In defense of unsafe spaces

Serge Bloch

Despite their differences, professors Robert George and Cornel West *80 have built a long and rich friendship, one they say is deepened by disagreement.

George, the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, is a well-known conservative; West — the author, activist, and Princeton professor emeritus — is a self-described “non-Marxist socialist.” The two have co-taught several courses at the University. West, who until recently taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has returned to Princeton this semester as a senior scholar in the Madison Program to lead a freshman seminar on the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Given their differing perspectives, the two seemed a perfect pair to discuss the question of intellectual diversity on campus. Their discussion was moderated by PAW’s senior writer, Mark F. Bernstein ’83.

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 (MFB): One hears a lot about the need for racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. Is there a need to increase intellectual diversity as well? How would you try to achieve it?

Cornel West *80 taught at Princeton from 2001 until 2011, when he left to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary; he is now emeritus at both schools. An avowed socialist and political activist, West has written or contributed to 20 books and appeared in numerous TV shows and movies.
Peter James Field

Cornel West *80 (CW): I think there’s always a need to increase intellectual diversity, but the most important thing is quality. Any time you talk about diversity, you really talk about quality. You want an openness to complexity, nuance, subtlety. You want it mediated with respect. But there is always a need for different ways of looking at the world, different approaches, a different lens through which you view the world because a university is an institutional site for robust and uninhibited, high-quality dialogue. And it’s endless; it’s incessant. Now, of course, race, gender, sexual orientation — all those things are important, too, but the most important thing about a university has to do with that high-quality, diverse dialogue in which people are questing for truth, knowledge, beauty, and hope.

Robert George (RG): I’d like to lay some emphasis on something Cornel said. Often discussions of diversity are framed in terms of fairness; it’s suggested that in order to be fair, we have to bring in a larger representation of this ethnic group or that identity group — as if identity groups as such have rights to representation. Often there is a claim that we need to rectify historical discrimination. But notice that Cornel’s call for diversity really wasn’t based on that. Rather, it was based on the idea that a variety of perspectives are necessary if the University is to fulfill its mission of advancing and transmitting knowledge. The University cannot accomplish its justifying and animating goals unless people across a wide spectrum of views are freely engaging each other in serious discussion and debate. People need to engage each other in a civil manner, of course — civility, too, is an indispensable ingredient. But people need to be able to speak their minds, say what they actually think, engage each other, criticize each other, and explore arguments.

Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Considered a leading conservative voice in academia, he joined the Princeton faculty in 1985 and is the author of four books.
Peter James Field

I invite and encourage my students, and I know Cornel does the same, to explore arguments that they themselves may not initially find persuasive or successful, just to see how far they can be defended and whether, in the experience of defending a point of view that perhaps they do not find congenial, they may change their mind. Very often when we talk about ethnic or racial or gender diversity, what we really mean is idea or viewpoint diversity, because — the argument goes — the reason we want a better representation of this or that group is so that the experience people have by virtue of being a member of this or that group, which shapes their own perceptions of the world, can be brought into the discussion.

It’s not just to have a person who, say, had ancestors in Mexico for the sake of having a person who had ancestors in Mexico. It’s so that the person can bring to the University community a perspective that may have been shaped in part by his experience as a Latino. Or so the argument goes. It might or might not be successful — we can debate that — but it’s certainly a better argument than the one that says, “We need more members of this group or that just because of their skin color, or ethnic heritage, or whatever.” Of course, there is also the danger of assuming that because a person has a certain racial or ethnic background, he or she has been shaped by certain experiences and should have a certain viewpoint.

CW: Part of the challenge, though, has to do with the backdrop of the history of the institution. When you look at the history of Princeton, we know about the male supremacy, about the anti-Semitism, the white supremacy, the anti-Catholic discrimination. So we’re in a moment now where we have responded to that history in such a way that we have a variety of students who have fair access. But now we cannot in any way devalue or marginalize the centrality of the high quality of critical thinking as it relates to different perspectives.

RG: Here’s what you don’t want, it seems to me. You don’t want people representing different races, ethnic groups, religious backgrounds, and so forth, who all have essentially the same worldview or set of perspectives. It would be a tragedy, despite the diversity of color or creed, if what you ended with was a community consisting of white left-liberals, black left-liberals, Asian left-liberals, Catholic left-liberals, Jewish left-liberals, etc. What that would likely produce, or reinforce, is something toxic to intellectual life, namely, groupthink. It would not stimulate critical inquiry and engagement. It would tend rather to stifle them.

