A message from President James W. Wagner

Impossible Conversations

What do the Dalai Lama, Salman Rushdie, and Jimmy Carter have in common—besides appointments to teach Emory students? (Earlier this year all three were in the news, and the University along with them, because of their roles at Emory.)

What this trio shares is a history of speaking and writing their minds in the face of opposition, occasional controversy, and even personal danger. The Dalai Lama—who accepted appointment as Presidential Distinguished Professor in January—was unjustly driven from his homeland under threat of imprisonment and perhaps death. Rushdie—on a five-year appointment as Emory Distinguished Writer in Residence—incurred the unrighteous wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini and lived under a death edict for years. Carter—University Distinguished Professor since 1982—has been the target of unfounded charges of anti-Semitism and other opprobrium since publication of his latest book.

What these three eminent world figures share, besides their teaching at Emory, is a commitment to engaging in impossible conversations. By “impossible conversations” I mean those that people tend not to engage in because of the discomfort caused by political differences, religious dogmatism, and the deep-seated prejudices that attach to race, gender, and sexuality. All these matters create an intellectual discomfort sometimes difficult to live with. The result is often deep division. It’s easier to cut off debate or dialogue than to cut through the knottiness of some issues. It’s certainly easier to walk away than to walk beside someone whose views we violently oppose. It’s easier to let ourselves off the hook by claiming some conversations are just—impossible.

The lasting glory of the university tradition lies in the institution’s dedication to making such impossible conversations possible: setting the stage and defining the rules for fair and honest engagement over issues of great moment; moderating the discussion so that all sides have an opportunity to be heard; insisting that those who wish to speak also leave aside hate speech and ad hominem attacks; finding ways to express offending ideas without offending personal dignity; and couching ideas in language that invites people to listen instead of pummeling them. This all sounds nice and wonderful. Often it is messy and unpleasant.

One of the prouder moments in my time at Emory occurred in February, when the University community gathered in Glenn Auditorium to talk about Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, President Carter’s controversial book. Some members of the Emory community felt the need to hold one of their own community members accountable. He, in turn, wanted to explain his position more fully within the University family. The intense but civil and courteous discourse that ensued was a model for what our civilization should seek. The audience of students, faculty, and staff members—many of whom disagreed violently with Carter’s perspective—did what a university (and perhaps only a university) does best: it practiced a nonviolent way of engaging respectfully, honestly, and purposefully while trying to pursue complex reality.

I do not know whether anyone’s opinions were changed on that day. Indeed, some persons may simply have had their views confirmed one way or another. But I do believe that most minds present were changed. They were minds made stronger, more open, more nimble, more capable of understanding, through the practice of impossible conversations.



 © 2007 Emory University