Last week, a petition circulated around the Penn community demanding that an event where the former acting director of ICE was slated to speak be canceled. Penn initially refused, but then the event was canceled because of loud protests at the start of the event. While the protestors and those who signed the petition are well-intentioned, they are misguided. The best way to deal with ideas that challenge our own is to engage with them through discussion and debate. Refusing to engage with challenging ideas not only does a disservice to ourselves but also to our democracy.
Let me be clear: This is not a defense of the atrocities that ICE has committed on the southern border, or of detention camps, or of President Trump’s family separation policy. I do believe that the protesters were well within their rights to protest the event, and I admire the passion of the Penn community in being welcoming to and protective of the DACA students and those affected by American immigration policy on this campus.
Yet, however admirable that passion is, using it to silence someone is not productive. The event at which Homan was speaking was not glorifying ICE or current immigration policies. It was a discussion and debate on those issues. A debate only works if both sides of the issue are present and allowed to speak. While Homan represented ICE at the event, Penn also hosted Sozi Tulante, an attorney who helped defend Philadelphia’s Sanctuary City status. If Homan were allowed to speak, he would not have been unchallenged. The discussion would have forced Homan to describe his time leading ICE, and may have allowed him to reevaluate his stance on immigration.
Regardless of whether or not Homan would have chosen to walk back his views, it would still have been important to let him speak. As he said in an interview with The Washington Post: “People don’t understand what we do or how we do it. They just make assumptions.” Perhaps he is correct and the public at large actually doesn’t understand what ICE does. Perhaps he is wrong and ICE is just as atrocious as its public image makes it out to be.
It’s impossible to know whether or not Homan was correct because he wasn’t allowed to make his case. One of the left’s main goals is to give voice to those who have been historically discounted in democratic discourse. While that is a very admirable goal, the left cannot uplift certain voices and then turn around and silence others. Many of the beliefs of right-wing activists and proponents are nauseating. But so long as the left refuses to meaningfully engage with them, they will continue to feel fundamentally misunderstood, and perhaps worse, go completely unchallenged.
The petition asking Penn to cancel the event states that “inviting Homan as a guest speaker contradicts Penn’s claim of being a sanctuary campus that is committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of all its students.” But Penn did not invite ICE to raid campus. It invited one man, a retiree no less, to give a talk and leave. As for campus well-being, Penn students were not required to go to the event at which Homan was speaking and expose themselves to him if his presence made them uncomfortable. Further, no one could reasonably believe that Penn was reversing its sanctuary campus policy just because it invited one former ICE administrator to campus.
In fact, Penn would not be doing its job if it did not invite controversial figures like Homan. As an institution of higher learning, Penn’s purpose is to expose students to challenging ideas, not to insulate them: We do not need to know what to think, but how to think. Only by engaging with opposing viewpoints can we come to a more thorough understanding of our own beliefs and learn how to be fully realized, democratic citizens.While at Penn we may be able to demand that we be sheltered from what makes us uncomfortable, that is not a luxury we will always be given. If we hope to function in society, we must learn to listen and work with everyone, even those that we vehemently disagree with.
In doing anything else, we are only doing ourselves a disservice. Engaging in debate is the first step toward positive change. Preventing that dialogue from taking place ensures only that things remain as they are.
JAMES MORRISON is a College sophomore from Pipersville, Pa. studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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