The first night of Auburn University’s Critical Conversations speaker series was met with a packed room of hundreds of Auburn students, faculty, and residents who were eager to hear Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, and Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, speak on Friday afternoon.
George and West’s discussion, entitled the Ideological Differences and Free Speech on Campus, was moderated by Auburn University’s Associate Provost and Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Taffye Benson Clayton in the Student Center Ballroom.
“The Critical Conversations speaker series will include scholars and thought leaders from throughout the nation who will inform, enrich and challenge our thinking,” Clayton said. “Our desire throughout this academic year is to inspire our entire campus to keep growing, to keep growing, and, most of all, to keep the conversation going.”
After introducing the guest speakers, Clayton asked them both for their opening thoughts, to which George, after saying the necessary “War eagle” to a laughing crowd, thanked Auburn’s staff and explained the importance of truth and free speech, drawing from his joint statement made with West in March 2017 entitled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” which had then been signed by around 5,000 people.
“In that statement … we make the case as strongly as we can for respecting and honoring freedom of thought and freedom of expression,” George said. “Truth-seeking is what institutions like Auburn University and Harvard University and Princeton University are all about. If universities aren’t in the truth-seeking business then they ought to go out of business.”
George went on to talk about the polarization of American society today, arguing that unity must come through a shared conviction and belief in the principles of a republican democracy despite our differences.
During his opening remarks, West also thanked University administration and staff for inviting them to speak and proceeded to urge Auburn students to examine their lives and beliefs by quoting Plato’s “Apology,” “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“The crucial part is a critical self-inventory that requires vulnerability, taking a risk and, most importantly, cultivating the capacity to love,” West said. “Love truth, bigger than all of us; love beauty, bigger than all of us; love goodness, bigger than all of us and if you’re religious, a love of the holy, much bigger than all of us.”
West then described today’s America as experiencing a “spiritual blackout,” through which modern Americans are becoming increasingly fixated with individuality, materiality and status while shirking integrity, virtue and our ability to cultivate our capacity for love.
Clayton then asked George and West how best one should treat those with whom one disagrees on ideological issues in a constructive way.
George answered by praising the virtue of intellectual humility, however difficult it is to obtain and sustain, by admitting to ourselves that each and every one of us fallible.
“None of us is right all the time. It’s a little paradox worth reflecting on–that everybody in this room, including the three of us up here, knows that we are wrong in some of our beliefs,” George said. “But we know also that it’s not easy, and that’s in part because we; as fallible human beings, tend to wrap our emotions around our convictions, sometimes very, very tightly.”
George said that his point was not for human beings to cast away our capacity for emotion and become stoics, but to find a healthy balance between logic and emotion coupled with humility to the point where we welcome contradictory opinions and open ourselves up to being made to feel uncomfortable by viewpoints that contradict our own.
“If we really make progress when it comes to intellectual humility and openness, not only will we welcome our critic as a partner in the truth-seeking enterprise, we will learn to become our own best critics,” George said. “If Auburn does anything for you as students … it should not make you comfortable. If Auburn is making you comfortable, then, Mr. President Leath, we’ve got to fix things.”
West agreed and said that the saving moments of human history were periods when love, dialogue and democracy were valued and warned that if society ceases to value these ideals then we will cycle back into “hatred, contempt, domination, exploitation, xenophobia and so on.”
West then said that finding common ground, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, was necessary to facilitate constructive discussion among disagreeing parties.
Clayton asked the visiting professors on their thoughts of moral authority as it relates to leadership, and asked whether or not a moral threshold existed, which led West to discuss American youth’s increasing skepticism of long-time institutions.
“They look at our churches and the pastors that become CEOs, choirs become praise teams, business enterprises, market models,” West said. “They could come to the universities and they see market model versus democratic educational model, the tension between the two.”
George spoke of the moral authority of President Donald Trump and his lack of support for the president based on concerns for his character.
“The lack of virtue in a person will unravel that person’s leadership,” George said. “You need as much virtue in a president who’s a Democrat as you do in a president that’s a Republican … you will not get it unless the people demand it. Remember that this is an experiment, and experiments can fail. How do they fail? One way is the people are willing to tolerate vice in their leaders.”
The speakers were then opened up to a few questions from the audience as dozens of people held up their hands.
The first question from an Auburn student addressed the idea of intellectual discourse and how to protect it from those who would seek to abuse it.
George answered by saying that valuable discourse provides reasons and makes arguments with evidence to support its claims, but acknowledged that there were those who didn’t follow this method of discourse while maintaining that it was still unwise to shut them down.
“We have to tolerate that abuse lest we undermine the conditions of free speech,” George said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to give equal credit to … mere manipulation or name-calling or shouting.”
The last question addressed the concern as to what would happen if the American’s democratic experiment were to fail, to which George referenced Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts after the Civil War and concluded that despotism would be what we should expect should democracy fail.
“The best we could hope for there is benevolent despotism,” George said. “ I don’t want to let it fail, and we’re not being asked to sacrifice 750,000 lives, we’re just being asked to listen to each other, be decent to each other.”