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May 28, 2017: Baccalaureate Address, Spring 2017

May 28, 2017


You are graduating into a polarized world. And now with your Middlebury education, you have a responsibility to that world, divided as it is. In recent months and years we have heard this word "polarized" used so many times—on talk shows, by friends and family, by professors and coaches and coffee-shop owners. We have experienced it here this year, and are still thinking and wondering what the best path forward is for us.

And yet, as I look at all that you have accomplished, you have been the opposite of polarized. You have reached out to other cultures, and contributed your own knowledge to our community. Almost 60% of you have studied in another country—42 of them to be exact, and in another language. And 70 of you come from other countries—35 of them to be exact, and shared your cultural knowledge with our community. You have collaborated on athletic teams; 56 of you winning NESCAC or NCAA championships, and 96 of you combining academics and sports to be named on the all-NESCAC academic team. No polarizing between academics and sports for you!

A whopping 70% of you have created connections through community service in Addison Country and beyond. You have reached out across multiple communities, and created start-ups like Share to Wear, a platform clothing rental service that aims to foster community, inclusivity, and sustainability. You have built peace projects in Germany that foster agency and creativity amongst Arabic speaking refugees. And locally, you built bridges by curating artistic works, such as the exhibit, “Fed Up: The Fight for Ethical Food Systems in Addison County.” You composed plays focusing on issues of mobility, memory, and independence within the Middlebury elderly community.

So much of what you have done at Middlebury addresses the ills that divide us, and now you are about to go out into the world to do more of that. And here's the question: What is your responsibility in a polarized world, with a life ahead of you that confers, and will keep conferring, the privilege and possibility of a Middlebury education? In answering this question, it might help to explore more about what the word "polarization" means. When I began to read about the word, I found it was much easier to find synonyms for polarization than it was to find antonyms. Synonyms were "divided," "extreme," "bunkered." Antonyms were fewer, and tended to be weaker words, like "depolarized." What does depolarized even mean?

I also discovered that our contemporary state of polarization might have an even longer history than we think. One PEW research study shows that our current polarization goes back as far as the 1970's. The study states that we are more polarized now than we have been in two and a half decades. The votes in our congress used to overlap between Democrats and Republicans far more than they do today. Today, there is hardly any overlap today all. An even more recent study suggests that in the last four years, all across the United States, there was a 20% drop in congressional swing seats; there are fewer and fewer seats that could go to either Democratic or Republican.

One reasonable question to ask is: How did we get here? Many blame social media. Scholars of media and misinformation like Fil Menczer believe this; even our former president has argued that social media is to account for our present ills. In this view, social media is responsible for our echo chambers, our righteous bubbles that confirm our views and castigate those who disagree. But there is hope: even more recent studies—one just out last month—argues that in recent years polarization has happened more amongst older people than younger ones, and younger ones are the far more frequent users of social media. So social media is not entirely to blame, and young people may hold the key to what ails us.

What is more, one might argue that some kinds of polarizations are good ones. Many of us feel the intensity of a moral purpose in this moment—whether it is around race, or inclusivity, or climate change, or economic inequality, or free speech. We see with a clarity and intensity that drives us forward. And sometimes the intensity of our moral purpose must necessarily strain or even break relationships.

So the question is this: how can you as Middlebury graduates think in a new hopeful way about your work in this world? We are a college of liberal arts and sciences, and so we should look to different fields to help us. The scientific meaning of polarization might be of use in answering this question. Let us think for a minute about the definition of polarized and unpolarized light. All light can be understood as vibrating waves. Unpolarized light is light that vibrates in multiple directions and on several planes at once, like the light of the sun or a candle. In contrast, polarized light has passed through a filter so that the light vibrates on a single plane and in a single direction. The waves still travel at different angles, but are doing so on a single plane. Polarized light is used in microscopes, so that objects can be seen more accurately and clearly. It is also used in our sunglasses, so we can filter out glaring, diffuse light that makes it hard for us to see.

I think the scientific metaphor gives us a way of thinking about the social world as well. While a polarized society is one where economic and social directions seem to be traveling further and further apart, a polarized beam of light is the opposite. Polarized light is less diffuse; its vibrations are working on a single plane, and make unity out of multiplicity.

What would it look like for you to be that kind of light in this polarized world? What would it look like for you to work to bring energies moving in opposite directions together, even if just for a moment, on a single plane? I think this is what it means to work for community.

Some examples of building community in the most difficult circumstances—in post-conflict societies—are powerful here. There are many compelling stories of this work. In recent history there are the stories of the Peace Committees in post-apartheid South Africa. In rebuilding South Africa, National Peace Secretariat created local groups, called peace committees, that focused first on the most troubled regions of the country, such as Kwazulu Natal. These groups were composed of individuals of different ethnic, religious, and professional backgrounds who were able to quell rumors, and to mediate between society and the state, between warring neighborhoods, even between individuals.

As one USAID report tells us, these peace committees literally created the physical, psychological and social space where people could meet and resolve their differences. To use our light analogy, they created a process where forces going in different directions could focus in a single direction on a single plane.

Closer to home but longer ago, in our own New England, the world fell apart in the small town of Salem village when women and men were accused and then hung as witches. That story is well known, but the story of how the community healed itself is not as well known. When it was over, the accusers and accused needed to come together. The community was small enough that many of them worshipped at the same church. One clergyman, Joseph Greene, inherited this divided community in mid 1690's. And what he did has not made the history books in the same dramatic way as the violence that preceded it, but it is equally remarkable. Joseph Greene rearranged the seating in the church so that people had to face each other. He got people of Salem Village, vibrating with anger and grief as they were, to be, just for a minute, on the same plane.

These stories give us a hint of what your Middlebury education might enable you to do as you graduate into this polarized world. Even if you don't know it, even if you don't feel like you possess them, you have the skills to bring people together. You can do this because you have learned to switch perspectives, to move between ideas. You have been taught to imagine different worlds.

You can and you must do this without losing your own sense of moral purpose. Keep pushing our systems to make the world better. But in doing so, remember that you must work to bring people into the same room—to create a plane, to build a table, to forge a common space where reasonable people can disagree. As one friend recently put it, "I may disagree with you, but I will not leave the room. I will stand here with you and we can describe the room together."

As in South Africa, you can build the peace committees, both formally and informally. As Joseph Greene did, you can rearrange the seating in the hall. You can do the 21st century equivalent of these things. Invite someone out for coffee who said something who really annoyed you. Spend time with the colleague at your new job or graduate program whose views you most disagree with. Go find the neighbor in your new apartment building who seems the most odd to you, and get to know them. Organize random groups of people wherever you find yourself.

Today, fewer and fewer people can stand with each other in the same room. With your Middlebury imagination, you can be that light that creates a single space for people to dwell in, that helps them turn to each other and say, "I will stand with you."

Go now and help us build that common world.

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