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.