2017 Commencement Address

Towards a Public Discourse Based on Tolerance, Not on Fear

Excerpt from 2017 Commencement address.
May 17, 2017

On behalf of the Trustees and the faculty of Columbia University, it is my very great pleasure and honor to welcome all of you to this ceremony to celebrate the Class of 2017.  It is our tradition to gather in this magnificent setting, surrounding Alma Mater, to affirm the knowledge acquired by our extraordinary students and to recognize their remarkable achievements.  You represent 16 different schools, along with our affiliate institutions Teachers College and Barnard.  All of you are now intellectually and loyally connected to those who have been here before you over the past 263 years and to those who will follow for centuries to come.

This day is all about the graduates and about what you’ve earned—earned through endless and mostly foggy hours of study; earned by overcoming again and again your natural inclination for procrastination, living by the principle of just-in-time, which means waiting until the last moment to study for exams and write papers (even though it’s a well-known fact that the smarter you are the more you tend to procrastinate); earned through sacrifice of something we call sleep, not to mention nutrition and personal hygiene; and earned by persevering in those inevitable moments of self-doubt.

Now while this occasion is about you, there are a few people here today who have contributed mightily to your getting to this point in life and whom you’ll never be able to thank enough.  I can assure you that nothing focuses the mind like the successes and disappointments of one’s own children.  And, as much as we, your faculty, feel deep affection for you, nothing can compare to the pure adoration of your parents and families.  Please, take this opportunity to thank them.

Because a graduation signifies such an important moment of achievement and transition in life, it leaves a deep impression on our minds.  We also tend to remember vividly the events that were occurring in the world at the time.  It is common to hear people say, “I graduated when such and such happened.” Sometimes, what is recounted is fairly momentous; usually, less so.  For those of us here today, I doubt that we will ever have trouble remembering what is happening in the world now, or the seriousness of the events coalescing in 2017.

Just how significant a turning point in world history this will be remains to be seen.  But there appears little reason to doubt that this nation and much of the broader world is at an historic juncture.  Some see ominous horizons, while others see reason for hope.

We read and hear daily (here and abroad) about the rise of populist movements, all rooted in nationalist impulses resistant to the continuation of globalization and multilateralism in its many forms—economic (e.g., trade pacts and treaties), political (e.g., the European Union), communications (e.g., the Internet), movements of people (e.g., refugees), and so on.  Often this results in the embrace of authoritarian political figures.  For many, this represents a foreboding reality.  For others, it carries the promise of bringing discipline to growing disorder and awakening stagnant political and social systems desperately in need of fresh ways of thinking.  

I believe passionately that we need new and better ways to address the myriad challenges facing our country and the world, but, for what it’s worth, I share the first perspective—viewing these developments with profound concern. 

Most of the debates taking place right now are about changes to particular policies: health care, tax reform, immigration, and national security.  But, as is always true, the most important changes are and will be to the character of our deliberative process, the nature of the public forum, and our capacity for self-government.  You don’t need to be a free speech expert to know the following fundamental truth: In the end, we, as individuals or as a society or international community, are what we think, what we speak, and how we interact with one another.  The outcomes of our public discourse, while important, follow rather than lead the life we live.  So, it is right to ask, what is happening to our collective thinking and to the public forum in this new era?

My answer is that what is happening is not good, and it’s actually very dangerous.  There are many things I could focus on here, but one concern I would single out is how the new politics are characterizing and demonizing all things “foreign.” There are a host of perfectly legitimate differences of opinion and responses when it comes to how to address major challenges like climate change, international trade, terrorism, the integrity of national elections, or privacy and hate speech in a digital age.  The problem, however, is not with the fact that there are many hard questions or a vigorous debate about them, but with the emergence of, and stoking of, a state of anger and fear surrounding them.  Genuine issues always undergird and help to mask the mental condition of fear, but, when it arises, it introduces a very threatening element into our debates and our world. 

