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Hans Oberdiek - Baccalaureate

Hans Oberdiek

Audio Transcript

Thank you, Tamsin, for your generous introduction.

I am honored to be giving the sesquicentennial Baccalaureate Address. There! I've said it, and as long as I'm not asked to spell it, I'll be OK. I'm not sure my successor in 25 years time will have it much better: that will be Swarthmore's Dodransbicentennial. I won't try to spell that, either.

Today is a dry run for tomorrow, when President Chopp will bestow on you your hard earned and well-deserved degrees and your parents will breathe a deep and wallet expanding sigh of relief. 

This rite of passage marks your entry into what is euphemistically called the "real world." I think that at least initially, however, you'll find it much more a surreal world, where things and experiences are not associated with expected attributes, but with the illogical and preposterous: astrology praised, astronomy scorned, shoddy arguments carrying the day, income unconnected to contribution, value confused with price, and the obvious made obscure. At first your education at Swarthmore will have ill-equipped you to make sense of this new world until your eyes adjust to this distorted landscape and you can bring to bear what you've learned. With a little luck you and enormous effort, you will succeed in making at least some of Salvador Dali's limp watches tell time!

Swarthmore's Sesquicentennial! 

It might put things in a bit of perspective, if we cast our minds back to that other Class of '14 - namely, the class that graduated a century ago in 1914. That class graduated in June to find the world at war just two months later. While the war was predicted by many, few thought that it would last long or kill so many. 

When we think of that dreadful war, which left 16 million dead, we often forget that during and just after the war - in 1918 and 1919 - influenza killed well over 50 million people around the world. In the US alone it is estimated that 500 - 600 million died. On one day in October over 500 Philadelphians succumbed. No one could have predicted the 'flu epidemic nor could anyone in the Class of '14 have predicted the soul-destroying great depression or the devastating Second World War which concluded with the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear bombs. 

May you, the sesquicentennial class, live in far less interesting times - but don't count on it!

Still, members of the Class of 1914 would have been aware of and actively taken part in one of the great social and political movements of their time: the enfranchisement of women. One of its leaders was a typical Swattie, Alice Paul. After graduating in 1905 with a degree in biology, she went on to earn a master's degree in sociology, a Ph.D. in economics, and then, for good measure, a degree in law. As I say, a typical Swattie. With her efforts and the efforts of the class of '14 and many classes before and after, the right of women to vote in every state was finally recognized in 1920. 

Alice Paul and members of the Class of '14 fought for equal rights throughout their lives. And when members of the class of '14 met for its 50th reunion in 1964 they could take pride in knowing that because of their efforts - and, of course, the efforts of tens of thousands of fellow citizens - civil rights were extended more broadly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is only one success. They would have had to wait until three years after their 50th reunion, however, for the Supreme Court - in Loving vs. Virginia (1967) - to declare laws prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional. So despite two world wars, a pandemic, a deep depression, the assassination of a President and much more, the Class of '14 - that other class - had much of which to be proud: they helped re-build the nation after the devastation of the depression and world war, worked to rid us of de jure segregation if not de facto racism, and left us with a functioning democracy.

And what of you, the sesquicentennial class? Some challenges facing the country, and indeed the world, are easy to see if difficult to solve; others are impossible to see in advance, and are what were once described as "unknown unknowns." There is little point in speculating about what these might be any more than the class of 1914 could have predicted the influenza epidemic or atomic weapons. 

But there are "known knowns" among future challenges. One looming known known is global climate change. Only motivated reasoning can lead one to deny its reality or the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead. 

For some global climate change is what we may call a "suppressed known" - something we convince ourselves isn't known although it is. One can deny the reality of climate change only by scorning the science underlying and to do that - since it is so well established - science must be dismissed more generally with predictable and destructive results. This catastrophic suppressed knowledge is largely motivated by a desire not to make any significant sacrifices by anyone, especially those who benefit financially from the status quo

So you have a monumental challenge that you have little alternative but to face. How to do it? You will also need the best science, effective public policies, and deep moral reflection to confront this terrible menace. Your education at Swarthmore will have equipped you better than most to meet the challenge. Oh, and read biographies of Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul: they will provide inspiration as well as strategic and tactical suggestions. Study the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, too.  All will illustrate the enviable but extraordinarly difficult virtue of perseverance in the face of disappointment and adversity but with an abiding faith in the justice of their cause. 

