Commencement Address: Norman Joel Moser '04
Story posted May 29, 2004
In This Time and In This Place
by Norman Joel Moser '04
May 29, 2004
We tell ourselves at Bowdoin to promote the Common Good. Be it in business, government, the sciences, arts or social activism, in all that we do, we serve the Common Good. It is a simple, defined mission for an admirable life. Bowdoin President Joseph McKeen clarified this mission in 1802, saying how the Bowdoin institution was created "not for the private advantage of those who resort to [it]. . . but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society." But what does such an ambiguous term mean in our land and in our age? How could an abstract term like the Common Good ever guide someone to understand and confront the walls of injustice we have created? How does one expedite social change and bring authentic movement and progress? And how could the Common Good ever seek to address the social pressures of mundane, daily interaction?
It is in order that we might grasp at this Common Good that we engage in the challenges of education. Education for me is a gift of perspective, an understanding of the many elements that contribute to social progression and individual liberation from ignorance. It is the development of aptitude for progress, not for the realization of an ultimate conclusion. If I have absorbed anything of the Bowdoin ethos, it is this.
While some might view the advancement of the Common Good as evasive, disjunctive and thus without merit, it is for me a process that creates harmony among its many parts, parts that bring diverse perspectives, talents, and passions to the deconstruction of societal injustice. Even if it is eternally oscillating, even if the Common Good is not static but changes with regard to time and place, it is nonetheless powerful. And it is nonetheless worthwhile to seek. Indeed, the promotion of the Common Good is very much a collective enterprise, guided through shared leadership and multiple perspectives.
There is a unique quality in the civility of collective leadership in Maine and on the Bowdoin College campus. Here, the popular definition of leadership is one which is plural rather than singular, unrestricted rather than caged, and which grounds itself in a loyalty to the community as a whole rather than to the individual. When I reflect on my Bowdoin experience, I vividly remember discussing this idea of collective leadership with my brother. After many heated conversations - one of which almost resulted in our forced removal from a museum - my brother and I have begun to refine this complex understanding of leadership. My brother has taught me that true leadership values an integration of multiple perspectives in each time and in each place.
For too long a dominant understanding of leadership has prevailed in both business and in politics which regards "power" as a limited commodity, as something which a select few have the right to utilize over others. The problem herein is that "power" often results in totalitarianism. Leadership, however, should not be primarily the power to control and to make exclusive decisions which others must obey, as a slave obeying a master, a serf obeying a lord. Rather, true leadership is the ability to motivate and empower others in an effort to attain common goals. In short, leadership is not about holding others down, but rather about raising them up. It is not about exerting control over every decision, but rather about teaching and enabling others to take responsibility in the advancement of a communal vision. Leadership is not a singular action. It is a synergetic process, driven by guided collective vision. Lao-Tzu hinted at this almost 2500 years ago, but it has been overlooked for far too long. What he taught was as true then as it is today: "To lead the people, walk behind them."
Only through this vision of collective leadership and communal activism can the promotion of the Common Good ever come to fruition. And most paramount, only such a moral collective can stand against the powerful influence of passivity and conformity, to turn apathy into action. There are indeed many walls which we all quietly ignore and which slowly enclose our potential to empower others, and ultimately to act ourselves. I speak of the many injustices which quietly frame themselves around us. There are global walls of injustice: blind eyes to genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, terrorism, crimes of hatred and ethnic strife, indifference to the A.I.D.S. crisis, and concrete barriers that are constructed today in Israel and Iraq that promote fear in order to sow peace. Other injustices are far less palpable but just as poignant: disregard for the poor, domestic violence, child abuse, socially respected racism, and homophobia. We all have developed symbolic understandings of injustice and hatred. For some it is a person or a people, a place or an idea. My understating of injustice crumbled somewhere on the streets of Berlin, Germany.
