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Charlottesville, empathy, and speaking out

By David Leebron     8/24/17 9:55pm

This year we are reminded once more that we don’t live in a bubble here at Rice, and that external events — good and bad — have an impact on our community. On Monday morning, I sent a letter to the campus community conveying some thoughts on the outrageous and tragic events in Charlottesville. I placed it in the context of our own values, and the importance of both our commitment to those values, and for taking responsibility for living those values.

With an increasing number of disturbing events in our country and around the world, I confess it’s not always easy to decide when to speak out, and exactly how to phrase my reaction or objection. Sometimes I speak (or tweet) simply as an individual, but often I am called upon to speak as the president of Rice. In that capacity, I must be cognizant of both the wide range of views in our community, but also that we as a university must stand for certain values and be willing to speak out about them.

Today I want to make three points in this context: the importance of empathy, the ability of all of us to speak and the difficulty of issues we will confront.

The definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Although my letter to the community used the word “empathy” just once, the idea was a significant part of its content. Without empathy — without an ability and willingness to understand how others are perceiving and reacting to events occurring around them — I do not see how we can be a successful community, and in particular achieve the “culture of care” we aspire to have. I can think of no area in which that is more important than the bigotry which so many members of our community must sadly experience, whether because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or other attribute. I spoke out in part on Monday to ask that all of us understand the implications of events in Charlottesville not as a deeply disturbing but distant event, but in the ways in which others in our community might experience such an event and feel in a very immediate way threatened, demeaned and hurt.

If we are to convey that empathy, we must speak out. And here I want to say that I am not the only one with a voice to do so. We all have a voice, or a pen or a keyboard. We may not all need or want to speak out publicly, but it is also important we communicate privately. It’s rarely sufficient that the president of the university speak out, and sometimes for a variety of reasons it’s not appropriate or perhaps necessary for the president to speak. The responsibility to communicate falls not on only one of us, but on all of us, while acknowledging the responsibility is not the same for all.

Finally, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking the issues we face will all be easy. As we learned so vividly in the aftermath of Charlottesville, there are some issues on which, because of shared fundamental principles and overwhelming agreement, there is in effect no legitimate other side. Our society has, thankfully, come to the view that there is no other side to opposing racial and religious hatred and bigotry. There is no other side when it comes to opposing a march and movement that traffics in Nazi or KKK symbols and slogans, and unreserved condemnation is the right response. We know all know too well that this widely shared view was not always the case, and that it took immense struggle and sacrifice to get to where we are today — which is not at all to say we are where we ultimately want to be.

That said, we will surely encounter disagreement across a wide range of important issues. How should we reconcile the intolerability of hate speech and our commitment to free speech? On a different current issue, what should we do about monuments and statues that recall oppression? When is it appropriate to remove statues or monuments that may be seen as commemorating slavery or racism? I have my own often strong views on such questions, yet I understand that others might take a different view. It is through dialogue, argument, learning, understanding, empathy and political action that we must resolve such disagreements. We cannot resolve them by suppressing speech or vilifying those we disagree with.

We are privileged to be part of a community where we have the opportunity not simply to espouse our most important values but to live them. That means we must be willing to say that some things are intolerable, even if we can’t always suppress them. And it also means we must be willing to admit there is room to disagree about many things, and seek ways to expand understanding.

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