Another "suppressed known" is the serious consequence of wealth maldistribution. It isn't the inequality as such that matters so much, though it is not unimportant, but the disproportionate power belonging to a tiny sliver of society. Thomas Piketty has acutely and convincingly diagnosed the problem in his Capital in the 21st Century. It will be your task to think yourselves through to solutions that are both just and effective.

But today I want to talk to you about two things that I believe need urgent thought and action as well - two things that are not unconnected with the challenges of climate change and wealth maldistribution: the urgent need for increased tolerance and the need to reinvigorate our democracy, at least to the level of strength it had when that other Class of '14 met for its 50th reunion. I'll speak mostly of tolerance, a subject on which I've taught and written as I tried to understand the circumstances that make it possible and necessary, its limits, and why it is fundamental to a well-ordered liberal democracy.

I believe that we as individuals and communities are growing increasingly intolerant of those with contrary and disagreeable beliefs, attitudes, and ways of being. This intolerance is bad for us as individuals and certainly bad for us as communities and bad for our democracy. For we become increasingly shut off from one another and shut out those who we too quickly dismiss as beyond the pale. We increasingly, I fear, choose to live in echo chambers of our own intolerance.

But what is tolerance and what's so good about it? It is, first of all, a virtue and virtues are character traits that are not merely ways of feeling, believing, or acting, but suggest courses of action to be pursued in the right circumstances and for the right reasons and from a fixed character. In addition to tolerance - a comparative late-comer among the constellation of virtues - we find humility, courage, generosity, justice. To be courageous, for example, doesn't mean that one must always stand one's ground. Sometimes it takes courage to retreat to fight another day. To do otherwise isn't courageous, but foolhardy, and that is no virtue. To cut and run, however, is sheer cowardice, and that is not virtue either. In general, virtues have this Goldilocks nature - not being too hot or too cold, but just right - and tolerance is no exception. It takes reasoned deliberation and good judgment to get it right.

Tolerance is an especially difficult virtue because it lies uneasily between suppression on the one hand and full acceptance on the other. As such, it moves in a kind of no man's land, a seemingly unstable position between two opposed poles. Minimally, tolerance means little more than was captured by a New Yorker cartoon showing a man carrying a sign that reads "Put Up with Thy Neighbor." In New York, at least, loving thy neighbor would seem out of the question! And it is true: tolerance and norms of toleration don't require love, but they do, however, require a level of respect for those with whom we deeply disagree and whose actions we deplore.

I'll say more about this in a moment, but it must be remarked that many are either suspicious of or actually despise tolerance. Some think it is the refuge of the timid, those afraid to assert and, if necessary, impose their views on the world. Ogden Nash nicely expressed this in a limerick:  "Sometimes with secret pride I sigh, To think how tolerant am I; Then wonder which is really mine: Tolerance, or a rubber spine?" Someone who certainly didn't possess a rubber spine was Father, later Bishop, Bossuet. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685  Protestant clergymen were given a few weeks to convert or be executed. Bossuet infamously replied to Protestants who complained about persecution saying: "Why do I have the right to persecute you? Because I am right and you are wrong"! So is tolerance the rationalisation of the timid? Is it, perhaps, the refuge of those who simply don't care, those who give a world-weary cynical sigh or say, with sandwich board man, "Put up with they neighbor"? Or is it something to be altogether despised, as Bishop Bossuet did?

Such conclusions would have us forget how hard-won toleration was. The religious wars throughout Europe between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries had first one religion and then the other assuming the role of persecutor. It took many years culminating but not originating in John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689 and his Second Treatise on Government in 1690 - both inspirations to those who founded our Republic - to help establish toleration as a political principle. Tolerance and toleration today extend beyond Locke's purely religious concerns. Tolerance as a virtue and toleration as providing norms of civil conduct, however, remain at the heart of a vibrant liberal, democratic order. 

