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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

Op Eds

Indifference Is the Enemy of Democracy

By Julian J. Giordano
By Kenneth Roth, Contributing Opinion Writer
Kenneth Roth is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

I won’t sugarcoat it: You are entering a world where some of the most basic values of our democracy are under attack. Some politicians have found political profit in demonizing certain minorities. Rather than appeal to a broad national community, they preach divisiveness and exclusion. The quest for political power has become an end that in their view justifies these means.

It used to be that we could at least debate such dangerous policies. We could openly consider whether we really want to build our nation on such exclusionist dogma.

But today, even the facts for that debate are under attack. As the filtering of traditional media has given way to the immediacy of social media, spin and disinformation often replace fact-based discourse.

The devaluation of fact is dangerous because a common understanding of reality is a prerequisite to shaping a common vision. It is hard to build a community when we cannot even agree on the world that surrounds us.

A “post-fact” environment is also one without accountability. It is a place where politicians can evade responsibility by denying the consequences and even the nature of their acts.

Our universities were once considered bastions of deliberation — a setting where policies could be debated and morale visions measured. But too often, even our universities have become infected by a censorious ethos in which disfavored views are no longer challenged and debated, but shouted down and suppressed.

For a while, until Harvard’s faculty and students reasserted the principle of academic freedom, I, myself, was excluded because of a dean’s view that certain criticisms — in my case, of Israel — were too threatening, according to a professor who spoke with him.

These developments are deeply worrying, but they are not written in stone. They are troubling trends, but they can be reversed. They have not always been, and, with your help, they are not destined always to be.

I have faith that these challenges can be overcome because I see the prospect of a better future in all of you.

You have grown up in an extraordinarily diverse America. For you, unlike some of your elders, a multicultural society is not a threatening development. It is reality. You are best positioned to defend the decency and respect for differences that alone will allow our nation to come together as a community and prosper.

With your Harvard education, you also have the capacity to redeem a fact-based discourse. You can see through the convenient obfuscation of those who pretend that facts are mere opinions. You can resurrect a reality-based discourse that is needed to hold our leaders to account for their actions.

And having learned at Harvard how to consider and contest different points of view, you understand the value of free debate. You know that to hear a difficult perspective is not to endorse it. Censorship is the blind rejection used by those who fear knowing. Your education has given you the strength to hear, consider, and even learn from those with whom you disagree.

But, you might ask, how can you, a young graduate just leaving the College, possibly make a difference? These are seemingly tectonic trends. How can you influence them?

I have spent my professional life at Human Rights Watch taking on powerful forces. The task can seem daunting, but I have seen the enormous difference that even a handful of individuals can make. And not just heroic individuals. Ordinary young people of commitment like you.

In fact, your generation is perhaps better placed than any previous one to make itself heard. The same social media that enables the deniers of truth and the purveyors of exclusion gives each of you a platform to push back. We should not cede this platform to deceit and hatred. And even if you prefer in-person to electronic communication, your voice is enormously important.

Today, it appears that people are more likely to listen to others whom they know. Institutions are regarded skeptically, but friends and acquaintances are accorded more deference and trust.

Your views matter. While each individual’s voice can travel only so far, your collective voice has enormous resonance. It has reach and influence. It has the capacity to serve as a powerful antidote to the callousness and deception that endanger our democracy.

Indifference is the enemy of democracy. Resignation is the accomplice of the autocrat. Your engagement is a prerequisite to the future you deserve.

Use your voice. Act on your beliefs. Defend your values. These are not naive steps. They are feasible and essential to ensure a world where you will want to lead your adult lives.

Kenneth Roth is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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Op EdsCommencement 2023