel West and Robert George at the fucking gate.