New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Guest Essay: Martha Minow’s commencement remarks

Martha Minow, this year’s commencement speaker, is Harvard University’s 300th Anniversary University Professor and the former dean of Harvard Law School.
Martha Minow at the 2010 Harvard Law commencement ceremony. (Photo by Chen Siyuan, via Wikimedia)

Guest essays reflect opinions from writers beyond WSN. If you’d like to submit a guest essay for consideration, please email [email protected].

During my first week of college, my dorm neighbor hung a poster with Henry David Thoreau’s statement, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” The roommate posted on the opposite wall, “No Man is an Island.” Both seemed like good insights, but they also seemed at odds with one another: celebrate distinctive individualism versus recognize all humans are joined together.

Today, some say, “Work against injustice!” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And yet others stress: Don’t demonize your foes! Philosopher Judith Butler wrote: “Until we learn that other lives are equally grievable and have an equal demand on us to be grieved — especially the ones that we’ve helped to eliminate — I’m not sure we’ll really be on the way to overcoming the problem of dehumanization.”  

Work against injustice; don’t demonize your adversaries. Can both views be right? Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation helps: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.” 

The touchstone for me comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King had organized a peaceful civil rights protesting racial injustice after being told that his group would never be granted a permit because of their views. Without notice or participation to King, city officials obtained a court order banning the march. Dr. King and seven other ministers were arrested and placed in jail. Then eight white Christian clergymen opposed the civil rights protests and issued a public call urging patience. Dr. King wrote his letter in response while he was locked up in the era of lynching in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. He wrote:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”    

This statement endures because it makes palpable how justice is and must be about recognizing that all of us are interconnected despite social divisions and stark disagreements. Inequality enchains people in hierarchies not of their making, spelling advantage and disadvantage.  Dr. King presciently praised the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham “for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” The world has indeed recognized the heroism of the nonviolent civil rights movement participants in stories recounted in schools, during holidays, and at memorial structures, teaching new generations.

Or so it seemed. But in the past few years in the United States, 44 states have considered laws restricting instruction by schools or employers about race and even about civil rights history. These laws — adopted already in 18 states — prohibit instruction that may make some people feel they bear “personal responsibility” for historic wrongdoings because of their race, gender, or national origin. The laws are defended as ways to prevent division and association of the United States with racism. Court challenges are proceeding to protect freedom of speech and information.  Struggles against inequality and injustice risk erasure. The histories we teach and learn reflect fights over what to remember.

In the United States in 2024, the belief that we are divided is one of the few things that Americans currently have in common.  Half of Americans report they prefer their country to be composed primarily of people with roots in Western Europe and the other half disagree with that view.  Tensions in other countries reveal resentments, division, and distrust, dividing people by religion, immigration status, or wealth. Unscrupulous leaders and social media platform algorithms amplify outrage.

Drawing distinctions between groups is apparently deeply ingrained in humans. But the definition of  “us” versus “them” reflects arguments and fears, not immutable realities. Ideas about racial or gender hierarchy rest on notions of race and gender despite their lack of scientific validity—and such ideas and practices persist regardless of facts. Ideas, often deeply flawed, about religions, disabilities, and other differences inform people’s fears and beliefs. Narratives about identity and history become part of people’s consciousness as children learn from adults.  Beliefs resistant to factual refutation operate as ideologies.  “History shows us we need labels to help define our place. For hundreds of years, people have categorized others as less so they could feel like more, ” writes law professor Steven Koh.   

Disagreements will be inevitable; can they occur with civility and respect? Can those who disagree listen?  It’s hard to listen when our identities are implicated in the fights; then it all seems about survival.  We put up barriers when we feel threatened. It becomes difficult then to see shared humanity, much less accord the kind of respect that makes the world safer for everyone. 

Yet sometimes, those who disagree—we—can even on occasion persuade one another.   David Singleton, who used to direct the Ohio Justice & Policy Center once explained to me that the people he had initially written off as political opponents became critical allies in a movement to reform the criminal laws in Ohio.   Today’s adversary can become an ally another day. Prospects for that possibility dim when disagreement leads to banishment.  And history tells how coalitions across many kinds of difference have been at the center of successful movements for civil rights, labor rights, environmental protection, and human rights.  Prospects for that possibility dim when disagreement leads to banishment.

Demonizing others unleashes a deeper problem.  It “strips away the humanity of other groups of people and threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature,” remarked human rights activist Salil Shetty.  Even when motivated by righteousness against injustice, demonizing others opens passions that can destroy and shame, spurring new rounds of dehumanizing violence.   Resisting that path while mobilizing against injustice is emotionally and intellectually hard.  I know. I must work on it daily, and not just because I drive in Boston.

My hope is that we can learn from patterns of division and polarization to anticipate backlash, to mobilize transformative practices along with cultural creativity—as Bryan Stevenson has done by building the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the related museum and sculpture park in Montgomery, Alabama.  How can we build durable activities and institutions to advance justice and to strengthen fair and peaceful dealing despite ongoing disagreements?  By durable, I do not mean unchanging.  To the contrary, durable work addressing what is unfair must anticipate disrepair, conflict, and our human frailties.  

I am a fan of Star Trek, the science fiction saga that grew from a small audience cult television show to a global media franchise. It tells of 23rd and 24th century space travelers in allegories to contemporary dilemmas.  In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, competing groups race across planets to find scattered pieces of a prized relic from a prior civilization.   A team from different societies collaborates to locate the first piece, then the second, and finally the third piece in different locations.  Then, suddenly, one of the team assembles the pieces together and turns on the others, announcing that the pieces, once assembled, make a powerful weapon.  Our hero—Captain Picard who is conveniently also an archeologist—orders his crew to drop their weapons and clear their minds of aggressive thoughts.  He explains that he was able to read the symbols on the device and discerned that it amplifies anger, but peace defeats its power.  Metaphorically, tamping down even understandable fury is key to building enough peace to proceed with the work of building justice and better days.

What I have said today may madden everyone here; if so, that could be a way to come together! I’m still trying to talk myself down the demonizing ledge where I landed while writing a brief this winter.

Perhaps we all can agree that “the past is written, but the future is left for us to write.”  One way or the other, we will write the future.  Let’s do so not by amplifying hate but by remembering how we each are uniquely of value and we each are part of one another.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected].

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