May 1, 2007

Tolerance is a two-way street

The best way to confront opinions you disagree with is through open dialogue—not by quashing speakers you don’t like.

Yet many members of the University—an institution that prides itself on vigorous intellectual debate—want to stop General Peter Pace from speaking at the Graduate School of Business (GSB). Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled as the keynote speaker for the GSB’s annual Management Conference on May 18.

In the wake of Pace’s condemnation of homosexual acts as “immoral,” his planned appearance has mobilized strong opposition, particularly from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, with nearly 1,000 people signing a petition to cancel his speech.

The petitioners seem to miss the point. The GSB is not endorsing Pace’s comments by inviting him; in fact, the deans of the GSB have noted their opposition to Pace’s views on homosexual acts. The GSB is, however, seeking his expertise based on his prestigious government position. It’s important to acknolwedge that Pace, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has great influence on American foreign policy, regardless of his controversial views.

Moreover, universities must not silence voices that are unpopular or marginalized, particularly when they are politically controversial. It is the duty of the University to protect all forms of diversity, including diversity of opinion. And after all, the LGBTQ community certainly can continue to use Pace’s appearance as a catalyst to raise awareness about their issues.

Organizers of the petition have expressed concern over the negative impact of Pace’s speech on the LGBTQ community. On the contrary, LGBTQ groups have shown that Pace’s speech will not silence them, and that they can in fact, use his appearance to unite as a community and garner opposition to the policies he advocates.

The GSB has also defended its decision by pointing to the Kalven report, which demands University neutrality on political or social issues. Opponents of Pace’s speech respond that the University can remain neutral even if administrators cancel Pace’s appearance. But this argument is disingenuous. Removing Pace from the conference would clearly be taking a political position, especially in light of the petition. The job of the University is not to take a stance on the issue of the day, but rather to facilitate dynamic discussion about these controversies.

Opponents of Pace’s speech wave the banner of tolerance to defend their position. It seems that for many at the U of C, tolerance has deteriorated into the perverse practice of stifling the voices of the opposition.