PAC column: Academic discourse and marginalizing ideas

Recently on the Hill, a major point of contention sprang up surrounding the Institute for Freedom and Community’s (IFC) Feb. 16 speaker, the controversial philosopher Peter Singer.  Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, which centers around the question of “What makes a meaningful life?” sparked outcry among students regarding the parallels between Singer’s philosophy and eugenics. By Singer’s explanation, a being’s capacity for consciousness is what gives its life meaning.

His philosophy, with foundations in support of animal rights, postulates that consciousness is not a characteristic distinct or intrinsic to humans. Rather, consciousness is an attribute expressed by many members of the animal kingdom, and thus, we should extend to them the same treatment as any other conscious being. Singer’s philosophy becomes highly contentious when applied to humans who are born or become cognitively disabled. According to his philosophy, those who are cognitively disabled to the point at which they are incapable of conscious thought should potentially be euthanized.

Student activists took to social media, calling for their peers to “Boycott Peter Singer” and prevent the IFC from giving a platform to someone they see as a eugenicist. A petition calling for the boycott pulled just under 1,000 signatures, a substantial portion of the campus population. Nonetheless, the IFC followed through with Singer’s talk. 

The day following his presentation, PAC sought to gauge campus opinion about whether bringing people like Singer aligns with the higher education goal of exposing students to opinions that challenge conventional beliefs, or if the harm caused by giving a platform to marginalizing ideas mean that speakers like Singer have no place on our campus? PAC posed the question, “Should St. Olaf give a platform to academics with potentially marginalizing ideas?” 

A two-thirds majority responded “yes” to the poll. In short, the campus generally supports the concept of hosting controversial speakers. However, the free responses offered a more nuanced perspective. As one student commented, “I want to engage in a broader spectrum of academia even if I disagree on every accord. With that being said, […] financially supporting them is very troubling.” 

Another student went on to say, “Colleges, as academic institutions, should be places of free discourse. I think that in college, you should be open to hearing the ideas of people you disagree with and learning how to engage with them.” Another respondent had a distinctly different yet integral perspective to share. 

“My identity as a person with a disability is not some talking point for people to toss up and consider whether or not the lives of myself and my peers are worth living.” Continuing on, they explained, “In the discussion with Peter Singer, the sole voice of ‘debate’ was Edmund Santurri, director of the Institute for Freedom and Community. How is a non-disabled St. Olaf professor supposed to empathize with the cause against eugenics towards a marginalized group?” Their comments on the IFC lead to a broader campus discussion regarding the organization’s role and if its place on campus is constructive. At the beginning of Singer’s talk, the IFC acknowledged that their intent was not to promote controversial ideas but to assess them. However, one must recognize the consequences of bringing speakers whose ideologies have harmful effects on communities at St. Olaf. PAC reached out to Santurri of the IFC for comment but received no response.

PAC will continue to raise awareness and promote discussion on this issue. We recognize the complexities of introducing controversial ideas to the student body and know it must be handled with care.


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