At Georgetown, Finding the Public Sphere in Ann Coulter

Last Thursday, the Georgetown University Lecture Fund and Georgetown’s College Republicans co-hosted a lecture by conservative rabble-rouser and bigoted columnist Ann Coulter. An anticipated controversy ensued, with largely liberal members of the student body decrying the Lecture Fund’s sponsorship of the event. The Lecture Fund defended its co-sponsorship on the grounds of the organization’s non-partisan mission. A column in The Hoya, written by a junior in the School of Foreign Service, conveyed a feeling of betrayal at the news of Coulter’s appearance on campus and observed a consequent decline in the quality of public discourse on Georgetown’s campus.

The day before Coulter’s speech in Lohrfink Auditorium, the noted German philosopher Jürgen Habermas delivered the annual Berkley Center Lecture on myth and ritual in contemporary human society. During his lecture, Habermas also discussed his widespread popularization of the public sphere, a discursive process underlined by cooperative and democratic deliberation. In Habermas’ public sphere, an ethical discourse — and, subsequently, the development of the public good — relies on the inclusivity of the deliberative process, as well as the prioritization of public communication in consensus-building.

A quick walk down to McPherson Square will demonstrate the pervasive and growing power of Habermas’ public sphere in contemporary society. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, the Coulter controversy is a valuable, unexpected indication of the limits and importance of inclusive public discourse at Georgetown. In the days following the Lecture Fund’s announcement of Coulter’s lectures, campus discussions of the lecture, free speech, and the Lecture Fund’s decision often dismissed the public value of Coulter’s commentary. Conservative students spuriously compared Coulter’s anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and homophobic statements to those of Michael Moore, who spoke at Georgetown earlier this month.

As the Coulter controversy mounted, a Hoya letter to the editor condemned the Lecture Fund for sponsoring Coulter and Moore’s lectures, describing each as little more than “political theater.” The overwhelming focus on the content of campus discourse belies the central utility of public deliberation in a democratic community. Fundamentally, the value of free speech in contemporary society stems from the deliberative process, rather than the substantive ideas generated through an inclusive debate and dialogue.

The letter’s author had it wrong. Far from the “fatuous” process he described, Coulter and Moore’s public political theater is a core characteristic of Georgetown’s democratic society. The process of deliberation allows for a broadening of the public sphere, and enhances Georgetown’s rational political discourse. Public deliberation’s value applies universally, regardless of whether a speaker’s political perspectives are more or less reasonable than the next. The response to Coulter’s lecture from Georgetown’s student body demonstrated the value of the deliberative process, when allowed to develop freely: Students initiated a broad-based online and offline discussion of Coulter’s condemnable perspectives on American minority groups, raising issues for consideration that remain generally suppressed in Georgetown’s public sphere.

In the aftermath of the Coulter controversy, Georgetown students would do well to reflect on Habermas’ prioritization of the public sphere and its deliberative characteristics. So long as the public discourse continues unfettered, the Georgetown community will have ample opportunity to discuss issues of bigotry, inclusivity, and pluralism on campus. However, as long as Georgetown students seek to restrict the growth of this public sphere, they will continue to dampen an integral aspect of the campus experience.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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