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West, George call for public to sign statement supporting marketplace of ideas

By March 15, 2017

In their latest attempt to encourage free speech and civil dialogue on campus, professors Cornel West and Robert P. George released a statement yesterday in support of communicating across ideological differences and invited the world to sign it.

West, a generally liberal professor at Harvard, and George, a generally conservative professor at Princeton, have a history of working together to encourage other intellectuals to embrace the marketplace of ideas. In 2014, they co-hosted a forum at Swarthmore College on the topic. Yesterday’s call to action, titled “Sign the Statement: Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” continues that effort in the ivory tower and beyond.

The professors eloquently and succinctly dissent from the modern tendency to to “disinvite” speakers or use threats of violence to prevent their speech. They also go a step further, encouraging even those who are considering peacefully protesting a speaker to first consider listening to and engaging the speaker:

Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?

Another point the professors make in favor of tolerance of and dialogue across ideological differences is that our views are subject to change based on the information we have at the time. Listening to people we perceive as opponents is essential to understanding how they perceive a situation differently, and in theory, brings us all closer to the underlying truth.

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions… So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

As of this writing, the statement already has nearly two hundred signatures, including many notable academics and public intellectuals. Like the statement in support of free speech that has now been signed by more than 100 members of Middlebury’s faculty, West and George’s statement is an important acknowledgment, by a large group of influential people, of the importance not only of free speech but also of tolerating intellectual diversity on campus.

Instructions on how you can sign the statement are here, just before the list of signatories.