Professors Cornel West and Robert P. George sat down with The
In a statement released in March by West and George titled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” the two scholars encouraged open discussion between polarized groups in our country, beginning with the phrase, “The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.”
West, who protested the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with other members of the clergy, said the best and worst qualities of humanity were present at the protests.
“Neo-nazi brothers and sisters represent the worst with the choices they can make. They can change, they’re not locked in, but at the moment they’re tied to hatred and contempt,” West said. “Then you’ve got the best: those trying to live a life of integrity, honesty, decency,
West said that while this display of hatred wasn’t a turning point in American history or anything new, it was a dramatic and significant clash between the forces of hatred and love.
George said he looked on in horror, as other Americans and the whole world did, at the events in Charlottesville and worried about the future of the conservatism when faced with the growing alt-right.
“I think they have launched what is a struggle for the soul of the conservative movement in the United States,” George said. “An American patriot believes in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. ... That’s the conservatism I represent, but if it gets hijacked and replaced by a conservatism that says it’s about ethnic identity or being white then that kind of conservatism will become a very destructive force in the United States.”
George addressed the question of appropriate response from universities and their students when faced with disagreeable ideas and viewpoints, using Auburn University’s recent experiences with white nationalist leader Richard Spencer as an example.
“Even with someone as vile as Richard Spencer ... he is not someone who should be prohibited from speaking on campus,” George said. “This does not mean that all speakers are equally worth listening to. I’m not going to cross the street to listen to Richard Spencer. He has nothing to say that I think I can learn anything from.”
Auburn and many other college campuses have become the targets of rising alt-right and white nationalist groups and speakers. In the spring, Spencer, who claims to have coined the term “alt-right,” delivered a racist and vitriolic speech on campus and was met with large protests by students.
At first, after receiving an assessment from Auburn police citing the threat of civil unrest and violence, the University decided to block his speech. A federal court later reversed the decision and ordered the University to allow him to speak after a lawsuit was filed. The courts said that there was no evidence of an immediate threat of violence.
George recommended that the University and its student groups think hard about choosing who to invite to speak on campus moving forward and choose those who have arguments to make with evidence and logic to back them up, even though Spencer was not invited by the University but by Cameron Padgett, a student from Georgia.
“Don’t bring in the provocateurs. That doesn’t benefit anybody, nobody learns anything from that,” George said. “Bring in the people who have something interesting to say who can make a compelling argument for the view that students want to hear have defended.”
West addressed the question of whether there was a line society should draw when confronted with unpopular opinions or even opinions that verge on violence, citing the legal issue of shouting “fire” in a theater.
“That kind of speech would cause such injurious harm that there’s no possibility for dialogue, critical exchange, respect,” West said. “Every viewpoint always has ragged edges. ... I don’t think you can come up with a general theory or formula. I think you have to look at it case by case, but you have to exhaust all possibilities of respectful dialogue given deep disagreements.”
George explained the legal difference between our First Amendment’s freedom of speech and an incitement to violence and argued that Americans have both a legal and moral obligation to allow people to speak despite the fact that we may disagree with them.
“We should be prepared to listen and engage anyone who is himself prepared to do business in the currency of intellectual discourse, and that currency consists of evidence, reasons, arguments,” George said. “This is the kind of speech through which everybody benefits, even when the view being advocated for turns out, in the end, to be incorrect.”