We live in a broken world.
This semester, I have been teaching a new course on the politics of inequality. Each week my students and I try to better understand how socio-economic status, race, religion, gender, education, geography, politics and history have contributed to the chasms we observe today.
At times, our conversation is an uneasy one, because every discussion of difference cannot help but implicate each of us, too, no matter where we stand on each of these aspects.
Sometimes there is a temptation to avoid the hard questions.
Our communityhere on the Hilltop experiences these divisions too, and in recent months we have seen them flare up in particular ways around issues of race, equal treatment under the law, inclusion, political discourse and satire. We have seen that our speech and our actions can reinforce existing biases, and that they can lash out in new ways and create new hurts (whether intended or not).
Yet, our community is also committed to the idea that we are at our best when we have the hard conversations. The vision of the university is one of a relentless searching for the truth, one that believes that our study and reflection and conversation can move us all to a greater,shared depth of understanding and knowledge. The mission of Georgetown, as inscribed in the high reaches of Gaston Hall, calls us to seek wisdom and virtue. This mission is an inspiration to us, and also a constant challenge. So, how might we try to live up to it?
We are at our best when we commit ourselves to sustained dialogue — often by listening first, and then speaking. The preamble to Georgetown’s speech and expression policy, crafted in the 1980s by Fr. James Walsh, S.J., emphasizes that “more is better” when it comes to speech. It insists on the idea that every voice have a space and invites us to create lasting conversations to genuinely build up our community. Ultimately, it holds that “the exchange of ideas will lead to clarity, mutual understanding, the tempering of harsh and extreme positions, [and] the softening of hardened positions.”
We are at our best when we presume the good will of our interlocutors. The Jesuit approach to the world is somewhat counter-cultural today: Rather than being pessimistic, it is intensely optimistic about what happens when human beings encounter one another. It calls us to interpret the words of others in the best possible light. And even more profoundly, it invites us to revere the other, not just for his words, but for his humanity.
We are at our best when we admit that asking for, giving, and receiving forgiveness will always be part of the process. Even with the best of intentions, we will find that we sometimes misspeak, mis-hear and misconstrue the position of others. This is where forgiveness becomes essential.
As a professor and a Jesuit, I am increasingly conscious of how imperfect our words are (my own included), and I have come to deeply appreciate conversations with students and colleagues about how speech and silence, acknowledgement and avoidance can injure or affirm, lift up or cast down. Honestly noting our own failings opens the door to forgiveness and a new start in building community. It reminds us that hurt and division need not ever have the last word; restored dignity, respect and mutual friendship are always possible and worth striving for.
Our community at Georgetown will never be immune to the divisions and fractures of our world. Yet this should not be disheartening. In fact, it is a crucial aspect of our mission. We invite in our planet’s brokenness and chasms, quite intentionally, in the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the members of our community.And together, by having the hard conversations, we seek to become better than we have been before, and better than many of the more jaded voices around us would say is possible. Admittedly, we grapple and mis-speak and hurt along the way, but in a spirit of humility, honesty and reflection, we also seek to move forward.
By challenging ourselves to live our best instincts as a community, we seek to model the reconciliation our world so desperately needs.