Brown University Rhode Island School of Design

Dr. Cornel West keynote: Integrity, Honesty and Decency

By: Teréz Villeda-Medina

“Brother King was a love warrior and a spiritual giant, but he didn’t get here by himself.”
Photo courtesy of RISD

On January 23, 2019 the RISD and Providence community gathered together to attend a Keynote speech given by Dr. Cornel West where he paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Cornel West is an accomplished activist, Professor, Author and Philosopher. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. 

He addressed the community by having us think about what it means to be a healer rather than a hurter. A healer is one that uses love, but what does love mean? Dr. Cornel West questioned these simple emotions we have every day to make the point that fighting back for what we believe in with negative tactics will not get us anywhere. Negative reactions prevent us from having an open mind let alone an open heart. “We must fight back with intelligent visionaries that come from all walks of life.” The negativity we feel creates a pain within us. Take the pain, understand it, find out why it is making you feel that way, come up with a solution to preventing the pain and you will have channeled your negativity into positivity. He said, “we must learn to die before we learn how to live.” 

There are stages of learning and once we have learned to live we enter a stage of metamorphosis. The metamorphosis he discusses relates to our level of intellect. Your level of education allows for an increase in your level of intellect. With a deep education we are able to make connections which is the process of critical thinking. Dr. West says we must learn from anyone and everyone even if they do or don’t agree. With this process of being able to see multiple points of views it allows us to speak boldly and more passionately while touching on multiple viewpoints. Personally, I have always and will always agree with this statement. I believe when one has a deep grasp on education they are able to shatter the glass ceiling of conformity and rise above the ones who are unwilling to hear and understand others point of views. Through the process of critical thinking, we are able to connect all of the multiple viewpoints of different people and come together to discuss the real issue that is presenting its self.  Dr. West stated that “ Martin Luther king Jr. didn’t care about being in the spotlight, he wanted to shake society and show the people to stand up for the right things. He had a task and a calling.” 

“To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of ‘no’ into the ‘yes’ — needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it.” 
― Cornel West

“If we want to break conformity together we have to be able to connect to something that is much larger than us.” This “something” he talks about is rooted in what came before. He discusses that Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for African American rights began because it had caused a catastrophe. This catastrophe he refers to is the decline and decay of the African American population during a time where violence and laws were used to oppress them due to the belief of the American population during the time. He says “Racism, materialism, and poverty is what America should be seen by.” Martin Luther king used the process of kenosis also known as self-giving, to a cause that was dear to him and the people around him. This process according to West is what killed Martin Luther King Jr. The basics of the practice of kenosis is starting with your glass full to the rim and completely empty one you die. “You must give it your all”, this way of living is something that Dr. West believes in with the upmost passion. 

As an audience we must ask ourselves “how have you been looking at the world?” We should be able to speak honestly so we can help America find compassion because we as a human race have the capacity to be compassionate. We are faced daily with challenges that makes us question our morals and spirituality. When a challenge is presented to us and we go after it, backing down is not an option. When we get tired and feel like we have given our all that is when we know that we are getting somewhere, and our thoughts will change. In closing Dr. West asks us “what will they talk about when you die? What did you live for and what did you risk?” 

As a designer surround by an intellectual group of people, our designs are here to impact the world to help create change. Designers push the boundaries of society daily to come up with unimaginable ideas and turn them into a reality. We impact the human race through love, compassion, and immense amount of passion. In a way, we fulfill the requirements that Dr. Cornell West had us think about during his keynote and I look forward to pushing the boundaries of society and the design world along my peers in the near future. 

1 Comment

  1. Emily Curran

    February 19, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Hi Teréz Villeda-Medina!

    Clearly your opportunity to hear Dr. Cornel West speak in January was impactful and I am happy that you shared your experiences with the community here on this Democratic Erosion site.

    From your description of the event, it seems like Dr. West believed that negative emotions cloud judgement and do not allow for successful analysis and development of problem solving techniques. This rhetoric is applicable to the current state of democracy today. Often, within the communities I am a part of as a liberal, intellectually driven, college student, anti-patriotic sentiments are widely held. Our nation values the white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and affluent. The structures created by our society enforce these racial and class based hierarchies through voter suppression, segregation, and acquisition or lack thereof of social and cultural capital. Because there is so much anger over all that is unfair, discovering practical solutions to problems that plague our democracy through intellectual discourse and education is hard. Being anti-American does not foster collaborative bipartisan solutions. If we rid ourselves of these negative sentiments, and “love [America] for that which shows what it might become,” as Dr. West stated, restoring democratic norms, reducing gridlock and polarization, and increasing inclusivity and representation among all becomes more possible .

    When Dr. Levitsky, one of the co-authors of How Democracies Die, came to talk to our campus community, possible solutions to the issues that America’s democracy faces were discussed. One of which was increasing polarization. Page and Gilens even touch on this in their book, Democracy in America. They argue that polarization exists because “voters can only choose among the candidates on their ballots, and those candidates must appeal to the often extreme views of party activists and donors to get on the ballot in the first place” (Page and Gilens 159). Because these donors and activists fall on the far right or the far left of the political spectrum, successful candidates have views that do not reflect those of the average American, and they are forced to align with one of the two parties that America’s plural system rewards. Levitsky believes that once the Republican party diversifies its base by appealing to more minority groups, polarization will become less pronounced as the ultra conservatives become more moderate. This will prove to be a tough feat to accomplish especially as Donald Trump has so easily divided the nation with his passionate base of white voters. It is important to note, however, that more centrist candidates or ideals, although they may present a seemingly obvious solution to this polarization, may not be that successful. Beverly Gage discusses this phenomenon in her article in the Times Magazine titled, The Political ‘Center’ Isn’t Gone — Just Disputed. She has observed the same type of populist indicators among centrist candidates as she has seen with far right and far left candidates. For example, “moderates often claim to speak for the masses, seeking to make government work better for everyone” by using the same us versus them rhetoric Trump employs (Gage). Therefore, it seems as though finding solutions within the current system of our two party system is the best place to start. Perhaps using more inclusive language while appealing to the working class American will help diversify the voter base for Republicans.

    Democracy is fragile and it is clear that there are no simple solutions to fix the backsliding that America has experienced. By engaging in this type of dynamic discourse, without negative feelings, we can learn to “re-imagine and re-make” the democracy we are apart of. Dr. West’s words challenge me to listen and converse with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum (Villeda-Medina). Ideally, this type of exposure to viewpoints that are not my own will foster an environment of growth and community. And as you wrote, Teréz, backing down from that challenge is not an option.

    Gage, Beverly. The Political ‘Center’ Isn’t Gone — Just Disputed. Times Magazine, 7 Feb.
    2019, Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

    Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin Page. Democracy in America?. Chicago, The University of
    Chicago Press, 2017.

    Villeda-Medina, Teréz. Dr. Cornel West Keynote: Integrity, Honesty, and Decency. Democratic
    Erosion, 7 Feb. 2019, integrity-honesty-and-decency./ Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

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