Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Hope in Ambiguity

Hope in Ambiguity

So much of what challenges us in life is a perpetual decline in absolutes. Often the more we know, the less sure we become

Years ago, I had a sagacious colleague who regularly told his students that the ideal outcome of a liberal education was a rich awareness of how little each of us really knows.

As a musician, I had a realization around the time I turned 30 that I was finally hearing the way my teachers had. To a small extent is was a matter of enhanced technique from sustained practice, but to a much greater degree, it having heard enough to have amassed a capacity of context. I had listened with intention to enough music to begin hearing compositional architecture in a meaningful way.

As that capacity grew, my awareness of the music I had yet to hear grew exponentially faster. New unknown pieces became progressively easier understand and appreciate.

What a remarkable privilege each of us has when we are asked to consider the imponderable. We have the opportunity to face an infinite natural world and nearly boundless realms of human achievement, good and bad, and we are challenged to identify our place in that limitless expanse.

We must come to terms with the ambiguities that define human existence. For many the result is helplessness, or worse hopelessness. Charting a course in a world of uncertainty requires a leap of faith.

As Francis Bacon wrote: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”[1]

A liberal arts education bolsters the faith required to make bold leaps. It prepares us to understand and appreciate the unknown and to use what we do know as polestars to navigate the void.

Monday evening, we had the great privilege of hosting Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, as this year’s Pope Shade Lecturer at Susquehanna University. She spoke about how her religious faith has guided her life of service in the law, then government, then human rights, and now as an advocate to stem climate change.

Our failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis is the result of business and world leaders ignoring long-term consequences for short-term gains against a backdrop of helplessness borne from the seemingly infinite scale of the problem.

If only, more of our leaders would develop the compassion and intellectual heroism necessary to embrace the bold changes needed to navigate the abyss of the conspiring environmental conditions we have created.

President Robinson pointed out that the early effects of climate change are most manifest in the regions of the world least responsible for creating them. These same regions are least empowered to effect the scale of reform required to prevent a cataclysmic future.

Many Inuit communities and island nations find their ways of life and even the persistence of their literal places in the world under immediate threat.

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.”[2]

These communities are the canaries in the collective coal mine that is Mother Earth.

There is much we do not know, but we do know the irrefutable scientific work that exposed and explained the problem of anthropogenic climate change. We need to muster the ethical courage to use the knowledge we do have to guide us as we charge into the void to avert the tragic future currently in our view.

There is no time for hesitation. We must hold tight to what we know and zealously embrace the ambiguity that surrounds it. Right now, that is where our best hope resides.

[1] Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning (1605), Book I, v, 8.
[2] William Gibson: The Economist, December 4, 2003

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Dispel Hate: Communicate

The following commentary recently appeared in the Daily Item. Thanks to them for the invitation.

Dispel Hate: Communicate

In a speech given at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa in 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.

Despite all of our progress, these divisions are growing again. A Pew Research Center report showed that in 1994, Democrats and Republicans / Conservatives and Liberals had much more in common ideologically than they differed. By 2014, they were divided much more than united, and in the subsequent six years, the schism has continued to grow.

The rise of the Information Age has deteriorated communication. A tidal wave of media is feeding the divide. Because so much of our information is no longer curated, there really is a preponderance of “fake news.” This has delegitimized responsible reporting in the eyes of millions who don’t know how to tell the difference, threatening all of us.

A free and independent press is a necessary safeguard for democracy, which is why it is protected in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. In a world where we don’t trust objective news sources, it is no wonder we don’t trust each other.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have made progress through an exchange of ideas, but now, we won’t take the time to listen to each other much less develop empathy for each other’s views. The best and some of the worst of our history has been born from concession, but progress has always been the product of compromise.

Cancel culture is a treacherous path — “I don’t like what you say, so I won’t listen.” This is a position spreading on both ends of the ideological spectrum, and it is threatening our communities, our nation, and the world.

This is why we need to teach our students how to have humble and difficult conversations. It is why we need to foster an appreciation of difference and a respect for divergent views.

Good people often form different opinions for thoughtful and legitimate reasons. When we engage in respectful dialog, we must be open to hearing contrary views, and we need to strive to appreciate the shaping forces of those views. Most importantly, in open discourse, we must also remind ourselves that we may be wrong.

Through the GO Program at Susquehanna, all students engage meaningfully in a culture different from their own. The maturity and humility those experiences develop are invaluable. We have also begun an NEH-funded program to foster difficult conversations on campus and in the community.

This is the heart of a liberal arts education, and we have never needed it more. This is how we develop a generation of servant leaders committed to dispelling hatred through rich, empathetic communication.

In the New Year, I hope these conversations and an openness to difference becomes the norm in our community and throughout the region. We all deserve that mutual respect, and we will all be better for it.


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