The Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and CommunitySome forty members of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community from across the country and several foreign countries were brought together on the Penn campus this week by Penn president and Commission chair Judith Rodin.
The 3- to 5-year Commission, which includes a number of Penn faculty members, has been convened by President Rodin to explore the reasons behind the contemporary explosion of incivility, extremism, and social fragmentation in America and elsewhere around the world. The Commission will try to understand the underlying social, historical and intellectual dynamics that have led to a persistent tide of intolerant, ideologically extremist, and highly polarized cultural and political exchanges.
Part of Penn's continuing commitment to take a leadership role in bringing academic resources to bear on contemporary social problems, the 48-member Commission will seek to create out of its insights a body of writings and discussions that recasts current conflicts; engages emerging leaders in politics, the media, academe, and other professions; tests the ability of creative interdisciplinary and multiprofessional thinking to alter the dynamics of public discourse; and creates an international network of scholars, writers, and opinion leaders who can help to rethink the familiar and simplistic approaches to serious and complex problems.
As the Commission's ideas develop, they will be tested and disseminated in a variety of publications and multimedia materials which should be of interest to many Penn faculty and students, in both curricular and co-curricular settings. The Commission's WWW homepage will be announced in Almanac in January, and a variety of activities on campus will make the Commission a unique resource and contributor to the Penn community. Below are excerpts from two addresses by President Rodin to the first plenary meeting of the Commission, held at the University of Pennsylvania, December 9-10, 1996.
-- Stephen P. Steinberg, Executive Director, Penn National Commission
From President Judith Rodin's Keynote Address
Why are we here? Put simply, many of us believe we are approaching a critical moment in our society -- a moment that will determine the shape of our social and political future for many decades to come.
This is a moment of such potentially significant social consequence that it imposes special responsibilities on leaders in every field: in politics, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in business, in the law, in non-profit agencies and foundations, and most especially, upon those of us in the academic community.
Across America--and increasingly around the world--from campuses to the halls of Congress to talk radio and network TV--social and political life seems dominated today by incivility, ideological extremism, an un-willingness to compromise, and an intolerance for opposition.
This dominance is now widely evident in the harsh and uncompromising character of American political debate; in the resurgence of fundamentalist religious and social doctrines; and in the deepening isolation and self-segregation of ethnic and racial communities.
Overseas it is expressed in the rise of virulent forms of nationalism and xenophobia in Europe, Asia, and Africa--with tragic human consequences.
Among some of its most dramatic symptoms are the murders of physicians for performing legal abortions, bombings in New York and Oklahoma City (to say nothing of those in the Middle East), and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet it is pervasive enough to be plainly visible in the products of Hollywood and the daily conversations of talk radio and day-time television.
Indeed, incivility has become a routine subject in our popular entertainments. That fact alone tells us that most Americans share this perception. According to a recent poll, eighty-nine percent think incivility is a serious problem. And seventy-eight percent think the problem has gotten worse over the past decade.
Of course, none of this is surprising: the incivility and polarization perceived by the public are readily evident in our public culture. What first appeared to many of us as minor skirmishes over a narrow spectrum of cultural and educational issues--what we have come to call the "culture wars" --has now become a full-fledged, nuclear conflict, in which no prisoners are being taken. Pat Buchanan's 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention reflects this widening of the battle-fronts: [C-Span video excerpt from Buchanan speech.]
This kind of unrestrained warfare has now become the daily fabric of our politics--on both ends of the spectrum. Take for example this typically "shameless" excerpt from CNN's "Crossfire" program: [CNN video excerpt from "Crossfire."]
Ironically, this sort of treatment is so common today, that even the politicians involved take it as a given that it is politically smart to oppose it. Hence, the sudden eruption of pledges to "work together" and "seek compromise" that we have heard since the 1996 elections. We can only speculate about how long this new "era of good feeling" will last. But note that no one seems to question the premise: that political debate has become too coarse, too confrontational, too extreme.
