Update: Current students can sign this letter as well.
Professor Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business recently made waves by inviting Steve Bannon to UChicago. The event will be a debate at Booth, and Zingales will moderate it. Zingales is no fan of Bannon’s, but he invited him because “whether you agree with him or not (and I personally do not), Mr. Bannon has come to interpret and represent this backlash [towards globalization and immigration] in America.”
Some students and faculty have urged the event to be canceled, but a group of alumni recently started a letter to counter those demands. There is no way the event will be canceled, but it is great to see alumni articulately stating that you can support someone’s right to speak without in any way endorsing what they have to say. In fact, it makes it “clear [that] this is not a defense of Mr. Bannon’s policies or opinions.”
The full text is below; while I don’t think it is perfect, I would sign it if I were already an alum.
Robert Zimmer, President
Daniel Diermeier, Provost
The University of Chicago
Dear President Zimmer, Provost Diermeier, and University Community:
In recent days, many students, faculty, and alumni have expressed deep misgivings about the invitation to Stephen Bannon to speak at the University of Chicago. The University should not act to disinvite Mr. Bannon in order to maintain its commitment to free and open expression. As concerned alumni who wish to see the University remain a bastion of free speech in an otherwise hostile political clime, we wish to encourage the University of Chicago not to revoke Professor Luigi Zingales’ invitation for Mr. Bannon to speak.
Let it be clear: this is not a defense of Mr. Bannon’s policies or opinions. It is a defense of speech and the behavior of a university as it regards that speech. One of the University’s professors decided that Mr. Bannon has something to say. It is then the University’s obligation to support that decision. To some of the undersigned, Mr. Bannon is a white nationalist whose policies significantly undermine the rights and freedoms of marginalized groups. Yet Mr. Bannon has clearly tapped into a new wave of populist sentiment in the American consciousness, both as a member of the media and as a politician. Clearly, many take issue with it, identifying it as a new form of white nationalism. An ideology must be understood to be contested, and disinviting an influential member of the movement does a disservice to all who wish to better inform themselves.
Mr. Bannon has distanced himself from white nationalism and the “alt-right” many times. In his own words, they are a “small” and “vicious group” who “add no value” to the movement he believes is embodied by Breitbart News and Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency (Sixty Minutes). In his mind, his ideology is markedly different from the straw-man that detractors make him out to be. At minimum, the opportunity to dissect the dissonance in Bannon’s opinions should prove an important step in the analysis of the current political zeitgeist. For those who believe these words are at odds with Mr. Bannon’s policies and actions, an interview at the University provides an opportunity to explore that contradiction in an academically rigorous way.
University community members may find value in confronting their own beliefs. Education is meant to challenge: challenge our old ways of thinking, challenge our authorities, and challenge our peers. Secluding ourselves from challenge leaves us with our heads in the sand, both ignorant of other (perhaps dangerous) ideas and ignorant of our own biases. To truly challenge the ideas of others, we must arm ourselves with more than a surface level distaste and a refusal to engage. Ideas contrary to personally held principles may be uncomfortable to confront; however, they still have educational and moral value.
Whatever his politics and personal beliefs, Mr. Bannon represents an educational opportunity for the University community. He was, until recently, one of the most powerful individuals in the world, serving as the Chief Strategist of the White House and a close personal adviser to the President of the United States. As a principal architect in the construction of policies that many find detestable or repugnant, Mr. Bannon’s acceptance of an invitation to speak at the University represents an opportunity for those who disagree to directly discourse with their progenitor. As his ideas have greatly affected our world both as members of the University and residents of the United States, we have the obligation to ourselves to understand his views and policy ideas.
Whatever the perceived legitimacy of his beliefs, the University has an obligation to provide a neutral platform for speakers whose ideas affect the world and to guard that right from those who would dispute it. From the Committee on Free Expression, quoted in another alumni open letter, “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” That another alumni letter cited this very passage as a seeming justification for disallowing Mr. Bannon the opportunity to speak is perturbing at best and dangerously misguided at worst. The University must continue to act in its capacity as a robust, institutional platform for the free exchange of ideas in a world where such platforms are under siege.
