Past Event On April 29, 2023

Dr. Cornel West and Thomas Chatterton Williams

The Absolute Condemnation of No One

Dr. Cornel West & Thomas Chatterton Williams

“The wounds will always be there in one form or another–gender-based, religious-based, nation-based, regionally-based, and so on. The question is: how do we forge waves of wounded healers rather than wounded hurters? That’s the best we human beings can do. That’s who we are as a species. We got wretchedness and we’ve got possibility. We’re miserable and we’re great because we understand that we’re miserable, but we can be better. We can leave the world a little better.”

Dr. Cornel West



Two of the most original and important American philosophical minds of our time–Dr. Cornel West and Thomas Chatterton Williams–do not agree on everything but are both committed to the absolute condemnation of no one.

In a conversation moderated by Virginia State University’s president, Dr. Makola M. Abdullah, Dr. West and Mr. Williams came together at The Richmond Forum on April 29, 2023, to explore pervasive topics in today’s social discourse. The discussion centered around cultivating a redemptive society and building tolerant and open cultural spaces within institutions while being less captive to fleeting outbursts over transgressions.

“A redemptive society has to allow us to see each other as whole people,” Williams opened the discussion. He asserted that people are encountering one another today as fragmented selves. “I see what you do on social media and I only see an aspect of you. I see what type of ethnic or identity group you belong to and I reduce you to that thing. I’m not seeing the whole person.”

Dr. West believes that in order to achieve a truly redemptive society, a deeper issue needs to be addressed. He called for a “moral renaissance in which integrity and honesty, decency, and courage become appealing to people.”

“Cancel culture is predicated on pervasive distrust,” Dr. West added. “If I do not believe that you respect me, I must police you, and I don’t even trust that what you say [is] what you mean.”

The conversation meandered through personal anecdotes and broader ideas, including Dr. West’s counter-protest at the ”Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, Williams’ publishing of the “Harper’s Letter” in 2020, academic freedom and intellectual diversity, and the possibility of a post-racial future. Throughout, the two men demonstrated a deep respect for one another’s point of view and a willingness to engage with differing perspectives.

“We are performing our values every day, not just because we believe them, but we’re watching each other and knowing that we’re being watched. So we’re performing these values and we’re policing these values and then we’re self-policing and it’s really constraining and it’s ruining the liveliness of intellectual debate that an open society depends on.”

– Thomas Chatterton Williams

Despite the amount of work that Dr. West and Mr. Williams agree needs to take place–both individually and institutionally–in order for American culture to transcend polarization, there is hope to be found.

For Dr. West, it is in the “folk who love and laugh and think for themselves critically, free in their spirit.” It is the people who are the personification and manifestation of hope.

For Williams, it was in his time at The Forum. “Seeing a packed auditorium like this with so many people here to talk about how to have a redemptive society–the absolute condemnation of no one–today gives me an extraordinary amount of hope.”

Explore the program book.

After their initial conversation, Dr. Abdullah turned to the audience for follow-up questions to expand upon the ideas and perspectives that had just been shared. These thoughtful questions sparked new dialogue between Dr. West and Mr. Williams. Highlights from their insightful exchange include:

  • Mr. Williams asked Dr. West, “How do you define the angle from which you approach all of these urgent questions?” West responded that, as a Christian, he looks at the world through the lens of the Cross and centers themes of “unarmed truth and unconditional love.
  • Mr. Williams asserted that referring to individuals or groups as “hyphenated Americans” (i.e., African American, Asian American, Jewish American, etc.) emphasizes otherness and produces a belief that we are more different from each other than we are alike.
  • The two speakers agreed that there is still much to be learned from Classical philosophers and that their teachings can help guide us through toxicity in our contemporary culture. However, Dr. West looks more to musicians than philosophers in guiding his personal ideology, stating, “Philosophers don’t cut deep enough for me. They’re too obsessed with logical consistency and rational coherence. Life ain’t like that.”
  • “You can’t ignore color and you can’t pretend that there is no such thing as color,” said Williams, regarding the concept of colorblindness. “We all see these things, but we are in charge of what we allow it to dictate to us and the noises in our heads it produces: the prejudices and the stereotypes that we’re really enthralled to when we think color is telling us about the individual we are encountering.
  • Dr. West claimed that the United States cannot be a truly free and democratic society “unless we hit issues of poverty head-on.”

“The best program all year. To have three bright individuals discussing very important topics and leaving the audience members very important issues to discuss on the way home, and for days to come, was absolutely intellectually wonderful. The discussion among and between other audience members during the intermission was something I had not witnessed in this way before. They provoked conversation and discussion among friends and strangers. A great program and it surpassed the goal of the Richmond Forum to provide stimulating ideas and thoughtful discussion. Well done.”

– Subscriber Comment

About Dr. Cornel West

Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary and holds the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Cornel West graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton.

He has written 20 books and has edited 13. He is best known for his classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. His most recent book, Black Prophetic Fire, offers an unflinching look at nineteenth and twentieth-century African American leaders and their visionary legacies. Race Matters has been re-released as a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, with a new introduction.

Dr. West is a frequent guest on the Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-Span and Democracy Now. He made his film debut in The Matrix and was the commentator (with Ken Wilbur) on the official trilogy released in 2004. He also has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films including Examined LifeCall & Response, and Sidewalk and Stand.

He has produced three spoken word albums including Never Forget, collaborating with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and the late Gerald Levert. His spoken word interludes are featured on productions by Terence Blanchard, The Cornel West Theory, Raheem DeVaughn, and Bootsy Collins.

In short, Cornel West has a passion to communicate to a vast variety of publics in order to keep alive the legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.

About Thomas Chatterton Williams

A cultural critic for extraordinary times, Thomas Chatterton Williams brings his insightful perspective to subjects of race, Black identity and history, cancel culture, social justice and inequality in America and the world. His thought-provoking talks touch upon some of the most urgent issues confronting American culture today—intertwined with his own family’s compelling multigenerational story of transformation from what is called Black to what is perceived to be white.

Called “a remarkable new literary voice,” Williams is the author of two highly acclaimed books: Self Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood and Rethinking Race, a TIME “Must Read” book, and Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. Both memoirs artfully blend his own story with larger themes of family, race, and social justice. Williams is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Harper’s Magazine. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of BooksVanity Fair, the AtlanticLe Monde, and has been collected in The Best American Essays and the Best American Travel Writing.

In the summer of 2020, Williams was a co-author of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter was published in Harper’s and signed by 153 prominent intellectuals, including fellow Forum speakers David Brooks (2008), Malcolm Gladwell (2007), and Gloria Steinem (2021). This letter and those who contributed quickly became the focus of public discussions around “cancel culture,” the digital era’s form of ostracism in which people are called out and “cancelled” from their social or professional circles for expressing their views.

A non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Williams is a graduate of Georgetown and NYU. He has been a National Fellow at New America, a distinguished visiting writer at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, and a recipient of the Berlin Prize from the American Academy. He writes from Paris, where he lives with his family.

Who Else has spoken at The Forum?

More than 240 distinguished speakers have participated in The Forum since its inception in 1987. Our list of alumni includes past U.S. presidents, sitting heads of state, and leaders from the sciences, arts, business, and more.

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