Last week, Robbie George and Cornell West visited Swarthmore College to host a public discussion about “what it means for intellectuals to learn from each other despite deep differences on important questions.” As many of you know, George is a renowned conservative while West is a well-known liberal. Both have had distinguished academic careers and have held professorships at Princeton University.
I watched the video of their meeting last week. The most interesting part of the discussion occurred when the Q&A period began. The first question out of the box came from a student who wanted to inquire about George’s public opposition to gay marriage. This is what the student said in his own words.
My question to you is… you talk a lot about recognizing that you’re wrong. And so on issues such as gay marriage, the way that we treat queer people in our society, what would it take for you to realize that you’re wrong and admit it?
And my question to you, Professor West, is you talk a lot about the study of humanities as a project that’s dedicated to the self. And so I have to ask, isn’t it selfish of you—isn’t it deeply, deeply selfish of you—to go on tour with Robert George, to go on tour with a man who has spent so much of his life, so much of his professional career, dedicated to denying the rights of others?… Don’t you through this discourse legitimize him? Give him a platform from which to spew what I think is really quite hateful? The National Organization for Marriage—an organization of which he was the founding chairman—is currently in the middle of a campaign to deny transgender children the right to use the proper bathrooms. His organization, his work is doing enormous harm. And so isn’t it selfish of you to prioritize your own learning over the harms that he does?
After the student finished his “question,” the audience broke out in applause—as if to say “he’s just saying what all of us were thinking.” The student’s remarks were ugly and disrespectful to say the least, but the audience happily endorsed him. Both George and West pushed back on what the student said, and you can listen to their responses at the link. For me, the most interesting thing was that the student seemed to know that his uncharitable remarks would be greeted with approval. What does this mean? Just a few observations:
1. No one ever engaged the case that George has made in favor of traditional marriage. It was simply assumed a priori that his arguments have no merit. George didn’t invoke his arguments either. In response, he simply asserted his right to have a place at the table. Why? Because he knows that in these contexts that’s the issue. At forums like this one, many progressives simply believe that traditional marriage supporters should not be allowed any consideration or attention whatsoever. This was the context for George’s tweet after the event:
“What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.” Swarthmore student
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) February 14, 2014
2. This student’s sentiment is exactly what gay rights activists have been trying to achieve on the issue of marriage. They don’t really want to discuss the historic view of marriage as a conjugal union. They’d rather not get bogged down in discussions about the public consequences of redefining marriage. They certainly aren’t interested in engaging the arguments of traditional marriage supporters. They know that they can bypass that kind of intellectual honesty if they can simply convince people that traditional marriage supporters are bigots.
You don’t have to take a bigot seriously. You don’t have to listen to his arguments. You can just summarily dismiss him and banish him from having a place at the table. It’s not intellectual honesty. It’s intellectual thuggery. And the worst part about it is that its purveyors (like this student) are not self-aware enough to know what they are doing. Nevertheless, where the “bigot” narrative takes hold, you can be assured that demand for total ostracism of traditional marriage supporters is soon to follow.
3. Gay marriage supporters have become the new fundamentalists. They require not merely tolerance of gay marriage, but total approval and endorsement. Any deviation from the new orthodoxy must be met with exclusion and marginalization. Notice that the test for doctrinal purity requires secondary separation. It’s not enough for this student that Cornell West agrees with the gay rights cause. West should not allow his own character and reputation to be sullied by association with George. The student argues that West’s association with George legitimizes a man who deserves no hearing or standing before such a group. Nevermind that George has one of the most distinguished academic careers in America. His qualifications are irrelevant because he supports traditional marriage. Again, where the “bigot” narrative takes hold, this kind of secondary separation will be soon to follow.
If you want to watch the exchange, click the link and fast forward to the 55:20 mark.