Tolerance is rightly to be despised, however, when one tolerates what should be simply accepted or tolerates what should be fiercely rejected. Jews, Muslims, and Palestinians, for example, should not be tolerated - but their freedom to live as they see fit simply accepted, provided only that their freedom doesn't come at the cost of someone else's; racism and sexism, on the other hand, should not be tolerated but adamantly repudiated. These are obvious examples to make the point that we must think through what are and are not appropriate objects of toleration: tolerance is despicable when we tolerate the intolerable or don't tolerate the tolerable.

The need for tolerance arises when some person, community, or institution has power over others and is sorely tempted to use it to the detriment of the objects of intolerance. The temptation arises when there lie deep disagreements that generate deep disapproval of the weaker party. This was true in Tudor England, for example, when Catholic priests would be drawn and quartered by Protestants and in France when the Protestant Huguenots were executed by Catholics.

So tolerance is especially needed when one has the power to oppress another and is tempted to do so. We might think that tolerance doesn't apply to us because we are comparatively powerless, and tolerance is a virtue needed most by the powerful. But all of us have power over others some of the time, so all of us need to cultivate the virtue of tolerance and develop ways of living that express the virtue - that is, to act tolerantly.

As must be emphasized, tolerance always has limits. Most obviously, we should not tolerate what is itself actively intolerant. Nor should we tolerate that which is intolerable: sexual assault, to take a pointed example. That is clearly intolerable.

In many ways, then, intolerance is the dog; tolerance is the tail. When we have power over others and are tempted to use it because we deeply disapprove of what others do or think, we have to make a moral judgment whether what we disapprove of is such that it is intolerable. If intolerable, then tolerance isn't called for. We simply cannot escape making moral judgments about what is tolerable and intolerable, why, and its limits. And that requires thought, and lots of it - and taking seriously the reasons of those with whom we disagree.

A theory of tolerance can only provide a general framework: each attitude, norms, and ways of life must be taken on its own merits. At the same time, coming to such deliberations with an attitude of tolerance is likely to make an enormous difference. An intolerant person is more likely than a tolerant person to conclude straightaway that those with whom one deeply disagrees must be opposed at every turn, that they have nothing to contribute, that we are fully justified in laughing at them, scorning them, and in general trying to place them beyond the pale, making them, in so far as we can, non-persons.

Now suppose that there is something which we disapprove of yet think that expressing views contrary to what we believe and acting on them is nonetheless tolerable. What then? 

There are a range of attitudes and policies to consider. First there is merely permitting those who we could silence speak and act as they wish: we choose to live and let live. This is a passive form of tolerance, one that we might aptly describe as grudging tolerance, tolerance through gritted teeth and clenched fists. But I think that there is a more robust form of tolerance, one in which we actively engage those whose thoughts and actions we disapprove from within a robust liberal standpoint, where 'liberal' doesn't mean 'left wing' or 'democrat', but someone who thinks liberty or freedom means more than simply doing your own thing for whatever reason or no reason at all. 

This liberal justification of tolerance is one especially suited to our own pluralist, multicultural society riven as it is by deep political and moral disagreements. Tolerance is called for when we do have grounds for disapproval, yet think that there are counter-balancing reasons that should lead us to tolerate what we find wanting morally, religiously, culturally, or politically.

There are two principal reasons why we, at this juncture in our history, need tolerance. 

The first is that although we may be confident in our own reasons for favoring what we do and finding deficient that which we disapprove, when we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our reasons are often neither conclusive nor such that only the exceptionally dimwitted or malevolent could possibly disagree with us. In other words, tolerance calls for a certain humility in the face of divergent speech, actions, and customs.

The second principle reason we should cultivate the virtue of tolerance is that we justifiably treasure autonomy, where autonomy is the view that each of us is part author of our own lives. 'Part author,' of course, because unlike novelists, we don't have the freedom to create whole worlds: much, if not most, of our world is simply given. But within this given world tolerant people believe that all should be able to follow their own lights as they strive to live a worthwhile life, as they - not we - judge. Within a worthwhile life (including our own,) there are often elements that are not worthwhile but worthless or deplorable, yet not so bad as to intervene and force change to make it as pure as we might wish.

