March 28th, 2016
“Everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it” has been attributed to so many historical figures that I dare not choose which one. Properly self- chastened, I am nevertheless returning to the urgent and imperative need to plea for a restoration of civility in public discourse, civic values, and communal behavior, and, in this post, our role in that.
As America and much of the world descends into a frightening and self-destructive path, none of us is exempt from doing what we can to restore some modicum of equilibrium and humanity to the national and international weal. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me be clear about my own political commitments: nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, demonization of Islam, misogyny, xenophobia, demagoguery, and mean spirited personal attacks are abhorrent, and have no place at all in this year’s or any other campaign, or indeed in any credible and responsible public discourse. That they have any standing at all in the public space at this time is a sign of a cancer in the body politic.
Alas, my two earlier attempts to address these matters last summer didn’t have any more impact than those of many more influential and widely recognized leaders. And since I am not so naïve to believe that this post will touch the magic button among millions who need to hear it and heed it, I am restricting my audience to three groups of which I am a part where I can speak not “to” as an outsider, but “with” as an insider. Each one of these constituencies has something distinctive to contribute to the importance and value of words. Should others find these thoughts of value, that would be a bonus.
I discovered that “speaker” was a professional designation relatively late in my career. I only learned of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation about 19 years ago – and became a professional member a year or so later. Few of my fellow NSA members around the world share an expertise in philanthropy, to be sure, but the vast majority of us take our craft and responsibility quite seriously. After all, we are paid to use our voices and our words to influence change. Most of us, I believe, accept our charge with great humility, even if our public persona is one that projects confidence and assuredness.
Some have argued that politics is not our business. And while I concur that we may not be politicians, we are people who make our living through our words and speech. And thus our responsibility in this role has never been greater. We must model how to use words, public space, and roles of influence in ways that inform and shape both the possibilities and limits of how one uses those words and speech. As so many political aspirants have abused, badly abused, this unique space – with horrendous consequences, our modeling of a different and more responsible way is a veritable mandate.
I rarely write about this but many of you are aware that I have had the unique privilege and honor of chairing two international interreligious bodies and have had leadership roles in several others. Insofar as much political discourse and behavior has revolved about interpretations and misinterpretations of the role of religion and faith, it is striking how different the international religious leaders I know behave and believe. They model, through words and actions, how one can honor the Truth of one’s own religious faith, and respect the True in that of others.
These religious leaders are not simply outsider modernists within their traditions. These have included many worldwide leaders of all three Abrahamic religions [to the skeptics, that includes many influential Imams from around the world] and of many of the Eastern Traditions. Many of the leaders’ names are widely familiar; very few would be called liberals by their co-religionists. None of these religious leaders feels threatened in his or her own profound commitment while acknowledging that others feel as deeply and profoundly about their own. All recognize the dialectic tension within every authentic religion between the particular and the universal, and use that as the basis for dialogue that transcends simple personal acceptance. [And, let it be said, all are embarrassed and angered by the usurpation by extremists in EVERY tradition who misrepresent authenticity in pursuit of narrow political aims.]
In America, it is so jarring to hear how religion is trivialized by politicians who, while espousing unshakeable faith commitments, make a mockery of those affirmations in how they disrespect others. Would that they could hear what I hear among the world religious leaders – and learn what authentic religious affirmation really is.
My call here is not to invite religious leaders to enter the political fray, but to publicly insist that their religions, our religions, not be besmirched by those whose words and actions cheapen what our religions really mean and espouse.
The Philanthropy Field:
In many ways, no group is better positioned to assertively address the erosion of decency in the public square than our field. Of course I am well aware of the limits on lobbying that US law imposes on private foundations, but I am also well aware that there is great elasticity in permitting assertive advocacy on matters of values and public consequence. Private philanthropy can do so with impunity. Its unique autonomy can allow us to be strong and unequivocal voices for sanity and respectability.
This argument for a clarion call for better behavior goes beyond a partisan political stance. I would hope that philanthropists on the left, right, or center would agree that no long-term good comes from a country or world rent asunder by hatred and fear. I would hope that all of us are sufficient students of history to see what has happened when nations and empires became poisoned by demagogic leadership. And I would hope that all of us remember that our legal legitimacy is to enhance “public good.”
None of us on the philanthropy side need change our missions or even our grantmaking strategies to join in a demand for the restoration of a civil society based on civility.
These are dark and ominous times – not only in our United States body politic, but also around the world. My pleas to colleagues, even if heeded, will not be sufficient to cure this ill. But we, those of us in our privileged roles, are certainly not exempt from recognizing our ethical and moral responsibility to act now, while we can. While we can.