Our Common Humanity - by Yale President Peter Salovey
Peter Salovey ’82 M.S., ’83 M.Phil., ’86 Ph.D. is the 23rd president of Yale University and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. His research focuses on the connection between human emotion and health behavior. He was dean of Yale College from 2004-08, then Yale provost before becoming president in 2013.
As Yale scholars, investigators, teachers, and students, we are dedicated to creating new knowledge and fresh insights about the world around us. This often means we try to distinguish our viewpoints from our predecessors or peers. We may say, “In contrast to the work of Professor X, I argue … ,” or “Unlike Investigator Y, my findings show …” Such disagreements among scholars can generate exciting ideas and spur innovation.
But what happens when differences of opinion turn toxic? What is the effect on the commonweal when we only hear news and views that support beliefs we already hold? First, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from others. And furthermore, we begin to demonize those with different opinions, assuming the worst about them and their intentions.
Hearing different viewpoints – especially those with which we strongly disagree – is challenging, but it is as critical for a university as it is for our democracy. In the past, I have spoken about the need for careful listening and developing nuanced views of complex issues. Doing both requires us to connect with others, seeing even our opponents as fully human and deserving of our engagement. In short, it requires empathy and an affirmation of our common humanity.
A few years ago, Bill Clinton ’73 J.D. was invited to speak at Yale College Class Day. He described a world desperately in need of compassion, wisdom, and leadership. And, as all good Class Day speakers do, he urged the audience to give their time and talents to something important.
I was particularly struck by one anecdote he shared. He recounted how, when scientists finished the sequencing of the human genome, they discovered that all living people are over 99 percent identical in our genetic makeup. Genetic variations between human beings account for less than 1 percent of our differences. President Clinton told the Class of 2010: “My basic belief is the only way that you can make the most of the world that lies before you is to believe that, as interesting and fascinating and profoundly important as all of our diversities are, our common humanity matters more.”
Faith traditions, too, remind us of what we share with others. Last year in my baccalaureate address, I
described Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu scriptures that all contained passages telling us to welcome strangers. For example, the Torah states: “Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The exhortation to empathy is clear: Because we share how it feels to be an outsider, we should show mercy and kindness to other, so-called outsiders.
Science tells us that we are far more alike than we are different, and religious texts urge us to recognize the experiences we share with others. And yet our political and civic world is marked by division, strife, and intolerance.
As I learn more about Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div., I am inspired by her endlessly constructive and creative approach to life. Last fall, I wrote about her efforts to convince Yale to allow George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, to speak on campus. No one could have opposed Wallace’s racist views more strongly than Murray, and yet she spoke up for his rights. Throughout her life, Murray insisted on the rights, dignity, and value of all people. That bedrock belief in our shared humanity motivated her to help marginalized and underprivileged people. She also took the time to engage with wealthy, powerful people who did not always share her beliefs. Her personal papers contain hundreds of letters with people high and low, with leaders and servants of all stripes and political persuasions.
“I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice and hatred [are] an emotional waste,” she explained.
Educators across disciplines have an obligation to seek out opposing viewpoints, thereby challenging ourselves and testing our ideas. We must remind ourselves continually of what we share with other people, despite differing opinions. And we must ensure that our classrooms and our campus are places where difficult, thought-provoking conversations can take place. We must engage as much as possible with our neighbors beyond Yale, searching for our common humanity everywhere.
Pauli Murray continued a lifetime of service by becoming an Episcopal priest. She said she hoped to contribute to “the possibility of reconciliation,” in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. “If this country is to survive, we must live together in harmony and we must live together in a spirit of harmony,” Murray said. “We cannot survive as a divided country.”
I agree. The work of reconciliation can begin with affirming the dignity of all people and seeing ourselves in them.