Respectful conversations aren't necessarily a thing of the past

Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

I had the privilege last week of watching two political opposites model civil dialogue, a phenomenon that we obviously lack much of today.  

Cornel West, a self-declared socialist who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Robert P. George, a conservative Catholic who teaches at Princeton University, spoke at SMU’s Tate Lecture series about the need for civil dialogue amidst the country’s current polarization. You might expect that the pair would come at each other with verbal swords drawn. But, as the session’s moderator, I was moved – and that is putting it lightly – at the genuine goodwill these two public intellectuals have for each other.  

Their respect gets right down to calling each other “Brother West” and “Brother Robby.” Backstage, West even led George and a few more of us in a hand-holding prayer before we went on stage.  

Their authentic friendship grew from a relationship that formed when both were teaching at Princeton. George described the bond’s beginning when he and West had a long conversation in a Princeton parking lot. As George said of his then-and-now philosophical opposite, “He was asking the right questions.” They have since spoken at numerous universities and been interviewed frequently about the way they work through their differences.  

A point that particularly stood out was their mutual desire for all of us to lose our self-righteousness. Not that we should give up our values or beliefs; they have not. But we need to temper our beliefs with an understanding that we don’t have perfect wisdom and that we should avoid group-think. When we are all thinking alike, or feel pressure to conform to a set of values, tribalism takes over and prohibits us from entertaining positions that challenge our own. 

The model the pair exhibits is worth emulating as we wrestle with a distemper in our larger society. If you accept the notion that culture informs politics, then changing the tone in the former will eventually temporize the latter.  

President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “thousand points of light” to describe the breadth of community-building work happening in towns and cities across the country. We need a similar wave of civil dialogue and engagement with those who differ from us. If enough citizens start showing the way, political leaders will respond.  

One thing you can say for certain: Cornel West and Robert George are showing a way forward.