Time Magazine Editor-at-Large Anand Giridharadas argued there is still room to counter the cultural and political divisiveness present in America. Giridharadas spoke at the Emory Center for Ethics’ “Where Do We Go From Here: Restoring Justice and Civil Discourse” virtual event on Nov. 4 about restorative justice and the role of civil discourse in social transformation.

“We are in a moment in this country that is potentially thrilling,” Giridharadas said. “After 400 years of denial about the origins of this country in the subjugation of black people, we are having an honest reckoning about our history.” 

The event was the second annual “James W. Fowler Conversations in Ethics,” after last year’s inaugural event highlighted Ibram X. Kendi. This year, Giridharadas engaged in conversation with Robert Franklin, the James T. and Berta R. Laney professor in moral leadership. 

Anand Giridharadas (left) and Robert Franklin (right)

He previously worked as a columnist and correspondent for The New York Times and has also written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has received the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture from Harvard University (Mass.), the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale University (Conn.), the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Award and the 800-CEO-READ Business Book of the Year award.

Franklin, previously a visiting scholar in resistance at Stanford University’s (Calif.) Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, is currently the president emeritus of Morehouse College (Ga.). 

Giridharadas noted that the U.S. is going through a demographic transformation that “puts the U.S. ahead of any other rich country in the world in democratically choosing to become a superpower of color — a country without a majority race.” 

He said he believed divisions among people in America stem from a revolt against this inevitable future.

“We are living in a contest between people who want that future to come, and people who would rather shatter America than share it,” Giridharadas said.

He said civil discourse about the future demands structural change through directly challenging those in positions of authority and “asking a lot of people to give up power.”

Giridharadas noted that this change can be hard to enact. 

“The challenge is that it is difficult to fight for things without your cause seeming totally exhausting to people a lot of the time, without it feeling to people like you’re the thought police — without it feeling to people like they’re walking on eggshells,” Giridharadas said.

He made use of an analogy to expand on this thought.

“If our party — and I mean party in the sense of a dance party, not a political party — is not more fun than their party, we have a problem,” Giridharadas said. “Our party is certainly more righteous than the party of ignorance and racism and xenophobia. But I think sometimes our party is tedious and exhausting, and you’re afraid of going in there because you’re afraid of saying something wrong.” 

Reflecting on the importance of this “fun,” Franklin brought up the role of music and arts in the social change movements in the 60’s when people did not take themselves “too seriously.” 

Giridharadas said that back then, demands for freedom were underlined by music and art. 

“Freedom was a set of arguments, but it was also something that was embodied,” Giridharadas said. “I don’t think we’re matching that today.”

When asked to consider the roles philanthropists and universities have to play in exerting change, Giridharadas said that money donated by philanthropists is “ill- hoarded money” that should have been used for wages, taxes and mitigating social harm. The money, he said, is fundamentally a stolen resource.

Giridharas brought up the example of Jeff Bezos making donations to schools for the same children whose parents he underpays, to highlight that those in a foundation need to ask themselves, “am I pushing things in a direction where there could never be a Jeff Bezos again?”

When talking about the role of universities, Giridharadas said that they need to be careful of who and what they choose to fund. Giridharadas elaborated that universities often end up funding the issues they claim to oppose, enabling them to grow further. Using Jefferey Epistein as an example, he said that universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “sold him a service in empowering his reputation that was then used to harm others.”

A short Q&A session followed the discussion, where attendees asked questions about the progress made toward restoring justice. When asked how individuals can help organize large groups of people against wealthy, powerful few, Giridharadas said that important change involves changes in civil rights, immigration laws and other policies, rather than individual actions. 

Giridharadas emphasized that actual change that “opened a society and spread equality” occurred when people came together. He added that there are still ways to be involved, including political organizing, writing, working as a scholar and teacher in academia, and running for office.. 

In response to Emory Center for Ethics Associate Director Kathy Kinlaw’s inquiry about Giridharadas’ thoughts on the future of non-violence work like Dr. Martin Luther King’s, Giridharadas responded that the country has, in the Trump era, explicitly embraced political violence.

“There is a group of people who would rather break this country than share it,” Giridharadas said. “But, those of us who would rather share the country far outnumber and plan to outlast them.”