It’s not about free speech

When Robert George and Cornel West came to campus on February 10, they offered themselves as examples of passionate debate and deep humanistic inquiry. The premise of the collection and the day’s discussion, as I understand it, was that our campus has a problem tolerating free speech, that strident voices, particularly those of our students, are threatening the very academic and ethical values upon which this campus is founded. What kind of intellectual work can be done, the thinking goes, if conversation itself holds no value for a generation devoted to political polarization? To put it more bluntly: if LGBT activists are going to hijack the campus, protesting the views of Robert George, how will we continue to be a community that reads and thinks and discusses? If some of us have questions about why the friendship of two Princeton professors should be front-page news, are we cynically failing to embody the best of the Western intellectual tradition? Such anxieties seem to me to miss the real problem.

I’d like to offer an alternative description of our campus and the event. I don’t think free speech is the root issue here. It seems to me that the students who were opposed to having Robert George and Cornel West come were correctly perceiving that the event itself was badly conceived and that the speakers were not going to be doing justice to the moral urgency of the situation. They were not, in short, going to come to this campus and teach us something we don’t know about talking to each other. I think many of our students perceived correctly from the start that we would be treated to a parody of intellectual debate. We were invited to watch, as George put it, a show being taken on the road. However deeply held their convictions and however courageous they may have felt about confronting our apparently intolerant community, what George and West gave us looked in the end very much like a show. Free speech is of the utmost importance on this campus, but public performances that trade intentionally or unintentionally on the anxieties of a community in struggle are deeply counter-productive. I don’t blame anyone for reacting with alarm to the prospect of this event or to the way it ultimately unfolded. I hope no one will be too hasty about attributing such alarm to widespread liberal intolerance or fear of genuine intellectual debate.

Both speakers trotted out great names from intellectual tradition. Plato, Aristotle, Gandhi, Austen: apparently just telling us that they had read these authors and had approached them with intellectual humility was intended to answer the deep concerns of the community gathered for a meaningful discussion. Speaking at great length so that there was time left for only three questions (“a filibuster,” one of my colleagues called it), they failed completely to engage in discussion, even with one another. Indeed, the differences they were hailed for “speaking across” were never fully articulated. Moreover, when our student Jacob Adenbaum ‘14 asked them both tough questions, they engaged in what I consider to be a disgraceful act of shaming.

Although Adenbaum has already defended himself in print, I’d like to add some comments about this moment in the discussion. In their remarks, both George and West implied that they felt Adenbaum’s address to them was misguided at best, and at worst ethically cheap, cynical and unworthy. What Adenbaum actually did was address them in the terms they themselves had set up. Both speakers presented themselves as personal representatives of the intellectual virtues. When challenged, however, neither speaker proved willing to confront the full complexity of the persona upon which he had been trading professionally. Their squeamishness about answering cast their whole project in doubt.

Yes, Robert George, if you are claiming that intellectual inquiry demands that we be willing to change our minds no matter what the cost, you should be willing to tell us what it would take for you to change your mind about LGBT rights. Yes, Cornel West, if you are presenting yourself as passionately devoted to deep debate, you should be willing to explore the ethical issues raised by your appearance on campus with Robert George. Those are reasonable questions that could have been answered without defensiveness if this occasion had been all it was supposed to be. Instead, Jacob Adenbaum was accused of wanting applause. I’ll be blunt again: Robert George accusing Jacob Adenbaum of wanting applause was, as they say, like Barbie calling Ken plastic.

Our campus is without question struggling to find a way to work out some very painful issues and we are not always succeeding. I give full credit to all those, students, staff and faculty who are working so hard under such difficult circumstances. I am willing to believe that Robert George and Cornel West came here with a genuine desire to help. But I am left utterly baffled and frankly angry about the strategies they employed in this public gathering. The February 10 collection was not a discussion, not ethical, not compelling and not helpful. At its worst it smacked of the very polarization it was supposed to heal. Claims about free speech are being used in sophisticated and destructive ways in our divided nation, and carelessness or cynicism about these issues is virtually guaranteed to lead to a destructive impasse. I believe on our campus such an impasse has been exacerbated by Robert George and Cornel West.

Nora Johnson is Professor and Chair of English at Swarthmore and  an assistant priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.  

3 comments

  1. 0
    David A. Burack '62 says:

    It is deeply distressing to see Swarthmore develop an illiberal bias among what appears to be a non-negligible fraction of the student body. I’m seeing the same intolerance of debate there on other subjects, such as environmental policy, on which I can claim expertise, compared to whatever it might be that Cornell West and Robert George claim expertise in. Of COURSE someone they should be allowed to come on campus and express any views that they want to peaceably and without fear of harassment. And no real scholar would need to fear a frank expression of those views. Just as there was tolerance by the College, ultimately, for the communists Gus Hall and Pete Seeger to come on campus when they were anathema to many students as well as to the entire Philadelphia press and a good part of the national media. The world was better for the polemic and the songs.

    It is ironic that President Chopp is today launching a public program on the future of the liberal arts, with its implication that Swarthmore is “leading” the way in that regard. It seems to me that a great deal of introspection would be warranted instead, and instead of the equivocation evidenced in the correspondence above.

  2. 0
    Gilda Kramer '76 says:

    Professor Johnson, thank you for your insightful analysis of the recent Robert George/Cornel West collection on February 10, 2014. While I did not attend the collection, I have followed the issue with significant interest, as a 1976 alumna and parent of a class of 2014 student.

    Swarthmore College has a long history of being on the cutting edge of issues of social justice. From the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to the 1980’s protests that led the College to adopt divest investments in companies with investments in apartheid South Africa, to participation in the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Swarthmore students have exercised their consciences to promote justice and equality. That is only fitting, since the College seeks to groom future world leaders with social consciences.

