Lately I have found myself stupefied into virtual silence. And I know, from speaking with many colleagues and many of you reading this, that I am not alone.
But it is difficult for me to admit. I came up in the foundation world through a background in communications, journalism and public policy. For decades now I have argued for foundations to be more transparent in sharing information and more aggressive in their use of story-telling, persuasion and public voice. At times I have blasted our field for not being courageous enough in speaking out and putting its weight, knowledge and credibility behind the ideas and people we care about.
The last few weeks have battered my faith in that. In a deeply personal way I have felt overwhelmed by a media and communications landscape transformed by a maelstrom of fake news, misinformation, trolling, vilification and distraction. (Here, by the way, is the real “political correctness” that most threatens to corrode our public dialogue: the abject failure to call these behaviors what they really are—lying, indecency and abuse.) In this new world facts occupy no more privileged a position than opinion, science is treated as a matter of belief, and wild untruths are made “relevant” through the mere act of repetition.
The great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who roamed the halls of the U.S. Senate when my giant of a boss John Heinz also did, famously liked to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Until recently that line was so self-evidently true it always drew a chuckle. Now, though, it feels faintly silly and quaint, because today it seems everyone really is entitled to their own facts.
The image that keeps coming to mind for me is the chaff that militaries use to throw off an attacker’s radar. Chaff is a burst of small pieces of aluminum or plastic that obscure a target in a confetti shower of decoys. It seems we all risk being lost now in a cloud of information chaff, where reality becomes whatever bit of tinsel, fake or real, we lock onto.
I believe profoundly in the power of voice, always have. And one of the great privileges of working at The Heinz Endowments is that this foundation shares that belief and did long before I came into this role. We believe that part of our responsibility is to speak – not as PR, but to advance the ideas and values we think are critical to our mission.
In his poem “September 1, 1939,” W.H. Auden lamented the world’s impotence as Hitler’s troops overran Poland. A couplet from that poem has given me much solace as I have watched our public dialogue degrade into puerile jabs and Orwellian doublespeak:
“All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie.”
We have that, each of us: a voice to speak the truth and undo the insidious lies that divide us, make us turn on each other rather than reach out, in compassion and love. But lately I have been wondering: What is the power, what is the point anymore, of more voices whispering earnestly into a howling wind? How do our words, however sincere, however well considered, find purchase in a storm of fury and lies?
Sometimes the universe reaches out and smacks me in the side of the head with a wake-up call. It happened the other day at the gym of all places, as I was furiously working out my frustration over this question and the deep sense of powerlessness that accompanied it. A song called “The Silence” from the British indie group Bastille popped onto my Pandora feed. “It’s not enough to feel dumbstruck,” went its refrain. “Can you fill the silence?”
That stopped me midstride. It was both admonishment and license. Here I was, looking for assurance that our sector’s voice matters still in an atmosphere teeming with angry, partisan rhetoric. But none of us ever gets that assurance, in this era or any other. Our simple task is to refrain from falling mute anyway, to courageously fill the vacuum of our own stunned silence with the truth abiding in our own hearts.
The whole point of chaff is to confuse, to make us lose direction and divert us from our goals. Most of all, in this case it is meant to drive us into a kind of sputtering, shoulder-shrugging, what-difference-does-it-make silence. After all, in a world where every word is suspect, where shiny tinsel dresses up the ugliest and emptiest of lies, why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” History teaches us the price of allowing truth and our nobler selves to be muzzled. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his defense of human rights, warned, “Not to speak is to speak.” Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi death camps, noted, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” and “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future.
These are not partisan truths but rather human truths. They belong to no political party and can be declared off limits by no lawmaker or grandstanding commentator. And they are where we as a sector, foundations that presume to offer a vision for the future, must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it in tawdry distraction.
Auden’s poem ends with this refrain:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
That is my wish for all of us in foundations and the caring organizations and communities we support—that we will be that affirming flame, that we will fill any temptation to silence with the truths we hold most dear, the inspiration we take every day from the work we do and the people it brings into our lives. And may we speak with one bold voice the timeless truth that Auden captures in the line preceding his last stanza: “We must love one another or die.”