Monday, October 7, 2019
Testimony of Robert P. George
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
May 22, 2018
I wish to thank the chairman, ranking member, and members of this committee for holding this important hearing and for inviting me to give testimony. It is a particular honor to appear alongside Professor Stanger and Dr. Weinstein, whose courage, integrity, and commitment to freedom of thought and expression and robust civil discourse are inspiring.
I have provided to the committee’s excellent staff my formal written testimony. This afternoon I wish to share some thoughts drawn largely from a statement I issued some months back along with my dear friend and teaching partner Professor Cornel West. Professor West and I, though representing different political perspectives, share concerns about the state of American higher education and the condition of American democracy. We worry that too narrow a range of perspectives is represented in a great many colleges and universities, especially among faculty, and that this tends to create an echo chamber in which education degenerates into indoctrination and dissent is stigmatized, marginalized, and even punished or driven off campus. We also worry that the American people are becoming polarized in ways that foment a level of distrust and hostility to each other, and an unwillingness to listen to and engage each other, that undermines the foundations of democratic civic life.
By hard experience, mankind has learned that the pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of certain virtues, including intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.
That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As the great 19th century English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.
All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
When universities are permitted to degenerate into ideological echo chambers, which is what tends to happen when a campus lacks viewpoint diversity, especially among its faculty, freedom of thought and expression quickly come under attack and are sooner or later (usually sooner rather than later) lost. Dissent from campus orthodoxies comes to be perceived and even experienced as attacks on "our community's values" and even as personal "assaults." People begin defining “hate speech” way too broadly and saying things like “free speech is violence.” Some may even begin defending actual violence—violence against dissenters from campus orthodoxies—as a form of “free speech.”
Following in the wake of these developments are censorship, language policing, and disciplinary proceedings and “re-education” for people who offend against “our community’s values.” Education, which requires the careful and critical exploration of competing perspectives on disputed questions, degenerates into indoctrination. Universities cease being truth-seeking institutions and courses become catechism classes for whatever ideology happens to be dominant on campus. That’s fatal for the cause of learning. And it’s very bad for the cause of democracy.