Morning Lecture Recaps

Courtney Cogburn discusses utility of virtual reality to understand complexities of racism



Courtney Cogburn, co-director of the Columbia School of Social Work’s Justice, Equity, Technology Lab, explores the possibilities and limitations of VR as a tool for empathy Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Courtney Cogburn began her work with virtual reality, she had never put on a VR headset. But she was intrigued by the technology, especially when it came to cultivating empathy. As Chris Milk, the CEO of the VR company Within, said, “Virtual reality is the ultimate empathy machine.”

“I wanted to build on this adage of walking a mile in someone’s shoes. If you could just walk a mile in my shoes, might you understand racism differently than me just explaining it to you, or you just reading about it?” Cogburn said.

Cogburn is a transdisciplinary scholar, combining the fields of psychology, education, computer science and many others.

“That approach suggests that there’s not one discipline that can solve the types of problems that we’re trying to solve,” Cogburn said. “It also acknowledges that I, alone, can’t fix these complicated issues. I use teams of people, lots of conversations, lots of points of input, to help me think about and address the complexities of racism in our society.”

And she has professionally engaged with racism for 20 years. She said when she talks to audiences, she isn’t seeking approval — or even support. Cogburn seeks for people to question and examine their own beliefs.

“Racism must be framed and understood as being multidimensional. It’s not one thing. It’s not just something that happens between people. It exists in our structures and systems and in our cultures,” Cogburn said. “When we’re thinking about this intersection of empathy, racism and race, it’s important for us to think about that it’s not just about relationships between us. It’s about how these things manifest as a part of our socio-cultural fabric.”

Cogburn is an associate professor of social work at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia School of Social Work’s Justice, Equity, Technology Lab. She is the lead creator of “1000 Cut Journey,” an immersive virtual reality experience simulating racism, discrimination and systemic brutality. 

At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday in the Amphitheater, Cogburn gave the last Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation of Week Six, themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.” She explored her own work with the VR experience “1000 Cut Journey,” the impact it had on participants and how the technology is not a magic pill, but rather a start to people exploring, and questioning, their own perceptions. 

Cogburn said racial justice requires people to understand racism. Racism, she said, is not an abstract concept, but a very visceral one. She then quoted author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates: “But for all of our phrasing, race relations, racial chasm, racial justice … serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it lodges brains, blocks airways, tips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”

White people tend to mis-estimate the impact racism has on society, often underestimating racial wealth gaps and overestimating progress made, Cogburn said. Some white people want to be seen helping, coming to protests and acting as advocates over social media, but still do not have an accurate idea of racism.

“I often joke that if I were to hand out cute stickers that said ‘Not Racist,’ you could wear that proudly, and people would know you’re a good person and you’re not racist, whether that’s true or not,” Cogburn said. “But that’s an investment in how you’re seen. That’s an investment about whether people think you’re a good person. That’s not working against racism.”

These people, she said, are the target audience of “1000 Cut Journey” because they believe in racial justice, but do not truly understand the impact of racism. Her VR experience takes a person through three moments in the life of an avatar named Michael Sterling (a hybrid of Michael Brown and Alton Sterling, both Black men killed by police): a child playing in a classroom, a teenager going to a game and a young adult applying for a job. Throughout the experience, the user is constantly shown mirrors so they remember who they are playing as and are encouraged to move and interact with the world.

Courtney Cogburn, co-director of the Columbia School of Social Work’s Justice, Equity, Technology Lab, explores the possibilities and limitations of VR as a tool for empathy Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“You’re not an observer; you’re in it,” Cogburn said. “This is your environment. You have to use this body in ways that you choose and see fit, even if we’re goading you in particular directions. So it’s important for you to use the body that you’re in, in order to feel connected to it.”

Cogburn then showed footage of the first VR experience. The user views life through the perspective of the avatar as a young child, able to move his hands around as if they were their own. They are placed in a classroom and are able to play with the blocks in front of them and listen to the other children, who are all white, talking. 

“The children say things like, ‘Mike, throw the fireball, throw the scary black fireball.’ Black is always the scariest. What we’re representing here is the ways in which a racial narrative enters our psyches at a very young age,” Cogburn said. “Even if we fancy ourselves colorblind — ‘I don’t like to talk about race. I just see people as human.’ — we live in a world that’s giving us messages about race and value and worth that get absorbed by our children.”

When the avatar throws a block, the teacher, a white female, yells at him, and only him, even though the other children were throwing blocks, too.

