The final word on Robert George

I, like many other students on campus, was deeply disturbed by some of the reactions to Robert George ’77 and Cornell West’s February 10 visit to the College. Last week’s Phoenix included only one view expressing support for George’s visit. Some students expressed the opinion that George’s views are not welcome on this campus, and he should have been disinvited from speaking.

During the initial debates over George’s visit to campus, I attempted to take the opposition as different from last year’s opposition to Robert Zoellick ’78. I thought, at least George’s detractors are opposing him based on his opposition to gay marriage, a position George actually holds. Last year, the Zoellick controversy was based on a complete fabrication of the facts by students on campus, perpetuated by this newspaper. If you were not here or have forgotten, Zoellick was accused of starting the Iraq War, among other things. The controversy caused Zoellick to withdraw from speaking at graduation and refuse his honorary degree from the College. The administration failed to defend Zoellick before it was too late.

Then, driven by conversations with my peers, reading op-eds, and watching the dynamics play out, I realized I was wrong. Horribly wrong. The opposition to George’s visit included fabrications and exaggerations of George’s views, a similar situation to the Zoellick debate last year. George was portrayed as having a vitriolic hatred for homosexuals and an being oppressor of the worst sort. Neither of which is true, as anyone who attended or has watched the George/West event at the Quaker Meetinghouse can attest. Both views also suggest a lack of engagement with George’s philosophical work.

Even after a relatively quiet visit, campus discussion continued as to whether or not George should have been allowed to speak. There were also complaints about how the event did not allow for enough “dialogue.” Students wanted to engage George about his views on gay rights, but students complained there was only enough time for three questions.

All of which is ironic, considering the reaction many of the students who opposed George coming to campus had originally. Many students claimed to have been assured by President Rebecca Chopp that George would never have been invited to talk about his views on gay rights and marriage. This was heralded as a victory, yet it was those views that students wanted to engage with George on once he came to campus.

Over the last two weeks, multiple faculty members exercised their free speech rights and wrote op-eds against George. But, after reading the views last week, I came to wonder: where were these same faculty members last year when Robert Zoellick ’78 was getting pushed from graduation by a group of students who had no idea what they were talking about? And that’s when I realized just how wrong I had been about the difference between the two oppositions.

This is a common problem on our campus that we must address. We are taught to ask the tough questions and remain skeptical. We are unwilling to buy into a mainstream idea just for the sake of agreement. I genuinely believe most people on this campus want to do the right thing, even when I think they’re completely wrong.

Questioning without research to see where your questions take you leads to making improper judgments about a person and their ideas. Mark Wallace, a respectable professor, had clearly not read any of Robert George’s philosophical work to know where his position on gay marriage comes from. This is largely the difference between Protestant and Catholic intellectuals, a distinction Wallace, as a professor of religion, should know. What we need to do is question first, and then verify instead of speculating.

Critics of George’s visit would also have had much more credibility if they supported other right-of-center individuals coming to campus. But they don’t. Both times the College has invited conservative, or at least Republican, individuals to campus in the last year, the decisions turned controversial. If the College invited more of these individuals to speak on an average basis, then maybe ideas from the right side of the aisle would receive better treatment.

I encourage Swarthmore to work on increasing intellectual diversity on campus. There are numerous professors at Swarthmore who are afraid to speak up about these issues. The professors may not be conservative, but they too are worried about a campus dominated by voices that deny even free speech. In the College’s continued commitment to liberal arts should be a plank on understanding other ideas: not necessarily changing one’s mind, but coming to appreciate the way individuals who hold differing points of view think.

4 thoughts on “The final word on Robert George

  • February 27, 2014 at 3:22 pm
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    “The opposition to George’s visit included fabrications and exaggerations of George’s views, a similar situation to the Zoellick debate last year. George was portrayed as having a vitriolic hatred for homosexuals and an being oppressor of the worst sort. Neither of which is true, as anyone who attended or has watched the George/West event at the Quaker Meetinghouse can attest.”

    Tyler, I agree with you on the point that George’s views were sometimes misrepresented (from my limited understanding, the context of the “beneath human dignity” quote is questionable). On one hand, it’s understandable, because not everyone has read George or has the time to, but should still have the right to comment on his invitation. However, I don’t think the main issue is that his views were misrepresented. The issue was the implication of his views. Even if George cloaks his rhetoric in academic parlance, that doesn’t mean his ideas don’t have hateful and discriminatory implications. I think a much more effective point would be to defend his specific opinions as being non-hateful and discriminatory, rather than citing his mild demeanor at the Collection as evidence. We all know he doesn’t come off as a violent reactionary.

    “All of which is ironic, considering the reaction many of the students who opposed George coming to campus had originally. Many students claimed to have been assured by President Rebecca Chopp that George would never have been invited to talk about his views on gay rights and marriage. This was heralded as a victory, yet it was those views that students wanted to engage with George on once he came to campus.”

