Open letter to Robert George

Dear Robert George,

I spoke to you at the lecture you gave the other day with Cornel West in the Quaker Meeting House at Swarthmore. I was the young man in the first row who asked you what it would take to change your mind about queer people and gay marriage. You didn’t really give me an answer to the question I asked, but instead you talked a lot about the process that led you to the views you have today. You read Plato, and Gandhi, and Kinsey, and many more. You suggested that I do the same, and that perhaps after careful reflection and thought, I might come to agree with you.

Of course, the terrible irony of all this is that I am gay. You couldn’t have known. I wasn’t wearing protest t-shirts like so many of the queer activists on campus, I didn’t out myself to you in my question, and my mannerisms don’t immediately betray the the inner workings of my heart. When you addressed me, you mistook the anger in my voice to be the passion of an activist and an ally, rather than the pain of a young man you had hurt.

But now that we’re both in the know, I have to wonder if you would go back and change your answer. Not because somehow knowing that I’m gay would change your opinions about gay people — I’m not so arrogant as to think that. But because the absurdity of telling a young gay man to read Plato so that he might reconsider his views on his own humanity would surely be too much even for you.

I’ll be frank — I think that you should never have been invited to come and speak to this campus about community. You are the founding chairman of the National Organization for Marriage and you serve on the board of the Family Research Council, which has been recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-gay hate group. NOM is currently in the midst of a major campaign to deny transgender children the right to use the right bathroom. You’ve co-authored the Manhattan Declaration, calling for Christians to engage in civil disobedience against laws giving equal rights to queer people, and you’ve endorsed the “traditionally regarded” view that our love and relationships are “beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures.” These positions are by nature hateful and bigoted. The fundamental equality of others is self-evident. We don’t reason it out from assumptions. It’s not subject to rational inquiry and debate. We know it because we live it every day. How can I have a discussion on equal terms with you when you don’t recognize me as equal? Our disagreement isn’t rooted in logic or reason; it precedes it. It derives from the fact that my humanity is obvious to me. It is obvious to the Swarthmore community. And it should be obvious to you.

Before you came, I worried that your lecture and the ensuing discussion would descend into meaningless platitudes. I worried that the discussion’s only purpose would be to paper over the many harms that you’ve done with abstractions like “civility,” “community” and a fetishization of dialogue as an end unto itself. And what was so galling to me about the whole event was the way we treated your opinions about queer people as though they’re just another respectable position in a philosophical debate. As though my life and my humanity was just some discussion prompt that college freshmen write about in a first-year seminar.

In the months leading up to this event, I spent hours in meetings with our college President Rebecca Chopp and many other professors and administrators expressing exactly these concerns. All of them told me that I should just attend — that the questions I wanted to see answered would be addressed. I was furious at them, and furious at Cornel West, and furious at you, but I decided to go anyway to hear what you had to say.

And as much as I wish that I was wrong, my fears were played out. I went. I heard you speak. I asked you questions that you didn’t answer. I’d still like the answers, if you can give them now. But what I really want is an answer to the question that I didn’t ask, perhaps for fear of what the answer would be or perhaps because I think I know it already.

What did I do to make you hate me so much?

Sincerely,

Jacob Adenbaum

Swarthmore College

Class of 2014

 

18 Responses to "Open letter to Robert George"

  1. Maria Rogers '14  February 16, 2014 at 5:36 PM

    Exquisite.

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  2. Samuel Mori '16  February 16, 2014 at 6:12 PM

    Thank you so much.

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  3. Merilyn Jackson  February 16, 2014 at 6:38 PM

    This letter brought me to tears and I cannot, for the life of me, understand why that man would have been given the prestige of speaking at Swarthmore. He can now add that to his past speaking engagements, earn income from it and gloat about it as if it were a feather in his cap. It certainly was more of a black eye for Swarthmore.

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  4. Anonymous  February 16, 2014 at 8:34 PM

    I'm not sure what in George's comments would lead you to believe he hates you or regards you as something less than an equal. George's views are very far from my own, and I am hesitant to defend a man who I honestly believe to be prejudiced, but would you regard someone with schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or OCD to be less than an equal? Would you hate them? It seems to me George views homosexuality as something along those lines.

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  5. Luke Paulsen  February 17, 2014 at 12:51 AM

    Jacob,

    What I am about to write might seem offensive at first glance, so I want to make a few things clear. I do not mean to say anything negative about you or your rights, and in fact I'd like to thank you for writing this letter. It raises important issues that I believe deserve to be addressed. Because I'm not an expert on those issues-- and in the interest of avoiding controversy (if possible)-- my reply will not be about the issues themselves. Instead, it will be about the way they are discussed.