Of course, the examples that we have just seen are relatively tame and self-limiting. For all his extremism and crypto-racism, Pat Buchanan was endorsing a mainstream candidate for president, George Bush. And if the polarized pundits on "Crossfire" really came to blows, cooler heads would no doubt intervene. Yet, we cannot afford to be too sanguine. There are other, far more troubling, examples to consider.
Take the music of Tupac Shakur, the rap artist murdered in Las Vegas while under contract to Death Row Records. Did his death imitate his art -- or did both merely reflect the nightmarish cultural reality from which he sprang? Listen to what he tells an 11-year old child: [Audio excerpt from "Outlaw" by Tupac Shakur.] Imagine the impact such a popular artist has on thousands of fans.
Every day, the news is filled with new examples of differences of opinion taken to absurd lengths: drivers in traffic jams shot at because they honked their car horns; abortion clinic doctors murdered by "pro-life" extremists; members of a fraternity at the University of Rhode Island brutally assaulted by the football team because one player was ejected from a fraternity party.
Of course, there has always been violence in our society and incivility in our politics. But this excerpt from Don Imus's talk-radio program goes light years beyond the slogan "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" used against the bachelor-candidate Grover Cleveland in the presidential campaign of 1884: [MSNBC video excerpt from the Don Imus program.] And even those who once felt some obligation to serve as role models, no longer feel any compunction about engaging in the most extraordinary exhibitions of incivility and rudeness: [CNN video excerpt of Roberto Alomar spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck.]
And then there is the largely invisible development of a culture of unrestrained rage, sadism, and insult on the Internet. As one journalistic observer recently reported: "An outsider peering into the wired life would probably take one look at the sheer bile that passes over the wires and come away with the impression that the Net community consists of 30 million virtual Visigoths pounding bloody knuckles on the keyboard and zooming around cyberspace in a testosterone-jacked homicidal rage." I will leave the details to your imaginations.
My point is really not to bemoan the coarsening and brutalizing of American culture. I am not convinced it was ever all that pretty, to begin with. In fact, another of our tasks will be to place all of this in historical perspective. One generation's shameful breach of good manners can easily become the exemplar of respectful, civil protest in the next. Take, for example, this historical footnote from a recent documentary on the history of the White House: [Video excerpt describing first-ever picketing of the White House, by suffragettes in 1917.]
If something has changed, there is reason to think we must look more deeply into it than the surface manifestations of incivility and coarseness. It is my hope that through such understanding we may find some clues to effecting serious change. Because even if the level of incivility and polarization is not new, it does seem that its consequences are more dangerous--and widespread.
It seems as though there is some large and fundamental process at work --at home, abroad, and on campus: The incivility and extremism infecting our politics and our culture, now polarizes the discussion of almost every public issue, and drives successful leaders and officeholders to appease the most extreme of their potential supporters--or to retreat from political life, altogether. In concert with the spread of the forms of democratic government around the world, we see an apparent rise in the virulence of nationalist movements and fundamentalist doctrines. And as our campuses strive to prepare students for the diverse global society of the 21st century, we see increases in self-segregation and intolerant behavior. I suspect that these are not isolated phenomena, but surface manifestations of some common, deeper dynamic.
But, unfortunately, in the face of such a world, the temptation to withdraw, to shut out the madness, to isolate ourselves, is understandably growing. Last January, the Washington Post reported that we are becoming a nation of suspicious strangers. Not only have we lost confidence in our government and our institutions, but more and more, we mistrust each other. In every generation since the 1950s this mistrust has grown. Today, nearly two out of three Americans believe that most people cannot be trusted. Thirty years ago, a majority believed the opposite.
Along with mistrust has come a decline in the role of mediating social institutions that once bound us together in multiple communities and provided forums for education, debate, and communal interactions. This leads in turn to greater social fragmentation and individual isolation. No wonder that the evocative title of Robert Putnam's article "Bowling Alone" has become a metaphor for our age.
