Martin Kimani: UNH Commencement Address 2022

Martin Kimani '96

Kenya: Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations

UNH Commencement Address 2022

 

  1. President James Warren Dean Jr, staff, faculty, parents...and the resilient, COVID-battling class of 2022, I greet you!
  2. I sat where you are now, a long time ago.
  3. I urge you to think back about WHO has been critical in your journey. Very few of us walk alone. You sitting here are held aloft by responsibilities carried, sacrifices willingly made, and a deeply felt, committed love.
  4. Let us give a big hand to the parents who are here, and those who could not make it for any number of reasons.
  5. Let us give thanks as well to those friends and family who have touched our lives in some way that allow us to be here today.
  6. For my commencement, my mother flew to Boston from London, to make sure I had really graduated!
  7. She is here today as well, this time to make sure that I do not embarrass our entire family. I want to thank her because my journey would not be possible without her sacrifices and support.
  8. My wife June, and my kids Kirigo and Kimana are also here; I thank them for the loving kindness they show me every day and that is my armour.
  9. Class of 2022, thank you for welcoming me and allowing me to be small part of your special day.
  10. I am deeply honoured to be here with you today for your commencement from this fine institution.
  11. I congratulate you Class of 2022. You made it!
  12. It is great to be back in Durham on this warm spring day.
  13. One of my fondest memories of the University was in an afternoon philosophy class in Hamilton Smith Hall. Standing by the blackboard was the late Professor Duane Whittier.
  14. In those days, I was experiencing my first flush of political consciousness. I had traveled to New Hampshire from a Kenya undergoing the storm of democratisation, like many other countries in those years following the demise of the Soviet Union.
  15. Prior to that democratic flowering, there had been books banned by the government to prevent their dangerous ideas entering our political bloodstream.
  16. Predictably, they were the first books I borrowed from Dimond Library. They seemed to me, in that flush of youth, to hold the keys to understanding why there was so much poverty and war in the world.
  17. I half-digested their ideologies and made sure everybody heard about them.
  18. One day, after I had delivered a particularly strident diatribe, Professor Whittier asked me to stay behind after class.
  19. After all the students had filed out, he wiped the blackboard clean and asked me to write out my argument.
  20. I did so, and we went through it word for word. Professor Whittier was one for logic and process. He showed me in a really simple and gentle way how poorly I was making my argument.
  21. And in the years to come, I was taught by Andrew Christie, Willem Devries, Paul McNamara, Charlotte Witt and others. They were exceptional teachers.
  22. Professor Christie in particular was also my advisor, defender and friend, and I got to know his wonderful family. He retired from teaching yesterday; what a gift he has been to this community.
  23. I am fairly sure that Professor Whittier and his colleagues never understood what a powerful influence they had been to me.
  24. Because of them, I left New Hampshire with an unspoken, but deeply felt desire to be intellectually honest and to exercise critical thinking.
  25. I believe these qualities have been hugely beneficial to me personally and professionally. That is what I want to speak to you about today.
  26. I anticipate that many of you, in fact all of you, will wield some form of power. Not in the same proportions, and certainly in different realms.
  27. There will be the power you will have over your children, the kind that is possessed by managers in the private sector, winners of elective office, and those appointed to senior positions in government.
  28. I hope to convince you why critical thinking and intellectual honesty are the most important qualities you can have to offer hope to a scared and scarred world.
  29. And how you, as future leaders, will need to use these habits of mind to navigate the dangerous corridors of power so that you do not destroy yourself or others.
  30. John Dewey, a great American philosopher, defined critical thinking as — and I quote him — "active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the furthest conclusions to which it ends.”
  31. By intellectual honesty, I mean your personal commitment to be guided by evidence and rationality, in your thinking and actions, to the best of your ability.
  32. In practice, it often means being willing to be wrong and to be seen to be wrong in front of others.
  33. To be intellectually honest is the opposite of dogmatic thinking. Dogma insists on fitting facts to a set of beliefs held with no regard to the evidence.
  34. Or is sustained by carefully screening out those with a contrary viewpoint who are likely to point out the contradictions in your argument.
  35. It has never been easy to not feel defensive when your arguments are questioned or even attacked. I believe it may be even more difficult today.
  36. So many of our views have become fused to our identities. To question our viewpoint can feel like an attack on our being.
  37. We live in an attention economy shaped by sophisticated political actors who know that fear and discord attract the most attention to their cause.
  38. They are the human versions of the social media algorithms that reward extremism and populism.
  39. It almost feels like we cannot be heard if we are not shouting down someone else.
  40. There is little space to accept doubt or to communicate limits to our actions, for or against our point of view.
  41. We are being invited to draw black and white pictures with no grey. We are good and THEY are evil. Politically, there can only be democrats or autocrats. We pronounce civilisational struggles to the death.