CW: Absolutely. And in addition, oftentimes you can end up having racial-ethnic-sexual-orientation diversity all in the same class bubble. They all come from the upper-middle class. So they actually have similar experiences on the class question. And Princeton is a place that hasn’t been open to the poor and working class in the past.

MFB: Are there points of view that need greater representation among the Princeton faculty?

CW: I would think that the vast majority of faculty members at Princeton would fit somewhere between center-liberal and left-liberal. You don’t have a lot of leftists, like myself, or conservatives like Brother Robby. That’s just my hypothesis.

RG: I think that the work that has been done by sociologists shows that that is true among elite and non-religiously affiliated universities across the board. I would imagine that if you just looked at party registration, the vast majority of Princeton faculty would be Democrats. There would be very few Republicans. If you asked what their ideological predilections were, it would be overwhelmingly liberal to left-liberal, with some people on the far left and just a smattering of conservatives.

CW: I’ve always considered Brother Robby a kind of pioneer, partly because you also have the Catholic challenge as well as the conservative challenge. Because there is a secular orientation of the modern university that tends at times to downplay the status or significance of those of us who have deep religious views about the world. So there’s both a secular and a liberal orientation. The wonderful thing is that Brother Robby has been able to move with such poise through a deeply secular liberal university. He respects his colleagues, and they respect him.

RG: And this is one of the things that creates the wonderful bond that Brother Cornel and I have together. We are among the few who are openly devout in our faith. We see the world a little differently.

MFB: Is it difficult for a true leftist or a true conservative to get hired at a place like Princeton or to earn tenure?

RG: I certainly have flourished personally at Princeton. And I’m profoundly grateful for that. Despite being completely out of the closet as a moral and political conservative, I was hired at Princeton, granted tenure, promoted to the rank of full professor, and installed in the endowed chair I am privileged to hold. So I can scarcely claim to be a persecuted minority. On the other hand, I would be less than candid if I didn’t say that I think that it is a special challenge for anybody who holds a distinctly minority viewpoint on issues that people deeply care about. It is a special challenge for such people to persuade the decision-makers that their work represents the kind of high-quality achievement that merits academic appointment or preferment. And that’s something I think that we ought to try to do something about.

TALK BACK: What voices are missing on college campuses — and what can institutions do to encourage intellectual diversity? Add your comments below.  

Now, I’m not saying that we need affirmative action for conservatives. Cornel really put his finger on the point right at the beginning when he said it’s about quality. I think the key thing is to find a way to make sure that high-quality scholarship and teaching is recognized and properly rewarded. It’s not easy. When you have strong convictions about something and someone else reaches a different conclusion, it’s often difficult to lay aside one’s biases and appreciate the quality of the arguments and the work. And that’s true whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a libertarian or a socialist. But to do our jobs properly when it comes to hiring and promoting and recognizing the achievement of scholars, we need to be able to put ourselves into a position where we can appreciate the quality of work even when we find the conclusions uncongenial or unsettling.

CW: Absolutely. I should just add that, as Christians, Robby and I have so much fun fighting over my closeness to [Søren] Kierkegaard and his closeness to [St. Thomas] Aquinas. So within that rich tradition, you have very intense philosophical, theological disagreements. I don’t know how many courses we’ve taught together, and we’ve lectured all over the country, but we’re always very open about the ways in which this very rich, heterogeneous tradition that we associate with Christian thought and practice constitutes a part of the dialogue.

RG: There are all sorts of interesting exchanges within traditions, such as Christianity or Judaism or liberalism or conservatism, and not just among traditions. Cornel talks about the difference between Kierkegaard — the leap of faith — and Aquinas — the view that reason is a very powerful tool in affirming not only God’s existence, but other truths of faith. That’s a debate between different kinds of Christians, or different ways of understanding the Christian faith. But the same is true even of secular traditions such as Marxism. There are different schools of Marxist thought. There are serious debates within the broad tradition of Marxism.

MFB: You both are public intellectuals. How do you reconcile your public role with your role as academics? Do you feel an obligation to be out intellectually in the broader world?

RG: Well, I think every human being has a vocation, a calling. Not everyone is called to be an intellectual. Not everyone is called to be a scholar. But a few of us feel that we are called to be scholars and to take our work out into the public square, because we believe that some aspects of our work have relevance to public questions. But I believe that it is very important for public intellectuals not to forget the intellectual part of the equation.

CW: Absolutely. Absolutely.

