Eradicate Hate Global Summit
As Prepared for Delivery September 20, 2022
Dr. Michael E. Hill
18th President, Chautauqua Institution
Thank you, Leslie, for that kind introduction and for serving as the catalyst for bringing me here today. I’m deeply honored to be with each and every one of you. I’m particularly and sincerely overwhelmed to serve as a keynote the night after Henry Reese and Diane Samuels offered their own thoughts and reflections. For those who know the story of what brought me here, the last time I saw Henry and Diane was at Chautauqua Institution on a very fateful day that forever changed my life, and I suspect theirs. I’d be being disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I find following them difficult.
I’m deeply grateful to them for the grace in which they have allowed me to share this space with you.
In less than three weeks, my husband and I will celebrate our second wedding anniversary. Until recently, I have always thought of the concept of anniversaries in a mostly positive light. But there are many annual remembrances that are anything but opportunities to celebrate:
- October 27th
- May 14th
- August 12th
I have been reflecting a great deal in the past five and a half weeks about the ways in which dates etch themselves into our consciousness after tragedy and violence.
I bring you my greetings this evening from Chautauqua Institution, not only my organization but my home, my sacred place, a place that is both mission and movement and a place that defines my life’s work.
I bring you greetings from that same place where on August 12, 2022, an attacker rushed the stage of our Amphitheater and violently stabbed Salman Rushdie and wounded Henry Reese, forever changing the fabric of what we often refer to as our “sacred grounds.” Our entire community continues to keep Mr. Rushdie and his family at the very top of our daily prayers, meditations, and thoughts as he recovers. We hope and pray for him to return to his daily sources of fulfilment, and to his deeply important work. And we’re so grateful that Henry and Diane were able to bring their witness to this summit.
In the hours and days that followed the attack on August 12th, and amid what became an international deluge of media reports, an eerie thing started to happen. We went from a long-form narrative to this shorthand: August 12th. Everyone who was there that day or who loves Chautauqua could instantly fill in myriad details from voicing a simple month and day.
Many of you have spent the day talking about May 14th, the day that a white supremacist shooter stripped our neighbors in Buffalo, New York, of a sense of safety and sent them reeling into their own shorthand: May 14th.
We are being hosted today in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, and our location is not all that far from Tree of Life Synagogue. I remember watching the news from just a few hours up the road. I suspect for many of you here, October 27th is your own shorthand for a series of moments that brought violence to one of your sacred places.
Two Parallel Worlds
There are two parallel worlds when tragedy strikes, whether that be October 27th, May 14th, or August 12th. There are the days immediately following those moments when police and media descend and place a magnifying glass on every minute, and then there are the days, weeks, months and even years that follow, where we, in community, grapple with the aftermath beyond the headlines. For Chautauqua, these early days were dizzying, as I suspect they were for many of you in your own moments. And I know for Buffalo and Chautauqua, we are still in the early days of reckoning with all that happened.
Chautauqua is an organization and a community that has peacefully assembled in what the media called a “bucolic” corner of Western New York for 149 years without any major crime or violence.
Our podiums and pulpits have been graced by U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, other politicians and world leaders, and the leading thinkers, preachers, and teachers of every generation since 1874.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his famed “I Hate War” speech from Chautauqua, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave an assessment of the U.S.-Russia relationship the exact minute that then-President Donald Trump was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. We are a place designed to serve as Democracy’s Platform and one that believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are essential elements to a just society. For 149 years, we have convened some of the world’s most important conversations with people whose words had the opportunity to change the course of history, and we have done so without incident.
On the morning of August 12th, Henry Reese was to interview Salman Rushdie about what it takes to provide haven for writers whose words are forcing society to hold up a mirror to itself, even when society doesn’t want to see that reflection. It was to be a quintessential Chautauqua conversation with two of the best to hold it. But that conversation would tragically never happen.
The media storm that followed did what the news media always does: ask questions about what we should have done differently, seek out voices that could teleport our expressions of grief and anger across the globe, and sadly, too often, use our own fears and frustrations as one more sign that the world is a scary and violent place. And if any of us were to focus on just what the media said in the days around these tragic dates, we’d miss the real story.
Because whether it is October 27th, May 14th, or August 12th, the real story lies not in the violence but in the response. The real story lies in those who look at tragedy and make a choice for hope.
A Choice for Hope
We are still processing our own unthinkable day at Chautauqua, and I suspect we will for a very long time. But I oddly don’t feel helpless, and here’s why: in every moment of violence there are even greater moments of humanity. While there was one violent attack at Chautauqua on August 12th, there were many more expressions of love.
