Best Friends, Opposing Views: Getting Along in the Age of Disdain

In a world of “fake news” and “filter bubbles,” can you really maintain friendships with people who disagree with you?

If Robbie George and Cornel West are any indication, the answer is not only yes, but that people on “the other side of the aisle” can be the best of friends.

These two professors, one at Princeton, one at Harvard, were introduced by Andrew Perlmutter, a then-religion student starting a campus magazine at Princeton. The magazine’s inaugural issue had one professor select another for an interview. West selected George.

The interview between the two, who had never met, was supposed to last an hour. It lasted four and a half hours.

“There’s no doubt that our spirits and our souls resonated, and intellectually we were both on fire talking about the great classical economical texts,” West said.

That’s when they decided to teach a class together. The 12-books to be studied that first semester spanned Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. The two continued the class for 10 years, together selecting the texts for future seminars.

Recently, the two men got together to discuss their relationship, the purpose of studying liberal arts, and the value of finding common ground with people you may not otherwise know. Ultimately, George concludes, the examined life may not be pretty, but it is well-lived. And it doesn’t have to be in an ivory tower.

“The key element of the liberal arts is self-mastery” George said. “Self-mastery doesn’t require a college education.”

Philosophically, the two couldn’t be more different. West is a liberal who supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. George is a conservative who said was threatened with “excommunication” from the right for not supporting Donald Trump. The two said their criticism of the political party lines was a matter of commitment to their values and a “quest for integrity, honestly, and decency.”

“It’s not pure, it’s not pristine, but it has much to do with how we were raised,” West said. “It has much to do with the choices we make in terms of our religious Christian faith. It has something to do with the traditions that we choose to be a part of, and also how we choose to die, that we intend to be faithful unto death.”