RG: Especially if you get a bit of recognition and applause, you can fall in love with that and get too heavily focused on your public standing and persona and forget what is at the foundation of your vocation, which is the calling to scholarship and teaching. I always say to my graduate students and to my young colleagues, who aspire to have a role in public life as well as in the classroom, that it’s very important always to have a serious scholarly project going. You may be writing for The New York Times or the National Review, you may be appearing on PBS or MSNBC or Fox, but make sure that there is something going on at the foundational level that keeps you true to your mission as a scholar.

It’s also dangerous being a public intellectual, because you are pressured to bend the truth, to spin or to twist in order to serve what is regarded as your side’s political interests. Cornel and I have both had the experience of coming under that kind of pressure and just refusing to yield to it. We’re going to tell the truth as we see it, whether it helps our side or hurts it. Our first and highest and overriding obligation is to tell the truth.

CW: That’s right.

RG: But when you do that, the applause can suddenly fade. You’re no longer welcome on this host’s television show; you’re no longer called in to give advice to the big politicians. Your “access” suddenly disappears.

CW: I think it’s highly significant that Princeton produced three towering figures who have intervened in the public sphere. I’m thinking of Norman Thomas [1905], Edward Said [’57], and Ralph Nader [’55]. And I might add Bill Bradley [’65], as well. That’s a very rich tradition, and I consider myself to be a small part of it. But Robby is right. Falling in love with the life of the mind is never reducible to any policy or political perspective, although that doesn’t mean that you won’t at times want to try to make the world better by moving in a variety of different contexts. You become a multicontextual thinker.

RG: I also warn my students and young colleagues that applause is like a drug. It’s highly addictive. It’s very, very important not to get addicted to it. So here we are in the middle of an election. During the primaries this past spring, Brother West was a Bernie Sanders supporter. I was a Ted Cruz [’92] supporter. But our guys lost, the others won, and we were both strongly advised, urged, counseled to sign up with the winners. Both of us declined to do it. And we have friends who aren’t very happy with us!

CW: Oh, that’s true!

RG: I know that when Brother West has criticized President Obama, a lot of people on the left weren’t happy with him, and I know exactly what he is experiencing, because I have been through something similar myself. But integrity requires that, and there is nothing worth sacrificing your integrity for.

MFB: We hear a lot about the concept of “safe spaces” on college campuses. In your opinion, what is a safe space and where, if anywhere, do they belong?

CW: I am an old-school humanist intellectual, and so I believe that the classroom is a place where you thoroughly unsettle people. You unnerve and unhouse them. I guess when the younger generation talks about safe spaces, they have in mind that they want to be respected. And I do think that we ought to respect each other’s perspectives, but at the same time if they feel that they don’t want their views to be violated, then I’m critical of that.

Education is very much about the shaking of whatever convictions we have. You know what Nietzsche says: It’s not just the courage of having your convictions, it’s a matter of mustering the courage to attack your convictions, too. That doesn’t mean that you have to give them up in the end, but they need to be seriously scrutinized. So in that sense, safe space for me means respect for perspective, and then robust Socratic energy.

RG: You know, every now and then my brother Cornel and I disagree. I know that’s hard to believe, but it does happen. (Laughter.) But on this point, we are singing from the same hymnal. Civility? Yes. Mutual respect? Certainly. But “safe spaces”? Places to which students or others may retreat from having their ideas, perspectives, and values questioned? No way. The whole point of a university is to be an “unsafe space” in that sense. I can tell you for sure that a West-George seminar room is an unsafe space. It is a space where we scrutinize each other’s beliefs and subject our own beliefs to scrutiny by others. And when I say beliefs, I mean all beliefs — including our most precious, cherished, even identity-forming beliefs. Nothing is off-limits. Everything is on the table, so long as we are conducting business in the currency of intellectual discourse — marshaling evidence, giving reasons, making arguments — not for the sake of victory, but in the sincere pursuit of truth.

In fact, the gift that a properly functioning college or university confers upon its students — and faculty — is the possibility of leading a truly examined life. If we at Princeton are doing our jobs well, our students will throughout their lives be interrogators of their own convictions. We will have taught them to be their own best critics. We will have enabled them to avoid slavery to ideological or other forms of dogmatism; to recognize their own fallibility and to be open to changes of mind and heart; to nurture the virtues of intellectual humility, love of truth, and the kind of courage that one needs to be truly self-critical and willing to abandon even cherished, identity-forming beliefs under the pressure of sound reasons and good arguments.