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Students Share Mixed Responses to George/West Collection

By , and
February 13, 2014

Robert George/Cornel West Highlights + Reactions from The Daily Gazette on Vimeo.

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.

  • Ali

    “some students acknowledged the lack of large-scale protest as progress for the campus.”

    I don’t think we should be celebrating the lack of protest. I would also say that there was protest–in the form of the tshirts, which elicited responses from administrators, and the zines, which were widely distributed and seemingly had a big influence on those who read them. Students didn’t disrupt the event, but they certainly did protest it. But regardless, celebrating the lack of protest seems to be to be a celebration of complacence, something we should find deeply troubling. It disturbs me that people on this campus don’t think we should be protesting injustice when we see it.

    Also, it bothers me that this story focuses so much on students’ opposition to George’s stance on gay marriage. Personally, I’m a queer person opposed to gay marriage. We’ve had a lot of speakers come to campus who are opposed to gay marriage–indeed, speakers for whom that is the topic of their event. I would guess that many or most of the speakers for the annual Queer & Trans Conference don’t think gay marriage is so great. I’m more than happy to have a conversation about gay marriage with people who oppose it.

    The issue with Robert George is that he thinks that a large subset of the student body is subhuman. Plain and simple. And he has heavily funded the anti-gay cause, founded a leading hate organization, and written books on the topic. It’s not about his stance on marriage, it’s about the fact that he derides the humanity and existence of queer people. I think that disqualifies him from talking to us about “community,” “communicating across difference,” “civil discourse,” and whatever else he came to talk about. Virulent homophobia is not a legitimate political opinion that deserves space in our campus dialogue.

    Cornel West, though radical and certainly controversial, has not made it his life’s mission to deny the rights and humanity of any group of people.

    • Wait, what?

      How exactly are you opposed to gay marriage as a queer person? I understand that you may be against marriage as an institution, but that does that really mean that only straight people should get the benefits of that institution?

    • Anon

      “The issue with Robert George is that he thinks that a large subset of the student body is subhuman. Plain and simple….It’s not about his stance on marriage, it’s about the fact that he derides the humanity and existence of queer people.”

      In the article linked to by the Daily Gazette, Robert George says:

      “The vote in New York to redefine marriage advances the cause of loosening norms of sexual ethics, and promoting as innocent — and even “liberating” — forms of sexual conduct that were traditionally regarded in the West and many other places as beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures.”

      Where does he say that queer people are “subhuman”? Where does he deride their existence? He is talking about certain “forms of sexual conduct.” And we all agree that certain forms of sexual conduct (for instance, nonconsensual sex) are “beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures.” The difference with George is that he thinks that nonconsensual sexual conduct is not the only undignified sexual conduct. But that says nothing about the people who perform that conduct.

      Elsewhere George says, “Each human being possesses a profound, inherent and equal dignity.” (quoted in a NYT book review) So when George says that certain forms of sexual conduct are beneath the dignity of human beings, is he indulging in a massive inconsistency by making a comment about queer people as such, or are the nuances of his position being lost on credulous Swarthmoreans?

      If you are being honest in saying that opposition to George rests on his believing that queer people are subhuman, then it seems that there is no need to disqualify him, for he obviously would not accept the proposition, “Queer people are beneath human dignity.”

      • Sandra

        Please actually read Robert George’s writings, books and those of his groups from several years ago because you do not know what you are talking about.

        • Anon

          Sandra, I have read some of his books. That is why I realize the charge that he regards anyone as subhuman is absolutely specious.

      • Unhelpful

        Of course there is no general logical inconsistency between (1) affirming the equal dignity of all people and (2) opposing a particular form of conduct that certain people engage in. Everyone opposes particular kinds of conduct.

        But I think this misses the real issue. The real issue is: queer people have sex, form relationships, build families. So do straight people. And, as with straight people, our sexual and romantic and familial lives are deeply bound up with important aspects of our well-being. When people categorically denounce these facets of our lives and dismiss their worth, they are in fact treating us as subhuman: they are ruling out, for us specifically, important aspects of the human experience, simply because of the form those aspects take for us.

        Of course, they don’t see it this way. But that is because they don’t take the realities of our lives seriously. The abstract principle, the generation of sophisticated philosophical arguments to justify their indifference to the concrete consequences of their views for queer people’s lives, may distance themselves in their heads from what they are actually doing, but the impact remains the same. And there is no reason for queer people, or for our friends and allies, to accept their frame and join them in ignoring the realities of our lives and treating this disagreement as an academic exercise.

