Dr. Cornel West and Robert George greet audience members before taking their places to speak. Photo by Martin Froger-Silva '16, Swarthmore College
Professors Cornel West and Robert George Advocate for the Power of Marketplace of Ideas

By February 17, 2014

Opposites attract: In this case, Princeton University professors Robert George and Cornel West are friends despite having widely divergent political views. As reported by the Daily Gazette of Swarthmore College, the two appeared at a campus-wide discussion at Swarthmore to discuss the importance of “communicat[ing] across differences” on critical social issues. As Torch readers know, FIRE loves this kind of event. And so some shout-outs are in order—to Swarthmore for organizing the event and to the students who attended and listened to what both professors had to say.

But not all Swarthmore students understand the value of the marketplace of ideas. The Daily Gazette reports one student as saying this after the event:

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.

According to this student, the Swarthmore community should not even “tolerate” ideas that are conservative and do not support gay rights. But silencing unpopular viewpoints cuts both ways. It is worth remembering that 40 years ago, any discussion of being gay or lesbian was not tolerated on the Swarthmore campus, as articles like “A queer history of Swarthmore” and “What is the history of queer chalkings on campus?” explain. When some students began expressing the “diverse” view of gay pride through chalking pro-gay slogans, a student letter to the editor described this as a “reprehensible” defacing of private property. And what proved to be a major game-changer in attitudes towards gays and lesbians on Swarthmore’s campus? The creation in 1988 of the Sager Symposium, now called the Queer and Trans Conference, a week-long series of events and discussions “all with the purpose of combating homophobia and supporting queer activism.” (For an in-depth description of the importance of free speech in the gay rights movement, check out the afterword to the 20th anniversary reissue of Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors.)

Today’s Swarthmore students need to think of the voices that would have been silenced if their 1980s counterparts had decided that “hearing a diversity of opinion” was not appropriate for a liberal arts campus.

Ignoring or suppressing ideas we find to be terrible does not make them go away. For instance, according to The Huffington Post, 14 supporters of the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest Michael Sam, who is slated to be the first openly gay football player in the NFL, when he and his University of Missouri teammates went to Columbia, Missouri, to receive the Cotton Bowl trophy. When the WBC protesters arrived, they met a line of Sam’s supporters stretching a half-mile. This “Wall of Love” is likely to do far more to change minds than the use of government power to silence 14 individuals, without opening the door to censorship of unpopular ideas and the inevitable abuses that result.

Professors George and West are both prominent and well-known intellectual figures. Perhaps in today’s sheltered campus communities, we shouldn’t be surprised that Swarthmore students would be unsettled when someone who seems familiar—an academic from an elite college—ends up disagreeing with them. But Professor West hit the nail on the head when he denied that appearing with Professor George was tantamount to supporting homophobic views:

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.

Exactly. If any Swarthmore students who attended the event agreed with something Professor George said, they learned something; if all the students disagreed with everything Professor George said, they still became more educated on the support for their own opinions. In a true marketplace of ideas, everyone can benefit.

Image: Dr. Cornel West and Robert George greet audience members before taking their places to speak – Martin Froger-Silva ’16, Swarthmore College