Why the caution? Why not extirpate what we deplore in otherwise tolerable ways of life? To try to do so too frequently falls prey to what I call "the sweater principle." Sometimes one has a sweater that keeps one warm and is even fashionable - except for one annoying stray strand of wool. We think that if we just pull on this strand, our sweater would be much improved. And so it might. But we might just as well end up with a tangle of yarn at our feet! So to know whether trying to excise the objectionable in an otherwise worthwhile life is advisable isn't easy. And we should be exceptionally cautious when our familiarity with that way of life is cursory, when it is a way of life we don't know from the inside, as it were. This was a mistake Christian missionaries in past centuries too often made. Again, there are obvious limits, which is why we must first judge whether what we tolerate is tolerable. Given that choices, careers, or ways of life are tolerable even if not altogether desirable in all its details, we think - or at least I think and I encourage you to think - that how people live their lives, including the mistakes one inevitably makes, is largely up to them: it is their life to live, not yours nor mine.

If we think about this at the social level and not just at the interpersonal level it would help lower the venomous nature of present public life and discourse, and that would also greatly bolster are attenuated democracy. 

Let me give an example of what I have in mind. 

About 20 years ago, two women of a certain age attended pro- and anti-abortion rallies on opposite sides of the street. They often saw each across the barricades and each noticed that their counterpart was not on the front lines, but rather hung back a bit, offering encouragement but not screaming and holding signs that accused the opposing protesters of wishing to murder either women or babies. One woman approached the other after one such rally, and suggested that they have coffee. They found that they had much in common: children and grandchildren, hardship and heartbreak in their respective families, and so on. So they formed a group that tried to find a way out of the hatred, contempt, and villification. 

Did they change their own minds about the morality of abortion? No, nor did they try: that wasn't the point. But they resolved not to demonize those with whom they deeply disagreed and tried to think of ways to arrive at principled accommodation of their diametrically opposed views about the morality of abortion. Were they successful? Only to a degree, as it turns out, but then we are seldom 100 percent successful in resolving deep controversies. Their effort showed, however, the respect they had for one another and for others who find themselves somewhere in the middle. They respected one another as women, mothers, grandmothers, women of faith, as persons and as fellow citizens. So while each saw what each, perhaps rightly, regarded as errors in the views and actions of the other, each also saw that living a life is never easy, and that everyone - within the limits of the tolerable - deserves to find a path through life unhindered by intolerance attitudes and responses, to live one's life autonomously. Engagement with one another, not suppression or demonization, was their response.

And this brings me to democracy and the profound idea of citizen. Although there isn't anything in it any more, it is useful to remind ourselves that the people of Great Britain were not originally designated as citizens, but as subjects of the King or Queen. As I say, that notion hasn't amounted to much in Great Britain for a long time, but it once had real import - an import that the founders of our Republic knew and rejected. The meaning of what it is to be a citizen should be taken seriously and never more so than now. Far too often one doesn't hear the word citizen, but what politicians and pundits take as a substitute: namely, taxpayer

As citizens, we are all political equals, with equal rights and equal responsibilities. During the Putney debates of 1647, the Leveller Thomas Rainsborough put the thought this way: "For really I think that the poorest hee that in England hath a life to live as the greatest hee." As taxpayers we are clearly not equals: the poorest hees and shees don't have nearly as much wealth as the greatest hees and shees. And if what matters is not that one is a citizen but that one pays taxes, then it is a small move to conclude that those who pay more total taxes should have a greater say than those who pay less in total taxes. 

Now money has always talked in politics, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. But, as in the dying days of the Roman Empire, money in American politics now shouts, and shouts at the top of its lungs. Some of the big money comes the left; much comes from the right. But whether left or right, big money corrupts democracy and corrupts absolutely. It does so in many ways, from which issues are discussable to which candidates have the financial backing to run for office, who can afford to sustain law suits, and in myriad other ways. Politics in a flourishing democracy will always be hard ball, but it doesn't have to be, as it too often is now, bean ball.

