Dr. Cornel West came to Asheville last night and spoke at UNCA. His talk was an inspiring mix of philosophy, spirituality, and political activism.
He started with the admonition he gives his students at the beginning of every school year at Union Theological Seminary: be ready to die. What he means by this is be willing to question your beliefs. When we swallow the beliefs and preconceptions of our family and culture we are nothing more than sleepwalkers. Instead, Dr. West told us, we should be critical thinkers and question everything. He approvingly quoted a black woman at the 1964 Democratic National Convention saying, “I question America.”
This resonated deeply with Arthur and me, because survival is at the foundation of our philosophy (see this blog post by Arthur). When you look at what’s going on in the physical world all around us, it’s clear that all physical form attempts to survive unchanged from one moment to the next. Everything tries to maintain its existent structural identity through time. But the forces of change work on everything, from a bacterium that lives and dies in 20 minutes to a star that is born and goes supernova in 100 million years. Nothing physical stays the same.
But thoughts and beliefs are non-physical forms. Because they’re forms they’re bound to attempt to survive, but because they are non-physical, they’re immune from the physical forces of change. A belief, like “America is the best country on earth—love it or leave it” can survive unchanged across generations of believers. Unless it’s questioned. The only thing that can kill a belief is questioning by the believer.
In addition, we identify with our beliefs. They define who we are. The belief “I’m an American and that makes me superior to other people around the globe” becomes part of my identity. So if that belief is threatened, it feels like I’m being threatened. When that belief is “killed,” that is, when I no longer believe it, it feels like part of me has been killed.
Dr. West asserted in his speech that this willingness to question and die is absolutely essential to a democracy. Slavery is an example: our country was founded with the belief that it was acceptable to own human beings. This meant that for seventy-five years a significant percentage of the population of the country were not citizens and could not participate in civic society and in government. This meant we were not fully a democracy. Through the questioning and killing of the belief “slavery is acceptable,” which took a Civil War and the Civil Rights movement to fully accomplish, our democracy has gotten stronger.
Bringing this principle into the modern day, Dr. West questioned the priorities of not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well (which clearly stunned many in the crowd, there wasn’t much applause for that line). He questioned the cupidity of our culture, the greed and grasping, the elevation of the financial sector over all others, the increasing income divide between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us. He questioned President Obama’s priorities, which, he said, has brought him a lot of criticism as a black man.
Unfortunately, Dr. West said, our present culture feeds the tendency to sleepwalk with somnolence-inducing television, movies, and the Internet.
Get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Challenge your holy cows. Question everything. Think for yourself. This, Dr. West says, is the only hope for the future of democracy. Without the willingness of each individual to die, our fragile, precious democracy will die.