The picture in this piece is worth well more than the 1,000 words suggested by the old truism: it’s a vision for a better, different conversation in America.
Cornel West, an American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual, focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society; he is a radical democrat and socialist. Robbie George, an American legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual, who serves as the sixth McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, is considered one of the country’s leading conservative intellectuals.
Together, they hold public discussions to model a different kind of behavior: Meeting each other in the public square with empathy and compassion. They disagree and debate, but with respect and kindness. Their message is that our love for one another should not be reduced to or defined by our politics.
On Feb. 15, we will host them in a virtual lecture at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, co-hosted by the American Culture & Ideas Initiative’s Voices of Culture lecture series. We are writing to invite you to join us. Because we feel that, at this terribly uncertain and divided time, the example set by these two great scholars, as reflected in the photo at left, is an important signal to all of us.
Our work at the Freedom Center (as it is publicly nicknamed) has for more than a decade focused on this question: How can we best build a just society that is based on individual freedom and free choice? (The core aspiration embedded in the U.S. Constitution). Our mission is not a rhetorical defense of the idea of freedom, but rather an exploration of its contributions and limitations. We depart from the premise that freedom is basic and critical to the human endeavor, but that it can only flourish in the context of ethical behavior, accountability, and equal access and rights.
In that inquiry, we are committed to the classical liberal ideals of engagement: free and open exchange, in search of new ideas and better solutions. We are driven by the classical liberal ideal: We seek to be a university forum where diverse viewpoints and disciplines can engage deeply and speak freely, without either rancor, or censorship. It is our defining goal that when a debate has ended, there will be deeper mutual respect — and even unlikely new friendships.
As a culture, we in America today clearly stand at a crossroads. Profoundly deep polarization has sent a chill through us all, spurred by a new world in which the rules of engagement seem to have changed fundamentally.
We believe that the only response to these trends is to lean in even more heavily, to advocate for and demonstrate the ideal of free, respectful debate. And we believe that the most important contribution that institutions can make is to model that process.
Right now, the most important question isn’t which viewpoint prevails, it’s being able to have the debate itself, guided by a common desire to understand one another and make progress.
The photo in this piece reflects those core ideals. As does the relationship between these two remarkable scholars. So we hope you will join us by Zoom on Feb. 15 at 5 p.m., to see Cornel West and Robbie George model this kind of engagement. Honoring the core ideals of our country’s founders, through love.
You can sign up to attend at https://freedomcenter.arizona.edu/events/505-voices-culture-robert-george-cornel-west.
Robert Edward Gordon is the managing director for Voices of Culture. Saura Masconale is the director of outreach at the UA Center for the Philosophy of Freedom.