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Badami '11: The importance of being earnest

I must thank a friend who recently encouraged me to seek out a salient university document that I had treated, at best, with indifference. This noteworthy piece of text is the oft-disputed Brown University mission statement. From what I am told, it received considerable revision in the past two decades, taking on an ever-slimmer form at the onset of Ruth Simmons' tenure.

The statement itself is rather drifting. Lofty charges of "discovering" and "communicating" global knowledge pervade the paragraph. But this is to be expected. One phrase I find noteworthy is the University's responsibility to prepare "students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation."

Note, then, the word choice: Students must enter this world with utility and repute in mind and at heart. Well, Brunonians, I have to say, no problem here with that sentiment.

Do Brown students, necessarily, have to posture themselves so selflessly? Is social activism comprised of a search for individual purpose as well as an endeavor for greater contribution? Can reputation be an impetus for change, for progress, for good?

To the last question, yes. Absolutely. I hope by the end of this column you see the munificence that can arise from selfishness, the generosity of self-serving and self-reproach.

No, I am not taking the Ayn Rand pit leap into solipsism. Rather, I am asking student activists at Brown to take pride in their fundamental provocations for action. I refer, of course, to those lovely propulsions known as guilt, enmity and egocentrism.

One benefit from the 21st century's technological revolution has not been the "flattening" of the economic world (as the pie-stained Thomas Friedman has peddled), but the recalibration of the way we understand human rights. Increased transparency globally induces political and social communities to adopt similar conceptions of justice, dignity and liberty. Obviously, this claim contains more nuances. But there is no denying that the human rights discussion since the end of World War II, incorporating the perhaps overly determined U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has drastically shifted.

The real beauty of seeing our social activism projects in this proper light is the illumination of a global system of interconnectedness and interdependence. It has become a hard-won reality that acting in one's own self-interest (a self entirely accountable to the philanthropic purviews of one's peers) serves the collective interest.

We have heard this tune before. Reading Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments reveals the "impartial spectator" individuals feel compelled to impress. (I myself have begun to please this ghostly observer every time I recycle when no one's looking.) Yes, it has a "real world" impact, but, more importantly, it gives you reason to pat yourself on the back.

And why shouldn't it? If your actions can be rationalized to benefit the greater good, then feeling a vague sense of self-importance when pursuing such action is not a fault. Indeed, it could be the fuel keeping the humanitarian engine going.

As I stated before, pure, unadulterated hatred can be a fine motivator as well. For instance, it brings a sickening bubbling to my stomach when I think about Christian fundamentalists attempting to override secular science in my Midwestern neighbor state, the wondrous world of Kansas. So be it if this is the catalyst I need to work against their banning of evolution in classrooms, filling young, impressionable minds with junk science. With a bit of coffee, I cannot think of a better way to acclimate myself to the new morning.

Take another drive, that ever-present burden best served by our parents — guilt. The recent American response to Haiti's earthquake has been astonishing. The assistance from cell phone donations alone has been substantial.

But why? Well, I postulate that the poverty porn that has been inundating our television screens has driven our citizens to find some way to assuage their guilt. Strikingly, it has been towards a place and people Americans know little to nothing about. ("Is Haiti in Africa?") If only we could direct that kind of guilt towards other communities that require its precipitations every day. The Haiti relief stands as an example of extreme solidarity and kindness, but also of glaring and sustained neglect.

If I could provide you with my take-home point, it would be this. Garner your feelings, hatred, guilt, anger and fear, whatever they may be. Understand them, pick them apart and then utilize them. Denying these underlying factors will only result in an inauthentic or opaque "communication" and "discovery," a symbolic betrayal of the University mission. 

To serve Brown's mission statement is to recognize our own egocentrism and to act on it. Yes, the Nobel Prize would be a feather in our cap. But for many of us, pleasing the impartial spectator, domineering and autocratic as it is, would be satisfying enough.

Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at anthony_badami [at]


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