In the Elevator

Good afternoon, King’s.

One of the reasons why I love schools is that they are full of beginnings: a new year, a new term, a new week, a new day. These beginnings always inspire me with a renewed sense of possibility and transformation – to learn, to grow and to discover – and they remind me why I became a teacher.

So the beginning of the term is a great time to pause, to step back, to reflect about the work ahead of us. I want to do that today by describing something that happened last week.

Many, if not all of you, are on Facebook. I am not. Nor am I on Twitter. Or Snapchat. Or any social media. But occasionally a friend will share a post with me. A few days ago, as you were taking your exams, Ms. Monica showed me a post written by our own Ms. Ala in which she recounts getting on an elevator in Boston.

Or, I should say, trying to get on an elevator. As she entered  the elevator, a woman, no doubt seeing her hijab, ordered her to leave, while another man, cursing at her in Spanish (a language he did not know Ms. Ala speaks fluently) contemptuously held the door for her, and waited for her to get out. Two others in the elevator stood by silently and simply watched. They did nothing. The people on the elevator refused to close the doors until Ms. Ala got out, and Ms. Ala, although in shock  and not quite sure why they were reacting this way, refused to leave the elevator as she was carrying her heavy computers and camera equipment. The four other people then left the elevator, leaving her to ride it alone.

There is a lot to be said about this moment in the elevator and the people in that elevator – and a lot to be learned, particularly for us and particularly at this school and at this historical moment.

There is, first of all, Ms. Ala’s extraordinary dignity. She refused to leave the elevator, she continued on with her day, she wrote about her experience and shared it with others – without acrimony or a hardness of heart but with forgiveness and optimism. Despite the fact that similar incidents – and worse – have been reported in the media, she refused to believe that this incident was in any way typical or representative. She ended her post by re-dedicating herself to teaching about Islam and the Arab world and combatting Islamophobia. In essence, she used this moment to affirm her vocation as a teacher. We can all learn from that.

But let’s turn our attention to the other people in that elevator. You might remember that there were two people in that elevator who did nothing, who stood by passively as observers. They were not actively involved in trying to force Ms. Ala from the elevator. Nor did they intervene to stop it.

Who are they? Why did they not do anything?

Perhaps they were simply too shocked to react. Perhaps they didn’t want to get involved. Perhaps their inaction and silence is an expression of their own bigotry. Perhaps they were simply frightened. Then again, perhaps they were fundamentally good people who were cowed into silence and inaction and who could not muster the courage to act. I don’t know.  

Whatever their motives - this passive stance - it is important for all of us to recognize that it is available to all of us, and it is all too common and all too easy.

Doing nothing –, disengaging, retreating, refusing to risk involvement, not acting – is itself a powerful form of action. We cannot allow ourselves to be dulled into inaction, passivity and insensitivity. That stance is unworthy of a student or a graduate of this school. It is unworthy of all of us. As we begin the new term we should begin with a heightened commitment to one another and to the values that bind us together: kindness, an openness to difference, a global outlook and perspective, a willingness to stand in solidarity with those who require our assistance. And we must make these values an active and permanent part of our lives, here on this campus, every day.

And for those of you, our seniors, who will soon be heading off to college, you should know that these are the values of the world’s great colleges and universities. The historian and president of Harvard, Drew Gilpen Faust, spoke for many when she wrote: “We must demonstrate what it means to be a community enriched, not embattled, by difference and diversity; we must listen generously to one another across disagreement; we must model reasoned and respectful discourse and argument; we must all support those who may feel vulnerable or under attack.”

But of course, we have yet to speak of the woman who ordered Ms. Ala from the elevator, and the angry man who held the door. 

Who are these people? What were they thinking? What would drive them to act in such a way?  

Of all the people in that elevator, they are without question the most difficult to fathom and understand. Their actions and words are so obviously wrong that our imagination takes flight from them. They are, in a fundamental way, unrecognizable to me, and, I suspect, to everyone in this room. We immediately and rightly separate ourselves from them.

But that response, I think, may be a bit too easy.

One of my favorite philosophers is a woman who teaches at the University of Chicago named Martha Nussbaum. I turned to her this weekend as I tried to make sense of this incident, and I spent some time rereading some of my favorite essays by her. Her thinking may be useful to us.

Nussbaum notes that each of us has powerful and defining loyalties. They begin, of course, with our family, our parents and siblings and grandparents. As we age, they extend outward to our friends, to our own families, to those in our mosques, synagogues and congregations. Over time they can extend farther, to our local communities and to those within the nation, our fellow nationals and compatriots. These local identities – whether they are the identities of family, of tribe, of religion, or of nation – are deeply held and often just as deeply protected. Some have held that these identities and our fierce attachments to them run so deep that we are destined for a future of hostility, division and violence, that civilizations – the Arab world and the West, for example – are destined to clash.

Nussbaum does not believe this, but she recognizes how powerful, how defining and how limiting these identities can be. She understands that they can restrict our ability to understand others, to connect with them, to empathize with those who do not share our same loyalties, beliefs and commitments.

Nussbaum suggests that if we are to survive the enormous challenges of this century – the most important of which require international cooperation across the boundaries of nation states -- we must extend this circle of care beyond friends, family and fellow nationals to what she calls “distant others”: to people who have other beliefs; to those who, by a mere accident of birth, are born in poverty and destitution, bereft of opportunity; to people beyond our own borders. She asks that we use our powers of imagination to extend our circle of care so that it includes all who share this planet, that we give moral consideration to all. 

The purpose of education, she suggests, is to encourage and help young people to extend their circles of care outward and to cultivate moral imagination. She has a phrase for this. You may recognize it, since it is one of the core values of this school and one of the reasons it was founded. She calls it “global citizenship.” Her essays are full of inspiring and heroic stories of individuals who have done just that, who have risked themselves for strangers and stood up for those in need.

From this perspective, the angry man and woman who tried to force Ms. Ala from the elevator become much more recognizable. They are, in fact, a lot like each us, since all of us - each and every one of us in this room -- are shaped by powerful loyalties and identities. At moments of fear and crisis, these loyalties can rise up and blind us to the humanity of others.

I do not wish to be misunderstood here. I am not for a moment excusing their behavior – what they did is appalling and wrong and inexcusable, whatever its sources. What I am saying is that each of us is susceptible to this kind of blindness, this impoverishment of imagination, this failure to see the full humanity of others. We are all capable of this sort of blindness.  

From Brexit, to the rise of various kinds of exclusionary fundamentalisms, to this moment in the elevator, there is a movement to erect walls and close borders, and to deny the full humanity of those who appear different from ourselves. But the real danger is not the closing of borders and the building of walls; it is the closing, the narrowing of our own powers of imagination and empathy.      

Sometimes goodness begins not with moral indignation – as warranted as that may be – but with a recognition of our own imperfection and flawed natures and a determined effort to transcend them. The great religious and philosophical traditions, our poets and our writers, understand this truth, and the very course of history tells us that this is so. They know that we are capable of great acts of cruelty and selfishness. But they also know that we are capable of great and good things.

As we begin this new term, I hope that we can work to extend this circle of care. And that is what I want all of us to do. To take care. To take care of this campus, its grounds, its animals. I want you to take care of yourself, to make good and healthy decisions. I want you to take care of this opportunity you have been given. To engage deeply in your classes and in this community. Most importantly, I want you to take care of one another. I hope that as we begin the term each of us can make a positive commitment to doing something good and seeing it through.

Last updated
January 8, 2017