Last Lecture – Senior Convocation - May 12, 2017
With Professor Michael Taber and Professor Sybol Anderson

Good evening.  I am so honored to be with you tonight and to help you celebrate your countless accomplishments, about which you should feel so proud.  It has been my great good fortune to work with many of you, and I wish all of you the very best as you move forward from this place. 

Though you have accomplished a great deal, in many ways your work is just beginning, and there is so much to be done.  What I’d like to do, in the midst of this happy occasion, is to think about the moral responsibility all of us bear to work to promote justice.  Though that responsibility is often painful to think about and difficult to satisfy, it is incredibly important.  And so it seems fitting to take just a few minutes to reflect on moral responsibility, here in your last lecture at St. Mary’s College, before continuing on with the celebration tonight and tomorrow.

Following Prof. Taber, I’d like to start with a poem.

Beginners

Denise Levertov

Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
— we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

---

As students who have earned a degree in the liberal arts, part of your faculty’s mission has been to help you to engage with the world as it is in order to help you to be better equipped to make it what it ought to be.

So, what is the world like today, in 2017?  As Levertov tells us, it is in many ways a place of profound contradictions, for it is full of both great beauty and terrible horror, bottomless kindness and generosity alongside unfathomable cruelty and brutality.  Our world is shot through with injustice in which whole groups are exploited, marginalized, and rendered powerless, where people are beaten or killed for being who they are, looking the way they look, loving who they love, being from one country or another, or worshiping who they worship. 

I wish I could tell you that, having identified those forms of oppression and injustice, challenging them would be easy.  But, of course it’s not, in part because, as philosopher Iris Young argued, oppression can thrive in an otherwise well-meaning society.  To recognize that oppression is structural is in many ways to give up searching for a villain who you can blame.  Instead, such terrible outcomes can be born from the everyday arrangements of a society that doesn’t intentionally aim at them, but instead produces them through often small and otherwise inconspicuous collective actions of millions of individual actors.

None of this is to say that these outcomes are inevitable, and it is certainly not to say that they are natural; these outcomes are born from human agency; they follow from what we do.  And, even if you yourself don’t actively contribute to them – let’s say you are caring and generous with all those you encounter - I’m afraid that your hands remain unclean.  The reason why is that all of us here today have benefited from the oppression of others. 

Even if you didn’t choose whatever privilege you enjoy, and even if you would give it up if you could, you still bear responsibility, born from that privilege, to do all that you can to bring about a world in which society is structured differently so as to produce less suffering, domination, and discrimination and more joy, greater autonomy, and more thoroughgoing flourishing for everyone in it. 

There are many ways we can satisfy this responsibility, most obviously through our professional lives and by organizing politically. 

But, I want to focus here on how we can and should work to satisfy our responsibility to promote justice every day through often small and easily overlooked ways.  After all, the personal is political and one of the methods by which oppressive social structures can be perpetuated in an otherwise well-meaning society is by way of background ideologies – the social stories we tell ourselves, often unconsciously and through countless covert ways – about how those who look or love or live or think differently than you are less than, are dangerous, are unworthy, or are here merely for your use. 

Let's call them what they are: those ideologies are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, speciesist, nationalist, and classist.  Those same ideologies often have packed into them the belief that the world is basically just, that it will get better if we leave it to others, that it’s not our job to try to change it, and we couldn’t make it better if we did.  

But, those ideologies are false and we can tell ourselves a different set of stories: stories that take seriously what it really means to love and care for others, regardless of whether they are like us, regardless of whether it benefits us to do so.  We can work to change the way that we perceive others and ourselves in relation to them, to recognize and honor their profound value, and to help build others up, rather than leaving them to be torn down. 

I take it that’s what Levertov is after when she says that:

— we have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

So, part of what satisfying our responsibility to promote justice entails is not just working to tell different stories, but to tell stories that are beyond our present imagination, stories we haven’t even dreamed of yet.  Levertov seems to be telling us that we ought to lean in to the need for imagination in response to atrocity: we ought to embrace the fact that we can’t right now conceptualize fully what it means to tell such liberatory stories, but that it is our job to try. 

And, as I said before, that’s what I take one of the points of a liberal arts education to be: to help you to be better equipped not just to understand the world as it is but to imagine what it could be, what it ought to be, so that we can work to make it better.

This, of course, is no small feat and no one can do it alone.  The good news, as Levertov says, is that:

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

---

When trying to understand what it means to be a moral agent it’s helpful to think of yourself as being the author of your own life. 

And so what I would leave you with, here in my contribution to your last lecture at St. Mary’s, is to encourage you to think about your role as storytellers and to always ask yourself as you move forward in your life: “What kind of story am I telling through my living?” 

In answering that question you should insist always of yourselves and others that you tell liberatory stories that challenge oppressive ways of understanding and perceiving, that reject unjust domination in all its forms and insist instead on respect and love for the myriad and diverse ways of living and being in this world.  And, in so doing, I hope that you will always recognize and rely on the strength and potential of people working together to change it for the better. 

Thank you.