    The event was heralded as a critical reflection on community and what can be done to improve the liberal arts experience. One of the main issues was how to disagree with people who we not only think are wrong, but whose opinions are prejudicial. Is that possible? Do we give a platform to anyone if they are willing to engage? If not, where’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable? These are legitimate and fruitful questions, and ones I think many students had going into the Collection. Robert George’s invitation meant these questions had to be addressed. If he was going to teach us something about community, students needed to know how to engage with views they found hateful. I don’t see how else students could have engaged with Robert George on the issue of community-building.

    Both West and George skirted the hate speech issue even when it was brought up by Stephanie and Jacob. I haven’t seen anyone that has defended George actually engage what I felt like was the most pressing issue. No, students didn’t want or need to hear George’s exact views on homosexuality, but they did want and need to hear how George’s view set could exist in a tolerant community. We’re still wondering.

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  • March 1, 2014 at 8:55 pm
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    “No, students didn’t want or need to hear George’s exact views on homosexuality, but they did want and need to hear how George’s view set could exist in a tolerant community. We’re still wondering.”

    Well, Harvard and Princeton are not exactly intolerant conservative strongholds. So it seems that George’s view set can and does exist in tolerant communities.

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  • March 2, 2014 at 5:11 pm
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    Greg,

    Yes, George’s views “exist” at Harvard and Princeton, but if we think like that then “community-building” is a pointless endeavor. Community-building does not just entail the physical existence of a person with a community; it’s an effort to try and engage with those views critically through dialogue which hopefully leads to a better understanding for all parties. I could be wrong, but I doubt either of us know enough to really estimate how George’s views are interpreted at Princeton or Harvard.

    I, and many other students, wonder how to really engage productively with people whose views are discriminatory and can be considered hate speech. As Jacob Adenbaum noted in his open letter, his and George’s assumptions are just fundamentally different. For George, support for gay rights, and perhaps even homosexuality itself, is a philosophical position. How can a homosexual than say, “I don’t need to read Kinsey or Gandhi, but I am just a righteous in my beliefs as you are”? I think that’s the real issue here, and something no one has adequately answered in my opinion.

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  • March 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm
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    Regarding your first paragraph, I think you are right: you and I probably do not know enough to substantively judge how George is situated at Princeton and Harvard. We do know, however, that he interacts congenially with liberal colleagues (yes, including homosexual colleagues) and students and coteaches seminars with those with whom he has vehement ideological disagreements. If we don’t know how George exists in his own academic communities, then why should there be a presumption in favor of the assumption that there is a general tension between Robert George and tolerant communities? If George seems, to all external appearances, to live productively in other communities like Swarthmore, I think that the burden is on those who do not want him to appear at Swarthmore to demonstrate why his existence in those communities is actually incompatible with tolerance–and to do so without misrepresentation.

    To say, as you do in your first comment, that misrepresentation is not “the main issue” reminds me of those who called Zoellick a “war criminal” in order to “promote discussion.” You are correct that not everyone is under an obligation to read all of George’s work before commenting on his speaking, but if I am to comment on someone’s personal, academic, and professional integrity, I am under the responsibility to make sure that I am not misrepresenting is views.

    I don’t endorse new natural law theory, but having read George’s work, I simply do not think that it can reasonably be termed “hate speech.” Surely it can be “considered” hate speech–but that is a rather trivial designation, as a lot of arguments we disagree with can be “considered” hate speech.

    To draw an analogy: I find the work on abortion and infanticide by philosophers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer to be morally repulsive and to have socially damaging implications. Their assumptions are “fundamentally different” from mine (though I might still try to engage them). I might even quip that they “cloak [their] rhetoric in academic parlance” in an attempt to halt any appeals to their academic repute and intellectual rigor. If one of them were to come to speak at Swarthmore, the only reason I would not be able to challenge their visit (besides the fact that I would not want to challenge their visit on the basis of how repulsive I find their views) is that I am not part of a group that has enough institutional clout behind it to make such a demand and expect to have it fulfilled.

    Now, I could say that the impermissibility of abortion and infanticide, rooted in the intrinsic value of every human life, is a non-negotiable view to me. Anyone who might deny the humanity of fetuses or young children is too repulsive to engage with my basic beliefs. (Granting that Tooley and Singer do not actually challenge the humanity of fetuses, as some abortion advocates do.) They might say that theirs is a philosophical position; they arrived at it after reading the modern utilitarian tradition and after a lot of serious thought. Maybe I should take a look at that tradition and think about it too.

    It’s absolutely within my rights to reject whatever reading list they might offer me. That’s fine; no one is making me seriously consider their philosophical positions if I want to resist. Maybe it would be an intellectual benefit to me to consider their views. Maybe it wouldn’t. That is entirely beside the point. The point is that my strong disagreement with their views–which are discriminatory and can be considered hate speech–is not itself a basis for my rejecting their visit.

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