In October I was privileged to give the Abraham Joshua Heschel lecture at Elmhurst College. It was an occasion to reflect on some of the things we've been thinking about a lot recently at ABQ--citizenship, responsibility, community, and the role of conversation about Big Questions in weaving them all together. The lecture draws on our own work, as well as the thinking of Danielle Allen and Parker Palmer. You can listen to it here, and read the full version here. A snippet is below.
In the emerging science of Big Questions, it turns out there’s an important difference between the second person singular or plural, and the first person plural. Consider these two questions: For whom are you responsible? and For whom are we responsible? For whom are you responsible? speaks to you, the reader or hearer of the question, as an individual. It certainly invites you into this eternal question, and it does so with a sense of urgency. When you read or hear this question, you’re likely to start thinking about parents or children or friends or teammates. Maybe you think about students or employees or campers or other people in your charge. But the way the question is phrased, you think about them as an individual—in reference to your own story.
But now listen again: For whom are we responsible? What changes? All we did was replace ‘you’ with ‘we,’ and yet the horizon of this question is radically wider. Before, my focus was on the word responsible, and thinking about the people and things in my care. But in this version I’m also thinking about the question, “Who is this we the question is referring to?” Am I part of the we? For whom are we responsible—does we mean us here on this campus? Us here in Elmhurst, or Chicago, or Evanston? We in this room? We who might read this question in print? Or could ‘we’ refer to all of us as human beings—for whom are we responsible, as humans?
The move from you to we introduces a whole new set of considerations into a Big Question. It’s risky, because some people might see that question and say, “Hey, I’m not part of your we! I never consented to being part of your group!” In the culture of distrust many of us inhabit, we may look at a question directed at ‘we’ and, out of habit, become suspicious: Who is the asker of this question? What big interest—corporate, government, or otherwise—is manipulating me? Who presumes to make me a part of their group? Nobody else can speak for me. I’m not part of anyone’s we, and certainly if I didn’t give my consent.
What is so troubling about this is that the distrust that fuels suspicion over using ‘we’ is both a cause and a result of our inability to use ‘we.’ It’s a vicious circle: The less we refer to ‘we,’ the lower our levels of trust. The lower our levels of trust, the less we can refer to we. The stakes of this conundrum are high. For we are now at a moment in human history when our ability to live together—in communities, in nations, on the planet itself—is being challenged as never before. The adaptive challenges we face, as citizens of Illinois, of the United States, of the world, are enormous, and they will only be solved if we can find ways to live together. And that starts with recovering the ability to imagine ourselves as a collective, with the ability to say, “We.”
It all brings to mind the Adrienne Rich poem, ‘In Those Years’:
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
So what’s the way out of this conundrum? How can we rebuild trust? How can we recover the ability to think and speak of ‘we?’ Tonight I want to explore these questions.