Note: The following is Professor Jerry Balmuth’s prepared remarks for the baccalaureate service held May 16, 2009.
“The Illusion of Sameness: Differences and Ambivalence”
It must be noted that all of you students share with me the circumstance that this weekend is for each of us, as graduates, a formal goodbye to Colgate and to the wonderful education we’ve received from this special school — now our alma mater; the difference between us is simply that it has taken me 55 years to graduate successfully, while you have speeded through brilliantly, in just four years … more or less!
At the same time you have an advantage over President Chopp, since she required a full seven years to satisfy the challenging Colgate curriculum — which, we must note, she has clearly fulfilled with high distinction … earning, as do you, a permanent invitation to return for celebratory Dionysian reunions and postgraduate inebriation festivities.
I mention this personal note because it is germane to our common respect and love of Colgate; a school which has nurtured and nourished each of us to an uncertain maturity. We have learned and grown much in this dynamic Institution with its quietly turbulent history. Colgate is a gritty and triumphant survivor, resolutely confronting the future as the determined and ambitious mentor of the liberal arts that it is: an exacting liberator of our nascent talents and the grounding for our prospective achievements.
We are here both to express thanks as well as to testify to Colgate’s formative impact and its intellectual fruits: providing each of us with a more vital and resonant life than we otherwise would have.
We owe this Institution our lifelong gratitude for, among other goods, cultivating our sensibility and developing our skills, and for uncovering for us a world of knowledge and thought, which earlier we didn’t know were there to be known or to be mastered.
But now allow me to begin more formally with a philosophical parable — the way serious matters are often introduced.
We all know from our Core program, that the first book of Hebrew scripture — “Bere’shit” — Genesis — “the Beginning” — is an account of how God created the heaven and the earth; but we are given no explanation of why God so acted, and why then? Surely there must have been some pre-beginning reflection — a suggestive intention — possibly a twinge of need? Yet what could God need? Before God spoke, it is said that there was nothing! Nothing? What can that mean? Well clearly there was no ‘here’ nor ‘there’: no “up” nor “down”, no ‘left’ or ‘right and so no “place” — no space and so yet no heaven: galaxies, planets, earth or stars, indeed no things, and so no movement, no duration and so no earlier or later and so no change — no aging; but then, no youth. With nothing … there was, evidently only possibility, the potential of all actuality — God alone — the Big Bang.
Here the determined naysayer has really little to say when it comes to explaining why then something rather than nothing? God — as Spinoza might say — is that active potentiality for the becoming of Being.
It would appear then, according to Genesis, that to God, no universe — no space and no time — only pure negation — was suddenly intolerable. And so, we are told, God uttered literally transformative words: “Let there be light”; and suddenly, replacing nothing, there were remarkably two things, now distinguished: light and darkness: the beginning of distinction; and with it the discovery of the peculiar power of difference. The fact is it took difference: at least two distinct things — light and darkness — to begin the beginning.
How further can we explain this beginning? Why begin when there is nothing? I hesitate to give an account of God’s intention and motives (a presumption solely of politicians and evangelical preachers) but I would offer the following candidate: Alone, with literally nothing from which to be set apart, God had no sense of genuine Self–there being literally nothing to distinguish God. What was clearly required for God’s own identity were other beings–some fresh and different expression of Creation. Clearly God simply became dissatisfied with the lesser of two Worlds: the worse — the nothing — rather than the better — the something — so launching creation. Thus God chose something over nothing.
But this was only the beginning of the pre-beginning. Light and darkness were hardly sufficiently substantive for genuinely Something; and so, we are told, God created the firmament — the vaulting arches of the heavens, set off and separated simultaneously from the waters; and because this was still not sufficiently complex and interesting, certainly not yet a genuinely distinguished work, God then set an earth to be separated from both. Yet the earth was now but an undistinguished sphere, wholly featureless as featureless as the waters. But then, we are told, God rested.
