Faith in Open Discourse – Letters – Blogs

To the Editor:

I feel I must first acknowledge the incredible intellectual weight of the signatories of this open letter (“An Open Letter to the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College,” The Chronicle Review, October 23) and their impact in political science, political theory and related fields. So early in my undergraduate career, a few of these signatories have already influenced me substantially. One in particular, Judith Butler, has significantly changed my views on feminism and Zionism, with her witty corned beef sandwich gag. One day, far in the future, I hope to join the ranks of these accomplished academics that I respect very deeply.

However, neither my respect nor the many illustrious signatories makes the arguments presented in the open letter correct on face value. I attended the conference at Bard College and heard Dr. Jongen speak. I can say that my stomach hurt when he spoke; I felt physically ill. His perspectives run counter to many of my political opinions and values. Yet, I am glad to have been in the audience to have seen the productive and critical discussion that arose as Dr. Jongen was critiqued, questioned by the audience, and confronted with facts. It was very valuable for me to see this exchange. We must hear the other side speak and understand how they view the world in a setting where the perpetrators of hateful rhetoric can be deliberately examined and perhaps dismissed. Yes, Dr. Jongen was given a platform, but he was not given support, no one walked out of that conference committed to the AfD party’s values.

Islamophobic, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments exist in our world, and are increasingly incorporated into mainstream political thought and the discourse and decisions of our leaders. Not only would censoring these ideas run counter to liberal democracy, but it also turns a blind eye to the development of hateful and xenophobic rhetoric that we see so blatantly in mass politics today. Make no mistake, Dr. Jongen, in my opinion, is wrong and harbors dangerous viewpoints. But, placing him on a podium and allowing the audience, moderator and critic to publicly question him gave us the opportunity to consider his arguments, and as a collective, wholly disregard them. Dr. Jongen, who has a doctorate in philosophy, quite frankly embarrassed himself. He was not given privilege, he was overtly critiqued. He was not “legitimized” and his opinions did not threaten the plurality, for his opinion is part of the plurality which the Hannah Arendt Center rightfully presents.

After the conference, a few of my peers and I approached Dr. Jongen and discussed the proceedings of the conference. He seemed visibly shaken by them, as if he had just run a marathon with little training and not enough water. This, of course is an apt metaphor for what he had just done: He spoke expecting to be lightly critiqued, but instead his views were soundly dismissed as foolish. He even thought he might find a few allies, but there were none. No one, but the four of us, undergraduates at a neighboring college, even spoke with him afterwards. No one reinforced his worldview, no one offered him directions, no one wished him goodbye.

To be clear, he was not dehumanized; he was just lost. I was actually saddened by our exchange; I felt sorry for him. I kept looking for him to be mean or cold, but all I found was a lost man with dreary, watery, grey eyes smelling slightly of cologne in a grey suit and looking, with darting eyes, for people to talk to; I found a lost human in front of me.

I do not mean to oppose the perspective of the signatories, only to offer a perspective, however novice, from an unaffiliated point of view. This exchange was of paramount importance to my education and understanding of political discourse. Being present for the critique of Dr. Jongen’s reactionary and divisive opinions has cemented my faith in open discourse and given me the tools to engage in such debate with his American counterparts.

Matt Harris
Marist College Class of 2020

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