A Leftist and a Conservative Join Forces to Defend Free Speech

Two of the most prominent public intellectuals in America, Cornel West and Robert P. George, have joined forces in defense of old liberal truths.

Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

The sleeping giant of classical liberalism is awaking with a start, as if beset on all sides. Its most powerful foe is presently the illiberal right, due to their waxing power. Thus the Niskanen Center met Donald Trump’s rise with a new effort to revitalize liberalism rather than assuming its primacy, a project inspired by a liberal icon’s words.

“If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations,” Friedrich Hayek wrote. “What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking.”

Alas, liberalism is threatened from other directions, too. On college campuses, where members of successive generations are acculturated, old liberal truths are as vital as ever. But they have never been unanimously embraced, and today’s most potent challenges include a faction that seeks to limit debate on subjects as varied as race, gender, sexual assault, war, same sex marriage, divestment from Israel, and whether administrators or students ought to shape norms surrounding Halloween costumes. At times, these conflicts go beyond mere peaceful protests of speakers alleged to be racist, sexist, imperialist, or otherwise wrongheaded or insensitive, and involve disinviting, shouting down,  or even or violently attacking speakers.

In response, there is a new effort, undertaken largely by people who are alarmed by illiberalism on the political right, to turn some of their attention to illiberalism on campus, as if heeding Hayek’s advice to revitalize old truths for a new generation.

An incident at Middlebury College appears to have been particularly galvanizing.

Days after protesters shouted down social scientist Charles Murray, insisting that the man who wrote The Bell Curve, a book that posited a genetic explanation for measured gaps in IQ differences between racial groups, should not be permitted to speak on campus––then mobbed him as he tried to leave Middlebury, injuring a professor walking alongside him––two of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, leftist philosopher Cornel West and conservative legal scholar Robert P. George, are allying to tout the value of an unencumbered public discourse.

Best to begin with their most important sentence.

“All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments,” the men declared in a public statement.

That standard neatly sidesteps the tricky troll problem.

Beyond trolls, the men give little wiggle room, insisting that neither matters of great import nor the fraught subject of identity is exempt.  “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage,” they insist, “especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.”

Counseling respective engagement even with those “perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous,” and invoking “the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth,” they lament “all-too-common efforts” by people “to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities.” And while they nod toward the right to peaceful protest, rightfully calling it “sacrosanct,” they urge that “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 not better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?”

That ethos “protects us against dogmatism and groupthink,” they note, “both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”

Their full statement can be seen here––as can its growing list of prominent, ideologically diverse signatories from institutions of higher education across the country.

If efforts to revitalize these values succeed among college students, the most immediate losers will be campus illiberals, many of whom reside on the political left. Later, converts to liberalism will prove potent adversaries of the illiberal right, rather than figuring out too late that illiberal actions, whether perpetrated by the right or left, tend to generate equal and opposite illiberal reactions from the other side.

Many of the best in politics and academia are now awakening to the need to reassert liberal convictions with passion. The falcon can again hear the falconer. The center can hold.