We must recognize that not everyone deplores the elevation of wealthy taxpayers over citizens. Let me give you a telling example. Recent sociological studies suggest that when the preferences of the wealthy and the preferences of the vast majority diverge, American politicians respond positively to the preferences of the rich minority, and not to the far less wealthy majority. A libertarian economist at James Madison University, Bryan Caplan, said this about one of these studies:

....I find [the author's] results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful. If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich....[M]y sincere reaction is to say, "Thank goodness." Democracy as we know it is bad enough. Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.[1]

This lack of trust in democracy accounts for so many of the efforts to suppress voter registration. Professor Caplan is not alone in his disdain of democracy. Throughout the modern age democracy has been dismissed as rule by the stupid. Even Winston Churchill was not an enthusiast. "The best argument against democracy", he said, "is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But to his lasting credit he then added in a speech to Parliament in 1947, "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 

Democracies are especially vulnerable to being undermined from within.  John Adams warned us two centuries ago that  "...democracy never lasts long" he said, "It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Today, we need to be on the lookout more for the demise of democracy, not by its own hand, but by the hands of those from within the very political order that provided them with extraordinary wealth.

You, I hope, are friends of democracy, and will engage in the issues of the day by taking on the strongest opponents of democracy and do so with reasoned arguments, not snarky put downs, rage, or suppression. For the people who need convincing are not one's fellow 'true believers' or idealogues, but those whose minds are open to change, those with whom you now disagree. 

Yes, I know. Attack ads work, as do other forms of manipulation, such as innuendo. You as liberal arts graduates are equipped to do battle against this corruption of democracy with integrity, honor, and reason. But beware! It is a perennial temptation for the excesses of one side to mirror those of the other, so a dirty right hand mirrored becomes an equally dirty left hand.

How does tolerance figure in this battle? In his 1929 autobiography, Mohandas Gandhi wrote "love the sinner but hate the sin." I offer a clumsier, secularized version: "Don't tolerate what is intolerable; but engage those with whom we profoundly disagree with respect and reasoned argument." One needn't love the sinner, but as fellow citizens we need to adhere to norms of toleration - where that implies engaging with those with whom we vehemently disagree, but honestly and respectfully. When we find those with whom we deeply disagree resort to manipulation and underhanded tactics, the temptation to fight fire with fire is nearly irresistible. But I urge you to resist: fighting fire with fire generally leads to a general conflagration that consumes everyone in destructive hatred. Or, to put the matter more graphically, if you choose to wrestle with a pig, you'll find yourself in the mud - but only the pig will enjoy it!

If we cultivate the virtue of tolerance, we should be slow to draw the conclusion that our fellow citizens with whom we vehemently disagree should not be given a hearing or that they should be denounced or actively silenced. As John Stuart Mill said nearly a sesquicentennial ago, confronting the arguments of opponents will either lead us to modify our own views if we discover that the truth isn't all on our side or deepen the grounds and commitments of our views if it turns out that we are right. So it isn't intolerant to confront those with whom you deeply disagree with reasoned, respectful argument as well as political action. Indeed, reasoned argument is one form of political action.

Stressing tolerance as not only what you and I as individuals owe to each other but as what we owe to each other as citizens means that we can engage with the great known issues of today, such as climate change, and great unknown issues of tomorrow, with spirit and in good faith but only if we can maintain a robust democracy where respect for one another is a cornerstone. 

None of this will be easy, of course. The acquisition and practice of virtues are never easy, or they wouldn't be virtues. This is true whether the virtue in question is courage, self-control, or tolerance. But if we look back to Swarthmore activists of a century ago, there is ample reason to hope. For with these virtues and more, your namesake class accomplished much with intense dedication, grace, good humor, and perseverance.

Be assured that as you engage with the great public issues of today and tomorrow that there is ample time for you to pursue your own personal projects, whether academic, entrepreneurial, artistic, or charitable. And ample time to form families and to make new friends and keep old ones. Next week members of another named class - the Centennial Class of 1964 - will be hugging their friends of a life time, friends made at Swarthmore as you've made friends at Swarthmore. In 50 years time - during Swarthmore's Bi-centennial year - you will be doing the same: reflecting on how your lives have gone, enjoying each others company, and boasting about your grandchildren. (If I hadn't run out of time, I'd like to boast about mine!) As with every member of every Swarthmore class, I wish for you a life filled with accomplishment and one that brings joy to you, your friends and family, and that you exercise a steady and energetic hand in building a tolerant and flourishing democracy.

Thank you.

[1]. Bryan Caplan

Baccalaureate Speaker

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