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Alfred H. Bloom

Commencement 2007

Welcome, and congratulations, Class of 2007, and welcome and congratulations, as well, to your parents, families, friends, and teachers, who guided, encouraged, and supported you, in your extraordinary undertaking.

And thank you graduates for providing by dint of your hard and creative work the basis for this celebration, and for your individual contributions to the quality of this College, for which we share such affection and esteem.

We look forward to your stream of accomplishments, both large and small, for which we will of course be pleased to take partial credit, and to your continuing attachment to a community which promises you a very warm welcome whenever you return.

In this same year that you assume your new status as alumni of the College, James Mckenna, after more than 20 years of service, is retiring from our staff; and both Ray Hopkins, Richter Professor of Political Science, and Jennie Keith, Centennial Professor of Anthropology, Provost of the College from 1992-2001, and current Executive Director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, are retiring from our faculty.

Please join me in thanking these very special members of our community for their important part in shaping Swarthmore's excellence.

This morning I would like you to consider briefly with me the readiness of so many to move to confrontation in the face of challenges stemming from difference.

In 1995, I led a small delegation from U.S. Quaker-affiliated educational institutions to North Korea. Over the week there, our relationship to the educators and highly placed government officials we had come to meet steadily evolved from polite colleagueship to genuine human connection. As each day passed, both sides felt freer to talk about our personal and professional lives, freer to indulge in warm and playful humor, and freer to ask the questions we really wanted to ask. And well before the end of the visit, we knew that, although there were still questions not fully answered, we could trust the sincerity of the answers we did receive.

A year later, several of the officials we had met in Pyongyang came to campus, as part of a North Korean mission to the U.S. The conversations resumed as if without a break, or perhaps because of the perspective offered by the break, with even greater openness than before. We discussed candidly the stereotypes we had brought to our first encounter and the prejudices and fears that would have to be overcome for our nations and populations to develop mutual trust. We took great satisfaction in the surprisingly warm and relaxed personal connections we had come to enjoy.

And, most importantly, we recognized an unanticipated convergence in personal commitment to shaping more just and humane societies and a more cooperative world, all the while acknowledging differences in the obstacles on our nations' respective paths and differences in our conceptions of the ideal society.

In 2002, the U.S. identified North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil, beyond the reach of initiatives of trust and candor. Confrontation supplanted dialogue. And that, in my opinion ill-conceived, too ready and perilous shift — from outreach to confrontation — with its implications not only for international relations, but for all human interactions, prompts my remarks to you, the Class of 2007.

As each of you assumes leadership of this century's professions, institutions, corporations, communities, and societies you will constantly face the challenge of crossing differences of personality, experience, perspective and conviction. And when those differences become complicated by threats to security, resources, status or pride, that leadership will be put to a severe test. But it is then that the ability to bridge difference that you have cultivated here will become crucial to forging the shared understanding and purpose that enable intellectual advance, institutional and corporate accomplishment, societal justice and international progress and peace.

Far too often in the attempt to cross difference, as perceptions of unfairness and risk intensify, willingness to listen, rather than redoubling, shuts down. Faith in the other as a human being capable of responding to initiatives of trust and care, capable of achieving an objective view, capable of engaging in collaborative exploration, dissolves, to be replaced by a construction of the other, as so blinded by personal or ideological agenda, so devoid of breadth of concern and complexity of perspective, so lacking in moral compass, as to be incapable of joining in a mutual search for common ground.

What might have been a partnership devolves into a power struggle in a zero-sum game. Labels, accusations, and threats multiply, aggravated by assertive and retaliatory behavior, further heightening risk, entrenching the discount by each side of the humanity of the other, allowing conviction and emotion to increasingly suppress concern for evidence and truth, and, most dangerously, making violence appear a more legitimate and righteous response.

Throughout your lives you have watched this scenario, playing out in individual relationships, in inter-group interactions, as well as in international conflict, and you're acutely aware of the damage, if not devastation, that so often results.

Of course, there are times when responsibility demands confrontation, for example, in the face of intolerable conditions or risks, such as violent criminality, Nazi aggression or terrorism, or in the face of rejection of persistent demands for justice, such as in the American Revolution or Martin Luther King's non-violent, though confrontational, struggle.

But I am convinced that there are many more times when a too ready shift to confrontation preempts outreach, with major opportunities for bridging difference lost.