U.S. News has put incivility on its cover and asks "whatever happened to good manners?" The right calls for a return to "civic virtues," and the left tells us that "it takes a village." Of course, both sides have elements of truth on their side--but neither has a realistic road map for getting from here to there. Prescriptive solutions based on a long-departed--and probably mythic--past are not efficacious. Self-righteous sermonizing about moral decline or the values of good citizenship are unlikely to change powerful patterns of behavior. Incivility and rigid political extremism are only symptoms. We cannot moderate their influence until we have adequately diagnosed and understood the underlying disease.
Of course, here, too, everyone has their own "ten most likely" list of suspects. Many people blame the advent of electronic mass media. They surmise that the numbing isolation of television and the anonymity of talk radio have fostered a generation of thoughtless, inattentive, violence-prone video -junkies. This argument asserts that it should come as no surprise if our world begins to look like MTV, since our children have been conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to experience the world in 2-minute sound bites and rap-rhythmed word patterns. Add to that the apparently unlimited debasement of entertainment and journalism--on television, in film, and in print--in the endless search for commercial profits and higher ratings.
Others blame the schools for failing to educate a more discerning populace. If high school graduates cannot write a serious essay or locate Europe on a map, why should we be surprised when civic virtues are ignored and the ideals of civil society confused with the right to offend, defame, and infuriate.
Given the low voter turn-out last month, it appears that many of us blame our political leaders. We seem to believe they are only interested in re -election--and too often in the art of the deal.
Others believe that we are reaping the just desserts of the greed and self-aggrandizement of the 1980s. They question how anyone can respect our society when--they say--the few, the rich, and the powerful control everything and leave the masses to suffer in our decaying cities.
We will hear about many other possible explanations over the next two days, and I am sure that each of you has an important hypothesis. Whatever the real causes of our current rash of incivility and fragmentation, it is certainly the lack of new and creative thinking that bars the way toward change for the better. As society, we seem -- for the moment -- to have simply run out of new ideas. Perhaps we are busy trying to shout one another down because we lack any real sense of who we are, what we believe, what reasons can be legitimately given to support our beliefs, and what arguments are available to convince our opponents. Along with the loudness of our public discourse has come a very real shallowness, a thoughtless over -simplification, in which reasons, complexity, and precision have no place.
Yet the situations of social and political conflict with which we are faced today are fundamentally complex. Issues like affirmative action, abortion, immigration, nationalism, and health care are difficult. Their solution cannot come from a system of communication and decision-making that rewards the simple, the absolute, and the extreme.
The irony is that as our human abilities to communicate and cooperate effectively seem to falter, our technological power to access and share information and ideas is opening extraordinary new vistas. Even more important, our knowledge of human behavior, both individual and social, practical and theoretical, is burgeoning. Our understanding of the complexities and contradictions of culture and tradition is vastly deeper than it was 100 or even 30 years ago. Many would argue that intellectually, scientifically, technologically, we are better prepared to confront the hard questions of the 21st century than many would have dared hope just a few, short decades ago. Yet, we have failed to mobilize this knowledge in ways that create useful ideas and insightful understandings into the political and social problems we face.
We have failed to place contemporary issues in their historical and intellectual context--not merely to affirm past perspectives--but to generate new alternatives and new approaches to them. This is a critical role for each of our professions and for the institutions through which we practice them. Thus it falls to academic and professional leaders to take on this task with urgency.
We must find new ways of using, communicating, and applying our burgeoning knowledge and technological capabilities. We must begin to envisage new forms of intellectual engagement and public communication that are equal to the tasks of social leadership in the 21st century. Not to impose simplistic solutions, but to open new possibilities. To change the dynamics of our polarized and simplistic, "in your face," public discourse, we must create and inject into it something new: new ideas, new interpretations, new visions, and new alternatives. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in the unproductive polarization of the present.
