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Editorial: Rethinking Dr. Umar Johnson’s campus visit – a question of values and impact

Campus faces dueling risks: complicity and censorship.
Image by Sarah Mai

As a society, we cannot be so shortsighted as to think we have everything right. History shows tremendous setbacks to ethics, science and philosophy when an accepted truth is taken as unquestionable. 

For that reason, I am generally of the belief almost all forms of speech should be protected, even ones we consider despicable. This is particularly true on a college campus, a place where the uninhibited pursuit of truth should be the goal. With this being said, I believe as a university community we also have the responsibility to raise awareness when a divisive set of ideas comes to campus. Though this should never reach the point of barring a speaker, we must make clear that we do not accept or condone divisive speech, and publicly — and privately — dispute wrong ideas so they can be seen for what they are.

For this reason, I am writing to raise awareness about the invitation of Dr. Umar Johnson to speak on campus. In addition to expressing his complete opposition to interracial marriage, Johnson is also, in my opinion, a consummate homophobe, who has been quoted as saying “I do not see that [LGBTQ] lifestyle in any shape or form as being in the best interest of African people,” that “LGBTQ is the mask the pedophile movement wears to get their agenda pushed,” and who preaches that the government is trying to “control the narrative” of the black woman by planting “biological men” disguised as women — among other gems.

These words are painful to hear repeated in what are now the 2020s. My grandparents are in an interracial marriage. I have had family and friends demeaned because of their sexual orientation. This language is likely to lead to tangible harm. 

While I respect Johnson’s invitation to speak on campus, we must call out these ideas for what they are: outdated, racist, homophobic beliefs. I further disagree with the promotion of his event on some official University social media accounts. But despite my feelings on the subject, I also call on the University to maintain a firm stance on free speech, including for Johnson, and for other controversial topics such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Speech is not free if it is silenced based on a speaker or their ideas, no matter how visceral a reaction they cause. This is not to say free speech grants the right to speak unopposed. Embracing this principle, in my eyes, means also embracing a responsibility to stand up and dispute hateful ideas when and wherever they emerge.

I believe we should aim for a world where people are able to associate, marry, befriend and work with people regardless of their race and sexual orientation. Ethically, I believe respecting love — including when it crosses race and gender boundaries — is the right thing to do, which I hope is not a particularly brave stance to take in public. Practically, I think believing otherwise suggests a racial and sexual isolationism likely to breed resentment between groups.

A whole body of work in social psychology (an example: Elliot Aronson’s jigsaw experiment) suggests groups reduce prejudice, work better together, and come to see each other as equally worthy of respect when they are encouraged to form cooperative relationships. Placing artificial boundaries around the sort of relationships people are allowed to have is likely to lead to the opposite. There is much more to be said on both this subject and Johnson, but I trust that the reader can do their own research and make up their own mind.

While I was disappointed to hear of Johnson’s invitation to campus, I hope as a community we can stand together against these ideas while maintaining a principled stance on free expression.

Phillip Ableidinger graduated in 2023 with a degree in economics and philosophy.

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