Friends,

  1. These extreme expressions of opposed differences on the basis of identity have led to great harms throughout our history. The first half of the twentieth century was filled with a similar ferment of identity-based politics.
  2. Hate WAS politics. Racism and ethnocentrism appeared to offer a clarity on which to build nations and empires. It led to the catastrophe of World War Two.
  3. The tens of millions of fatalities, and the almost complete destruction of countries, led to the founding of the United Nations in 1945.
  4. The founding fathers of this great human enterprise were tough, battle-weary leaders.
  5. They were the winners of the most destructive war in modern history, and were determined to extend the power of their countries. But they had also been humbled by the immense violence of the war, following, as it did, the disaster of World War 1.
  6. They had watched in horror as blunders by leaders drunk with power, and pursuing fevered dreams of racial purity, ended up killing millions.
  7. They established the United Nations to be a forum of states that would enable a common rejection of aggression in order to save humanity from the kind of war they had just waged.
  8. They made respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of all states the cornerstone of the peace the UN was meant to protect. No matter how small the state, it had the right to be treated according to these principles.
  9. They were basically applying brakes to the hubris and illusions of grandeur that had led to the pursuit of conquest.
  10. Dear friends — I have closely observed the workings of power, its effect on character, and how it is used by those who hold senior positions in governments and global organisations.
  11. Fortunately, I have had been blessed to work with leaders who care deeply for citizens. But in the cut and thrust of public life, and in the roles I have played in peace negotiations in our region, I have had the opportunity to observe powerful people up close.
  12. The fact if it is that the more power you have, the more you will need to be prepared for its demands, particularly if you are to wield it effectively and responsibly without destroying many others, and, eventually, yourself.
  13. Let me explain what I mean.
  14. For the last seventeen months, I have been a member of the UN Security Council as Kenya’s Permanent Representative during our two-year term.
  15. Our job is to protect international peace and security, and we have the power to bind all 193 member states of the United Nations to our resolutions.
  16. On most weekdays, and an occasional weekend to respond to an emergency, we hear briefings and debate about how to resolve ongoing conflicts.
  17. Today, there is a dangerous war in Ukraine that can escalate with extremely destructive effects.
  18. The countries of the Sahel are trying to survive the assault of determined terrorists groups wielding weapons they got from a Libya that collapsed following a military intervention by NATO.
  19. The people of Syria continue to labour under unremitting violence and crushing sanctions.
  20. We are no closer to solving the Palestinian Question. Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates and offshoots have sprung up in multiple African countries, with the international community only showing limited will to defeat them.
  21. This is only a partial snapshot of the horrors being visited on innocent men, women and children all over the world.
  22. What every single one of these crises reflect is a deficit in leadership.
  23. Solving every single one of them requires leadership that is intellectually honest enough to not interpret every fact using a flattening, black-white, dogmatic ideology.
  24. This kind of leadership is becoming more difficult to provide. We hear too many leaders project a certainty that can only be maintained narratively not by critical thinking.
  25. They constantly appeal to our visceral fear of strangers, to what divides us and not what unites us.
  26. They ignore our wonderful human complexity, insisting that we live in the single story that the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie so memorably warned us against.
  27. Their worldviews are built on alternative facts, and brutally flatten the world to enable actions that have no chance for success.
  28. It is these leaders whose countries are the subject of the Security Council’s debates. They end up killing innocents, destroying the livelihoods of millions, undermining institutions, and threatening international peace and security.

My friends,

  1. The actions of these leaders have massive consequences for their countries and the world. But they are not the only ones who can destroy.
  2. They have their counterparts in cities, towns and companies all over the world. The same thinking that gets the world in trouble can be reflected in you who sitting here for commencement.
  3. It can lead you to destroy value in your company that leads to life-altering job losses. It can lead to unethical management. It can feed hatred and division in your community.
  4. The world is crying out for leaders — at the global and local levels — who can be bold in their actions while being responsible and humble about their limits.
  5. You have been given the intellectual tools to incorporate in your personal conduct. It is now up to you to transform them into a practice in your careers.
  6. To do so means you will need to start cultivating a habit of listening carefully to arguments against your position.
  7. To take time to listen to the sole voice in the room that seems out of step with the group.
  8. Before arguing back, carefully repeat the other person’s position to make sure you are actually communicating with them.
  9. Be ready to change your mind if further evidence or consideration demands it. Speak up in acknowledgement that you were wrong and someone else was right.
  10. The more you practice this way of thinking and acting at the start of your careers, the more successful you will later be as a leader.

President Dean, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Class of 2022:

  1. Let me bring this to a close. Never in human history have we had more wealth, technology and knowhow. Every single major challenge our communities, countries, and the world, is facing can be solved.
  2. Every one of them is an opportunity for you to make your career and reputation. I hope that I have offered you some food for thought about tools that will be a great help to you if embraced and used.
  3. Thank you and, once again, congratulations to you all!