“We know empirically that Black boys, in particular, are disciplined more harshly for the same behaviors in classrooms, and we wanted to represent that in this experience,” Cogburn said.

As young as 3 years old, children start to categorize people by gender, age and race. At 5, they start to associate values with those categories, such as what girls are expected to do and how certain races act. 

“If that is happening across the board developmentally for all of our children — and we’re refusing to talk about and engage race and its significance in our society — what meaning, what conclusions would they draw about where we are and who we are, as a people, as a society, as it relates to race, if we aren’t actively intervening?” Cogburn asked.

The second VR experience starts in the avatar’s bedroom as a teenager. The avatar can walk around his bedroom, which has some sports memorabilia, and toss a basketball. A phone rings from behind the avatar, prompting the user to pick it up and answer. It’s one of the avatar’s basketball teammates, asking if they can walk over to their game together. The avatar’s mother then calls to him from downstairs, and the scene then transitions. His mother is watching the news and tells him to change his clothes because the police are looking for someone that looks like him. The avatar’s teammate, who is white, tells him not to worry about it, and that the mother is overreacting. His mother then tells the avatar to remember what happened to his brother.

“We’re representing a mother having to be hypervigilant about what her child is wearing, out of fear of what might happen to him if he has an interaction with the police,” Cogburn said, “and a white friend who doesn’t quite get it — about the significance of what the mother is asking or requesting.”

The avatar changes clothes and the experience then shifts to an outside setting, where he greets his neighbors and talks to his friend. Suddenly, police appear, all yelling at the user at once, telling them to get on the ground. 

“And you, the user, have a choice to make. Do you get down on your knees and raise your hands in the air? Most people do,” Cogburn said. “In that moment where you’re yelling, and there’s chaos in the neighborhood, and your neighbors are yelling at you, the lights go out and it goes dark, and it gets quiet.”

That section ends with a quote from the avatar’s mother: “Just do what you have to do to get home alive.”

“Not everyone has to explain that to their children. Not everyone has to fear an encounter with the police in quite the same way,” Cogburn said. “Not everyone really understands how you can have an encounter with the police and then be confused about what’s happening because you’re not the person they’re looking for.”

Courtney Cogburn, co-director of the Columbia School of Social Work’s Justice, Equity, Technology Lab, explores the possibilities and limitations of VR as a tool for empathy Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the last scenario, an adult avatar is at a job interview in an office that is, Cogburn said, “decidedly white,” from the workers to the paintings of the founders on the wall. The receptionist is rude and dismissive to the user, quickly telling them to put their resume in the holder, without looking at them. If the user is paying attention, they can see a Yale logo on the resume, which Cogburn said gives the user the impression they are qualified for the job. They then sit next to another applicant, who is white. The interviewer automatically assumes the other person is the Yale applicant. When he says he is not and points to the avatar, the boss looks over. 

“It’s the first time that the interviewer returns to acknowledge your presence at all. He has completely ignored that you’re there, prior to that point,” Cogburn said.

One VR user, a white woman, held out her hand during this whole interaction. The boss never shook it. 

“The visual of this woman waiting to be seen and acknowledged was just so striking to me, in this moment, when you had been completely disregarded,” Cogburn said. “And in some ways, given the goals of the VR, we’ve made you feel invisible and unseen.”

And Cogburn was surprised by how much more aware the participants were of themselves. 

“Even though we were attempting to make you feel like a Black man by wearing a headset, we often find that people, especially white people, say they feel more white,” Cogburn said. “They’re more salient of just how different their day-to-day experience is by embodying an experience that’s very different than their own. ”

She said to achieve greater racial justice, empathy is not sufficient. People must understand themselves and their own thoughts and biases. They also must come to conversations with an open mind, and be willing to be uncomfortable. 

“If you come to a conversation, and you’re resolved, and you think you have it all figured out, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind,” Cogburn said. “If you enter a conversation about racism, thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m missing something,’ we’ll end up in a very different place.”

She then shared three stories of people who used her VR experience. The first was a white, female colleague from Columbia. Weeks after playing “1000 Cut Journey,” she passed by a police officer.

“She got scared. And she said her palms started sweating, her heart rate increased,” Cogburn said. “She said to me, ‘I’ve never been afraid of the police. I’ve never had a reason to be. But in that moment, I was afraid.’ ”

Cogburn wants people to keep thinking about the experience, and have it conjure more than an immediate emotional reaction. 

The second was the story of a Black colleague at Columbia. He played it during a party celebrating the completion of the project and knew it dealt with racism. Nobody told him, however, that it involved the police.