If today's crisis is fundamentally cultural and intellectual, this effort must first of all be cultural and intellectual in focus. It must start from the premise that our culture is too important to fight "wars" over. Rather, it is the great resource from which we must draw forth new answers to persistent and perplexing questions.
As I see it, this is an area in which each of us must assume the re-sponsibilities of leadership. Individually and through our institutions, we must mobilize our best intellectual resources--from the scholarly disciplines, from the learned professions, and from the worlds of politics, journalism, philanthropy, entertainment, business, and the media.
Only such a broadly conceived effort will be adequate to the task at hand: First, to identify and understand the true origins of our contemporary social crisis. Second, to generate the new insights, interpretations, and ideas that will help all of us to rethink the familiar and simplistic approaches we hear rehearsed every day in the media.
Only from such a process can the new ideas and approaches we so desperately need be created. Only with new ideas and perspectives will we be able to make the best possible use of the new instruments of communication and information that are now appearing.
That is our responsibility. It is our responsibility to teach this--by example--to our students and colleagues, and to the broader society: to let them see us engage in the hard intellectual task of thinking anew about important issues. To help all of us learn to think differently--and act differently--about issues that matter to our society and in our individual lives.
This is the task we have now chosen to undertake together, through the formation of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.
From Dr. Rodin's Concluding Remarks at the Plenary Meeting
More than two hundred years ago, our Colonial predecessors developed some unique mechanisms of communication and collective intellection as they grappled their way toward, first, independence, and later, towards more effective forms of governance. Through dozens of "Committees of Correspondence," the soon-to-be revolutionary leaders shared information, insights, and opinions among the thirteen colonies, as the conflict with Great Britain developed.
These private conversations, carried on over what were then great distances and differences of circumstance, attitudes, and politics, began the process of binding together the future leaders of a single nation. Indeed, a majority of the delegates to the First Continental Congress were members of the Committees of Correspondence.
On this garden trellis of communication grew the foliage of revolutionary ideas that would eventually reach full flower in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and another unique exercise in the power of ideas: The Federalist Papers. But what is most remarkable about this period is the degree to which ideas and rational debate were the stuff and substance of public discourse.
Today, new technologies such as the Internet offer the potential to create modern parallels--on a global scale--to these Colonial patterns of communication and rational discourse.
In some ways, our Colonial predecessors had it easy. By and large, they already shared a common intellectual tradition. As men of the English Enlightenment, they were already committed to both the form and substance of rational debate. They believed passionately in the power of reason to inform and guide human behavior, the uniqueness of the nascent American nation, and the naturalness of the rights they espoused. They had the wonderful advantage of living in the first dawn of a clearly defined intellectual era, an era that they helped to give concrete form, and an era that-- almost --swept away much that is problematic, unruly, violent, and irrational in human behavior.
Alas, for us, it is not so simple. We live in the twilight of their era. We live with the horrors of the 20th century. We live in a world that--though it still values the forms of Enlightenment reason and government--seems to have forgotten their substance. Their simple and appealing faith in the reasonableness of every individual, the power of ideas to shape the world for good, and the ability of argument to sway and control passions seems almost quaint. Indeed, we live in a time when the world our ancestors created seems to have turned upon itself. The very tradition they helped to develop is itself at issue in many of the conflicts with which we are confronted.
Some respond to this situation by trying to restore a mythic past. Others reject all that has come before. Either way, the rest of us are deprived of the common framework we need to wrestle intelligently with the issues of the day-- and with each other. That makes our task substantially tougher than that of our Colonial predecessors. But it may also provide us with clues to the nature of the profound cultural and intellectual crisis through which some believe we are living.
If that is the case, then there is no better period to which we might turn for guidance than Colonial America. There are important lessons to be drawn from this period. These lessons have guided us in conceiving of this Commission. I hope they will remain at the heart of our collective effort.