        • Anon

          Of course this is the real issue. But as your response makes clear, Ali’s claim (“It’s not about his stance on marriage, it’s about the fact that he derides the humanity and existence of queer people.”) is false. It precisely is his stance on marriage that you are using to justify excluding him (though perhaps you would not agree with Ali’s claim yourself).

          You argue that his stance on marriage entails a denial of a group’s rights and humanity. For now we can disregard the fact that this begs the question against George’s whole argument. The point I would like to make is that this would not justify the response that George has received. He clearly would not state that queer people are beneath human dignity. He clearly would deny that his views entail such a conclusion. This is a philosophical question of whether George can consistently hold his views.

          To say that he fails to do so and so “explicitly” (to quote the ‘Rhetoric of Tolerance & Free Speech) denies the humanity of queer people, a view he would vehemently reject, is intellectually dishonest. How would you feel if you spoke on a contentious issue, and I systematically took your words out of context, imputed to you a view that you would not accept as a way of restricting your speech, and then justified it by saying, “I know, contrary to Unhelpful’s attempts to justify himself, what his views really entail, and therefore he should not be allowed to speak.”

          • Unhelpful

            I don’t want to speak for Ali. In my view, George’s stance on marriage is part of the problem, because it is part of a comprehensive view about same-sex sexuality that fails to take seriously the experiences and well-being of LGBTQ people.

            You suggest that my view is question-begging but this isn’t quite right. It’s really a modus tollens. If George is right, then same-sex sexual relationships are a sort of empty self-objectifying masturbation that at most can amount to a hollow pretense of marriage. But this characterization of same-sex relationships is obviously wrong (see everything I said about taking the lives and experiences of queer people seriously), so George is wrong. This argument does not engage with George on his own terms (he’d clearly deny the second premise) and it doesn’t demonstrate, as you observe, that he is guilty of any sort of logical inconsistency. I don’t care. A view being internally consistent does not render it intellectually or morally respectable. The history of sophisticated academic and philosophical arguments in defense of institutionalized prejudice is very long indeed.

    • etseq

      Queer radicals, despite their bluster, have an incredibly elitist and warped view of politics. In opposing SSM from a “queer” perspective, you are in incredibly small minority of LBGT community. Nothing wrong with that if you merely expressed it as a personal preference rather than making normative claims about the connection between “queer” identity and politics. Generally, “queer” radicalism is limited to privileged white, middle class, people who attend elite Universities and reflects a very anti-democratic perspective on social movements.
      While the rest of your comment is spot on regarding the Robbie George and his “respectable” homophobia, by framing his opposition to SSM as somehow as just a distraction because elitist universities tend to foster elitist political arguments (so long as they are ostensibly radical or lefists) and their speakers reflect the same, you denigrate the legitimate desires of the vast majority of LGBT people and the hard fought battles to achieve the rights and privileges that heterosexuals take for granted.

  • Nick

    The person who argues that a liberal arts education need not take account of divergent points of view completely misses the point of a liberal arts education.

    • alumn ’11

      But Nick, it’s a Liberal arts education, not a conservative arts education!!

      • Jack

        You are kidding, right??!!

        • alumn ’11

          Does anybody have some advice on how to make the use of sarcasm obvious enough so that all Swatties understand it?

      • This

        Checkmate, Swat Conservatives.

      • Jim

        You are kidding, Right??!!

      • sadboys

        the fact that most people failed to realize this was a joke speaks volumes about the level of autism at this institution

        • Linda

          And using autism as an insult shows how much you know about marginalized groups.

          • sadboys

            it’s not so much of an insult as it is a fact…

    • Tom

      We’ve seen historically a rapid change of social and moral values in the past 15 years so it seems pertinent to ask–what’s the use of debating Robert P George at a college campus considering that his moral views regarding stem cell research and homosexuality are going to be hopelessly outdated in probably 15 years or less? Why do this–especially if it comes at the expense of treating him like a straw man conservative…where the entire spectacle isn’t on his views (which will fade into irrelevance in a short time anyway), but rather on the university’s notions of debate and tolerance? Doesn’t the whole point of this debate just reinforce notions in American society that academia is intolerant towards conservative viewpoints, reinforcing anti-intellectualist attitudes towards universities? You can’t debate moral issues in the same way you can talk about the logistics behind health care, immigration, or global warming. Neither side is going to yield, but George’s views are already on the retreat.

    • Luke

      You misread his quote, he states,

      “What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion,”

      Which sounds like basically him basically stuttering, and then saying,

      “the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion”

  • Jack

    Ms. Ching, typical “liberal” intolerant totalitarian nutcase. She actually with a straight face talks about diversity of opinion and then wanting to ban some kinds of opinion in the same sentence.

    • Sandra

      So you disagree with Erin Ching’s opinion, fine. But the personal attack is not ok.