    From the sound of it, your question to Prof. George was actually more of a request. You asked him to change his opinion on an issue, given some set of conditions. He respectfully declined and explained his philosophical reasons for doing so. I doubt he would consider it a "terrible irony" that you are gay. I also doubt that knowing that fact would affect his answer. In fact, I think he would consider it important to give the same answer to any person. (And yes, he absolutely does consider you to be a person.) As a matter of philosophy (rather than politics), the correct answer to this kind of question should not depend on the circumstances in which it is asked.

    I do not necessarily agree with all of Prof. George's positions, but I disagree with your assertion that they are inherently hateful. In many cases, the accusation of hate rests on the presupposition (likely shared by the SPLC) that your own view of the philosophical issue is the correct one. Prof. George would naturally contest that view, and it is unfair of you to ask that he accept it as a precondition for discussion. Evaluated under his own philosophy, there is nothing hateful about Prof. George's positions. "Fundamental equality" is a more complicated beast than you make it out to be. The law is constantly treating people differently from each other, according to the manner and extent that they are in fact different. To the best of my understanding, it is plausible-- not necessarily correct, but plausible-- to consider biological gender the correct criterion for which people one can marry or which restrooms one can use. And it is Prof. George's business to make cogent arguments to that effect. None of his philosophy implies animus against you as a person, and much of his philosophy actively prohibits it. HE DOES NOT HATE YOU.

    Finally: Jumping directly to the accusation of "hate", and attempting to remove Prof. George's arguments from your community, completely short-circuits the discussion of an issue that is extremely important to you. I agree with your assertion that dialogue is not an end in itself, but censoring a viable and widely accepted point of view is still extremely harmful. It silences Prof. George and others like him who are pursuing an intellectual approach to the issue, while doing nothing to suppress (and much to inflame) those who truly are hateful. Besides, if Prof. George really is as wrong as you say, how will we ever know it without hearing his side? If you believe in your position, then you should advocate for more open discussion, not less.

    Thanks again for posting this letter. I hope the discussion continues.

    Luke

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  6. Sharon Vardatira  February 17, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    Beautifully, movingly, and persuasively stated. Thank you, Jacob, for having the clarity of thinking and personal courage to call hate speech out for what it is.

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  7. Peter Nilsson  February 17, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    Anonymous--see "beneath the dignity of human beings." That's not saying you think someone's sexuality is a mental illness. That's saying you think it is bestial and disgusting. That's saying you think someone is less than an equal. Furthermore, comparing homosexuality to mental illness is disgusting. That's the exact same mentality that leads to all the violent ways straight people try to coerce queer people to be like them--whether it's conversion "therapy" or "corrective" rape. It's equally horrible.
    And to be honest, I don't care if Robert George views queer people as equals. He doesn't treat them as equals; he treats them as inferiors. That's what matters. Whether he can find, in his evil little head, some way of treating his equals so badly, I don't really care.

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  8. Peter Nilsson  February 17, 2014 at 4:30 PM

    @Luke--
    What you write is in fact offensive at a second glance as well. You don't think that Robert George's homophobia is not hateful? I'm hoping you slipped up in saying this, but really--you are calling Jacob's belief that queer people are not below human dignity a "presupposition"? As if you disagree with it? It is not unfair to ask that Robert treat queer people as human--that's just called being a decent person. "Evaluated under his own philosophy, there is nothing hateful about Prof. George’s positions." Well that's a pretty bullshit deflection. To go all reducto ad hitlerum here, by that argument, anyone espousing violent beliefs that they believe are not hateful, is thus not hateful. Even neo-nazis. Even racists.

    "“Fundamental equality” is a more complicated beast than you make it out to be." What the hell are you talking about? If you are saying there is anything "complicated" about treating queer people as equals, then just come out and say we are inferior.
    "To the best of my understanding, it is plausible– not necessarily correct, but plausible– to consider biological gender the correct criterion for which people one can marry or which restrooms one can use." What? What? Not even getting into the how transphobic and homophobic that is, it doesn't matter if an argument feels plausible to you personally if it happens to be wrong.

    "HE DOES NOT HATE YOU." ...I have nothing to say but "LOL"

    "I agree with your assertion that dialogue is not an end in itself, but censoring a viable and widely accepted point of view is still extremely harmful. It silences Prof. George and others like him who are pursuing an intellectual approach to the issue, while doing nothing to suppress (and much to inflame) those who truly are hateful. Besides, if Prof. George really is as wrong as you say, how will we ever know it without hearing his side?" Threw up a little while reading that. No one is censoring Robert George, that's just a lie. He's publishing books and touring around spewing his views out. No one is "silencing" him. Stop appropriating terms from people who are actually oppressed to make up some fake sob story about poor old George. There is no such thing as an "intellectual," distanced approach to human right. These aren't "intellectual" things for queer people. We don't need to hear "his side" to know we are people.

