Keynote Address

"The New Normal"

Andre C. Willis, Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Andre Willis Head Shot

Andre C. Willis is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies. He is a philosopher of religion whose work focuses on Enlightenment reflections on religion, African American religious thought, critical theory, and democratic citizenship as it relates to ‘religious’ notions of hope, recognition, and belonging. Willis earned a B.A. at Yale and his M.A. and Ph. D. at Harvard. He is the author of Towards a Humean True Religion (2015) and is currently working on a manuscript about African American religion and politics. He has published articles in international journals such as Hume Studies, The Journal of Scottish Philosophy, Political Theology, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Radical America

Keynote Address

Thank you President Paxson.

It's an extraordinary honour and a unique privilege to be able to welcome you to Brown University. And it means something to me to really welcome each and every one of you. So I want to take the first of the fifteen minutes I’ve been allotted to welcome you, students of all ages, those of you who are coming to Brown directly from high school, those who are coming from other jobs, those who were in a college or a community college or taking a gap year or doing military service, RUE students, transfer students and students who literally have been doing nothing at all or something I can't think of, welcome. I welcome you from all nations, all socio-economic classes, all races, all cultures, and all creeds. Welcome. I extend my heartiest welcome to each and every one of you all right now. I’m glad you are here.

And what a historic entrance this is! To start your time at Brown right now—whether you are in Providence or not—is to honour a commitment to behave in ways that reduce the risk of passing on the Coronavirus. I take this to be a moral commitment, an ethical obligation to protect the well-being of others, especially the most vulnerable. And let me stress that when a community comes together—even virtually—and agrees to make this kind of commitment, it takes a collective sacrifice to see it through. For Brown, the collective sacrifice required de-densification of campus and having three semesters. That’s why most of you are not physically on campus right now.

I begin by highlighting the moral features of the enterprise we are currently undertaking so that its significance is not reduced to the practices of masking, hand-washing and social distancing. Beyond those vital habits, which all of us have integrated into our daily practices, we can say that the gravity of the moment has compelled us—as an institution—to begin this year from a new ethical outlook, what I want to think of as a “new normal.” It is our task to build on these ethical foundations.

The “new normal” we make should be guided by the habits that have driven Brown’s response so far: habits of mutuality and fallibilism. Mutuality is the habit for shared, equal connections—and fallibilism is the capacity to change one’s mind. For those of you who study American philosophy these categories are not new.

What we do as a community post-Covid 19, particularly given the vast inequalities that it has reinforced and further exposed, will define this university for the next generation. Together then, we will create the “new normal” for this university, a new normal that elevates mutuality—both inside of our University and beyond it—and stresses fallibilism, that our perspective can shift on an issue and we can change our stance.

Let me give two examples for the sake of clarity. First, On August 19, 2020 this institution changed its official name from Brown University in Providence in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to Brown University. This is an example of fallibilism. After 226 years the institution assessed the current evidence, consulted with experts, and changed its mind as to what it should be called. Fallibilists hold that our beliefs always need revision.

Second, On July 29, 2020, this institution upheld a commitment it made in 2006 to support the Providence Public schools with a permanent endowment of ten million dollars. The rationale for this was complicated, but for heuristic purposes, we can say that Brown recognized that its future as an institution is intimately connected to the future of the city of Providence and the flourishing of its citizens. This is an example of mutuality.

I want to take care, however, to not go too far emphasizing future possibilities and the habits that might ground our “new normal” without appropriately acknowledging that this is also a time of great sadness and extraordinary loss. For some of us these last six months seem to have taken more than we had to give.

The pain it has cost so many of us just to get here—just to make it to this day—has been monumental. It makes sense, then, that we may be feeling deep disappointment or experiencing anxiety, fear and anger.

I honour those feelings. And I want you to know that I’m sorry we are not all together right now on the quad celebrating the beginning of this fall semester. For what it’s worth, you should know that none of us wanted it to be this way. We all look forward to the intellectual energy of an actual classroom full of curious Brown students and can’t wait to experience the rich dynamism of our physical campus when it is at capacity.

For right now, at this opening convocation, this new “beginning,” I think there are intellectual and emotional resources to be gleaned from simply being present to the energy that gets created at the instant when strangers become travelling partners and when disparate individuals start to form a loose collective. There’s a particular joy I get when people that ostensibly disagree are able to come into temporary alignment of intention or embrace a provisional solidarity of purpose. My joy, however, is a joy made lucid by grief, a grief that demands us—again, as we commence the process of labouring and learning together—to create this university anew.

For Brown is what we make it. And, whether we like it or not, together we will create a post-Covid way of being. If this way of being is shaped by the moral and intellectual habits of mutuality and fallibility, it will be a “new normal” that, if effectively calibrated, can reverberate a transformative energy for our campus and throughout this state, the nation, and even the world. If it is shaped by the illusion that we are, individually and institutionally, separate from worldly concerns or the belief that we are unable to change our stances on various issues, then we will confirm that we are not worthy of our privileges.

This year has taught us that we can no longer tacitly co-sign the myth that the life of the mind is to be cordoned off from the rest of one’s life. For we now know that any form of study that ignores the plight of the planet and its peoples is a form of corruption. One’s academic work simply cannot be fractured from the rest of their existence. Scholarly work always speaks to the needs of the world in some way or another. Thus to engage in the life of the mind is always to engage in the life of the world.

