Harvard Divinity Professor encourages moral growth in MIT address

Prof. West: ‘the examined life is painful’

Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School, delivered an address about bias in STEM institutions, titled “Speaking Truth to Power,” to the MIT community Feb. 7.

At the start of his address, West said, “If [MIT] is at all similar to Harvard University, we have a lot of work to do.”

West criticized MIT, stating that MIT is “in denial of the catastrophic” and instead focuses on smaller problems. According to West, catastrophes include the poor treatment of minorities and redistribution of wealth to the richest. “I come from a people whose first experience in the modern world was a major catastrophe,” West added.

In alignment with his philosophical occupation, West grounded his talk in “Socratic wrestling,” balancing the Socratic quote, “the unexamined life is not worth living” with his own statement, “the examined life is painful.”

Citing a “culture with a multitude of distractions,” West encouraged people to “attend to the things that really matter” and asked as an example, “If someone came from Mars and talked about the crisis of the American empire, would what you do have anything to do with it?”

West also emphasized the importance of moral character and encouraged integrity, honesty, courage and fortitude, mentioning that Frederick Douglass did not want to end slavery so he could enslave others.

West contrasted the value of morals to that of “neoliberal soulcraft,” which focuses on the rich and smart. “I don't fetishize smartness. … Smartness has its role, but it also has its limitations," West said. “[There are] a lot of smart people who hate Jews, who hate Arabs, who are misogynistic.”

To this end, West cautioned against focusing on growth without concern for the moral character of the growth.

With this event taking place at the start of Black History Month, West stated that black history is “sacred ground”: this history includes his mother and father. Later, he referenced black history as teaching him to be “highly suspicious of deodorized discourses,” such as the sterilized versions of Martin Luther King, Jr., on MLK day. West attributed the increase in admitted black students in 1970 (91, compared to six in 1966) to massive, violent protests following King’s assassination.

West’s address was followed by a panel discussion with Joy Buolamwini G and MIT Professors Jennifer Light and Sasha Costanza-Chock, with Professor Ceasar McDowell serving as the moderator. The panelists reiterated many of West’s points with a stronger focus on issues relating to technology.

“Technology and science are society,” Light said, giving as an example that biologists in the 19th century claimed that white and black people were different species.

Buolamwini, who mentioned that she was the only black PhD student in the Media Lab, discussed how she founded the Algorithmic Justice League after needing to wear a white mask in order to be recognized by computer vision.

West encouraged focusing on the truth over tribalism. When talks of politics arose, the panelists and West expressed disapproval of leaders from  both American political parties: West called President Donald Trump a “gangster” and criticized former President Barack Obama for conducting more drone strikes than former President George W. Bush.

West concluded the panel by re-emphasizing the importance of moral character.  “I would prefer you choose to be about hope instead of talk about hope,” West said.  

This event was a partnership between GSC Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee and the School of Architecture and Planning with funding from all five of MIT’s schools.

The subcommittee, which was founded last semester, seeks to provide permanent representation for underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ+, international students, and religious life. In bringing West to campus, the subcommittee hoped to create wider discussion among the MIT community regarding “institutional soul-searching to understand what it means to be a black man at MIT, trans at MIT, etc.,” subcommittee head Ty Austin G said in an interview with The Tech.

A video recording of the talk and panel is available on Facebook Live.