And I am further convinced that that too ready shift to confrontation is particularly driven by three pernicious, but surmountable conditions: the first, a climate that interprets adopting a muscular stance as the measure of moral strength, especially when the going gets tough; the second, a tendency, incompatible with current realities, to overestimate the power of asserting power; and the third, an alarming lack of experience with crossing human divides-- an inexperience which makes those divides appear much more formidable than they are and often undercuts the ability of leaders even to imagine crossing them.

But these three conditions, your Swarthmore experience has fitted you to overcome!

As soon-to-be Swarthmore graduates you have developed, as a component of your ethical intelligence, your own capacity to define moral strength.

Despite a climate in which confronting adversaries, with power, is often the sign of moral strength, and reaching out to them the mark of moral weakness, I would argue that, if there is a chance for outreach to succeed, greater moral strength lies in persisting in the search for common ground. And when engaging the perspective of an adversary persuades you to adjust your own view of what is right, I would argue that it is not capitulation, concession or naiveté, but an even stronger reflection of moral strength, to affirm and act on that adjusted sense of right.

If you agree, I call on you to lead others to redefine the concept 'moral strength,' so that being morally strong does not equate with unilateral assertion of right and power, but more often with the courage to resist pressure to adopt a muscular stance.

As soon-to-be Swarthmore graduates you know how counterproductive the results of asserting power tend to be in a world whose population has, at every level, come to expect, and demand, respect and inclusion.

You have compared the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles with those of the Marshall Plan. You have examined the costs of exclusion from the decision-making of institutions and societies and witnessed the resentment, resistance and short-lived solutions that result. You have seen, in the international arena, the peril associated with imposing one's own will on others, no matter how rooted in humanity and justice the rationale. And, in welcome contrast, you have experienced in this community, the quality, shared ownership, and enduring nature of decisions reached through inclusive processes, anchored in our Quaker tradition.

So I call on you to remember, and remind others, not to overestimate what confrontation and asserting power buy today.

As soon-to-be Swarthmore graduates, through the breadth of your academic work and your own personal engagement across the rich diversity of this and other communities, you have come to recognize that desires for security, well-being, recognition, opportunity, justice and cooperative resolution reliably transcend human divides. That recognition leads you to seek, and to find, virtues in individuals whom others write off, passions for justice among advocates whose motivation others discount as self-interest, heterogeneity in populations that others condemn as monoliths of hatred and evil. And that recognition also gives you the confidence others so often lack, that a foundation for building common ground lies beneath even the most formidable divides.

Furthermore, through your academic and community experience here you have developed the habits of listening, of extending a respect which builds respect, of investing trust that inspires trust, of supporting others in the expression of their insights and convictions, and of stretching to understand as fully and as disinterestedly as you can the other's point of view. You have also developed the habit and the skill to reconcile the other's view with your own, through clarifying where perspectives and convictions converge and delineating the differences that remain. Together these habits and that skill enable you to create emotionally and intellectually safe space where differences in perception and conviction can be made clear and where either side convinced in part or whole by the other can adjust its view of what is acceptable and right, without loss of pride or advantage.

These habits and that skill, basic to effective seminars, to intellectual communities and to the search for truth, are likewise the very means for forging shared understanding and purpose on that foundation of human commonality you recognize is there.

So I call on you who not only recognize the universal foundation for human collaboration, but also have the habits and skill to build a collaborative world upon that foundation, to hold out whenever you responsibly can, and for as long as you responsibly can, for outreach over confrontation, to refuse to let even a moment of asserting power, tip the balance from potential partnership into a downward spiraling zero-sum game.

As we look ahead, how likely are we to build the cohesion that enables collective accomplishment within families, institutions, corporate enterprises and societies without honoring expectations for respect and inclusion? How likely are we to heal rifts between the West and the Islamic world without creating contexts that support the adjustments in perspective on both sides that generate shared vision? How likely are we to achieve a lasting peace in North Korea without dialogue enriched by the candor and care I experienced 12 years ago in Pyongyang? How likely are we to repair America's image as a genuine leader of the world without projecting confidence in the transformative power of outreach? How likely are we to address the universal concerns of poverty, human rights, the environment, security and peace if we abandon faith in the humanity of those with whom we must deal?

Given who you are, your independent understanding of moral strength, your awareness of what confrontation and the assertion of power cannot buy, your recognition of the foundations of human commonality and remarkable ability to build upon it, and your experience of a community that seeks outreach over confrontation, I ask you, on whatever path you take, whenever you responsibly can, turn from confrontation, reach for and inspire others to reach for, our shared humanity. I could not be more confident in the leadership you will each bring to this, the most important challenge of our time.

Warmest congratulations, Class of 2007!