I’ve long been inspired by the legendary friendship between professors Robert George and Cornel West. George is white, conservative, and a Catholic; West is black, progressive, and a Protestant. In many ways they are an unlikely pairing—they disagree about many of the things that our culture tells us must inevitably and irrevocably divide us—and yet they share a deep and deeply affectionate friendship. I thought I’d share a particularly insightful conversation between them, recorded a couple of years ago, which is relevant to some of our current debates about the importance, and the purpose, of free speech.
George and West are discussing the purpose of a liberal arts education, and invoking the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates’ famous contention that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” So, George says:
The purpose of a liberal arts education is to enable the learner … to lead an examined life … to unsettle us, to cause us to question our beliefs and to form our beliefs based on reflection, deliberation, reasoned judgment, which means that we always have to be open to the possibility that we are wrong. Which means we have to recognize … our own fallibility.
Our debates about free speech, and related issues like hate speech, often assume that we can clearly identify what is true and correct, and what is wrong. That’s right in some cases, though with a measure of humility we should also recognise that each generation tends to identify different things as self-evident, and that later generations will no doubt shake their heads in disbelief at some of the things we now take for granted.
But in many other cases, we’re simply wrong about at least some of what we believe. The trouble is, we believe it because we think it’s right, meaning we can’t recognise why it’s wrong by ourselves. If we could, we wouldn’t believe it. This may well include beliefs that we hold most deeply and most dearly. This, in a nutshell, is why we need to allow people the freedom to say things that we find offensive or insulting, counter-cultural things that go against the received wisdom of the day. But I’m paraphrasing—here’s Professor George with the full argument:
If I ask, is there anybody in this room who is certain that he or she is not wrong about anything you believe, no hands would go up. You all recognize your fallibility. We up here recognize our fallibility. I know right now I am wrong about some things, Cornel keeps telling me that …. But here’s the problem: I don’t know which ones they are. There’s a little paradox here. Right? If you take me through all my beliefs, each one I hold under the description of being true, that’s why I believe it, if I didn’t believe it was true I wouldn’t believe it at all. And yet I know they can’t all be right, I know I have to be wrong about some things. So how do I deal with that?
Well, if I value truth above opinion, if I value truth in the way Socrates values truth and teaches us to value truth, as being something so precious that we’re willing to give up the complacency of being settled, the ease of being settled, to get at the truth, then what I need is an interlocutor. He may be a living human being, maybe someone I’m reading in a book, I need someone who will challenge me, who will unsettle me, and not just in the trivial beliefs, not just in the secondarily important beliefs, but in my deepest, most cherished, even identity-forming beliefs.
Now that’s hard. That’s hard to open yourself up to that kind of examination and self-examination, and that’s because we are naturally complacent and comfortable with our opinions. We build our sense of self out of those opinions. We build communities with other people who are like-minded and share opinions. … we don’t want to put [those relationships] at risk. … We want to be a person who thinks the correct things for our group. And we certainly have difficulty imagining what it would even be like to be the kind of people who disagrees with people like us, because … we think there’s something wrong with those kinds of people.
So that recognition of fallibility is critical to one of the virtues we need to lead the examined life, which is what liberal arts education is all about, and that is the virtue of humility, intellectual humility, the recognition, not just notionally … but the deep existential conviction that I could very well be wrong … about some important things, the kinds of things that are so important that we wrap our emotions tightly around them.
I highly recommend the full conversation between the professors, which you can find here.