When he got to the section where the police yelled at the avatar, he tried to take off the headset, but finished the experience. Later, when Cogburn asked what happened, her colleague said he was afraid, and because of the noise of the party, he couldn’t hear the police’s orders. 

“That’s how real that felt to him,” Cogburn said.

The last was from a white woman from London. She did not say much immediately after the experience but messaged Cogburn a short time later. 

“She said, ‘(Michael Sterling) is a part of me now. I just received the story about police violence in the UK, it was a rapper talking about his experience,’ ” Cogburn said. “And she said, ‘I didn’t read that as an intellectual engagement with the media. It became personal.’ ”

Cogburn ended her lecture by sharing questions she wants Chautauquans to discuss on their porches, like, “Where are my points of tension or resistance in my thinking about racism?” and “Are racial groups better or worse off because of their own efforts?”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Amit Taneja, senior vice president and chief Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) officer, asked Cogburn if she has partnered with police, like Wednesday lecturer Jackie Acho.

Cogburn said she is not interested in using VR as a way to train police. 

“In my experience working with police departments, there’s been an unwillingness to grapple with race and racism explicitly,” Cogburn said. “In my two decades-plus of doing this work, we can’t dance around it. We have to name it, we have to take it head-on. I don’t have any interest in sugar-coating or changing or pretending that that’s not central.”

She has been asked to talk to police. Other members of her team went with the intent to talk about race, but the police department wanted to talk about empathy and harm reduction in much more general terms.

“There was just this resistance to it,” Cogburn said.

Taneja then asked Cogburn to talk about her understanding of critical race theory and how the term can be helpful in continuing dialogue about race and racism.

Cogburn said critical race theory is simply an acknowledgment that race is a factor in society, both historically and contemporary. 

“Critical race theory simply asks us to consider race as a part of our analysis. How has race contributed to what we’re observing in society? If we’re thinking about COVID rates, if we’re thinking about incarceration, if we’re thinking about health care, it’s saying, ‘Don’t ignore race as a factor that might be coloring what we’re seeing in terms of those outcomes,’ ” Cogburn said. “That’s it.”

Author, consultant Jackie Acho delves into empathy work with Cleveland Police



Jackie Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life delivers her lecture “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Climbing the corporate ladder often comes with increased time away from family and children, leading to fractured homes. Jackie Acho, president of strategy and leadership consulting firm The Acho Group, says career success also can cause people to sacrifice their physical health, spending long hours sitting down and shorter times sleeping. 

But there is also a “shadow cost,” as Acho calls it, of more workers becoming disengaged, tired and unable to muster empathy in the workplace. 

“Sapped empathy isn’t fatal in the short term unless you carry a gun,” Acho said. “What I’ve learned in working with the Cleveland Police for six years is that they aren’t so different from the rest of us. And that’s what’s both reassuring and scary.”

Acho works with the Cleveland Police Department to foster more empathy from within, and to connect officers with the community. She has found reform is more effective when it is driven from within the police department, and not from outside. 

Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life, presented her lecture at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 4 in the Amphitheater. It was titled “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do with It?” and was part of Week Six’s theme of “Building a Culture of Empathy.” She explored the complexities of righting a 160-year-old ship, featuring voice clips from Cleveland community members and detectives, one of whom came on stage for the Q-and-A session. 

Empathy wasn’t Acho’s starting point. In 1994, she earned her doctorate in chemistry at MIT.

“Logic. Data. Cold, hard facts. That’s what we valued. Every clever question seemed worthy of investigation,” Acho said.

It wasn’t until she had children that Acho said she “woke up to empathy.” This surge in empathy in parents is physiological. Research has shown parts of the brain tied to empathy lit up when new parents were shown pictures of newborns, “proving what our grandmothers could have told us all along; hands-on caring grows empathy,” Acho said.

She defined empathy as “the ability to understand the feelings of someone else, and have an appropriate emotional response.” Acho said the last part is important — and overlooked. 

She said empathy often gets a bad name because it is confused with when people project emotions onto others or simply listen to how it affects them.

“Empathy is relational. Empathy is mutual. Empathy is sitting with, not necessarily solving, not taking your own trip,” Acho said. “Of course, you can offer perspective if it’s wanted and sometimes that’s helpful. But also, sometimes, it’s healing just to truly be heard.”

The first part of empathy is affective empathy, also called emotional or primitive empathy. 

“That was the first to develop in us as babies before we had words to communicate our needs,” Acho said. “We heard a lot about that yesterday with chimpanzees with Dr. de Waal. Hopefully, someone responded when you were an infant and you had needs, so that primitive part of empathy got a good foundation in you.”

