The Truth is at Stake

By Guest Contributor

The past three months of travel on the Watson Foundation’s ticket has been the most phenomenally humbling, addictive, complicated, joyful experience of my life. I pause my travels to write you now only to do my part to ensure that you appreciate what is at stake here, which is nothing less than truth.

From recently lived experience I can tell you that the hundreds of thousands of mine workers currently striking in South Africa, suffering not only the most heinous of working and living conditions but accusations of responsibility for their country’s looming economic collapse, need you to serve in defense of their truth. I can tell you that the millions of Malawians who currently stand in opposition to offshore oil development, but who possess no collective strength with which to oppose the multinational corporations contracted for the job, need you to serve in defense of their truth. I can tell you that after many months in an Africa experiencing continued colonialism in the form of corporate control, the people of this continent need you to serve in defense of their truth. Most of all, I can tell you that I have been on the road for three months now, and that I need to exist in the world knowing that with regard to the people who meet and care for me everyday, the institution within which I grew up is fighting in defense of truth.

I feel that the world is in increasing need of an honest conversation about the fact that left alone in an economic structure in which destroying the environment and exploiting people are profitable activities, corporations will not serve the greater good, and furthermore that it must be possible to sustain oneself without denying another sustenance. And we at Middlebury are in increasing need of an honest conversation about the influence we exert but don’t talk about; about the manner in which we contradict our own process by taking great care at home with people, but none around the world with money.

Middlebury claims to exist for a group of individuals who have been deemed worthy, due to some combination of economic, intellectual, athletic, spiritual, physical and artistic assets. It does a pretty solid job of making good on that claim, if you ask me. But simultaneously and potentially more significantly, we fail to acknowledge that our influence reaches far beyond the edges of our campus. Middlebury lives the world over, in communities we don’t visit, among peoples we won’t meet, on a scale we can’t conceptualize.

But because we have thus far refused to exercise control over the process by which we exert this influence — the investment of hundreds of million dollars from our endowment — we lie to ourselves, and we endorse the ever destructive illusion that all corporate entities are worthy of continued existence and support and that whatever destruction they do engage in is inevitable in the name of progress.

So what, then, is our responsibility, if we accept that we are a private institution with a very specific mission to serve a very specific group, but with global reach and influence that we exert not only little control over, but that is, perhaps, a destructive force in the world — a force that sustains lies when we are in increasing need of honesty?

Many will claim that we need not focus on our exogenous influence, but take great care endogenously. But those who make this argument do so ignoring the fact that corporations have it within their power to neutralize any influence that Middlebury could independently exert on the world, no matter how positive. No matter how much we as a community or as individuals may work to make the world a more acceptable place, the heinous behavior of certain corporations carries greater strength; greater force; greater will.

And thus, many — myself included — will argue that we need exert whatever control we can; that we need seize those levers for change that exist to ensure that our mission can be fulfilled, and fulfilled fully; that our legacy in the world will stand as a positive one, when all is said and done and that we are participating actively in the pursuit of progress instead of its obstruction.

Divestment from corporations deemed unacceptable is one of those levers. Divestment is an opportunity to confirm that yes, we exert global influence, but we will not do so carelessly; a chance to say no, we will not buy into the same falsehoods that give life to our contemporary economic and socio-political structure and the inequalities and injustices it sustains; we will not quietly endorse the idea that all corporations are unequivocally behaving with humanity’s long term interest at heart or that their massive failings are inevitable.

And so we will be specific. We will discern the constructive from the destructive; identify those entities that do not obstruct justice and equality but cultivate them instead; seek out corporations that are pursuing success independently of exploitation and destruction. Just as we take great care selecting those who we will serve as an educational institution, we will do the same as a financial institution.

It brings me great calm to hear that we are not punishing those who are promoting this conversation within our community, but encouraging them. We must always debate process and deliberate over tactics, but we simply cannot afford to miss the point. For too long these lies have remained lies; the truth will only stand if we serve in its defense.

Written by RHIYA TRIVEDI ’12 of Oakville, Ontario