A Most Civil Conversation

A Most Civil Conversation

When Dr. Cornel West from Harvard and his friend Dr. Robert P. George from Princeton took seats on the stage of Waco Hall Nov. 15 for the final major event of last fall’s Baylor Conversation Series, it was the latest installment in what has been their longstanding partnership in advocating the importance of practicing civil discourse.

A leading progressive intellectual, West serves as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.

A leading conservative voice, George is The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

Together, they form a dynamic duo. Representing opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two men have modeled — in both classrooms of students and to audiences across the nation — the art of respectfully disagreeing while engaging in fruitful, deeply meaningful dialogue. Their message at Baylor was straightforward, yet profound: When seeking the truth, we must be willing, even eager, to engage with those who believe differently than us — and to do so in love.

George and West each encouraged the Waco Hall audience to pursue the truth in a civil manner that allows one to retain one’s integrity.

“What makes civil discourse ‘civil’ is not that it’s polite — though that is good, when you can be,” George said. “It’s that you are not just teaching, but are also willing to learn. You’re willing to work with that person, treating the other not as an adversary to be defeated but as a friend with whom you are in common pursuit of truth. As Christians, it’s our task to speak out in truth, but to do so in love.”

West added, “We live in a time in which, lo and behold, we have these kinds of conversations, and people think it’s a rare thing. Love is never reducible to politics. Deep, genuine friendships are never reducible to public policy. Our young people have been so saturated with market forces that they describe themselves as a brand. I say, I’ve got a calling to the Kingdom of God — that’s not a brand.”

That call to show Christian love resonated in both speakers’ comments.

“In this particular moment, Christians have a very important role to play in being a spiritual leaven in the loaf,” West said. “Those of us who still want to be part of a Christian tradition, we gotta do it with a smile on our faces.”

George noted, “We direct our passions; our passions don’t direct us. So there will be righteous anger, but ‘righteous’ comes before ‘anger.’ Otherwise, it’s ‘Katy bar the door;’ there’s no stopping it.”

During the fall semester, the Baylor Conversation Series focused on ways the Baylor community can improve the ability to communicate with one another across ideological boundaries — ways to get past the “us vs. them” approach dominating so much of today’s society. 

A complete video of the conversation between West and George is available under the Baylor Conversation Series section of the Office of the President website at baylor.edu/president.