    All that is to say: there is nothing to have a "civil discourse" about. There is nothing civil about writing someone off as subhuman. This is not a "constructive dialogue" because Robert George will never change his views, when his prestige and material wealth depend on his views not changing. This was a harmful collection and yours was a harmful comment.

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  9. Richard Keefe  February 18, 2014 at 8:19 AM

    For what it's worth, the Southern Poverty Law Center has pretty much ignored the LGBT community until 2011, when they began actively targeting that demographic for fundraising purposes. The SPLC opened its doors in 1971 but didn't designate its first "anti-gay hate group" for forty years.

    Apparently, the SPLC didn't consider anti-LGBT discrimination as an issue worthy of its attention for four decades until they discovered that they could make money from it.

    Their new-found interest in LGBT issues is little more than a ham-fisted marketing ploy. http://wp.me/pCLYZ-js

    There are more than enough REAL LGBT advocacy groups out there without having to resort to the SPLC's transparent fundraising tactics.

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  10. JV Blanchard  February 18, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    @Luke-

    Robert George does not have a philosophy, as you call it. Robert George uses a religious, largely mystical ontology of heterosexual/reproductive sex to deny the humanity of other people who engage in other kinds of sexual acts. Based on that, he makes statements that reach further than the marriage equality debate, such as claiming that soldiers in the US Army are now subject to their own "don't ask don't tell" since gays and lesbians cannot be dismissed because they share their lives with persons of the same sex. Robert George is not interested in companionship, support, and love. Robert George is luridly obsessed with the sex of other people, and degrades them at the same time. What he says legitimizes the violence that us "freaks" have to endure. Robert George's discourse is *not* philosophy, it's hate speech.

    The bottom line: you don't invite hate speech on campus to make a point about free speech, all the more so after last year's events. What a pathetic failure of leadership.

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  11. Anonymous '16  February 18, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    @Peter Nilsson

    With all due respect, I think that you have been less than charitable to Paulsen and George. First, you write as though Paulsen and George have committed themselves to positions that deny the personhood of queer people. They have not. The contestable “presupposition” that Paulsen references is not about the humanity of queer people but rather (as it seems to me) about the justifiability of the extension of marriage rights. It is possible, in spite of your claims, to question the prudence of overturning traditional marriage statutes or even to question the permissibility of homosexual acts without denying the humanity of queer people. If, as Paulsen, George, and I would agree, the supreme moral worth of every human being is deeply rooted, inalienably so, in their nature, then in no possible world does the claim “X’s action Y, or pattern of action Y’, is immoral” entail “X is beneath human dignity”. In this way, arguments may be advanced in favor of traditional marriage laws that do not depend upon “animus” toward queer people but rather upon a complex of positions (controversial and worthy of serious debate, of course) about the moral permissibility of homosexual acts and the duties of the State. NEITHER PAULSEN NOR GEORGE has committed himself in any way to the position that queer people should be “written off” as subhuman.

    I do, however, approve of at least one of your comments, namely that “it doesn’t matter if an argument feels plausible to you personally if it happens to be wrong.” You do not, though, follow through properly. Rather than simply labeling Paulsen’s statement about the “consideration of biological gender” as “homophobic”, you could have presented a reasonable argument, with premises and conclusion, that shows why even the plausibility of such an assertion ought, as you claim, to be considered philosophically specious. Otherwise, you too will only have presented a “feeling” in defense of what I would wager you consider an immensely important position. For your own sake, do not shun an “intellectual approach” to issues of human rights. King did not (see his arguments from natural law in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail); neither did Sanger. Human beings are rational animals, and so it is appropriate to appeal to reason when seeking their assent and their support. Nobody doubts your passion, I am sure. Yet many will read through your comment unconvinced and unimpressed. If you are serious about this issue, as I believe you are, then write a cogent argument. Perhaps then, you will fare better.

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  12. Anonymous '16  February 18, 2014 at 8:20 PM

    @ JV Blanchard

    Your confusion about Robert George’s position is quite understandable given that his stance has not received much serious, intellectual attention on our campus. For although the authors of the recently released ‘zines forgot to mention it, George does, in fact, “have a philosophy” – it is called “new natural law”. When you read one of his essays or books on the subject, I do not think you will find arguments that are “religious” or “largely mystical”. Instead, you will find the continuation of an ethical and metaphysical tradition that began with Aristotle, a tradition built upon reason rather than faith. New natural law is not the dominant perspective amongst philosophers in academia, but it is considered, even by its detractors, respectable and worthy of serious engagement.

