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Robert George and Cornel West Discuss Current Political Climate Through Lens of Humility and Hope at Inaugural President's Speaker Series Event

January 13, 2021  | 4 min read

Robert George and Cornel WestOn the evening of January 12, 2021, more than 1,300 members of the Pepperdine University community gathered virtually to view the inaugural event of the President’s Speaker Series, “Honesty and Courage, Humility and Hope: Robert George and Cornel West in Dialogue.” George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, analyzed the deep character required to engage thoughtfully and respectfully in vibrant conversations that examine diverse viewpoints.

The session opened with welcome remarks from president Jim Gash (JD ’93), followed by special messages from Helen Easterling Williams, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, who introduced West. Paul L. Caron, dean of Caruso School of Law, introduced George. Stewart Davenport, associate professor of history at Seaver College, offered a welcome to the guest speakers from the faculty.

Responding to a prompt from President Gash about how the two speakers arrived at the event’s title of “Honesty and Courage, Humility and Hope,” and why those specific virtues are essential in unifying the nation, West contended that virtues, which must be at the forefront of our thoughts during both hardships and times of comfort, can become embedded in our character in ways that can be illustrated to others, while hope can become what we are rather than what we have.

George explained that in previous exchanges with West, both professors agreed that honesty and courage seem absent on both sides of the political spectrum, often leading to numerous social issues. In a healthy culture, however, individuals must speak up honestly and courageously in favor of the common good, without fear that the expression of these ideas would alienate them from their communities.

“If we're going to get anywhere in the truth-seeking enterprise, we're going to have to first recognize our own scalability . . . [and] then we are open to being challenged,” George noted. “We all love to challenge the other guy, challenge our opponents, confront our opponents, tell them the truth [and] preach to them. But we’re a little less willing to open ourselves to criticism [and] let our own views be challenged.” 

George warned the audience that becoming too emotionally involved with our convictions blocks our intellectual humility, therefore preventing us from ever genuinely listening to perspectives different from our own. “We need the honesty and courage to speak the truth, including painful truths that unsettle not only our foes, but also our friends and ourselves,” he said.

In light of the riots at the Capitol the week prior, President Gash asked the professors to respond to the violence and offer hope about where they believe the country is headed.

Speaking frankly, West began the segment with his thoughts on how Democrats and Republicans are perceived in the public sphere. “You’ve got a whole order that is losing legitimacy . . . Then you've got a deeply conservative authoritarian populist . . . holding onto an identity in light of massive social suffering,” he said. In suggesting a solution for unity, West maintained that Donald Trump must not be viewed as a villain, but rather “as a human being who is a symptom of a larger system in deep decay and dysfunctionality.” 

Calling the assault on the Capitol and the confederate battle flag “appalling and horrific,” George explained that, “The president cannot be relieved of responsibility . . . he has got to be accountable,” explaining that Trump demonstrated “real recklessness” in demanding vice president Mike Pence to unconstitutionally contest the votes for president-elect Joe Biden, a directive Pence refused to follow. 

Relating back to West’s comments about the attacks on the halls of Congress, George agreed that these fundamental problems did not originate with Trump—a fact that some seem to disregard as “people on both sides want[ing] to focus on the aspects of the problem that are congenial to their ideology and ignor[ing] the other aspects of the problem.” In his message of hope, George contended that all believers of God are called to be morally consistent, avoid hypocrisy, and condemn violence. 

President Gash then asked the speakers to analyze the state of free speech in the United States. Comparing democratic self-government to institutions of higher learning, George stated that, “Anybody should be free to advocate any position, so long as they are prepared to do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse, which is a currency consisting of reasons, evidence, and arguments.You cannot be a self-governing people if people cannot speak their minds, challenge dominant opinions, [and] say things that unsettle people.”

West also expressed his passion for the freedom of speech and its integrity in allowing for the flow of all ideas. Highlighting that the defense of liberties cannot be just for tribal, racial, or ideological matters, he shared that as a person invested in decency and morality, he would feel uncomfortable with the repression of speech whether it is applied from the left or right side of the political spectrum.

“If you have free speech but you don't [make] any effort to be sensitive and respect people, then free speech becomes associated with just a weapon to hit people upside the head [with].” Otherwise, West said, “When you enter the public square, you're going to have such a distrust and suspicion that somebody can use their free speech and say something that appears to you to be disrespectful. And you think it's a direct attack on you. Because . . . now there's no trust.”

George explained that universities have a sacred mission to open students’ minds to the truth, and that Christian universities like Pepperdine should encourage readings authored by critics of Christianity. Through this practice, students will have sought information from opposing sides and will have additional knowledge to better understand and defend the truth. “We need to encourage that kind of inquisitiveness and openness, and the sense that you can learn even from people who are wrong, even from people you disagree with,” George said.

The event concluded with a question and answer session, followed by a closing prayer offered by Dean Williams.

In ongoing efforts to build a community of belonging, the Office of the President launched the President’s Speaker Series to welcome distinguished scholars and thought leaders representing diverse points of view to examine topics and issues facing our communities and the world today. Driven by a desire to connect deeply with the University community and inspire meaningful dialogue, the series provides opportunities to cultivate an engaged and impassioned collective through civil discourse.

A full recording of the event will be available on the President’s Speaker Series page until February 11, 2021.