When I entered the talk entitled “The Person as a Gift” by Providence College professor Anthony Esolen last night, I was aware of two things. Esolen had written a 10-part manifesto decrying homosexuality, and I had been sent an email detailing a “kiss-in” demonstration to disrupt Esolen’s lecture.
I had a preconceived notion that True Love Week’s organizers had made a serious mistake in inviting a guest whose past writings were more akin to a Directed Studies philosophy paper than serious scholarship. On one hand, I respected the intellectual courage of True Love Week’s members to invite a guest with such unpopular beliefs; on the other, I was concerned that they failed to recognize that Esolen’s talk about sexual culture might reflect his homophobic views.
Esolen’s speech, however, was exactly what I expected. His argument was primarily aesthetic — often confusing the beautiful with the good. He claimed that reducing love to the science of body parts and appetites had completely written mysteries out of the picture.
He constantly referred to the beauty of the mystery between the two sexes and how this gap in understanding drives desire for the other sex and justifies it. However, this argument is based on the assumption that there are universal male and female experiences and not human experiences. A man understands another man on a different level from a woman, who possesses the knowledge of childbearing.
However, most of the students in WLH 116 did not intend to examine Esolen’s ideas rigorously. Bijan Aboutorabi ’13, one of the event’s organizers, invited those who could not demonstrate intellectual tolerance to leave before the start of the talk.
About 10 minutes later, most of the audience stood up for the demonstration, kissed each other and promptly left. Stragglers laughed, made snide comments and also headed out the door. Esolen laughed, referring to the demonstrators as “kids, such kids.” He exploited the spectacle to reinforce his argument — sexuality was on exhibit as a power play. As I sat there, watching the majority of the audience leave, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The impolite spectacle did not make me any more sympathetic to the talk; nor did the lackluster talk make me any more sympathetic to the spectacle. His audience called his capability to speak about sexuality into question. At the same time, the demonstrators had no seriousness in purpose; the kiss-in was an effort to defeat Esolen’s arguments not in a discursive manner but through visceral exhibitionism. It made no argument but this: We think you’re wrong, and we don’t like what you have to say.
There was no engagement between Esolen and the demonstrators. It seemed clear that Esolen had excluded homosexuals from his conception of a proper sexual culture, and the demonstrators had dismissed the possibility that Esolen could make any argument that was worth listening to.
I respected the demonstrators’ point of view — even agreed with it — but they made no effort to engage seriously with the guest on why he was wrong. Perhaps the demonstrators believed that a line had been crossed — a line that separated things that could be discussed civilly and those that could not. I understand that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to take seriously a speaker with hateful views.
The demonstrators did not believe they had anything to prove. The most powerful act of the night, by far, was by a gentleman who stayed for the duration of the talk and asked a serious question: “Could there exist mystery within the sexes?” This sort of engagement — and not the demonstration — pushed Esolen to answer in a way that revealed his arguments to be truly ill-founded.
As students of philosophy, we can only present beliefs that we have some conviction are true, and at times, those beliefs can be so unwavering that we are unable to conceive of a view that could be any different. Discussion is meant to facilitate the search for truth. At the talk, the demonstrators were unwilling to hear what Esolen had to say, and Esolen had already dismissed them as unable to understand his views. But if we have already concluded that we know the truth, why search at all?
Minhal Baig is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.