Now we are not told why God rested, given God’s clearly indefatigable energy and obvious fresh enthusiasm for creation — a creation now celebrating, by distinguishing, the Creator. Surely God must have rested to survey it all, and to think it out; for yet something did not quite fulfill this now ever-growing need for a full ‘Whatness’ to occupy the void.
So then, intellectually refreshed, God recognized that both the heavens and the earth required detailed features if, quite literally, they were to have any distinction; so then God created Flora: a tree and a bush, a flower and a sliver of grass — an earthly feature, a tiny mountain and its accompanying valley; and further experimenting God produced a self-contained animate creature: an Animal, and subsequently one simple human–a primitive Neanderthal-like hermaphrodite.
It seems clear that The Creator was struggling with creation, to discover the fullest expression of God’s self- identity: ever developing powers beginning to realize a genuinely imaginative creation.
But now, ingenuity demanded more than a simple paucity of things, and kinds. Reflecting further, (after, we are told, the third and fourth “days”), God then multiplied many times over, the solitary mountain, the one tree, the individual blade of grass, the single animal and the unitary human hermaphrodite — cloning these identically; since God, was inclined initially, as we, to follow a strict pattern for simplicity of kinds, making for easy recognition and multiplication. Now the universe was a seriously developing work in progress.
Yet now every tree and every bush, every animal and human was simply identical with every one of the others of its sort: to look at one of the kind, was the same as seeing each and all of the others — mirror-images, identical to the body and shape — exact copies even to the color, weight, and height. So too for the fruits of the tree, the sounds of that animal and The Human: the faces, the voices, the shapes were ever the same–there being no variation or difference, from the one of that kind to the other — only sameness of that sort.
So there was no need for sound or speech, since the encounter with one was identical with that of any other; and to be human, as to be flower or animal was to be an identical replica of every other human, flower, animal, with no differences and no wonder; and thus no sense of being a one of that kind. In such a world, there were finally only a myriad of identical reflections to celebrate God’s special powers. So there was nothing to exhibit the ever-inventive ingenuity, and fertile richness: the creative imagination of ever changing variety. Here was no genuinely creative celebration — only a cookie-cutter repetition of sameness and patterning — a distinguishable, yet barely satisfying improvement over the monotony of Nothing — kinds without variation within kinds.
After all this effort, God clearly deemed the results unacceptable — not good enough!
So that last momentous day God said: Let there be differences — let there be an infinite number of profound and multiple differences- such that no two things, no two humans, even twins be exactly the same: no two identical flowers, no two identical roses, petals, crystals, snowflakes; no two identical animals, no two identical persons; and so no two identical families or groups of persons. And so God decreed, that for any two things in the universe, there must at least be one distinct feature that belongs uniquely to each one and shows it uniquely to be different from all others; so that each thing created in this universe is truly special and distinctive; and let this plethora of differences blossom and be alone the defining condition of a flourishing creation. So. God said, now they shall know me–as I know myself- by distinction: by the richness of Differences, since it cannot be by the apparent same-nesses of things.
And then God rested; supremely content in the truly multiples of Creation: that each thing in the universe is uniquely different from every other, and that whatever the apparent commonality, it is only and simply that each is, and all are, distinct expressions of God’s creative Will, and thus an indirect reflection of the infinite variety of God and nature’s ingenuity and creative imagination–(systematically employing various mechanisms–even of gene variation.)
Here is the universe we have inherited: a vibrantly active–continually evolving and necessarily changing- universe of differences– since difference is essential to creation and change- and all appropriate for celebrating God’s distinguished creation. And indeed, this is how it is–now, and we can surmise, forever.
Why have I invented this parable? I was led to reflect on its point and central meaning by a number of events, which confronted us as a community at different times, and by subsequent thoughts about our education and of what this University is about. If you reflect on this you will recognize that our education is in detailed and reflective knowledge of differences and distinctions; these are what it is, critically, to understand our special world and ourselves.