- Within seconds of the assault on our stage, staff and community members ran toward danger. They hurled themselves into the craziness of that moment. We are so grateful to Henry Reese who recently wrote about his own perceptions of our community not being part of a “bystander culture” but one inspired to claim goodness. We witnessed great goodness that morning in staff members who tackled the assailant, in volunteer doctors and nurses who held Mr. Rushdie together until paramedics arrived, and in so many other ways.
- Henry and I had a chance to speak the same day when he was released from the hospital. He expressed as much concern for Chautauqua as for himself and urged us to keep going, saying, “The conversations Chautauqua holds are what the world needs.” What an awesome sign of goodness from someone who had every right to focus only on his personal wellbeing at that moment. Likewise, Diane showed as much empathy for what we were dealing with as a community as she did for herself or her husband. What an expression of love for humanity itself!
- Our community gathered in prayer the same night, doing the most human thing we can do: hugging one another, holding a hand, being present — the very act of reclaiming a place. We asserted that night that violence only wins when we let fear win.
- At Chautauqua, we are a community that is composed of people of all faith traditions and none. The following day, we gathered in big and small ways, in prayer and in silence. We heeded the calls to continue our work. The very next evening, through song and dance, we declared that our stages would not be remembered by violence, but by hope.
- And the following week, in a twist of supreme irony, we opened the same lecture platform on which the attack took place for a week titled “New Profiles in Courage,” which concluded with Maria Ressa, the Noble Peace Prize-winning journalist whose own writing and voice has repeatedly been suppressed by authoritarian governments and those afraid of the truth.
- And throughout all the days that followed, strangers hugged one another. We cried. We sought to understand what was ours to do in the next chapter. We continue to ask those questions, and as long as we keep asking them and seeking answers, there is a chance for some good to come from an unspeakable act of violence.
Admittedly, not every tragedy has the luxury of responding with world-acclaimed speakers, or orchestras, or grand symbolic moments, but that’s not the point. These dates that are etched in our brains force us to make a choice: do we live only in the violence? Or do we take the unspeakable and use it for good?
Each of our communities and all the seismic dates highlighted at this conference compose a menu — a selection of choices for how we can create a less violent world.
- We can make a choice for hope over fear.
- We can make a choice for action over paralysis.
- We can make a choice to love, to seek understanding, and to intentionally build our empathy muscles versus being forced into camps by third-party narrators — whose livelihoods and agendas depend upon division.
- We can make a choice to redouble our commitment to democracy and the democratic process. This last one may seem disjointed from the previous three, so let me expand on what I mean by that.
As we continue our analysis of what happened at Chautauqua and why, it has become increasingly clear to me that one thing we share with other communities that have experienced tragedy is a feeling of violation, of indignation. At some level, we share a unique kind of anger that emerges only when we feel we have a right to expect safety; to be sheltered from violence.
That right — that entitlement — comes from our internalization of the privilege of democracy. It is democracy, when wielded properly, that creates reliable and trustworthy systems of security; it is democracy that gives us a right to worship as we choose or to convene difficult conversations with controversial figures, often the very figures from whom society most needs to hear.
Democracy enables us to go to school, attend a nightclub, and, yes, go to the grocery store in any part of any town and expect to return home afterward with the ingredients for dinner. And it is so often that this precious experience of democracy, this inimitable entitlement that too few in this world can count on, that threatens terrorists of every description. I am convinced that the institution of democracy and the democratic process — coupled with empathetic citizens who choose hope over fear, action over paralysis, who choose to love — that this recipe contains the best and most hopeful secret ingredients for a less violent world.
August 12th changed my life; it changed who I am forever. I don’t believe that day will ever leave my consciousness, and I suspect each successive year, I will stop to ask questions, take stock and, unfortunately, relive that same 30-second video that has been playing on repeat in my head for the past five and a half weeks. But I also believe it will serve as a reminder of some of the best in humanity that I have ever witnessed; and as the moment in time when Chautauqua Institution redoubled its commitment as democracy’s platform, a platform that brings people together across the divide to seek understanding and hope.
And, if we work at it, I believe we all have an opportunity at turning these horrific moments into lasting memorials, memorials for all those who ran toward danger to protect the very fabric of our sacred places, loudly affirming one sacred truth: namely, that violence only wins if we allow it to silence the best in our humanity, the best in ourselves.
Thank you, and may God bless you all.
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