The commitment to this value should be clear in considering a similar situation with different actors. At the University of California, San Diego, students protested the invitation of the Dalai Lama to speak. To many, the Dalai Lama’s message is unimpeachable, but to others, it is the ideology of a separatist and rebel. Two greatly differing perspectives see the speaker in starkly different lights, and we cannot say that any one perspective is more valid than another. To disinvite a speaker privileges a certain perspective over others. This is anathema to the values and ideals of a democratic society: all are equal and no one person or opinion is more valuable than another.
Indeed, these values we hold most sacred in a democratic, neoliberal society—empathy, openness, honesty, citizen engagement, and, of course, freedom—are all predicated on the existence of free speech, open and honest communication, and a robust exchange of ideas. To stifle the speech of some would irrevocably damage those core values.
While those that support disinviting Mr. Bannon would claim that there is no place in democracy for such horrid beliefs—that his beliefs are opposed to democracy itself and are thus a priori illegitimate—we cannot take such arguments at face value. We must dissect them. For everyone, some idea is offensive. There is no objective brightline to determine when an idea becomes too offensive to entertain, much less who is allowed to offend and who is allowed to be offended. The danger of this sentiment is found directly in the alumni letter supporting Mr. Bannon’s disinvitation:
Finally, we would like to know what other guests the University intends to invite this year who will engage and challenge the views that Steve Bannon expresses in order to uphold the commitment to freedom of expression and discussion on campus. If the University feels that Bannon’s views are worth a hearing, surely it is at least equally valuable, and in the spirit of our University, to hold them up to critical analysis.
The threat of censure is obvious; the idea of critically analyzing potential speakers or vetting them is an ill-disguised attempt to enforce a certain ideology by stifling access to new ideas. Whether or not this is intentional, the University, in its role as an institute of higher education, should take care when it chooses particular perspectives over others. In this case, where there is no clear or present danger to the attendees, it is inappropriate for the University to disinvite Mr. Bannon.
Extending an invitation to speak is not a legitimization of ideas. Here, we must make a critical distinction: Mr. Bannon may indeed gain some personal legitimacy for speaking at the University. He already has, without a doubt, the legitimacy to be invited to speak. He has influenced the world in significant ways and will likely continue to do so. In this way, the University would legitimize his role in influencing major events. This does not appear to be in dispute. However, in no way does his presence here make his ideology any more legitimate or even more palatable. Questioning a speaker is not a tacit acceptance of their beliefs, and listening to an idea is not an endorsement. In our capacity as students, we have all been exposed to works by distasteful authors and political figures, yet we do not suddenly become Nazis by analyzing Hitler’s speeches.
While we believe Mr. Bannon would add something valuable to the University’s discourse, we are more concerned with the request that he be disinvited from speaking. Herein lies another crucial distinction. To echo Professor Geoffrey Stone in an email to Richard Spencer when Spencer requested to speak at the University:
My strong support for the right of students and faculty to invite speakers to campus to address whatever views they think worth discussing does not mean that I personally think that all views are worth discussing. From what I have seen of your views, they do not seem to me at add anything of value to serious and reasoned discourse, which is of course the central goal of a university. Thus, although I would defend the right of others to invite you to speak, I don’t see any reason for me to encourage or to endorse such an event.
Professor Zingales, the undersigned alumni, and many students likely find value in Mr. Bannon’s speaking at the University. They are views worth discussing, for one reason or another. The act of disinviting Mr. Bannon, however, is nothing short of censure. Though we can debate whether Mr. Bannon should have been invited in the first place, now that he has accepted the invitation, we must defend his right to speak at the University.
The University ought hold strong in the face of those who wish to intrude on our most fiercely held academic, democratic, and national principles. As the Committee on Free Expression notes, “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our University’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.” As a step in towards this future, we, the undersigned, encourage the University to allow Mr. Bannon the opportunity to speak.
If you would like your name added to the list of signatories, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.