ZELINSKY: True to the core

I wrote this column, slept and re-read it the next morning. After reflecting on the thoughts below, I think they are a necessary addition to the memorial vigil held on Cross Campus on Sunday.

I deeply respect President Levin and all the others who spoke on that night. Our president showed tremendous courage. He spoke knowing that someone (or many people) would criticize him for his remarks. For that, and his service to Yale, we owe him our respect. Nevertheless, I must disagree with the substance of his speech at the vigil.

Two nights ago, President Levin told us that all truth is relative: Nothing is definite, and all is instead “contingent” and “provisional.” Ideas are subject to continuous debate, reconsidered when new reason appears. Our core mission as a university is to tolerate all others for the very reason that we cannot know with “absolute certainty about what is right from wrong.” Any belief in “unique truth” leads to dogmatism, the root of both historical and contemporary suffering.

A generation defined by the collapse of the Twin Towers cannot, and should not, accept this interpretation of an innocent morning turned into a fateful day.

9/11 reaffirmed simple principles: Evil and Good exist, side by side. The men who hijacked planes — and murdered unsuspecting, blameless people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities — were Evil. No matter how much we tolerate and accept and welcome, that day was an excruciating lesson that man, at his worst, commits acts of heinous proportions. And we know, “with absolute certainty,” that those acts are Wrong.

President Levin rejected this simple truth. For him, there is only one truth: the inability for anyone to say definitively, “This is Good, this is Evil.”

A belief in truth does not automatically lead to blind dogmatism or hate. Man can walk a middle ground between no morality and a corrupt one. Tolerance of others is certainly part of true morality, but not all of it. Some people and some ideas are so wicked as to be intolerable.

How do we know truth exists? Reason cannot explain it. It lies in our hearts. We feel it; we believe it. Call the source God, spirituality or secular philosophy — the name does not matter. What does matter is that we cannot justify evil. We know, inside, in that special part we call “humanity,” that there is a difference between right and wrong.

The belief in no assured morality is itself a dangerous form of extremism. When society rejects Good and Evil, it loses its groundings, and mankind becomes something less than human. When universities reject any absolute truths, they cease to search for ultimate knowledge. Lux and Veritas is not just Veritas. We believe in more than the pursuit of facts.

Thankfully, 9/11 was not a lesson in Evil alone. The people of United Flight 93 fought back, sacrificing themselves to save others they never knew. First responders rushed into danger to pull innocents to safety, only to be entombed in the collapsing towers. This was Good. We can say it, without fear of being wrong, because our hearts tell us so.

These fundamentals are simple, but their simplicity does not make them any less true or easy to affirm. 9/11 restarted a national search for truth, beginning with a revitalized understanding of Good and Evil. In this process, our country made mistakes that we should acknowledge. But America’s imperfection does not mean she deserved little mention in Levin’s address, as sadly happened Sunday night.

America was attacked because we know there to be a right and a wrong. We know man to be free at his core, a moral conviction rooted in absolute, self-evident truth. This confidence in our beliefs leads us to value individual liberty, a liberty anathema to those terrorists who are our enemies. We do not, and cannot, tolerate those who reject these principles.

At the conclusion of the vigil, as students walked back to the library or their rooms, a group of girls softly sang the national anthem. Their song served as tribute to this country and the unchanging, absolute ideals that ground her, ideals that should also guide our studies here in New Haven.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *How do we know truth exists? Reason cannot explain it. It lies in our hearts. We feel it; we believe it. Call the source God, spirituality or secular philosophy — the name does not matter. What does matter is that we cannot justify evil. We know, inside, in that special part we call “humanity,” that there is a difference between right and wrong.*

    Michele Machman’s truth about gays? Rick Perry’s truth about capital punishment?

    Nate Zelinskys truth about truth?

    Simplistic.

  • Jaymin

    I agree with the antiyale here.

    Yes, obviously, most people readily agree that bombing two towers is wrong in a pretty absolutist way. The problem is that people use this strict dichotomy between “good” and “evil” waaayyy to liberally and assert silly things like interracial marriage is evil; gays are evil; liberals are evil; muslims are evil, etc. President Levin just cautions us to be a bit more careful with our absolutism since some “truths” still remain ambiguous for now.

  • Jaymin

    Also,

    “The belief in no assured morality is itself a dangerous form of extremism. When society rejects Good and Evil, it loses its groundings, and mankind becomes something less than human.”

    Honestly, it’s when we get too caught up in the mindset of “good” and “evil” that we start dogmatically labeling things as “pure evil” and it’s when that happens, the worst of humanity comes out.

    “How do we know truth exists? Reason cannot explain it. It lies in our hearts. We feel it; we believe it.”

    If something is “truth”, you better damn well be able to explain it with reason rather than giving me a worthless “well, I feel it in my heart”.

  • bootleg

    I’m shocked that the president of Yale University could espouse such an intellectually bankrupt idea as “all truth is relative.” Simply put, the concept that “all truth is relative,” is itself a truism, subject to relativity. That “all truth is relative” is itself relative, which means it might be false, which means truth is not relative.

