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Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: The fundamental dilemma behind the ROTC debate

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, October 3, 2011

The debate about whether to recognize the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on campus is indicative of a more fundamental struggle facing the community. How do we, as members of an extremely liberal university, engage with a world that does not share our deep commitment to liberal values?

One option is to take an absolute, principled position and refuse to work with those people and institutions that have different beliefs. We have taken this approach with the U.S. military. The army’s previous stance on gay rights and its current stance on transgender rights have been at odds with the principles of the Brown community, causing us to disengage with the military and ban ROTC.

An alternative approach involves collaborating with people and institutions of different beliefs. In the context of ROTC, this would mean allowing a military presence on campus though their values clash with our commitment to equal rights for transgender people.

Unfortunately, neither approach leads to a desirable outcome. Our deliberate isolation from  the military makes us appear to be an out-of-touch and ungrateful campus that does not value civic duty.

The U.S. military has a long history of defending and promoting American freedom. It is tragic that the community constantly demonizes the military and the men and women who protect our liberty.

Yet we also have stated commitments to transgender equality. Allowing ROTC to return would violate official University policy and send the message that we do not fully support the transgender community.

As someone who wants to support our armed forces and simultaneously protect the rights of transgender students, I struggle to conclude how the University should interact with the military. While I cannot provide the specific contours of an ideal relationship between Brown and the military, I can identify one clear flaw in our current approach.

As members of an elite academic institution, we should aim to find some way to support the armed forces that protect our academic and personal freedom. Yet when we discuss ROTC, few community members are willing to admit that we have completely overlooked the notion of civic duty.

It is lamentable that our campus is completely isolated from the military. This realization should prompt self-criticism and inspire us to find creative ways to support our armed forces without betraying our commitment to transgender equality. The first step to finding a balance between civic duty and transgender rights is admitting our shortcomings in relation to national service.

A belief in transgender rights is not the only Brown value that lacks mainstream acceptance.

Many of the social beliefs that characterize the community are not common beliefs within American society or in the rest of the world. Once we leave College Hill, the Brown worldview will no longer be the norm, either in the individuals we meet or the institutions we work with.

The debate about ROTC therefore raises broader questions about how the Brown community should interact with those who hold different beliefs. Should we prioritize our liberal values over every other concern and refuse to engage with people or institutions whose values conflict with our own?

Or should we make sacrifices in our commitments to these values and work with people who do not share them?

There is no easy answer to this question. If we make adherence to our values a prerequisite for cooperation, then we will find ourselves unable to engage with the world.

Adhering to these beliefs in such an absolute manner may be morally courageous, but such deeply principled behavior is often ineffective at creating change.

Yet we run the risk of selling out our values if we are too willing to engage with the world. While completely distancing ourselves from less liberal institutions may not accomplish anything, working with institutions with beliefs that we find abhorrent can, to some extent, legitimize their beliefs. Making too many concessions and pragmatic sacrifices can diminish the strength of our commitment to liberal values.

It requires a genuine struggle to find the correct balance between staying true to our principles and being open-minded and cooperative toward those with different beliefs. I cannot provide a simple solution to this fundamental dilemma. The case of ROTC shows that both pragmatic cooperation and principled isolation have negative consequences. I can only urge all of us to be more aware of the nature of this conflict between absolute adherence to values and an ability to engage with those who have different beliefs.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif.

He can be contacted at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.

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