Side by Side

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 and Norman Boucher / July / August 2004
June 15th, 2007

Commencement weekend is full of delightful incongruities. There is a certain timelessness to the traditions—the donning of caps and gowns, the mingling of the generations at Campus Dance, the intellectual curiosity fueling the Saturday forums—but there is a timeliness, too. On Monday morning, Marian Ahn Thorpe ’04, one of the senior orators, began with a reference to sex and unwed mothers: “My dad always gave his fatherly talks about sex while driving in the car,” she said. “It was a really great strategy: he never had to look the victim (my brother or me) in the eye because he was driving, and there was no way for us to escape save [by] diving out of the moving vehicle.” And this being Brown, politics also had a seat on the Green. “Today the Patriot Act allows the U.S. Department of Justice to jail noncitizens indefinitely, based upon suspicion without criminal charges and without access to legal counsel or trial,” said Russell A. Baruffi Jr. ’04 during his senior oration,“and Americans who question this erosion of due-process rights are called ‘unpatriotic.’ ”

Under a big tent on Lincoln Field, meanwhile, Miguel Moniz ’04 PhD in his address was telling fellow graduate students that his fate, like that of most of them, is “to learn more and more about less and less. I can talk to about a half-dozen people who know what I’m saying.” Over at the medical-school ceremony in the First Unitarian Church, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ted Goslow, who retired this spring after a Brown career of teaching cadaver-based anatomy to first-year medical students, was warning his last class of new doctors to beware of letting technology get between them and their patients. “Technology does, of course, enable us to diagnose and deliver health care in record time, and it is here to stay,” he said. “In our minds the execution of a rapid series of tests quite logically eliminates certain diseases and highlights others. But if there is minimal conversation before such tests are ordered, and we do not spend the necessary time to educate and enlighten, the patient may be left confused, apprehensive, and insecure about their situation. This is not good, and I urge you to guard against it.”

In the end, though, even Commencement is not resistant to change. After much study and consultation, the University has decided that next year the weekend will end on Sunday rather than Monday, dropping a day of pageantry and expense. But more than that, Commencement after 9/11 is inevitably an edgier affair. These are politicized times; violence and fear are never far. Every day brings death to the innocents, who are collateral damage or, increasingly, the targets of those whose hate blinds them to innocence altogether. Sitting on the razor’s edge, we are vigilant and on guard against our enemies, real and perceived.

And so it was this year that the Baccalaureate ceremony, which historically has been the spiritual hub of the weekend, triggered murmurs of protest. An error by a flustered interpreter at the service on Sunday afternoon led some in the audience to think that the speaker—Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights activism—was accusing Jews of intolerance. Speaking in Farsi, she had strayed from her prepared text, and the interpreter had botched the job.

It didn’t help matters that another polarizing issue had come up a few days before. In recent years, Brown has flown the flags of the graduates’ homelands on the Green at Commencement, and this year a Palestinian student asked that she be represented by that flag. Initially administrators balked, arguing that Palestine is not a sovereign nation, but they quickly reversed themselves so that as graduates lined up for the Commencement procession on Monday morning, Palestine’s flag was among the sixty-five on the Green. Some graduates, reacting to Ebadi’s address, showed up on Monday morning wearing mortarboards emblazoned “Jewish and Tolerant,” and word spread that students planned to turn their backs in protest when she was given her honorary degree.

Ebadi’s speech had been intended as a passionate call for tolerance, and its delivery in the First Baptist Meeting House seemed profoundly apt; this is, after all, the very church Roger Williams founded after the Puritans kicked him out of Massachusetts for his heretical brand of Christianity. Over the past decade, Baccalaureate has morphed into the very embodiment of religious diversity—the liturgical equivalent of all those flags on the Green.

So it was that before starting the undergraduate Commencement exercises in the First Baptist Meeting House on Monday morning, President Ruth Simmons was concerned enough about the Ebadi incident to break from protocol and read a corrected translation—by Associate Professor of Anthropology William Beeman, a Farsi speaker—of Ebadi’s remarks the day before. “There are still some people in the world who, for the sake of the narrow interpretation of a single word from the Qur’an are ready to wage war,” Ebadi had said. “There are still some people who for the sake of one line from the Christian Bible and its narrow interpretation are ready to cause people to suffer. There are still some Jewish people who, because they only accept their own religion, cannot accept others.”

On Sunday, According to Beeman, the translator had missed the line about the Qur’an and had used the words “Old Testament” instead of Christian Bible. As a result, Ebadi had seemed to exonerate Muslims from intolerance while implying that Jews were especially to blame for it.

Overshadowed had been Ebadi’s larger point: that “if different cultures are to live side-by-side,” we must adhere to the laws of universal human rights: “Cultural relativism,” she said, “cannot be an excuse for the negation of universal human rights.”

By the time Ebadi rose to receive her honorary degree on Monday, Simmons had calmed the tempest. Looking around, you could see graduates starting to drift off with their families. Restless children laughed and ran along the perimeter of the Green. The public Commencement,with its pomp and politics, may have been ending, but the private grace of happy congratulations and loving appreciation was far from done. It would continue a few hours still, a joyful respite from whatever lay beyond. —Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 and Norman Boucher

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July / August 2004