    George’s philosophical commitments have led him to hold non-conjugal sex morally impermissible. To claim that these arguments translate into a denial of humanity, however, is to misrepresent his position. George has not, either explicitly or implicitly, argued for anything other than the full and equal dignity of all human beings. New natural law, properly understood, does not, as you suggest, “legitimize violence”. It does, though, offer a rich framework for affirming the value of deep human realities, such as “companionship, support, and love”, in which all may share.

    Anyway, I hope this clarified some confusion. Happy reading!

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  13. Peter Nilsson  February 18, 2014 at 8:46 PM

    Neither Robert George nor Luke Paulsen need my charity; homophobia and homophobia-apology are not suffering from a lack of supporters. Paulsen is a random person on the internet (who as far as I can tell, has no connection with the Swarthmore community) so isn't committing to anything, but Bobby George is a famous and powerful person who has LITERALLY committed himself to denying the personhood of queer people by signing the Manhattan Declaration. "It is possible, in spite of your claims, to question the prudence of overturning traditional marriage statutes or even to question the permissibility of homosexual acts without denying the humanity of queer people." No! No! It is not possible to "question the permissibility of homosexual acts!" If you do that, you are denying queer people their humanity. If you say that a huge broad class of consensual sexual and romantic relationships are not okay, you are a bigot! If you decide you have a right to scrutinize intimate parts of people's lives, and hold them to the standards of some bullshit abstract argument, you are a bigot! It is none of your business what sex other people are having. It is none of your business who they are dating. You don't get to have an intellectual argument about whether some people should be "allowed" to have their relationships! That's just messed up! Not sure what is unclear here.

    (An interlude: "If, as Paulsen, George, and I would agree, the supreme moral worth of every human being is deeply rooted, inalienably so, in their nature..." what the hell does that mean? This is the worst perversion of philosophy--using meaningless, flowery and theatrical language to paper over your hateful positions.)

    "Rather than simply labeling Paulsen’s statement about the “consideration of biological gender” as “homophobic”, you could have presented a reasonable argument, with premises and conclusion, that shows why even the plausibility of such an assertion ought, as you claim, to be considered philosophically specious. " The fact that I have not defined homophobia and transphobia in this particular comment does not make them "unreasoned."

    "Otherwise, you too will only have presented a “feeling” in defense of what I would wager you consider an immensely important position." What *I* consider an immensely important position? More like, what every educated person who is not a bigot considers an immensely important position.

    "For your own sake... If you are serious about this issue, as I believe you are, then write a cogent argument. Perhaps then, you will fare better." Laughing at how patronizing this is. You think I will "fare better" if I can sit down and type out some abstract proof of how queer people deserve rights, every time a bigot questions that? No. Queer people should not be expected to format their arguments in a particular way to have their humanity recognized.

    I wish you the best of luck in finding other queer classmates to talk down to on the internet. (Sarcasm)

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  14. Quote  February 19, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    “In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life…”

    -Manhattan Declaration (p.2)

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  15. JV Blanchard  February 19, 2014 at 9:27 AM

    @Peter Nilsson

    I am in full support of your answer (02/18; 8:46). R. George's enablers want us to engage with his so-called "philosophy" regardless of his anti-LGTB activism and our campus' story. That's a sleight of hand: philosophy's full meaning emerges in a context, and is here revealed to be not philosophy, but hate speech.

    @anonymous (???): keep your patronizing tone. I'm specialist of Catholicism in early modern Europe, including neo-scholasticism. Also, I like to educate myself before tackling an issue.

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  16. Peter Nilsson  February 19, 2014 at 5:11 PM

    @Liam--
    It is in fact disingenuous of YOU to ignore all that has been said thus far, and somehow try to separate what Robert said in that moment from what he has said before and what he has committed his life to. "The letter wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t descend into self pity at the end." I'm gonna start pointing this out because it keeps happening--tone policing like that sentence is useless and an actual attempt at silencing. "I can guarantee you Professor George doesn’t hate you." This has already been addressed and falsified. Notice the complete bankruptcy of "constructive dialogue" here--you claim queer people are failing in their self-defense because of their tone, then completely ignore everything they have been said, taking the "dialogue" back to square one. Repeat this ad infinitum, and you can prevent anyone from making progress.

    @TElliott--
    Not going to engage with you beyond saying that was actually the worst thing I have ever read on either the Phoenix or the DG's comment threads. You disgust me.

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  17. Hopeful  February 21, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    Luke,
    I agree whole-heartedly with you. Thank you for your comment. Well said. The unfortunate thing is you are trying to have a reasonable conversation with an unreasonable person. Jacob doesn't care about the integrity of an honest discussion as evidenced by his questions. Moreover, you will note the nature of the biased comments here. While you and I are posting in support of Robert George, there is a lot of disdain for our voices. It kinda steps on Mr. George's point. Let's see if my comment makes it past the moderation.

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  18. Hopeful  February 21, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    Moderator,
    Thank you for proving my point.

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