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Sweeney ’19.5: Why we must respect Jeb Bush’s right to speak

Jeb Bush should be allowed to speak at Brown. In his Apr. 9 op-ed in The Herald, Mark Liang ’19 offered many good points for why this should be the case. But his arguments about why Bush should be allowed to speak endanger liberal democracy by encouraging tribalism and exacerbating political polarization. Further, his proposed solution of personally shaming Bush with protest signs that say “PLEASE CLAP” is atrocious. We can and must aim instead for mutual respect in our political discourse.

Firstly, the main issue with Liang’s perspective is that it condescends to the political right in a tribalist manner, and in doing so violates the concept of mutual respect that is required of a multiparty liberal democracy. He says, “we have to recognize that (Republicans) are there and learn how to beat them.” This is objectionable in that he views political debate as a struggle between two factions where winning is of the utmost importance. His column suggests that liberals should always win. The better argument is that the discourse between liberals and conservatives, and everyone in between, should help to shine light on the truth and on our shared morality as human beings. Political debate should not be about winning, but about truth and justice, and absolutely requires the humility to accept that your ideas could be wrong. Liang shows no willingness to concede that he, in fact, could be wrong in his viewpoints and in his deeply held moral convictions, nor does he consider that humility and mutual respect are the reasons why Bush should be allowed to present his views at Brown. We cannot move on from political polarization until we, the next generation of American leaders, put justice before party and show respect for the ideas of others.

What’s more, it is widely accepted that Bush is, especially by today’s standards, a moderate Republican. He does not spew radical nonsense and conspiracy theories — instead he is informed, articulate and justifies his viewpoints with intellectual principles. Because Bush has shown respect for all those he engages with in political debate (even when President Trump attacked him in the Republican primaries in 2016), he deserves to be treated respectfully. It is for these reasons, as well as the simple fact that he is a human being and therefore deserves respect, that it is morally abhorrent to propose, as Liang does, that students should protest Bush with signs saying “PLEASE CLAP” — a reference to a vulnerable moment in which Bush asked the audience to clap during a stump speech for his presidential bid in 2016. To even suggest that it is morally tolerable to protest someone by invoking one of their most personally vulnerable moments — one which itself has minimal relation to politics — is unfathomable. To berate Bush with this type of ad hominem attack is to become a bully in the same manner that Trump has been, by using schoolyard taunts in place of reasoned and respectful debate. It is precisely this kind of backhanded comment, a personal attack in place of a political one, that threatens to increase political polarization. Liberal democracy is premised on mutual respect, which is undermined when we reduce our discourse to mere tribalism.

Although one should have respect for those willing to engage in genuine debate on political issues, there is some speech that is unequivocally beyond the pale. When hate speech is invoked in political debate, for instance, we should not legitimate it by inviting its advocates to campus. Yet at the same time, we should also not respond with personal attacks and taunts. To be clear, Bush does not meet the bar for hate speech and should be permitted to come to campus and respected when he arrives. But the health of our liberal democracy depends on the quality of our discourse, and even when we come across people with hateful views, it is important that we are able to marginalize those views through civil discussion rather than resorting to toxic discourse ourselves.

Some people would surely say that Bush’s viewpoints are immoral and therefore the type of protest advocated for by Liang is justified. To them I say, we must always treat others with respect in our political discourse: It does not depend on what others say or do. Personally shaming Bush is a morally bankrupt idea and ought not to be tolerated by Brown students or by the Brown administration.

Brendan Sweeney ’19.5 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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