Jackie Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life delivers her lecture “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The second is cognitive empathy, which requires a person to imagine the perspective of the other person. Both need to be developed for effective communication.

“If we train people in cognitive empathy, and they don’t have a good foundation of affective empathy, it simply teaches them to manipulate, or worse,” Acho said. “The definition of a psychopath is someone who has super high cognitive empathy, but no ability to feel.”

In a ride-along with the Cleveland Police in 2017, Acho saw firsthand the responsibilities police face. The neighborhoods in which they work suffer from years of disinvestment and redlining. Acho also said the tools police have aren’t enough to fix the issues they see every day. 

“Police are often the last touch points of humanity in a system where schools are failing,” Acho said. “Toxicity and intergenerational trauma make it hard for citizens to thrive.”

This seemingly “endless stream of pain” can make people shut down, but Acho said many in the community appreciated the work of the police. During this ride-along, she accompanied the police on a call to a foster mother whose child had thrown a brick at a lamppost. The situation was calm when police arrived, but there were still deeper problems. 

“No one was solving the fact that this was her sixth home, she was only 11, her foster sisters erased the music on her phone and she was already heavily medicated for ADHD,” Acho said. “It seemed like she needed a hug more than anything, and she accepted one from me. I’ve often thought about how little good that helps against the thrashing waves of her life.”

The 4th District of Cleveland, in which Acho did her ride-along, is statistically the most violent in the city.

“Like many challenged areas, the 4th District is a place where we as a country have redlined, disinvested and left generations to fend for themselves without clean, lead- and mold-free homes, good schools or adequate grocery stores,” Acho said.

She then shared with the audience a video of community leader Marilyn Burns. Burns talked about her role in the community, which included simply listening.

Jackie Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life delivers her lecture “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“One of the biggest elephants in the room where I live is mental health. It’s so much going on, with one episode of something going on to the next episode. People are constantly coming to me, asking for advice, needing a resource, needing whatever prayer, whatever it might be,” Burns said. “Maybe they just want to cry, just sit there for a while and just say, ‘Thank you for just being here.’ ”

Acho then shared a video clip of Cleveland Police 4th District Commander Brandon Kutz. He said the district has 90,000 people, which is one-fourth of the city, and the department receives around 71,000 calls annually. 

The district has 220 police, detectives and supervisors. 

“The 4th District, even though we’re very busy, and it can be very violent at times, is also a place that has amazing neighborhoods,” Kutz said. “Amazing people living here and working here. People that are passionate about life and about wanting to have a safe and productive neighborhood.”

Kutz makes it a point to connect officers with the community.

“You’re going from one person in crisis to the next person in crisis and people in crisis are not having a normal day, “ Kutz said. “It’s really important for me to make sure that my officers remember what ordinary looks like, and the people that are not in crisis in this district that need their service and need them to be there.”

A video played of Detective Michael Williams explaining day-to-day routines of officers. Patrol officers answer calls from citizens, ranging from alarms and car accidents to more serious crimes like assaults or shootings. 

“But when we’re not answering calls, then we focus on community policing, and that goes from stopping playing basketball with the kids to just stopping at somebody’s house who’s having a barbecue, and just really talking together,” Williams said. 

Lastly, Acho showed Detective Chris Gibbons, a longtime Cleveland police officer who works in employee assistance.

“I came down here and was just kind of overwhelmed with what was on our plate, the empathy, crushing things to officers we’re dealing with on a daily basis. And I just became overwhelmed,” Gibbons said. 

Gibbons said he made an effort to make himself and other officers more proactive, rather than reactive, and to strengthen relationships between the police and the community every day.

Jackie Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life delivers her lecture “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Acho’s work with the Cleveland Police began in 2014 after she gave a TEDx talk about empathy and Gibbons called her. 

“I nearly dropped the phone. My experience of the police to that point was getting pulled over for speeding,” Acho said. 

She had also been watching the news and saw the coverage of the shooting of Tamir Rice and the chase in Cleveland that left Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams dead. She said Gibbons was intensely interested in reducing fear and stress for police and citizens. 

So Acho agreed to help and created an in-depth engagement survey for employees focused on empathy. She joked to Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams that surely the department had done a survey before. 

“(He said) never. Not in the 160-year history of the Cleveland Police, at least up to that point anyway,” Acho said. “We didn’t use the ‘E’ word at first, but the chief understood what we aimed to do, and Commander Kutz raised his hand to start. The initial scores were painful to absorb. To be honest, it wasn’t much worse than other organizations we’ve seen because, remember, most workplaces are painful.” 