Now, I know it is too much to expect of political discourse that it mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy; but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic.  The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational.  In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality.  When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.

Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind of fear.  Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”  “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”

Today, our “witches” are terrorists and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners, whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.  There are many reasons to oppose these policies, but one, in particular, strikes at the heart of our intellectual life and is best expressed by the mission of universities: Namely, that we should avoid, if at all possible, heedlessly erecting walls—intellectual walls—that will impair our ability to understand and engage our modern, inter-connected world.  For the world today is imbued with profound issues and needs that, however much we might wish otherwise, are simply not going away—that no wall can block—and that deserve as much attention and thought as our collective minds can possibly muster.  Columbia University, by our history, our location, and through our active and ongoing efforts, has embraced the responsibility to be an American university with an international scope—at home not just in a great, global city, but in the world. 

We are properly proud of our international students and faculty, and of our research and educational work all over the globe.  The free movement of people is vital to this intellectual work. 

There are still greater dangers that will come with abandoning this path and with accommodating the policies and underlying attitudes, here and around the world, that would lead to a withdrawal from the global marketplace of ideas.  It is a distressing fact of human experience that persecution of the “foreign” is part and parcel of rising intolerance at home.  The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise and tolerance.  The most infamous and shameful historical periods in which we departed from our core First Amendment principles of liberty of thought and expression always involved a combination of the two strains of intolerance—the foreign and the domestic.

This was true at the nation’s inception with the revealingly named Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, continued on to the last century with the notorious Red Scare following the First World War, and persisted in the McCarthy era following the Second World War—both of which, interestingly, involved national paranoia and panic over efforts by the Russians to undermine American democracy.

All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities.  Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of what we are and do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas.  This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming.  Such acts not only betray a basic principle, but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.  I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion.  That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness.  But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society.  Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow.  And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of.  That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses were to come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them.  But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.

This is a time, above all, for active engagement.  That, of course, means you, when you leave here, and the rest of us, who stay to be with your successors.  But I also believe that universities now need to rethink their role in society and consider new ways to apply the extraordinary knowledge and capacities we possess to activities that will improve the human condition and help to solve humanity’s problems.  Our special role as a university, of course, is to expand human knowledge and to educate the next generation.  And to do that we must be careful not to take “political” sides.  But, even with that injunction in mind, there is plenty of room for universities to be far more engaged than we have been.  Many faculty members already find ways to do this on their own.  But no university has adopted, as a central mission, the project of working closely with partners beyond the academy—in government, the private sector, and civil society—who have the power, influence, and relationships to transform the intellectual work of the university into the solutions so urgently needed in the larger world. As you know, Columbia is now planning to embark on that very mission through the new Columbia World Projects. 

Whether it is through climate monitoring and seasonal forecasting aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change on public health, food security, and global migration; or by making the coming revolution in health care based on precision medicine’s use of genetic sequencing available to the largest number of people—there are many areas where Columbia can be more actively involved in helping out with some of the world’s greatest needs. I hope in years to come you will look back with pride on what Columbia has done, in traditional and in new ways, to help make your world, our world, better.

So I conclude where I began, by noting the pervasive sense that society is at an historic juncture.  Each of us will have our own views about the proper resolution of the issues now dominating the public’s attention and, even more significantly, about the populist tides we are witnessing.

This much, though, should be clear as you take stock of this auspicious moment in your own life: the way you think, and speak, and engage those who will be your partners in charting the future will count for everything.  For our collective efforts to rehabilitate public discourse—a discourse that is being profoundly threatened by fear and intolerance—ultimately will have a tremendous impact in shaping the world we—and most importantly you—will live in.  If you succeed in that project—in rejecting that fear, and engaging with the world with all its complexity, as you have done in your time here at Columbia—then the promising and essential work commencing here at your Alma Mater will, I am certain, have its intended effect.  I wish you the greatest good luck as you take up this considerable challenge and begin the next part of your amazing life.

Congratulations, Class of 2017.