Nestled quietly among a run down area of Berlin there remains a portion of a powerful symbol of humanity's failure to confront fanaticism. The decaying remains of the Berlin Wall can be hard to locate, as they are hidden among the relics of a troubled past and the booming sprawl of an optimistic future. I searched for the Wall as most na´ve onlookers do, only to discover a small, unmapped section of it in a back area of Berlin. There, on this otherwise ordinary street, I witnessed one of the most stunning and grounding experiences of my life. It was not what I saw in the Berlin Wall itself that struck me, but rather what I viewed through it. A small opening had broken off the large, bland concrete structure, exposing the sunlight reflecting on a small garden in the distance. It was an opening, my opening, my perspective.
This is the perspective that education brings. It is an ability to find our own hole through what others view as a structure too daunting and too monumental to approach. Through this small, often painstakingly small opening comes our genuine understanding of how to work toward the Common Good. Through this opening comes a fuller understanding of the wall's totality, through it comes the ability not only to see the injustice for what it has become, but also for what lies behind and ahead of it. There is power in perspective.
If passionate individuals actively
This power in perspective is the Bowdoin gift, the tool to expediting social reform and to promoting the Common Good. It is this view that has encouraged us to look above bigotry and self-affirming social constructs and into the realm in which one may understand the true complexities of injustice. We can learn to respect and integrate the perspective of the community, which values a diversity of individual thought and being. Through such collective synergy we learn to annihilate injustices, to deconstruct them experience by experience, perspective by perspective, to the point where the supposed differences upon which they are built are eradicated. The difficult task of leadership is learning how to assemble these views and to coordinate small steps forward. And this is why the Common Good must remain indeterminate, for it is upon each of us to learn how we might lead others in this advancement of justice.
Our understanding of the Common Good must harmonize with our time and in our place. We must not allow it to become a singular representation of the past or a mythical creation of an ideal future. The Common Good can never be a fixed act or idea, and it never must be an ideological concept. It is our responsibility to allow our definition of the Common Good to adapt and to change, to allow its powerful symbolic force to guide our strive for integrity. We must engage it, continually recreating its worth and meaning for our individual being. We must tear down these walls of injustice in our own time and in our own place. Only in this light is the Common Good an authentic offering and guiding principle.
And so, President Mills, Congressman Tom Allen, honorary degree recipients, trustees, faculty and staff of Bowdoin College, friends and family of the graduates, and my fellow members of the class of 2004, we must ask ourselves, why is it important to be vigilant now? What understanding of the Common Good is at home in our land and in our age, in this time and in this place? There are those indeed who are actively constructing shocking expressions of injustice in our time, and yet their actions are largely ignored. A recycled concrete barrier of a past age grows every day in the state of Israel. Although this wall is intended to protect, it instead divides human connections and fuels retaliatory passions of hatred. Too much of our world is silent. Hope is so lost that fanatics not only accept suicidal missions of terror, but embrace them in contempt of human life. Towers crumble, clubs burn, and trains disintegrate before us, testing humanity's ethical core.
A.I.D.S. continues to work its invisible death among the millions suffering in poverty, and too many in positions of power have forgotten how their indifference allowed this disease to spread. In our time, when forty million people worldwide are currently infected, the world relief organizations beg for funding while we gorge ourselves on material excess. And right now, in this very moment, in this time and in this place, hundreds of thousands flee genocide's scorched-earth sword in Sudan, and the blood-stained machetes of Rwanda are forgotten. The Common Good is in very real peril in our time and in our place. Let us not forget it.
Not everyone will find themselves in positions of paramount decision. Most will not. But never forget, that many lives of justice can accumulate into a collective memory that quietly contributes to the deconstruction of societal injustice. This collective memory empowers and replicates all who live in this time, and those who lie ahead. I will never forget the day my brother and I saw the Berlin Wall crumble before an astonished world. But although this physical barrier stands no more, let us not forget that everyday the injustices this Wall symbolizes find their way into our time, quietly evading recognition. Only through collective leadership can we continue to resist these injustices wherever they will manifest themselves. Today let us affirm again that these walls of oppression, these walls that divide people and replicate hatred and fear have no worth in this time and in this place.
It is to this end that I have chosen to live, by continually building upon the transformative moments I truly have been privileged to experience. And it is to this end that I will continue to surround myself with those who still seek to promote this Common Good.
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