This is a time of reckoning. We have learned that we are not insulated from the slow violence of poverty and its deleterious effects that diminish the lives of millions across the globe, many in this city and some even at this institution. We have witnessed the daily impacts of the pending climate apocalypse that threatens the earth’s stability. And we have come to recognize that we cannot turn a blind eye to the increasing militarization of the nations of the world. We ignore these problems, along with the terrors of race-hatred, gender inequality, and violence against trans and queer folks, at our own peril. And we confront them—practicing the habits of mutuality and fallibilism—for the preservation of something greater than just this university; that something is intellectual integrity.

For what does it mean to be a student at a time when the world seems like it is spinning out of control? It means that education cannot be either luxury or distraction. Study is a site of empowerment and growth of the moral imagination. The serious commitment to learning is a moral act, especially in the midst of crisis and upheaval. Intense reading and writing, when the world seems to be on fire, helps us develop better self-awareness and a keen knowledge of how broader economic, cultural and political forces function, two key features of the intellectual and moral habits of mutuality and fallibilism.

And I want to remind you that no matter what you are studying, the research, reflection, reading and writing that you do—in sciences and humanities—always connects to a larger vision of the world and the way things work. Everything you learn ends up being a part of the world you make. Protest and learning are not completely disparate acts that take place in separate silos. For the terms of any protest are always based on a set of ideas and conceptions, and the vision that drives activism is always grounded in a set of norms and ideals.

Conversely, much of what we study is a consequence of previous disputes and past contestations that made claims for the importance of a particular discipline over others and emphasized the value of one method over another. The point is that to spend your time alone, reading and writing (even if you are at home and taking only one free class!) is to be situated in a legacy of a clash of ideas that is often difficult to see.

And, educating yourself can also be a form of activism against structural injustice in spaces of learning that aren’t very well practiced in the habits of mutuality and fallibilism. When African American folks of my generation first went to school—I’m talking elementary school now, not college, our speech patterns and ways of talking were under direct assault. And this discourse on Ebonics was not just background noise, it was a matter of how you were actually assessed. And it wasn’t simply the case that your grammar and syntax were labelled as incorrect; it was that the way you talked seemed to mark you and your family as deficient.

As the debate about Black English continued to rage, whatever talents we displayed in school—for anything other than athletics, dancing and singing—didn’t warrant much attention. It was assumed that black students were trapped in a cycle of poverty, shaped by a depraved culture and stuck in neighbourhoods that were full of degenerates. Thus, they just weren’t worth the time. The horizon of possibility that we saw for our lives was shrinking, right before our very eyes.

Then, as some of us arrived in colleges and universities, we were labelled as unqualified and our presence was attributed to fulfilling quotas. We were also chastised for sitting together in the cafeteria and accused of taking advantage of the system when we received financial aid.

To make matters worse, there was broad support for scientific studies that concluded black people were intellectually inferior to whites due to their genetic makeup. We would actually go to classes—sometimes required classes—where professors stood firmly by this ‘new’ and exciting ‘data’. As in the worst kind of tragedies, the absurd had become the predictable. The few of us remaining in school knew we were larger than anything they could say about us. But often it was hard to figure out if that mattered.

Our best literature tells what this feels like from the inside. I give a brief sketch of this legacy of harm just to show how the commitment to study can be a form of activism. But it also grounds two final points I want to leave you with before I close.

The first is that when you hear someone longing for the familiarity of return to “things as they were” I ask you to please help them qualify that statement. Sure, I want to put Covid-19 behind us, but I don’t want to return to normal. I want to help create a “new normal.” And even though progress can sometimes seem impossibly out of reach, I want you to remember that hope is a consequence of action. The action you are called to is study. And while there is no precedent for where we are, I’ve tried to identify a possible blueprint that is guided by habits of mutuality and fallibilism that can bring us closer to where we need to be.

Second, at its most simple, the practice of mutuality begins with the question “how can I be a better friend?” And the habit of fallibilism starts with the question “how can I be a better thinker?” I’ve watched too many black men take their final steps this summer in encounters with law enforcement officers. This brutality against black people at the hands of the state is just sickening. Among other things, it is a reflection of racist presuppositions that black male bodies are to be feared and destroyed.

The collective trauma of incident after incident has been hard to bear. It has left so many of us with the burden of extraordinary pain and loss. Some may carry this visibly. Others less so. We must be patient with each other and start with kindness even as we work against things that are wrong. We must be better friends to each other and become better thinkers.

The stakes are high right now. The new normal we make depends on all of us supporting one another in developing the habits of mutuality and fallibility and then working in solidarity with others outside of the university. To do my part, I’m teaching a not-for-credit class, UNIV 1111, which aims to strengthen our habits of mutuality. Please join that class and show up when you can. And, I’m serving on a task force on anti-black racism as a way to think better and assist this institution in the practice of fallibilism. Please help us when and if you are called upon.

This institution needs each and every one of us to help create the new normal guided by the practices of mutuality and fallibilism. The road ahead will be rocky. But if we all chip in to help with the work that is before us we will have positive effects on the variety of problems we are now facing. So welcome, you’re officially in the Brown family, let’s get it!