The build-up to the Robert George and Cornel West-led collection has been dominated by discussion of George’s association with the National Organization for Marriage and his many troubling statements on queer people. Unfortunately, very little breath has been spent on how exactly to build community and encourage productive dialogue after the fractious events of last spring.
An important part of community is understanding the perspectives of fellow members, and in this respect, it seems that care was not taken to fully appreciate the impact that accepting George’s self-invitation would have on queer people and their allies at Swarthmore (which, it should be said, I am not). Many students feel personally attacked and deeply offended by the notion that someone who believes that queer relationships are immoral could teach us something about community. This reaction was to be expected, and George’s presence will only further divide a campus in desperate need of harmony.
Allowing Robert George to speak in almost any other circumstance makes perfect sense. He is a highly-regarded and influential conservative philosopher as well as a Swarthmore alumnus. While I, and surely most other people on campus, find his views of queer relationships repulsive, it should also be noted that the personal political opinions of prospective lecturers are not scrutinized before they are granted the right to speak. There is certainly an outer bound of extremism that should disqualify a speaker, regardless of their academic achievements, but considering Robert George’s entrenchment in the American political mainstream, I would argue he is well within that bound.
The official event description lists several aims of the collection, which broadly seeks to understand how we can disagree, while still maintaining an understanding that this disagreement is a natural and productive process. For this to happen, a diverse cross-section of Swarthmore should attend the event. Robert George’s nomination as moderator ensured that this would not happen. I find this particularly egregious when considering the fact that two of the four main events that tore this campus apart, the existence and function of the fraternities and sorority and the urination on the Intercultural Center, placed Swarthmore’s queer community at the center of the debate. No facilitator will please everyone, but selecting one whose publicly stated views attack a large portion of the community and results in their non-attendance is not a productive way to make Swarthmore a more communicative and cooperative campus.
The friendship between Robert George and Cornel West is certainly strange, but I can see other situations in which their combination could indeed foster community and encourage productive dialogue. In a community torn between the liberal left and the conservative right, George and West could use their own ability to communicate to inspire similar conversations. In Swarthmore’s case, the number of individuals that identify with George’s positions are dwarfed by the number of people who feel marginalized by his presence.
There is no need to bring someone as relatively extreme as George when his proposed role as a neutral moderator will be rejected by such a large percentage of the campus. There is huge value in inspiring dialogue across ideological lines, but for that dialogue to begin, participants must feel comfortable within the forum. Ultimately, what does George contribute?
Robert George’s self-invitation has transformed a vital discussion that was supposed to be about community and dialogue into one all about Robert George. Instead of talking about how we can bridge divides and appreciate difference, we are arguing about whether Robert George has the right to speak at Swarthmore. This is a distraction, and a divisive one. If the collection does indeed go ahead, the state of affairs could deteriorate further. Some individuals will likely protest, which will only further alienate other students who see the event as a legitimate attempt at productive dialogue. Within the meetinghouse, some students will likely question George directly about his beliefs, which will anger other students who see this interjection as distracting from the collection’s purpose.
Regardless of who is to blame here, this situation could have easily been avoided. As it stands, many students have the choice to either go to a discussion in which they feel profoundly uncomfortable or be excluded from a conversation that they should be a part of. By asking queer students and their allies to tolerate George’s intolerance in this forum, the college is delegitimizing their very real concerns. It is not too much to ask to disinvite Robert George.