It has been only a week, but already videos and articles are circulating on the Internet, and I can only assume they will increase. On May 26, a visiting speaker, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, gave a talk entitled “Same Sex Marriage: Why Not?” which understandably generated controversy. But that controversy was no justification for the disappointing actions of the protesters who came out to greet her.
Since videos are indeed already circulating, I will describe the protest here only in brief. A group of around 20-30 students representing members of UCSB’s LBGTQ community attended the opening moments of the event. Holding signs and standing quietly in the auditorium, they seemed at first prepared to silently oppose the talk for its duration. I would have praised them for this act of solidarity and testimony if this were the case. Unfortunately, it was not. Rather, when Dr. Morse began to speak, they turned their back on her and began chanting loudly. One article I read called this display “rowdy,” which, in fairness, I cannot fully agree with. Yes, it was loud, but it was brief and not uncontrolled. Continuing to chant, the entire group then left, allowing Dr. Morse to begin her talk.
The problem here should be obvious, and it is not a problem with the demonstration itself. As I have said, I would have been fully prepared to accept their presence at such a discussion and even to welcome it. Our constitution ensures us the right to peaceably assemble and protest, and I myself have exercised this right innumerable times. No, the problem regards when the members of this group chose to make their exit: They left before hearing a single word.
I am personally acquainted with a few of the individuals in this group of protestors, and I would like to reassure them and their colleagues that their opinions are valid. Though I do not fully agree with them, I am sincerely open, as always, to hearing what they have to say concerning this issue or any other. In fact, I have had this and similar discussions with them and with others before. But valid opinions do not exempt any of them from hearing the equally valid opinions of their opponents, myself included, and that is where they have willfully decided to go wrong.
This phenomenon is not limited to the members of the LGBTQ protest group from last week’s talk. Indeed, it has become pervasive on college campuses where things like “trigger warnings,” bans on subjectively defined “hate speech” and accusations of “bigotry” serve as excuses to ignore unwelcome opposition to our beliefs. Though in some instances these things may prove helpful or comfortable, at their core they exist to shield us from challenge. The world is not perfect, and I concede that some people may be genuinely bigoted and hateful. But if a “bigot” is “aperson who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices,” as Merriam-Webster assures me it is, I can think of no way to willfully ignore such people without becoming a “bigot” myself. More troubling, I fear doing so would foster in me the same intellectual immaturity that I have so often encountered in those who have never suffered their views to be challenged.
I believe that our core values should withstand such adversity. Moreover, I am convinced that this challenge is what refines and solidifies our principles into the moral codes that make us strongand responsible people. Fragile or fleeting ideologies cannot form the core of a developed and mature worldview; this I assume to be self-evident. Equally self-evident ought to be the conclusions which follow from this assumption: namely, that we should never fear to put our values to the test of scrutiny, for it is far more to be feared that we should too lightly assimilate the ethics presented to us. Were we to adopt ideologies without criticism or avoid uncomfortable situations in which those views might be opposed, education would quickly devolve into indoctrination.
For these reasons, leaving the conversation is not heroic. It is not constructive. It is, in fact, a capitulation of sorts. It says to those who challenge us that we are either unable or unwilling to offer a defense; that we are either too uninformed or too arrogant to respond. I will readily admit to being uninformed on a variety of issues and cannot fault anyone for admitting likewise; we came to college to learn, after all. But I am obliged to fault anyone whose arrogance, real or unwitting, prevents them from taking their opponents seriously and seeking to learn from them.
To return to the specific case of Dr. Morse’s recent talk, there remains a redemptive ending. I was much gratified to note that many people who disagreed with her views nevertheless listened attentively and offered their own opinions at the talk’s conclusion. In fact, the lengthy question-and-answer session following her talk was overwhelmingly dominated by questions and challenges from people who opposed her viewpoint. The discussion was both enjoyable and edifying, and many audience members made informed criticisms to which she provided informed answers. Furthermore, I was deeply impressed by the conduct of those members of the LGBTQ community who weighed in, on both sides, and proved themselves willing to engage in civil and productive dialogue. To my mind, these were the real heroes oflast week’s discourse, and they represented the true spirit of tolerance and democratic progress to which America’s founders aspired.
By no means do I or those like me harbor any ill will toward the LGBTQ community. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly agree with one man who said, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation … The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.” But if it surprises the reader to note that this man was Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the most “bigoted” and “anti-gay” religious community in the world, that surprise serves only to underscore my point. Indeed, Pope Francis is not an anomaly among Catholics, though few realize this, nor has he changed Church teachings. Do we honestly understand each other? How much of what we “understand” is simply ingrained assumptions that we choose to leave unverified? Can we ever achieve understanding if we refuse to speak with one another?
It’s time we took our responsibilities to each other a little more seriously. I would truly love to see us step off the soapbox and find it in ourselves to take a seat in the audience. Front row, dead center. We don’t always agree, nor should we be made to. But we can always listen.
You can find the News article covering Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse’s talk here: