Freedom of Thought and Expression: Civic Friendship

This is the third and final part of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George at Arizona State University. They have what they refer to as a civic friendship. That is another important concept. Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, making them what someone called “an ideological odd couple,” they are truly friends. That was obvious by watching them talk. Even more importantly that was obvious by watching them listen–to each other. They really did listen. Clearly they respected each other.

To be civic friends you must have something in common. For example, if one of the two is not interested in seeking truth they will not be able to be friends. The friends must find that something in common to become friends. It can be many things. Truth seeking is just one, but it is a good one. It is hard to find for many of us because our differences today run so deep. After all this is the age of extremes as Eric Hobsbawm called it. Since then the chasm between the extremes has only deepened. The challenge is to find that common ground. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the common ground. Other times it is just below the surface.

It is not enough for two sides to share something. That was proved conclusively in the United States before the differences led to Civil War. They shared a lot, but for awhile forgot what they had in common or rather, perhaps, until they were overwhelmed by their differences. In fact it certainly looks like Americans are being tested right now. Can they find their common ground or will they let their differences overwhelm them again?

George said that to be civic friends, or a nation, we must believe in some substantive fundamental civil rights and liberties that cannot be compromised. That does not mean we must agree on everything. We can have substantive differences. We can even have important disagreements on very important matters. But we must recognize that we each of us have some common fundamental rights that all of must respect–like freedom of thought and discussion for example. If we have a shared belief in the freedom to think and discuss then we have a basis for a democratic discussion. Then we will respect each other even if we disagree. To do that, “we must have a fundamental belief in the dialectical process of truth seeking.”

George and West both agreed on one more important thing. That is that there is such thing as truth. Both reject relativism. That does not mean we will agree on what is true. We may have strong disagreements about what is true. We must remember that even if we think we have discovered truth, we could be wrong. Like John Stuart Mill said, you must listen to the other no matter how unlikely it is that you will agree with anything the other has to say. All of our ‘truths’ must be open to revision. We always have to remember that we are not infallible. We might be wrong. This is not relativism. It is just a recognition of our fallibility.

West always brings it back to music. “Artists are the vanguard of the people, and musicians are the vanguard of music,” West said. He said that we have a choice of indescribable pleasures or deep joy. He chooses deep joy. “It is the job of the artist to radically unsettle us.” It is the same of education. As West said, “if you have never felt your fundamental ideas rested on pudding, you never had any real education.” He also said, “There is no rebirth without dying first.

To that George added, “If at any University experience is constant reaffirmation of what you believe, you are not being challenged and you have not had a real educational experience.” Only if you think your beliefs through and reach the same conclusion as before is that acceptable.

George added, “We need open-mindedness because we seek truth and want to be challenged. George’s position is, I believe, like that of John Stuart Mill who said, we should thank everyone who tries to dislodge us from our settled opinions. They are doing us a big favor. If they persuade us to change our minds that is great. We are better off because we discarded an opinion that was not defensible. If they do not persuade us to change our minds, at least they have made us think about our opinions and how they could be defended. We come to understand our opinions better. We are actually in a better position to defend them in such a case. So again we should thank them. We should never try to shout them down or stop them from arguing with us. For our own sake we should let them speak.

According to George, after a history of having our opinions challenged “we become our own best interrogators. We become our own best critics.” That should be the goal. It should become our goal if we love the truth.

West took this opportunity to argue in defense of scepticism. Scepticism is not relativism. Scepticism is critical thinking. That is what we need. We do not need absolute scepticism that believes in nothing. The scepticism he advocated was exemplified by Malcolm X. In other words a scepticism that is suspicious of received opinions from power. Malcolm X was sceptical–for good reason–about American democracy, which all around him claimed to be an absolute good when it was filled with flaws. He pointed out some of its flaws to others, and that made him very unpopular with much of America. So be it. Some people don’t like to hear the truth.

John Dewey argued in against wholesale scepticism, but in favor of retail scepticism. Retail scepticism can lead to truth. That is what we are seeking. Wholesale scepticism hides from the truth. As West said, “We have to be sceptical about scepticism.”

George added to these remarks. He said, what is vital is questioning. We must be ready and willing to question all opinions. “Scepticism can become a dogma,” George said. Scepticism should never become so pervasive that it leads to indifference and despair. Then we lose all ability to act.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. He called it a land grab. It was colonialism and exploitation at its worst, in his opinion, so he refused to pay and was put in jail for that refusal. Of course, what about the far larger original land grab when Europeans who settled in North America and South America grabbled the hemisphere from the Indigenous people that lived here and in the process caused the death of 95% of the population of the Western Hemisphere? It was the greatest holocaust in history!

West also said we had to leery of micro-suffering. People who take offense at the mere mention of abuse must be challenged. Especially in a University, but not just there, we must be willing to engage in a discussion of all issues, even those that are painful to some people. We must do that with respect and consideration, but we have the right to discuss those issues. No one has the right not to hear offensive things. West said, “As a teacher it is not my responsibility to provide a safe place for learning. In fact, the place of learning should be a place that is unsettling. ” If it is not unsettling it is not doing its job.

As George said, “The point of education is not to show off our learning, or gain prestige, it is to seek the truth. That process should be unsettling even to our most cherished beliefs, even our fundamental beliefs. We must be willing to expose even our religious views to scrutiny. For some of us that will be hard.” West also reminded us, “Education is not indoctrination”.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers. They should put forth both sides of a dispute to their students. In fact, teachers should not tilt the scales in favor of their favored views. This means putting forth best arguments for both sides of an argument. This is what Plato did in his dialogues. Try to figure out ‘why do well informed, intelligent people disagree with me?’ We must each do that. We must each be our best interrogators.

George said that he frequently reads Nietzsche because he does not agree with him. He knows that Nietzsche is a brilliant thinker and writer so he wants to contend with the best arguments on all issues. He frequently tests himself to see if he can still contend with Nietzsche. And you have to be honest with yourself if you do this. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself.

George said that each of us needs self-reflection to challenge our most sacred views. We must learn to be our best critics. We should also seek out a good friend to debate issues. This means a friend who is willing to tell us when we are wrong. A deep friendship allows a friend to criticize us. Criticism is always for our own good.

We must expose ourselves to the best counter arguments. This does not show a lack of passion. This allows us to grasp an issue more deeply. And West concluded with this remark, “In the end we talk about living.” Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We want to seek the truth to make our life better. Even if we don’t find the truth, the search for truth improves our life.

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