An ideological Odd Couple: Truth Seeking, Democracy and Freedom of thought and Expression

Part I–We must love the truth more than our opinions

Chris and I went to hear a pubic dialogue between Robert P. George and Cornell West at Arizona State University. It was one of the best such public events we have ever watched. Since there talk was long and (I think) important I will break it up into 3 portions to make it more palatable. This is part I.

These are two outstanding thinkers who talked about critically important issues particularly in these dangerous times. They disagree with each on many points but do so amicably and respectfully. They learn from each other, every time they speak together, and they do that often. One–Cornell West–is black and a radical democrat. The other Robbie George–is white and conservative. They have been called “an ideological odd couple.” Both are professors and public intellectuals. They teach a course together at Harvard. Both speak from a Christian perspective, though each has a very different interpretation of Christianity. Yet both respect other religious perspectives too. George is a Catholic with Pagan proclivities. He has learned a lot from Plato and Socrates.

The topic of the dialogue was Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”   The topic is particularly important at this time in our history because of recent events at American and Canadian Universities in which invited speakers were heckled or prevented from speaking altogether, sometimes violently. What are the limits of freedom of thought and expression? That really is the issue. They reject what they call campus illiberalism which they describe as the effort “to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities” and to exclude certain topics of discussion by “questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions.”

The two professors made a joint statement on March 14, 2017. Here is part of that statement:


The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.


George begins with conservative beginnings. Yet he says, he greatly admires Brother West, who begins with strong deeply leftist views, because West exemplifies a man of principle and integrity, both of which today are in too short supply. Listening to George I quickly concluded that he also exemplified principle and integrity. I like how these two brothers–one black and the other white, and one Marxist and the other Conservative–liked and respected each other. That in itself, if we heard nothing else today, was inspirational. In this day of extremism, intolerance, and unwillingness to listen to the other side, was a breath of fresh air.

What brought West and George here today was very important–truth-seeking. That was really the theme of their talk. They both sought the truth. To begin with that of course presupposes that there is such a thing as truth. We can never be sure that we have found it, because we are all fallible. Because we are all fallible we must recognize that we might have something to learn from the other. No matter how unlikely that might seem to us the other might be able to teach us something so we ought to listen to the other with respect and thank the other if we did learn something. If we are corrected in our views then we have learned something and should be grateful for it.

Of course I could not help noticing that there were many people in the crowd who seemed to agree with George and West on this point. Yet nearly 50% of Americans who voted, and more than 50% of Arizonans who voted in the last Presidential election, voted for Donald Trump. I have never heard of anyone less willing to accept criticism or a challenge of his or her ideas than Trump. He is the exact opposite of what West and George advocated for.

Truth seeking is important because it is the foundation of a democratic republic. Without truth seekers we will not have a healthy democratic republic. As George said, “We must love the truth more than our opinions.” He added, “We must love the truth even if this means we have to change our mind. “

A love of truth is essential for a citizen in a democratic society. Democracy needs citizens who can talk to each other despite strong disagreement even over fundamentals. Currently this all but absent in the United States in particular, but in many other places in the world as well. As George said, “Too often those who disagree want to shout each other down instead of speaking to each other respectfully”. That is why society in such countries is suffering from this loss. It was for this reason that West and George issued their joint statement. They wanted to warn people what was at stake and what might be lost.

As George said, “You cannot get at the truth (no matter about what) if you are unable to expose your beliefs and arguments to criticism. That means that you must be open-minded, humble, and willing to listen to the other side.” Obviously such an attitude is the opposite of a dogmatist. And as Tom Robbins said, “It is a dogma eat dogma world.” As George said, “Dogmatists are not truth seekers.” They love their own views more than they love the truth. That is why dogmatists are married to their own opinions. I said that.

We must always recognize that we might be wrong. Dogmatists cannot do that. Such an attitude will lead to the virtues of open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to the other side. Again dogmatists find this difficult.

Such an attitude requires one more very important element–courage. Opening yourself to criticism, especially publicly, is very difficult. Such “openness makes one vulnerable. We don’t like such a state of vulnerability. We do all that we can to avoid it. “It takes a special kind of courage to expose oneself to criticism.” “We must recognize a love of truth that is above our loyalty to tribe, class, group, or ideological soul mates.” “We must always remember that no one has a monopoly on truth.

Everyone has something to learn. Are we really willing to acknowledge flaws on our side when we are accused of being disloyal to our group? This is extremely difficult to do. “We will experience all kinds of pressure to conform to the norms of the group, but if we love truth we must do exactly that.” This requires great courage, because there is a strong tendency for a group to circle the wagon when criticism in encountered. If you admit that the other side has a valid criticism of your group, members of your own group will attack you. You will be treated as a traitor, or a kid who is no longer cool,. This happens in all kinds of groups, not just “other groups.”

As George, said, “We have to make the commitment to save our children from dogmatism or indoctrination and to dedicate themselves to truth seeking, open mindedness, courage, and the love of truth.

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