      • sadboys

        so by your logic I can’t call Robert George a bigot because it’s a “personal attack”? Sometimes you gotta call ’em like you see ’em.

    • Um

      Jakc, typical “awful” intolerant DG commentariate scumbag. He actually with a straight face talks about the evils of “liberal intolerance” while insulting someone in the same sentence.

  • Dave

    “I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative view.”

    I love the idea that the tolerance and diversity crowd refuse to tolerate opinion with which they disagree.

    Am I the only one who sees anything Orwellian in that? Or is Swarthmore just too far gone?

  • Z W

    So glad I decided to go to Haverford instead.

    It is unbelievable that someone at such a prominent school could produce such inane mental garbage and state we should not be intolerant in order to be tolerant.

  • rdbrewer

    “I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society.”

    Some don’t have a clue when they’re dumber than fuck.

    (See: Dunning-Kruger effect.)

  • SCM

    Hm, I just down voted Jack’s comment (personal attack- I’m not feeling it) and it increased the up vote. It would not let me up vote for Ali. I know some in our community are real smarties but really???

  • ProfNickD

    “I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative view.”

    Scratch a progressive and out comes the totalitarian.

  • Zuca

    Teachers and students pay attention: This is a perfect example of an oxymoron -“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.”

    I first felt sad, but now I can’t stop laughing at the stupidity of that statement.

    • Zuko

      I believe the idea is that George’s mainstream conservative views silence the opinions of many other marginalized people. We don’t need to provide a platform for hateful speech like his, which is already all too common. It’s the quiet voices that should be given a boost.

  • seannc

    The Soviets were interested in “social justice” and “income equality” too. You leftists need to read Anne Applebaum’s book, “Gulag” to understand where you want our society to go. You are acting just like the Soviet’s.

    At least I didn’t say Nazi’s, LOL.

  • James
  • cj orach

    Far too often Leftists seem oblivious to the larger historical and cultural context. They see only one thing – their own, narrow agenda. I find fanaticism of this sort rather frightening.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqmTM-mNBL0&feature=c4-overview&list=UU9Gin8zVjjzywF_sW9fkODA Chris

    Glad that students at Swarthmore are engaging in civil discourse. Are they?

  • robert george

    i think people who have last names should change their last name to a first name so they have 2 first names like me

  • AdelphoPoeisis

    Interestingly, the one paragraph quoting Erin Ching, class of 2016, is being quoted all over the conservative blogosphere as a prime example of how totalitarian the “progressive” Left has become.

    Even Jonah Goldberg, author of “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” (2008), is writing about her comment !

    • Class of ’16

      Maybe that’s because the Left at Swarthmore has become totalitarian, and I say this as someone who is left of center outside the bubble. They clearly want to restrict the dialogue only to advocates of “social justice” (however they define it). Danielle was right to write “My Illiberal Arts Education” in the Journal last year.

    • Deserttrek

      because it shows the ignorance and lack of tolerance in todays liberal society

  • Rege

    “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’m speechless.

    Which is what all dissenters will be once this crowd takes full control.

  • Mike

    The whole “Beneath Human Dignity” thing is sadly just an attempt at character assassination. It’s clear from the interview listed that what George actually said was quite different. He was referring to the moral status of certain *actions*, saying precisely that, like any immoral action, it is not consistent with the dignity we all have (whoever we are, gay or straight, capitalist or communist, black or white, American, Asian, European, or what have you) as *persons*. How can you claim to talk in good faith with someone, if you arrive in the room twisting his words? I don’t get it.

    • Luis

      The immoral action of your straight sex is beneath the dignity we all have as persons. The immoral action of your straight marriage is beneath the dignity we all have as persons. The immoral action of your straight families is beneath the dignity we all have as persons … Sadly, it’s clear your comment is just an attempt at character assassination. How can George show up to Swarthmore College promoting his cause as the moral police and then claim to promote civil discourse. Yes… you and George do not get it.

  • regina george

    I’m very disappointed with my dad, Robert (Bobbie Phre$h to his friends) for his opinions regarding homosexuality. His views are like totally narrow and bigoted. ew. But like, addressing that problem with a narrow view of your own doesn’t put you above Bobbie Phre$h, regardless of how right you are. Its very easy to get caught up in that like its like the end of the world when really its one misguided old mans view, one that will be pretty much irrelevant in a decade or two.

  • Deserttrek

    little children are unable to understand why everybody does not agree with them ….. listen learn and keep your mouths’ shut children.

    tolerance means put up with it not embrace it ….mature people can disagree but still be tolerant and civil and try to hurt each other

    this debate is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen. the Republic is in bad enough shape without this type of idiocy