One such event had to do with the celebration of the Obama presidency — which naturally led me to the re-celebration of the seminal event, the now 70th anniversary of Branch Rickey’s decision to hire a black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, to become the first black regular member ever of the then all-white professional National League ball-team; in this case, the Brooklyn Dodgers, a culturally inbred home team if there ever was one. Robinson was a magnificent athlete, an outstanding player of four sports, and it was clear to Branch Rickey that it would take such an extraordinary-superior- talent if a black player was to be allowed simple acceptance as an ordinary player: an irony not lost on any minority member.
The event that stands out for me is the wonderful re-description by Robinson’s widow of the sheer drama of those early games, with the black Robinson — a very black man in that blazing sun — alone among the players on the field, isolated on second base, and separated — seemingly utterly different even from his own teammates, each and everyone of whom was pristine lily-white;
And everyone was waiting and watching.
What were they all watching for? The breakdown!! Out of the stands, from the bleachers, from the opposing team’s dugout, even from some members of his own home team came the outpouring of epithets, name-calling, ugly invectives malicious messages of hate: “Hey, n—-r,! You want to shine my shoes”; “where’s your spear, jungle boy!” ” Boy, was your mother or your father the baboon? ” and so in an unrelenting stream of nastiness and offensive provocation. But Robinson in the face of all this did nothing — only continuing to play baseball, fiercely and competitively, playing always by the rules.
Why? What was the strategy? It was a simple agreement by Robinson and Rickey that Robinson would do everything he could on the field, but that he would not physically or verbally retaliate!!
He would not allow himself to acquiesce to the obvious tactic to undermine his stature- demean his personhood by succumbing to the attempt to elicit from him verbal or physical violence: the public confirmation of the fears and anxieties of his tormentors.
These fears were based on an illusion: that his very being different, was somehow, in some intuitive way, a serious threat to their own well-being; the superstition that difference is a menace not a creative blessing.
For the fact is that his tormentors were fearful and desperately seeking reassurance; their hateful talk was a reflection less of their fundamental lack of decency than a cracked mirror of their uncertain insecurity and ignorant anxieties in the face of a new reality; they were alarmed and anxious, with a deep sense of Hobbesian distrust and wariness of the different “other”, and more generally of all difference and its counterpart: change; and the name-calling was to test — really to confirm — the appropriateness of their fearfulness, so that they could then, with justification, act defensively, and now violently, in responsive retaliation to remove the offensive difference.
But Robinson gave them no such excuse; stoically and determinedly, he played brilliantly, very competitively but fairly — within the rules — and, most importantly, he played regularly and steadily and by mere normal presence gained, first begrudgingly, but finally freely and enthusiastically, the recognition and welcome respect for his skills and participation: and thus finally an overall — never unanimous — acceptance of difference. Begrudgingly the sense of fairness and goodwill embedded in each of us overruled our collective fears and natural diffidence; the respect for virtue and true distinction began to win out.
It need not be stressed how important this very public event was a good seven years before the Brown decision — the legally authoritative dismantling of segregation; it was nationwide pre-education, as were the teachings of Martin Luther King, in the future’s need to accommodate to, indeed embrace, the reality of difference.
The second event was less reassuring and more chilling of the prospects of welcoming differences. It centers on my recollection of an interview conducted on PBS with the celebrated British historian of Jewish background, and, incidentally, once a visitor and lecturer to the Colgate campus, Sir Martin Gilbert. The occasion was a discussion with him of his then newly published book: The Boys, subtitled: The Untold Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors, the research for which involved taking testimony from many different victims of the German-Nazi occupation of Poland.
In one small town in central Poland, Professor Gilbert encountered a
Polish doctor, who had witnessed the roundup and deportation of the Jewish families of that town and village. He described in detail the brutal and ruthless actions of the SS and their Polish counterparts in smashing any resistance by the children, women and men to the ruthless uprooting of these families; families who had lived as Jewish neighbors to their compatriots in this village for decades, if not centuries.
