Seeing ourselves in others

When the faculty was asked in May for its endorsement of Claiming Williams, I found the following words spoken at Dr. Martin Luther King’s church last year offered clarity of purpose for this day, Feb. 5, 2009, and how we could build a stronger community in which we live, work and study. They were spoken by Senator Barack Obama.

“Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

“I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

“I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Our ability to recognize ourselves in one another is instrumental to the well-being of all communities. When we fail to make this connection, we too easily excuse our offenses as unintended and attempt to convince ourselves that any egregious, hateful offense in our community is only occasional, and – due to a drink-addled brain (or any other reason) – excusable as such. The unintended offense is experienced. Hate speech (written or spoken) is threatening.

How many unintended communications have each of us delivered or received; negotiated? When we were made vulnerable by their receipt, did we believe them unintended? As to their frequency, we know only of an event in our community when it is reported. If hateful expressions occur and remain unreported, then who is to say with what frequency hate and threat are experienced?

Seeing ourselves in others requires work (because of the personal examination required), but realizes a more potent outcome than mere tolerance. Tolerance – at best a surface sentiment – describes an indifference to diversity and permits disassociation from our responsibility for and to one another. Communities do not thrive because they are merely tolerant. People do not feel included because they are tolerated. Being responsible for ourselves and to one another is a much more engaged commitment to a working and healthy relationship.

As we recognize our personal commitment and obligation to one another, we must then inspect and identify the condition of our social and intellectual lives. We must examine our own privilege. We can make no assumptions about others’ experiences or interpretations of any experiences we seemingly share. We must be rigorous in our acknowledging where, when and what is available to us and – likewise unavailable to others.

Privilege is two-edged. Those who believe it is bestowed confuse it with a given right to access. Those who believe it is earned recognize it as a responsibility. The former is without empathic wisdom. The latter assumes nothing while working through the complexities of social justice, interpersonal relations and self-examination.

Claiming Williams is not just a day in February. It is a process. It would be unfortunate to think of this project as a narrative with a beginning and end highlighted by a climactic moment. Like all processes, it has moments of focus and moments of distraction.

Processes evolve through channels of opportunities and shift directions as they aim for their desired goal. Processes involve risks, failures and successes and are dependent upon all who participate. Processes require commitment and take time.

In looking at qualities that matter – and all that we say and do here matters – I engage my practice through questions. A question invites responses – not all of them are answers. A response is a beginning of a conversation – not an argument. Listening carefully to a conversation extends what I know – it does not close off. Careful listening generates more questions. There is no end to this intellectual lyricism that builds a stronger, healthier community.

Rather than focus our community’s work on a single day, I hope to see the Claiming Williams project engage this community in the months that precede and follow Feb. 5, 2009. The Claiming Williams project is an invitation. We are invited to recognize our personal capacity through a better understanding of our limits and our dependencies – a better understanding of our access. The Claiming Williams project is an opportunity to see yourself in others.

Ed Epping is the A.D. Falck Professor of Art, faculty director of the Multicultural Center and faculty co-chair for the Claiming Williams steering committee.