Two weeks ago, President Rose announced a series of speakers who will each discuss an aspect of American democracy in light of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. While the series is laudable, Bowdoin has invited two figures who offer right-of-center opinions or votes that most Bowdoin students should consider problematic. In particular, the College has invited senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), but no corresponding Democratic-leaning politician (senator Angus King (I-Maine), again?) to discuss these recent events. In addition, the series’ next speaker, Suzanne Nossel, is a staunch opponent of what is often called “cancel culture” and has misconstrued the intentions and actions of its proponents, who are simply holding individuals responsible for their words, opinions and actions. The College has brought in some fantastic speakers this year, particularly Senator King, Eric Holder and DeRay McKesson ’07, but I am disappointed by the invitation of these specific individuals for this series.
Collins, who said “we need to get to know people who aren’t just like us” and called for hearing opposing ideas at a 2016 talk at Bowdoin, has herself been avoiding voters who disagree with her, as she has not held a town hall in over 20 years. Collins, despite being the Republican senator who broke with Trump most often, has received significant criticism for her votes on federal justices and the Trump tax cuts and exhibits a level of hypocrisy that exemplifies the poor state of our political system, the subject of her talk.
Collins called the FBI investigation on the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh “very thorough,” despite the failure to interview key witnesses and indications that the White House prevented a further investigation of perjury by Kavanaugh. She refused to support impeachment after President Trump asked for a Ukranian investigation of the Bidens and opposes the use of reconciliation for a new stimulus package despite voting for the Bush tax cuts, passed through reconciliation, after the Bush administration fired the Senate parliamentarian for his rulings on reconciliation. Still, as long as the often-evasive Collins is willing to take questions from students, this talk is a fantastic opportunity to hold her accountable for her past votes and statements, even if that is not Bowdoin’s intended purpose.
Nossel, meanwhile, is a Federalist Society (best known as a breeding ground for conservative justices) contributor who has criticized what she labels as “cancel culture” in op-eds and her recent book, “Dare to Speak: Defining Free Speech for All.” Nossel claims that “cancel culture” causes individuals to fear “anything they say can and will be used against them by the places they depend on for education, employment and political representation.” Nossel admits there are times when “content is too vitriolic, bigoted, deceitful or misleading to be shared online,” but seems to misunderstand, or willfully ignore, the part of “cancel culture” in which individuals face consequences for actions or speech that may be discriminatory or downright hurtful to certain groups of people.
The idea that individuals should not face consequences for their speech or opinions is laughably absurd. Newspapers, like the Bowdoin Orient itself, have the right to hire and fire journalists and columnists as they see fit and to publish other submissions in the same manner. In her 2020 resignation letter to the New York Times, former op-ed staff editor Bari Weiss described “constant bullying by colleagues” who pushed for her removal, but has since appeared on The View, published an op-ed on fighting back against “woke culture” in the New York Post, one of the most-read papers in the country, and operates a Substack titled “common sense.” Weiss, for all her talk about this “New McCarthyism,” is doing just fine.
There is also the question of community association in addition to perceived restrictions on speech. Workplaces and campus communities, as two examples, are ultimately collectives of individuals who make their own decisions about who they want to engage with. Interviewers consider the “cultural fit” of job applicants, so surely employers should care about the impact of a person’s beliefs on their colleagues and customers. These groups are not some oppressive power about to crush vocal dissidents, but communities that care about the wellbeing of their members. Individuals who refuse to respect and validate their peers and colleagues, and who refuse to learn from those experiences, are capable of creating much more damage than any benefits from “diversity of thought.” Nobody should be “cancelled” for anything less extreme, but to suggest that we must engage with hostile and malicious people is just as constraining as any perceived censorship. I look forward to Collins and Nossel’s talks, but they are part of the problem, not the solution.
Michael Borecki is a member of the Class of 2021.