UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP: Two prominent scholars, divided by … – Norman Transcript

The University of Oklahoma welcomed two distinguished scholars as part of its 2023-2024 Presidential Speakers Series: Robert P. George and Cornel West.

The two speakers, former colleagues, sit at the end of political spectrums, but over the course of their 20-year friendship, they have learned to put aside ideology and see each other as humans first.

“They refer to each other as brother. They know how to engage in a way of civil discourse,” said Joe Harroz Jr., OU president. “That’s at the very base of how we keep our democracy together.”

West, who teaches at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer chair and teaches courses in philosophy and religion. He said the two can get along with each other when they subscribe to academic humility.

“Americans are human beings, just like everyone else. They have the best. They have the worst. Attend to both,” he said. “And that wretchedness and wonderfulness cuts across all race, gender. It cuts across all regions. It’s inside of us. The greed in me. The hatred in me. The envy in me,” he said.

In a point/counterpoint-style lecture, hosted by OU History Professor Anne Hyde called “Saving America: Conflicting Views in Civil Dialogue,” West and George emphasized why it is important to practice humility when exchanging viewpoints.

“We need to urge the people to attend to democracy. Having a great constitution is important, and we’ve got one, and we should feel very blessed to have it, but it’s not enough. It won’t work by itself,” said George. “Our founders understood this. You need virtue from the people, and among those virtues, simple and foundational, is the virtue of intellectual humility.”

He said it is essential for professors and parents to teach humility to their students and children.

West said everyone needs to look beyond politics, among other identifying markers, as they form friendships.

“Love is in no way reducible to politics, and brotherhood is in no way reducible to political agreement,” said West. “We have got to be able to exemplify that to our precious younger generation of all colors and gender and sexual orientation and religious identities. Our society is so polarized and gangsterized.”

In 2018, West and George won the Open Mind Award by Heterodox Academy, an organization of professors who support diversity in academia, for championing principles of viewpoint diversity.

“This award recognizes the first group that most professional champions the principles of viewpoint diversity, we view on expanding the scope of disagreement in the academy and beyond,” said Harroz.

Hyde, while acting as moderator, said it is important for anyone in today’s society to learn from the example of the two invited guests.

“It’s easy to see why these two brothers in the life of the mind learn to disagree with each other. They have to trust each other to disagree, and that’s quite the trip,” said Hyde.

Larry Heikkila, Norman mayor, said in the divided state of the modern world, the lessons the presenters offered are essential to maintaining democracy in the U.S.

“It’s not only interesting, but it’s necessary for us to be able to use the ideas that we have in our head and compare them to others and see how we fit into society and how we better can speak to each other and communicate,” he said.

George said he and West first became friends when a student reporter asked if he was interested in being interviewed by West for a magazine article.

“I said it was a wonderful idea,” said George.

George, a conservative, spoke with West, a liberal and political activist, for four hours as part of the magazine interview.

“Cornel is interested in everything, and so we just kept on, until the tape ran out,” he said. “We started about two o’clock, I noticed on my watch, and it was six o’clock. I said, ‘This has been a wonderful conversation, but we can go on for hours.’”

The two walked to George’s car as they made plans to continue the conversation over lunch.

“I stood there with my hand on the door latch for another 45 minutes,” he said.

West said he introduced George to meet his family, and since then, he goes to him when he needs help.

“He’s my brother, and I just love him. He’s my family. When I’m sick he goes to the hospital. When I go to jail, which isn’t too often,” he said with a smile, “he calls to bail me out.”

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