The doctor held out no justification for the cruelty — indeed savagery of the Nazi occupiers; but towards the end of the interview he remarked to Dr. Gilbert: ” It was a terrible, terrible event, but honestly, it was wonderful for the village to be free of Jews”!
Imagine: all these years yearning to be “free of Jews,” to live only, and see only, and be only, with people no different; everyone say, Polish and Christian just like ourselves and everyone else. What an illusion of reassurance: Now there would be no sickness, no poverty, no suffering, no cruelty, no drunkenness, no wickedness nor criminality, no malice or willful ignorance, no evil — none of the threats of an offending “difference” corrupting, confusing children and families!!
Here is the root of genocide — and its profoundly evil counterpart: ethnic cleansing, whether Nazi, Serbian, Rwandan, Irish, American, Turkish or Taliban: the illusion — the total hallucination — that sameness and commonality brings security and a really enhanced quality of life. In fact, the urgency for sameness functions most often as a deep deception to distract from genuine understanding and agreement. In fact the distraction of difference is used as foil for fear, death and of the yet-unknown; thus it serves as a subterfuge and surrogate for human ignorance and superstition: for resisting change and uncovering new realities; for insisting on a narrow and reassuring mediocrity; and for its smug security and illusory superiority–a life dedicated to confinement and insulation–inducing a truly cultural and intellectual ghetto.
How does any of this touch our lives? Whether we are prepared to acknowledge it or not, our future as well as the futures of those who come after us are bound to the conception of society reflected more by the symbolically revolutionary events of Jackie Robinson’s dramatic impact on American life — not only on public life but even on the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives; than is reflected in the dead and illusory world of that Polish village — part of the archaic and superstitious prejudice for unchanging sameness and unquestioning mediocrity.
I would draw also another more philosophical point. The most influential philosopher of the last century, reflecting 10 years later on the highly acclaimed and brilliant work of his youth- work that provided the theoretical basis for our present disciplines of symbolic logic and theories of meaning–proceeded then, carefully, meticulously, to challenge every one of his earlier thoughts by posing a totally different perspective on his work–and life. He put his new awareness about his earlier vision this way: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” (P.I.115)
As a great philosopher, he was thus enjoining us by example: seek to avoid intellectual captivity; recognize that our deepest views of ourselves in/and of the world, inevitably reflect a certain picture by which we may be held captive; and that our lives and thoughts are too often lived through and within misleading and dangerous metaphors — metaphysical metaphors — which unreflectively influence, if not dominate, the way we and our society think and so act.
The picture I have described above is just a case of a captivating and corrupting illusion: that similarity and sameness offer genuine safety and reassurances against the self-induced fears of difference and change. We see over-and over again- how dangerous such an illusion can be.
But another popular but even more highly problematic picture is that of the notion of success in life as a ladder on which we either climb to public recognition, or remain rooted in private failure. This is a view of life as a persistent struggle for visible status and position–for a life utterly dependent and conditional on the disposition of others-and so inevitably undervaluing one’s own unique and distinctive strengths for the others’ view of us as persons.
Alternatively Colgate would urge you to adopt a different picture — that of each person — you and your neighbor — as capable of distinctive, unique, varied and different talents, skills, potentials and forms of fulfillment–all such differences adding distinction — recognized or not — to the multiple richness of our common good;
My own experience with generations of students reaffirms to my mind that the latter picture — the uniquely special worth of each person — is the most realistic and the fairest- most just- understanding of human capacities and talents. Thus it seems to me, finally, that God and Nature in their creative zeal were clearly equalizers (democrat) as well as innovators–demanding that the recognition of differences is completely compatible with assured but reflective valuing of these differences. This is the only way we can both accept and respect the world of differences we have inherited; all the while judging and embracing that world, as did God, when, as Genesis says, “God saw … that. It was … good.”