Listen Respectfully, Speak Truthfully

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Listen Respectfully; Speak Truthfully ... from here life-long reminders of how fragile and precious life can be. ... How have you and they accomplished this?

Listen Respectfully; Speak Truthfully Commencement Address Brooklyn Friends School June 8, 2005 Douglas C. Bennett President, Earlham College Greetings Good morning. I am delighted to be with you for this Brooklyn Friends School Commencement. I bring you greetings from Earlham College—a Quaker college in Indiana founded just 20 years before Brooklyn Friends. We are two educational institutions with similar missions and similar aspirations. I congratulate the members of the class of 2005. You have known joy and accomplishment that bring you to this ceremony. You have also known tragedy that also follows you into this room, leaving a mark on each of you. As your high school years began, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center Tours killing thousands of people and plunging this country (and the world into crisis. Closer to home, you have recently lost a classmate. I am sure you will carry away from here life-long reminders of how fragile and precious life can be. This is only my second time at Brooklyn Friends School. In the spring of 1995, I looked at Brooklyn Friends School as a place for my son Tommy to attend. (He’s now a sophomore in college.) I was impressed by what I saw: impressed by the energy and diversity and passion for excellence I saw. My job and my apartment were in Manhattan, however. As a single dad (at the time) I couldn’t figure out the logistics having him come here. I am very glad for a return visit. My first encounter with Quaker schools was twenty-five years ago at Germantown Friends School, where I served on the School Committee. Germantown Friends promises in its motto “unreserved respect for each individual.” I was struck immediately at the power of that aspiration. We now use that phrase at Earlham as well. At Brooklyn Friends, the diversity of the student body and the mission of the school have given you a glimpse (and more) of what this asks of you. Introduction You graduates are the beneficiaries of as good an education as any high school students in America. Much of this is due to your hard work, and I congratulate you on that. I also want to praise your teachers, your coaches, your advisers and your parents for contributing to your education in important ways.


What has made this education possible? How have you and they accomplished this? There is an unmistakable magic in any education. At one moment you do not know something or understand something. And shortly after, you do. How do things come to be in your heads that weren’t there before? How are you persuaded of new truths? How do you learn? An important part of the answer is that we can learn because we can talk with one another. It is language; it is the power of speech that makes education possible. Through your speaking and my listening, you can make an idea appear in my mind that wasn’t there before. That’s magic. I know Brooklyn Friends School has a powerful dose of this magic. Here’s one way you put it in your publications: “BFS is a place where people of all backgrounds and ages listen to and learn from one another.” Your diversity sets the stage for yet more powerful learning through dialogue Language is the greatest of all human inventions—greater than fire, greater than the wheel, greater than domesticated agriculture, even greater than cell phones or video games. Other animals do communicate with one another, but what sets human beings apart as a species is the extraordinary sophistication of our language abilities. I want to talk with you today about speaking and listening in the world before you. Language is what makes us special. It gives us extraordinary powers. But with those powers come important and demanding responsibilities. The Dangers/Deformations of Speech Let me come back to that phrase I just quoted: “BFS is a place where people of all backgrounds and ages listen to and learn from one another.” I wish we could say that about the United States today: that we are a country where people of all backgrounds and ages listen to and learn from one another. But of course I can’t. Just think about the talk we hear on television. On many channels at all times of day or night, we hear very strong opinions expressed about what’s right, and outraged dismissal of any other viewpoint. It is sharp and divisive speech. We hear people shout at one another and interrupt one another. Just think about the talk we hear on talk radio: it is very much the same thing. It is aggressive speech, combative speech. Just think about the United States Congress, which should set the standard for important talk in these United States. We established it as the nation’s premier deliberative body. At times in our history both the House and the Senate have been places of extraordinary speech. But not today. We hear a great deal of posturing, and a great deal of angry, vituperative speech.


Or just think about what passes by us each day on the Internet. People say things to one another on e-mail that they would never say to one another face-to-face or over the telephone. We hear rude things, angry words, hurtful sentences. We have no lack of speech today, but not much listening. We have a great deal of declamation, but very little dialogue. This, sadly, is the world into which you go forth. We need you to join with others (including many graduates of Quaker schools and colleges) to give your best efforts to make a different world. That is what I am asking of you today. The Marketplace of Ideas We should value freedom of expression for reasons first strongly voiced by the poet John Milton in 1644. "Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" he said. Milton argued that the truth would not emerge and would be understood clearly if it did not find itself tested against other ideas, many of them no doubt wrong or foolish. "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary,” he said. …That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary." Written in the middle of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty is the great modern articulation of the virtue of freedom of expression. “ …The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of ideas is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more those that hold it. If this opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Both Milton and Mill agree: the best cure for erroneous or harmful speech is yet more speech, not suppression of speech. The Right to Speak At our founding, we made freedom of expression a foundation stone for our republic, making it The First Amendment to the United States Constitution “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” This is a powerful statement. It has been broadly reaffirmed in many Supreme Court decisions.


