“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 words commence a joint declaration issued by Princeton’s Robert George and Harvard’s Cornel West called “Truth Seeking, Democracy and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”
Their March 2017 statement, which readers can sign online, didn’t emerge from nowhere; it came in response to our growing inability to engage with–and even coexist among–those with whom we disagree. Elsewhere, the authors have called this phenomenon “tribalism” and “identitarianism”–the assumption that my side has a monopoly on good will and reasonableness, coupled with incredulity at the suggestion that my opponent could offer a legitimate complaint.
As an instructor at the United States Air Force Academy, I had the privilege of hearing George and West speak recently during the final hours of the Academy’s annual National Leadership and Character Symposium. If Aristotle is right and man is indeed a political animal, then this explains why something deep within me burned as I heard them talk. Nor was I alone in this. The auditorium was charged with a muted excitement, as we glimpsed an endangered virtue on display.
The remarkable thing about George and West is that they represent opposing sides on the political spectrum–George, as an outspoken conservative, West as a liberal. Though united in their Christian faith, they understand the implications of that faith in very different ways. Whereas these differences of conviction have led many in our culture to dig trenches (myself, alas, included), the speakers instead have formed a friendship, one rooted in their mutual recognition of the other’s integrity, his honest attempt to grasp at truth as best he can.
In recent years, they’ve taken to traveling around the country and speaking to college students and faculty about our precarious moment in history, calling us to reclaim the intellectual virtues without which our nation’s social experiment cannot survive. As West put it, “Democracy is an interruption” in the nature of things, a rare and precious break with the dominant arc of history. Yet, as West also claimed, and others have warned in turn, we risk becoming “so weak in our soulcraft that our statecraft becomes authoritarian.”
Have we reached that fateful tipping point? God alone knows. It is not for us to speculate on this question but to act. What, then, can we do?
George and West suggested some concrete ways forward. We can begin by reflecting on what George said were “three things we infallibly know”:
1) That each one of us is “fallible” and “imperfect.” This applies not only in a moral sense (though it certainly does!) but also in an epistemic. That is, our minds are capable of falling into error.
2) That there are “reasonable people of good will who see things differently than us.” For some, this might seem like the very point in question. Yet, have you never in your life had the experience of being persuaded about something? Surely all of us have. You had good will before your change of view, and it was good will (in this case, desire for truth) that led you to your new view. Thus, good will existed on both sides. Is it that much of a stretch to think this could happen with others beside yourself?
3) That right now, in this moment, “we hold some beliefs that are incorrect.” We hold lots of beliefs, and our experience of being corrected, coupled with our general awareness of point (1), should make it clear that at least one of our present beliefs is wrong.
How does acknowledging (1)-(3) help us avoid tribalism? Well, if we value truth more than mere victory, then the above insights imply that we need to listen to our fellow bearers of good will who happen to disagree with us, for in so doing we stand a better chance of arriving at truth. As George notes, we must not “hear without listening”–a polite counterfeit. Rather, we must genuinely engage others, “while entertaining the possibility that [we] could be wrong.”
We can do this with our contemporaries, the speakers noted, by reading things outside of our comfort zone or befriending someone with a different view. (If the latter suggestion seems unthinkable, continued reflection on (1)-(3) should help.)
Likewise, we can do the above with our intellectual forbearers. This happens when we consent to read dead writers and make a serious effort to understand their points of view. In his essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis commends this practice as a corrective on generational groupthink. There, Lewis writes,
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Finally, we can seriously engage ourselves. George called on us to “be our own best critics,” a mark of what West called “deep education.”
How do we counter our modern descent into tribalism? It might start with figures like George and West, but it doesn’t end there. The things they spoke about are things that all of us, to varying degrees, can practice. And by practicing them–with all our failures and repentant returns along the way–we will be modeling these behaviors for others, inviting them to join in the task of cultural renewal.
 Lewis, C.S. “On the Reading of Old Books.” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, Eerdmans, p. 202.