Robert George ‘77 and Cornel West’s collection on Monday, hosted by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, culminated a campus-wide discussion on the meaning of discourse at Swarthmore. The Princeton professors, known for their friendship despite of their strongly opposing viewpoints, intended to build community and discuss questions like “What does it mean to communicate across differences regarding what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong?’”
The event was expected by many to be controversial, with rumors of student-led protest in the form of a boycott of the event or a rally after the collection, but no such protest occurred during the collection. Prior to the event, many students voiced concerns with the College’s choice of speaker in George, who is known for his strong opposition to abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage. Some queer students attended the event wearing shirts that read “Beneath Human Dignity,” a reference to a George quote in National Review magazine about the New York gay marriage decision in June 2011. Students also created a zine which opposed tolerance of George’s viewpoints, stating that by doing so, we would be “condoning homophobia.”
After the talk, many students expressed dissatisfaction with the event, saying it did not accomplish any meaningful community-building or address substantive issues.
“What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion. I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society. We should not be conceding to the dominant culture by saying that the so-called “progressive left” is marginalizing the conservative,” Erin Ching ‘16 said.
On the other hand, some students acknowledged the lack of large-scale protest as progress for the campus.
“The atmosphere in that room was definitely tense but though there were many who didn’t like Robert George, they all had respect for the space and the event and the norms we’ve developed here. This is frankly a big step forward,” Andrew Early ‘16 said.
Despite widespread disagreement with George’s views, students mostly agreed with Cornel West’s remarks, saying he was “wonderfully engaging,” “lovingly intelligent,” and “simply the best ever.”
The collection began with History Professor Tim Burke introducing the two speakers and emphasizing the values of collection. Both George and West focused on a commitment to self-criticism, and not holding on too firmly to one’s beliefs. George and West’s lengthy opening remarks left enough time for only a few questions. The first was posed by Jacob Adenbaum ‘14, who honed in on George’s stance on same-sex marriage.
“You talk a lot about recognizing that you’re wrong. So on issues such as gay marriage, the way we treat people in our society, what would it take for you to realize that you’re wrong and admit it? And my question for you, professor West, is you talk a lot about the humanities as a project that’s dedicated to the self. So I have to ask, isn’t it selfish of you to go on tour with and provide a platform for a man who has dedicated so much of his professional career dedicated to denying the rights of others?” Adenbaum asked.
George responded, “Who is your friend? The people backing you up, or the person who is saying ‘You’ve got an awful lot of certainty about your conviction. Maybe you should stop and think about the possibility that you’re wrong.’”
He followed with an explanation of the process by which he came to his views. According to George, he would be compromising his integrity if he were to cater his beliefs to the majority. To him, following popular opinion would mean contradicting the conclusions he came to through rigorous intellectual discourse.
West responded, “I don’t think I’m providing a platform for this brother at all! I’ve got a number of persons throughout my whole life that I [have disagreed with]. I’m engaging in dialogue so that many people who would come to see him and come to see me can be exposed to a variety of perspectives on the issue.”
The collection followed a small group meeting in the morning, with about 12 student participants. Renan Meira ‘17, a participant in the small group meeting, had a more favorable view of the small meetings than most students did of the collection.
“We had a philosophical discussion about what it means to engage with people who don’t share the same views as we do, and about the role of truth and how to find it and whether or not there is a truth and the students agreed that there is no capital T truth, because a lot of things just come down to faith and what you believe in. But Robert George believed that there is a capital T truth, which is why you have to keep discussing and keep engaging,“ Meira said.