    Also, the allegation that “any belief in unique truth leads to dogmatism” is itself a belief, and therefore dogmatic! If dogmatism is the “root of both historical and contemporary suffering,” then President Levin’s belief in the dogma that “any belief in unique truth leads to dogmatism” will lead to suffering. President Levin in his speech is admitting that he is as dogmatic as those who brought forth 9/11.

  • River_Tam

    I’m ashamed of President Levin for saying that all truth is relative.

    Hard to obtain? Of course. But relative? Never.

    From “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to “All truth is relative” in only a few hundred years.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    It doesn’t appear as if President Levin actually said “all truth is relative.” That seems to be Zelinsky’s own paraphrasing. I’d like to see the original remarks. From the few direct quotations provided in this very op-ed, though, it looks as if Jaymin’s more charitable gloss (“be epistemically modest, particularly when judging ‘Good’ and ‘Evil'”) could well be a more accurate understanding of what Levin said (let alone *meant*) than Zelinsky’s own understanding of the remarks as a defense of naïve relativism (“All truth is relative”). It’s certainly reasonable to question the wisdom of moral modesty, but moral modesty (unlike naïve relativism) is not something that should be rejected out of hand.

    • River_Tam

      The problem with moral modesty is that actors cannot be amoral. They either act morally or immorally.

      • Inigo_Montoya

        But sometimes inaction is the most moral action. Moral modesty is a heuristic designed to avoid the moral tragedies caused by somewhat or completely out unjustified actions motivated by somewhat or completely unjustified moral outrage. I happen to feel somewhat skeptical about the wisdom of moral modesty (certainly, for every example I give you of tragedy caused by unjustified moral outrage, you could easily give me one of tragedy caused by insufficient moral outrage). That said, I’d argue that belief in moral modesty is a plausible enough moral stance that we should not question a university president’s judgment if he happens to maintain that stance (guess you could say I’m in favor of being epistemically modest on *that* question).

        • River_Tam

          > But sometimes inaction is the most moral action.

          Yes it is. But moral modesty treats inaction as though it is not an action and merely a pre-action. It’s just inertia disguised as thoughtfulness. In the absence of evidence, go with what appears best – doing nothing is a conscious decision with moral connotations.

          I’m not outraged – just a bit disappointed – but we shouldn’t forget that Levin is an economist and a businessman, not a philosopher.

  • dalet5770

    Mr president – now that a mental and physical malady must be covered the same under insurance law. It is time to make mental cruelty a felony in every State in the union. We have laws for racism anti gay or lesbian bias and its time our laws reflect and mirror our commerce clause. We should withhold any federal money to any state who will not make Mental Cruelty a felony

  • annwoolliams

    I wasn’t there. Who knows what President Levin said, or meant, or meant to say, or was misheard in saying. The point seems to be missing in my opinion.
    I think one person’s personal utterings on morality, truth, right and wrong,politics of the day, politics of the future,good or evil has not a lot to do with a memorial service to thousands of people, who lost their lives on one tragic day, 10 years ago.
    In these circumstances it is a good idea to stand by tradition. Imagine the family and loved ones of the lost are looking out from the audience, or alternatively, risk the possibility of being seen to be self-serving. Surely President Levin was standing on a podium, not a soapbox?
    Sometimes occasions are bigger than one person’s opinions. President Levin’s perimeters of personal opinion can stray to a wish his living audience’s long life is well-lived and to urge them to treat others as each would like to be treated.
    The premise of ‘God is Truth’ thankfully gives mere mortals less room to move. All will be found out, by Him. ‘God is good’ and religion holds a perfect solution to the human condition and allows us less space to fit our foot into our mouth.
    In the sad days of sand-shifting and political correctness we have lost the usefulness of God. Where in olden times (25 years ago) we would have brought out the pastor, we now find that we cannot just bring out one pastor. We find now we are judged as biased if representatives of all religions are not included. Maybe one God, many churches is a way to hurdle that problem? Maybe religious teachings can be seen by the cynical as good as any Shakespeare or Auden, as they are resounding in their message.

    I digress…a lot…
    On a final note;-surely the truth is not; ‘we are tolerant of others because we do not know the difference between right and wrong’,
    but because we do?

  • penny_lane

    *Defined* by 9/11? Goodness, that’s quite a claim.

  • gzuckier

    The Manichean fallacy. If the terrorists’ actions on 9/11 were Evil, that does not mean that we were attacked because we personified Good, nor does it make our actions in response afterwards Good.

  • gooilers90

    Here’s the text of President Levin’s speech:

    http://bulletin.yale.edu/article.aspx?id=8856

  • ldffly

    After reading Pres. Levin’s talk on truth, fundamentalism and terrorism, I have to say it sounds like the stale leavings of a Yale English Department seminar. I am very disappointed with philosophical musings that leave us in a relativistic mess. Thirty years ago, very nearly no one on the Yale campus would have fallen for this sophistry–and sophistry it is.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *Freedom, toleration, and open-mindedness: these are the values of the University.* This excerpt from Mr. Levin’s speech omits the primary mission of the Academy: The PURSUIT of truth WHEREVER it may lead.