Response to the Robert George Drama

The Cornell West/Robert George Collection on February 10th was at last a Swarthmore event where students were exposed to two different points of view in a civilized and open forum. These events have been rare on the campus where, as the joke goes, there is one side to every argument.

The College did a good job organizing and advertising the event, and most students seemed to be excited about and genuinely interested in what these two prominent thinkers had to say. The topic, civil discourse, was relatively benign, though definitely one we could all benefit from hearing, regardless of our individual political beliefs.

Predictably, however, some Swarthmore students and professors managed to find a reason to be outraged (being outraged is our school’s pastime after all); and now articles are popping up in this week’s Phoenix arguing George shouldn’t have been allowed to speak at all. As I read these articles, I cannot help but think of what the Czech author, Milan Kundera, wrote in his book Immortality:

“The more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights.  The world has become man’s right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship, the desire to exceed the speed limit the right to exceed the speed limit, the desire for happiness the right to happiness, the desire to publish a book the right to publish a book, the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street.”

Although this was written in 1990 it seems to still ring true at Swarthmore: “I want to shout at Robert George, it is my right to shout at Robert George!”

“I want to deny someone their free speech, it is my right to deny someone free speech!”

“I want to yell at conservatives in Sharples, it is my right to yell at conservatives at Sharples!”

“I want to overthrow the administration and replace them with sexually awakened Adirondack chairs, it is my right to overthrow the administration and replace them with sexually awakened Adirondack chairs!”

The most alarming article on the topic was written by Swarthmore English professor and department chair Nora Johnson. She argues in her Phoenix op-ed that she doesn’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.”

Let’s brush aside how blatantly unprofessional it is for a professor and the chair of the English department to align herself with a group that wrote: “If students decide to disrupt George, then let us celebrate the temporary elevation of these voices of dissent; his and his fellow conservatives’ free speech after all, will continue to echo through the halls of the prison system, Congress and Wall Street.” Let’s also brush aside how Professor Johnson likely alienated many students of hers who may have found the Collection interesting or meaningful, or how she certainly alienated students who were planning on taking her class in the future (I know her op-ed makes me think twice about taking a class in her department again).

Instead, let’s focus upon her belief that there isn’t a pattern of liberal intolerance or fear of genuine intellectual debate at Swarthmore. To disprove this one would some examples of liberal intolerance -– like, say, if students hijacked a Board of Managers meeting and clapped down anyone who disagreed with them, or if students prevented a conservative alum from speaking at our commencement simply because he was conservative and, ergo, the “chief architect of the Iraq war.” Or we might look to a group of students who attempted to abolish fraternities and accused anyone who disagreed with their tactics of being rapists or “rape apologists”. Unfortunately, all of these have happened in the past twelve months, so perhaps there is a pattern of liberal intolerance? And maybe this was why President Chopp brought in speakers to discuss tolerating other people’s opinions…? Just a wild guess.

Professor Johnson also asserts that the debate over George’s right to speak isn’t a matter of “free speech” because “claims about free speech are being used in sophisticated and destructive ways in our divided nation.” Professor, telling someone he doesn’t have a right to speak because you disagree with him is a violation of that person’s free speech. You can’t lump someone’s individual views with national forces as a way of saying that person’s rights are mute. In fact, the people who claim that they are “being silenced” by the outside world’s right wing conspiracy were handing out pamphlets before the event (with no apparent attempt by the administration to “silence” them). In these pamphlets, these students detailed their reasons why conservatives shouldn’t’t be allowed to speak: “Giving all views a platform can actively work against the kind of anti-oppressive world we –- as student activists -– are already working towards.”

Denying people of opposing views’ ability to speak is a matter of free speech. That would be Democracy 101, a course apparently not coming soon to Swarthmore.



  1. If there were a course on Democracy 101 for these students, perhaps it should include the book _Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy, and Freedom: The Essential Essays_ (specifically, the section titled “Democratic Practice”). Hook made short work of the activist cant in the 1960s and 1970s, which sounds just like the sophistry of these protesters.

    Are many of the students at these protests are fans of Howard Zinn? If so, they should be taught about this debate:

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