Notice, however, what the 1st Amendment does not say. It doesn’t give us protection from anyone other than the government interfering with speech— and others may try. And it doesn’t give us any assurance that anyone will listen to us. And isn’t that what we want? We don’t just want to speak; we want others to listen to us. We most feel a lack of respect when others won’t listen to us. It is not our 1st Amendment rights that especially concern me today. It is our responsibility to listen. The Responsibilities of Good Speech Questions of speaking and listening are very much on my mind because of something that happened at Earlham this spring. On an evening late in March, an Earlham student climbed up on a stage in our main auditorium and threw a pie at William Kristol, editor of conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard. The incident interrupted Mr. Kristol’s speech on “American Foreign Policy After 9-11.” He was speaking to an audience of several hundred people from Earlham and the community around us. William Kristol wiped the pie off his face, said “let me just remember where I was,” and then continued his remarks. When he finished, I apologized to Mr. Kristol on behalf of the college. He entertained questions and comments for about 30 minutes, and stayed onstage after we ended the program to answer questions from audience members for another 45 minutes. With the pie, the student had said, in effect, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say, and I don’t want anyone else to hear it either.” Even though I disagree with Mr. Kristol about many, many things, I am grateful that he continued his speech, and I am grateful that the audience stayed to hear the rest of what he had to say. I’ve admired the list of colleges and universities to which members of this graduating class are headed in the fall. At all of them, the right to speak and the responsibility to listen should be taken to be very serious matters. In higher education we call this “academic freedom,” but don’t let the term mislead you. Academic freedom involves responsibilities as fully as freedom. Under academic freedom, these responsibilities are shared among all members of the community. It isn’t just the government or the administration that needs to respect others’ rights to speak. Teachers need to respect students’ rights to speak, students have a duty to respect to other students’ right to speak, and audiences have a responsibility to allow invited speakers (like William Kristol) to have their say. If you disagree with what someone else is saying, interfering with their speech isn’t the right response; the right response is for you to say why you disagree. I think it is best to think of this as a responsibility to listen respectfully to one another. Under academic freedom, a second responsibility is to speak the truth. Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, you can say anything you want: silly or profound, ugly -4-

or beautiful, false or true. If our goal is to find the true (or the profound or the beautiful), then we are more likely to succeed together if we all seek to speak the truth. By no means does that mean we will all agree with one another. On all difficult and important questions, we will find we have disagreements—sometimes sharp disagreements. We will disagree about matters of science, of religion, of ethics. Because we start in different places, we will see different things and have different perspectives. In talking respectfully with one another, we may be able to find ways to live together sharing one world and one common future. Two responsibilities: to listen respectfully and to speak truthfully. These two responsibilities can be difficult to carry together. One asks us to care about what’s right and truthful—to speak that truth and to live it with commitment. The other expects us to be open to the possibility that others will persuade us to change our minds. Demanding as they are, these are responsibilities of being educated and responsibilities of citizenship. These are responsibilities I hope you have already accepted and will take with you to college. I also hope you will take them with you beyond college into your adult lives. Listening to God Even before colleges and universities, Quakers championed both of these: the responsibility to listen and the responsibility to speak the truth. Quaker beliefs give both a deeper, firmer foundation. Both responsibilities grow out of how we worship. Both grow out of how we talk to God. Both grow out of silence. I have a two-year old son who is acquiring the power of speech at a delightful and sometimes alarming rate. He came with Ellen and me to a recent dinner at Earlham for several hundred people. As a Quaker college we had a moment of silence before the meal began. A few moments after we settled into silence, nearly the whole room heard Robbie say distinctly “They’re not talking!” He was astonished by the silence. The silence is sometimes a welcome interlude from much shrill or angry talk around us. But we hope the silence is much more than the absence of speaking. In the silence we are giving ourselves the opportunity to listen to God. And in the silence, we are preparing ourselves to hear ‘that of God’ in everyone else who may speak to us. Being in dialogue with God lays on us the obligation to speak as truthfully as we can at all times. Expecting to hear God lays on us the obligation to listen carefully. Expecting to hear God in others voices [sort of like Joan of Arcadia] lays on us the obligation to listen carefully and respectfully to them. I’m reminded here of the Germantown Friends School motto, “unreserved respect for each individual.” The challenge is always to talk to others according them unreserved respect—even when they are saying foul or disagreeable things, even when they are showing us no respect in return. -5-

Education as Speech/War as the Antithesis of Speech I want to end with a much-to-brief note additional on why we should take speech to be sacred—why we should take care to listen respectfully to others and to speak as truthfully as we can. We are, again, a nation at war. I imagine this war in Iraq is one about which there are many disagreements in this room. I don’t know about you, but I have been very discouraged by the quality of public discussion about this war over the past few years. I imagine we could do better. We could and should spend a lot of time talking through those differences. Whatever we think about this or any war, sooner or later we are going to have to find ways to talk with our adversaries. After World War II, we had to learn to talk together with the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians. We are still learning to talk with the Vietnamese after that long, tragic war—but we are learning. And by fits and starts we are learning, after the Cold War, to talk constructively with the Russians. Talking together is the road to peace. All these kinds of talk must involve listening carefully and speaking the truth respectfully. Put another way: refusal to listen is commitment to unconstructive conflict. Refusal to listen is the road to war. We need no more roads to war. In the years ahead, we have a great deal of careful listening and respectful talking to do. I hope you will all do your very best with these with whomever you may find yourselves with opportunities to speak. I thank you for listening to me today. I praise your accomplishments. And I look forward to celebrating your further triumphs as you make further use of the magic—the sacredness of speech—that has brought you to this moment.