May 24, 2004

Finding a moral compass

Mary Robinson is former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

As I look out at all of you, I’m instantly taken back to my own graduation as part of the Harvard Law School class of 1968. Two memories about that day stay with me most. I remember how proud my father was, and as we processed in this morning and I saw parents lining up to take photographs and record the occasion, I saw the same pride and love reflected on their faces today.

I also remember that my father was very indignant about one problem—it was raining that day in Cambridge, Mass. He had come all the way from the west of Ireland, and he did not appreciate that the sun was not shining. That’s not a problem, I understand, either today or apparently ever at Emory. I’m told that every time you have this wonderful Commencement ceremony, the sun shines. I can only conclude that Emory has influence where it really matters.

The second thought that comes back to me—I remember how uncertain I was about where exactly life would lead me next. I know many of you are feeling that way today. After all, the moment between completing one chapter in life and beginning the next generally produces a mixture of reflection, relief and regret.

In reflecting now, nearly 40 years later, on my own feelings of uncertainty then, I can see that it was also due in part to the uncertainties and turmoil of those times. They were days of great questioning, not only in my native Ireland but also here in the United States. They were times marked by questioning about the Vietnam War and by the struggles in this country for civil rights.

You too have gone through your years of higher education during uncertain times. The terrible attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, here in the United States and their aftermath have left people in this country and around the world feeling less secure, less able to say with conviction that the world is becoming more peaceful, less confident that the future will be better than the past.

As your Commencement speaker it is my privilege and indeed my burden, to offer some words of guidance on how best to steer your way through the uncertainties of today and those that will surely come throughout the rest of your lives.

You might wish that I could offer a simple road map for life or a set of tried and true rules that will show you the way. But the reality is that each one of you will need to rely on your own moral compass to find your paths. When you look back many years from now, I believe you’ll realize how formative the experience of being here at Emory was during these times in developing your own inner sense of direction, your own sense of obligation to yourself, to your families and communities, and to the world around you—or, rather, two worlds—two very different and divided worlds around you.

You’ve been able to experience the unfolding of a new century with all its opportunities and challenges within an environment where the pursuit of knowledge was the ultimate aim. Thanks to the guidance of your professors and to the exchange of views and experiences with your fellow students, you’ve been able to dig deeper and hopefully bring forth richer insights into the probing issues of our day.

You’ve been given a great gift—one which several thousand million people on this planet will never receive. You’ve been given time and a space to examine your beliefs and to see the world in all its complexity, not just through your eyes but also through the eyes of others. You’ve had the opportunity to develop that moral compass, which can guide you though life and help you to stick to your principles.

Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago talks about this vital role of the university in her book, Cultivating Humanity. She argues that a fundamental responsibility of the university is to ensure that every student is exposed to the basic skills needed for citizenship.

First, an education that inculcates, and I quote, “the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions—for living what, following Socrates, we may call the examined life.”

Second, a curriculum that provides students with a greater knowledge of non-Western cultures, of minorities within their own, of differences of gender and sexuality. And third, the cultivation of narrative imagination or the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story.

It’s worth taking some time today, even as you rightly celebrate your achievements and look forward to new challenges ahead, to consider the extent to which you are now equipped with those skills of citizenship and that moral compass, and what role they will play in your futures.

For me, the compass pointed to a career in the law and public service. I saw this as the best way to try and make a difference and address the issues I felt so deeply about. So I became a lawyer taking cases before the Irish and European courts. I was fortunate to have been involved in cases that affected the reality of peoples’ lives.

For example, legal actions which led to the removal of discrimination against children born out of wedlock, and the achievement of equal pay and opportunity for women in the workplace.

I saw for myself how the law—something written in a book and decided in a courtroom—can sooner or later reverberate back into the lives of people, opening up possibilities and impacting individual circumstances.

Years later, as president of Ireland and then as United Nations high commissioner for human rights, I made it a priority to go to areas of conflict and serve as a witness to the suffering of the victims in places as far apart as Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Chechnya, Colombia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. I witnessed the common yearnings of humanity and the common obstacles that kept some societies from realizing rights for all people.

And by being there and listening—very simply, listening, and showing an ability to take onboard the extent of suffering and the fight back—I hoped to help those victims have their voices heard.

In each place I visited, I met women and men who wanted essentially the same things: Fundamental rights to be free from fear and free from want. I found parents just like yours who wanted their children to be healthy and happy and to have an education that would help them get a good start in their lives.

But in each of these conflict zones I also found at times an unwillingness on both sides of the divide to see the “other” or the enemy as an individual with hopes and dreams and with equal rights. I saw how patterns of discrimination in a society drove wedges between communities. And all too often I saw how corrupt and undemocratic governments fueled intolerance and denied people basic rights, thereby precipitating dissent and rebellion.

One of my final responsibilities during my five years as high commissioner was to work with member-states’ governments of the United Nations to achieve a successful outcome of an international conference which sought to address exactly these issues—a conference against racism and intolerance, which took place in September 2001 just days before the horror of 9/11.

Tragically, even a conference intended to uphold and defend the inherent dignity of every person was used by some to further hatred and spread messages of intolerance and racism. Some members of the Emory community have argued that I didn’t do enough in my role as high commissioner to prevent or speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism which surfaced both in the negotiations between governments before the conference and in the wider deliberations during the conference itself.

Others were unhappy with the human rights analysis I made of the terrible ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Let me just say again that I find the very concept of anti-Semitism repulsive, that I have taken action against it all my life, that my only motivation at all times has been to further the cause of human rights for all people.

I think we must all reflect that there is still hurt and pain, which the Durban process evoked. I decided to mention this situation directly today for two reasons. First, because I believe strongly, as President [Jim] Wagner has stressed, that all of us have a responsibility to hold fast to the ideals on which higher education rests—truth, justice and reasoned dialogue.

As you’ve heard, I recently was honored by an invitation from Professor Harold Berman, who in fact was a teacher of mine at the law school in Harvard, to join with President Jimmy Carter as an adviser of the World Law Institute here in Emory University, which would provide further opportunities for just such a reasoned dialogue.

And the second reason I mentioned these events is because I hope it will help you remember that at each step in your lives you’ll be required to make judgments, to assess a situation, to form a view, often in less-than-ideal circumstances. There rarely, if ever, will be a perfect result. The test will be whether you are able to keep on and stay true to your own moral compass by listening acutely to the views of others around you.

My fellow countryman Seamus Heaney, who addressed you last year, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature whose collected papers will enrich the wonderful program in Irish literature that President Wagner described, said it better than I ever could at a similar occasion, though not last year.

He said, and I quote, “By graduating from this great and famous university, you have reached a stepping stone in your life, a place where you can pause for a moment and enjoy the luxury of looking back on the distance covered. But the thing about stepping stones is you always need to find another one, up there ahead of you, even if it is panicky in midstream. There is no going back. The next move is always the test, even if the last move did not succeed. The inner command says, ‘Move again.’ Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.”

So my simple wish for you today and in the future is that the next stepping stone will always be in your sight. Warmest congratulations to you all and I am delighted to join you as part of the Class of 2004. Thank you very much indeed.