    As a student in the early 1970’s, I learned tolerance and understanding of differing people and beliefs, developed a keen sense of justice, and a passion for equality that infuses my work as an attorney. I learned that discrimination, bias and hateful speech were not acceptable, and that we must not remain silent in the face of injustice. Though Robert (then Robbie) George and I were at Swarthmore at the same time, he seems not to share these critical values which were at the core of my Swarthmore College experience.

    As a parent I have tried to raise thoughtful, sensitive, articulate sons, who care about justice and equality, and who will not remain silent when faced with things that are morally or ethically wrong. I encouraged my oldest son to go to Swarthmore College because I believed that he would find a community that shared our values, and an institution that would exhibit sensitivity to all of its students (and alumni), not an institution that would grant a platform to those who discriminate.

    I am deeply disappointed that the College, over the objection of many students, permitted this event to occur, especially in the manner in which it occurred. The administration before the event sought to head off student protests with promises of open dialogue, which never occurred. As a matter of principle, the College should not promote someone who engages in discriminatory and hateful speech, regardless of whether it is cloaked in academic and religious garb. Swarthmore students and alumni are very smart and can see right through this charade. This is contrary to Swarthmore College’s long history of and professed commitment to promoting social justice, and raises questions about whether current leadership of the College has the requisite understanding of and sensitivity to the entire College community.

    To Robbie George, I say you should answer Jacob Adenbaum’s question rather than belittle him, even if it is uncomfortable for you to do so and forces you to reevaluate your beliefs. To Cornel West, I suggest you think long and hard about what you are doing, and whether you are enabling something that is fundamentally morally and ethically wrong. To Professor Nora Johnson, I say thank you for your clarity of thinking and willingness to speak up for what is right. And to Jacob Adenbaum, I say that I have never been more proud of my oldest son, who has grown into a thoughtful, intelligent, and principled man.

  3. 0
    Anonymous says:

    “The premise of the collection and the day’s discussion, as I understand it, was that our campus has a problem tolerating free speech, that strident voices, particularly those of our students, are threatening the very academic and ethical values upon which this campus is founded. What kind of intellectual work can be done, the thinking goes, if conversation itself holds no value for a generation devoted to political polarization? To put it more bluntly: if LGBT activists are going to hijack the campus, protesting the views of Robert George, how will we continue to be a community that reads and thinks and discusses?”

    There’s a bit of a pivot here. Maybe I am reading your phrasing wrong, but you start by talking about “the premise of the collection and the day’s discussion” and go on, in your last sentence, to frame the event in terms of some of the possible protests. The collection was about dialogue between people who disagree. It was never about a particular contentious issue on campus. Relatedly…

    “I think many of our students perceived correctly from the start that we would be treated to a parody of intellectual debate.”

    The event was never a “debate.” I have seen it framed this way after the fact, as though some people expected West and George to get up front and try to refute each others’ beliefs. The event was not conceived to be that way. If you want to see George engaging with liberal colleagues, he does so in his work (sometimes including allowing his opponents to offer their own contributions), and I imagine that West does so as well with his conservative colleagues. The idea that we were supposed to see them arguing with each other seems to have been conceived after the fact. I don’t think Swarthmore is quite ready to watch an actual debate between academics like West and George.

    “They were not, in short, going to come to this campus and teach us something we don’t know about talking to each other.”

    I think it is evident, after the event, that there are vastly different conceptions of dialogue on this campus. I hate to pick on Erin Ching, who was quoted in the Gazette as saying, “What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.” They did not teach us anything we don’t know, but they did attempt to teach us something that we seem no longer to BELIEVE. One could pivot and say that, “Well, it’s not all diversity, but just THAT diversity, that we don’t need to hear.” But I think those who have been paying attention over the last year have heard that one a few times.

    “What Adenbaum actually did was address them in the terms they themselves had set up.”

    Adenbaum directly accused both of them of hypocrisy. George said throughout his introduction that intellectual questioning was important. Adenbaum asks (something to the effect of), “What would it take for you to realize that you’re wrong and admit it?” If people are having a debate, it is fair for someone to say, “Under what conditions would you change your views?” Adenbaum’s question implied doubly that a). George is wrong and b). George has not subjected his own beliefs to questioning. While Adenbaum is free to insist that George is wrong, it is probably more constructive to ask him what would make him change his views without trying to claim simultaneously that he is wrong.

    “Yes, Robert George, if you are claiming that intellectual inquiry demands that we be willing to change our minds no matter what the cost, you should be willing to tell us what it would take for you to change your mind about LGBT rights.”

    In any case, it seems like George did answer this. He said how he had reached his views; that seems to imply that if someone were to refute his views, he would abandon them. Jacob, in his open letter, essentially declined to engage George’s philosophical views:

    “The fundamental equality of others is self-evident. We don’t reason it out from assumptions. It’s not subject to rational inquiry and debate. We know it because we live it every day. How can I have a discussion on equal terms with you when you don’t recognize me as equal? Our disagreement isn’t rooted in logic or reason; it precedes it. It derives from the fact that my humanity is obvious to me. It is obvious to the Swarthmore community. And it should be obvious to you.”

    Now, I think it is plausible to say that one will not listen to arguments that try to deny one’s humanity. But George has not argued that Jacob is subhuman, and whether his philosophy is committed to that is a philosophical question. Jacob has essentially demanded that George change his views. He declined to engage George’s work, in which George distances himself from Jacob’s basis for his demand, namely that Robert George apparently denies his humanity.

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