Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.


I’ve had several interesting conversations in the past few weeks. In one, a liberal friend felt that Hillary Clinton is too conservative and that someone else should win the Democratic nomination. Curiously enough, conservatives don’t seem to care much for Senator Clinton, either. In a conversation with a different friend, John McCain was similarly vilified.

A third conversation was on a seemingly unrelated topic. A friend and I got into a dicussion about our respective commencement speakers. At our alma mater, the commencement speaker is the University’s President, and his year marked President Lehman’s first commencement address.

Lehman’s speech is about dirt.

As a student, you must get dirty, and you must learn to cope with that fact. You get dirty, but not so dirty that the your essential core is altered. And you wash. And you are sufficiently proficient at this cycle of getting dirty and then cleaning up that your friends and family still love you.

Of course, dirt can be metaphorical as well as literal. Dirt can represent evil. It can represent that which is morally reprehensible. And one of the challenges of life in the world of action is the challenge of ensuring that our essential moral cores are not contaminated.

The man who quoted The Big Lebowski during his inaugural address references Dirty Hands and Cat’s Cradle in this one. Lehman’s synopsis of Dirty Hands is an interesting one. Hugo criticizes Hoederer, a communist leader, for trying to cut a deal with right wing rivals. Hoederer notes that his actions might save 100,000 lives.

[Hoederer] asserts that in the real world people must sometimes compromise some principles in order to promote others. And he criticizes Hugo for his dangerous naïveté:

Hoederer says: “How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right in to the elbows. You don’t love men, Hugo. You love only principles. Your purity resembles death. You don’t want to change the world, you want to blow it up.”

In Cat’s Cradle, Ice-9 is the crystal form of water that freezes at room temperature and freezes any water it touches. In the novel, it eventually leads to an apocalypse by freezing the world’s oceans. Lehman wonders about the moral significance of Ice-9.

Ice-9 provides a useful metaphor for a popular but, I believe, troublesome form of moral argument.

In [Dirty Hands], the question was one of first-order contamination. It was a question about how our own actions, our own dirt, might contaminate our own souls.

But in the world you are about to enter you will also encounter questions of second-order contamination. Questions about what will happen if you make contact with someone who has acted badly in dealings that did not involve you. Questions about whether even the slightest contact might transmit the dirt of their actions, their choices, so that your soul becomes contaminated.

I will refer to these questions as questions of Ice-9 contamination.

Obviously some forms of contact do transmit one person’s moral dirt to another, for example where the second person explicitly endorses the activity that produced the dirt in question. Or where the contact has the consequence of enabling the ongoing production of additional new dirt.

But Ice-9 contamination arguments of this form revolve around other, more limited forms of contact, forms that do not endorse or enable the underlying activity. They take the simple form, “Don’t have anything to do with X because X is bad and if you engage X you will elevate X and debase yourself, X’s name will be legitimated, and yours will be sullied.”

What is Lehman’s message?

My primary message this morning is that you should be very wary of Ice-9 contamination arguments and the sense of despair that is implicitly associated with them. Let me stipulate that there is a special satisfaction one can derive from using them as a reason to withdraw from contact with the world. It is the satisfaction that follows from feeling a certain kind of moral superiority. But I would argue that this satisfaction carries a very heavy price. Yielding to Ice-9 contamination arguments will often, perhaps usually, lead us to miss opportunities to accomplish genuine good in the world through serious engagement.

A recent New York Times article described Senator Clinton’s role as part of Walmart’s board of directors. While Walmart might be considered evil by the labor union faction of the Democratic party, the article discusses how Clinton’s time there allowed her to effect positive change in the company. Indeed, an excerpt from the article echoes the sentiments of Lehman’s speech:

Mrs. Clinton declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, her spokesman said, “Wal-Mart is now one of the country’s largest employers, and Mrs. Clinton still believes it is important to try to influence the decisions they make because they can affect so many people.”

McCain has similarly seen flak for his stance on immigration. The immigration bill, a compromise between a handful of Republican and Democratic senators, has been attacked by members at both extremes of the political spectrum. A TIME magazine article interviewed McCain on this issue.

McCain acknowledged that his support of the bill, which is backed by President Bush, has hurt him with the Republican base and could end his quest for the nomination. But he told TIME: “It would be worth it, because it’s a matter of national security, it’s a matter of economic security, and it’s a matter of what kind of nation we are.”

It is certainly worth considering whether engaging with those whose views differ from our own can bring net positive change even if the path there does not always move in that direction.


One response

  1. neelam

    It’s a great idea for a graduation speech! A good reminder to idealistic, intellectual young people that to be truly effective, they will have to engage. Have you heard about Cindy Sheehan’s recent resignation from her post at the helm of the anti-war movement? At least a small part of her decision seems to have been a lack of desire to get dirt on her hands– she seemed to have grown weary of the internal politics that embroiled the anti-war movement along with her failure to bring about the war’s ultimate end. Her resignation drives home the fact that even though only the idealistic want to take on the task of playing around in the mud anyway, the fact is that it is hard to stay both idealistic and clean. I guess it is a matter of expectations– if idealists foresee the long, dirty road ahead of them, maybe they won’t be so fussy about keeping their fingernails clean.

    June 18, 2007 at 12:54 am

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