First among these lessons is the critical importance of leadership. It took individual leadership and initiative to form the Committees of Correspondence, to state publicly what were then treasonable political views, and to foment a revolution as much of ideas as of politics, national identity, or economics. The importance of leaders has motivated us to assemble as members of this Commission academic leaders of every stripe and opinion and widely divergent expertise. To this we have added leaders in journalism, business, politics, and literature--and we expect to add more as our work progresses. Around the Commission itself, we hope to build two concentric networks--one of the hundreds of writers, academics, and opinion leaders who could not be included, but whose views and reactions to our work can make important contributions to its evolution. Think of them as our own "committee of correspondence" if you will. And, as our ideas develop, we also plan to reach out to emerging leaders in many fields; to share with them the ideas and insights we are developing--both to test them and to begin the process of outreach and dissemination of the Commission's work.
The second lesson we can draw from the Colonial period is the importance of dialogue. After all, it was in the exchanges of the Committees of Correspondence, the debates of the Continental Congresses, and writings of Federalist and anti-Federalist alike, that the common framework of a nation was formed. We may not be able to recreate that framework, but we can take away the lesson that only in serious and continuing dialogue can a new framework be fashioned. Throughout our work, the creation of a continuing and fruitful dialogue will be essential. First, among the members of the Commission itself--as we have begun over the past two days. Second, between the Commission members and the wider network of interested contributors and commentators. And finally, with emerging leaders and those who must in the end put our ideas to work. In creating and sustaining this dialogue, we hope to use all the rapidly evolving technologies of the Internet and global communications to ease, support, and enhance our work.
And finally, running through both of these lessons is an even more fundamental insight: an appreciation of the power and saliency of ideas. Ideas in the minds and voices of leaders. Ideas shared and debated in passionate and articulate dialogue. Ideas set loose to change the world in the way that only ideas can. It is first and foremost with the content of ideas that we will be concerned. First, in understanding the ideas that drive the phenomena we have explored only in a preliminary way in this first meeting. Second, in offering new ideas, interpretations and con-ceptualizations to reframe public discourse. And finally, by putting those ideas to work in the public sphere, initially through leaders and later, hopefully, by engaging the general public. . . .
Our intention is to pursue this task in three phases:
First, by commissioning original scholarly analyses of a variety of contemporary issues to clarify their intellectual and historical roots. We think of this process as "peeling back the onion" to identify the ideas and commitments that are at the heart of contemporary conflict and discord.
But merely identifying the sources of polarization and ideological commitment will not be sufficient. We must then look for the commonalties across issues. From this we may discern in our discussions -- and explore through thematic analyses -- the larger shape of the cultural and intellectual crisis through which we seem to be living. Finally, with a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics, we should be able to frame some new interpretions and conceptualizations of contemporary conflicts in ways that open them to new possibilities of rational debate and respectful disagreement.
The ideas in conflict around us are too fundamental to be amenable to simplistic solutions or moralistic exhortations. But I do believe that ideas are never stagnant. Dialogue, creativity, and leadership have the capacity to put new ideas and new ways of thinking into play at any moment. . . .
Like the debates and exchanges of the Colonial era, we hope to stimulate within and around the Commission a process that might truly be called "collective intellection."
Out of this process, we will create and distribute a variety of educational and informational materials: as publications, videos, CD-ROMs, or in other emerging formats, as well as--of course--on our own World Wide Web site. We want to take full advantage of the unprecedented opportunities offered by the rapid evolution of new interactive technologies and instant global communicatons.
Through all these means, we hope to share our ideas with those wider networks of interested colleagues, emerging leaders, and ultimately, with the general public. Not as moralistic imperatives or didactic solutions, but as elements of a useful, new vocabulary for thinking seriously about things that really matter in our society and in our lives.
Along the way, we also hope to create a new model for serious and productive inter-disciplinary and multi-professional communication. And we want to demonstrate--concretely and realistically--that professional and scholarly leaders can be brought together to make a real collective contribution to the daily life of our society.
But to do that, first must come the ideas-- and the hard intellectual work that we have begun . . . .
Volume 43 Number 15
December 10, 1996
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