Acho then talked and showed videos about actions the police department took. They created a five-point leadership model, which broke down leadership traits, such as vision of the future and connection to the community, and then chose people within the building who modeled one or more of those traits. They also choose people for an innovation team who could represent everyone in the building, so people of all experience levels, races and genders felt included. 

“There wasn’t anything we couldn’t overcome, because somebody on the team had an answer for it, which was amazing,” Kutz said. 

By creating this model, Acho said, the department didn’t have to guess who would be the best leaders, and also who to hire and fire. 

“I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Good cops are in it for service. They want to help and when they get to a scene, they can’t slink down in their chair and say, ‘He’ll take care of it,’ ” Acho said. “They have to problem-solve. They work in diverse teams; their lives depend on the person riding next to them.”

They also streamlined peer recognition, meaning good officers would be promptly rewarded, created a better system for mandatory overtime, fixed lighting in hallways and built a breakroom. 

“Some of that may sound superficial, but when I first showed up, the bathrooms didn’t even have locks. There wasn’t always toilet paper,” Acho said. “How can we ask people to risk their lives if it feels like we don’t care about them at all?”

The department also included meditation and yoga practices for the officers, which gave many officers the space and ability to process the trauma they experienced almost daily. 

Jackie Acho, author of Currency of Empathy: The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life delivers her lecture “The Future of Policing: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

And what did all of these do? A lot, Acho said. From 2017 to 2018, complaints from the community dropped 42%, and there was a 29% drop in use of force by officers. And 53% of all police officer transfers were into the 4th District.

“A lot of that is because they heard about the work that we’re doing,” Lutz said. “I’ve heard all kinds of positive feedback from the people that came back here that maybe left before. They couldn’t believe it was the same district that they had left five years ago.”

And they tackled major issues, such as race and the police’s relationship with communities. 

Williams, who grew up in the 4th District, worked during the months after George Floyd’s murder. 

“With everything that’s been going on within the past year and a half, it has been sort of difficult, because I am a young, African American male. But at the same token, I’m also a police officer,” Williams said. “People expected me to disown the police department and just throw everything I had going on and come join them and what was going on. When that didn’t happen, then I became every name in the book but my real name.”

Acho has been through a lot along with the police department, and she looks forward to more. 

“I also know personally how the work-family balance in this country can take a toll on people’s health. We burn the candle at both ends and still volunteer to help parents, friends, others in the community,” Acho said. “Take good care of you. You can’t give what you don’t have, including empathy.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Kutz joined Acho on stage. Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked them to unpack the phrase “defund the police,” and how society can get greater budgetary resources dedicated to empathy. 

“I think the term ‘defund the police’ is scary,” Kutz said. “I think it causes fear in our cities. Our residents are scared of that. The truth is, we are needed. There’s enough violence and mayhem and chaos going on in the city that we need more police officers than we have now to deal with what we have.”

He believes other government agencies, such as social services, need more funding and support.

“These other government agencies should get the funding and support they need to have an impact in the community,” Kutz said. “If they’re out there doing that work, it makes our work a lot easier. We can focus on the things that are most important, as far as law enforcement in the community and leave the social services to the experts in that.”

Acho agreed.

“The only thing that I would say is a lot of what we did didn’t cost a lot of money, that has more to do with where we put our attention,” Acho said. “So I don’t think it would be a big stretch to fund empathy work in other police departments.”

Primatologist Frans de Waal discusses nature of empathy in humans, apes



Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Human faces aren’t much different from our distant cousins. Apes have similar facial muscles, able to make even the most subtle expressions that people do. This is why, as primatologist and ethnologist Frans de Waal said, humans are basically apes. 

Society was not always willing to accept this fact. Charles Darwin wrote a book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, comparing the expression of man to apes, and it was the only book of his that did not get reprinted for around 100 years. 

de Waal said this is because animals were seen as more similar to machines than people, and were not capable of emotion. One researcher, Jan van Hooff, studied the human-esque smile and laugh of apes and found that apes were more likely to laugh while relaxed and playing. 

de Waal then showed a video of a researcher tickling a baby chimpanzee that was on his lap. 

“Young chimps and young bonobos have the same tickling spots as children,” de Waal said. “They have the same tendency of trying to push your hands away, but then waiting for them to come back.”

de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the psychology department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and the author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3 in the Amphitheater, de Waal discussed the empathic nature of social animals and the many similarities between humans and other beings, as well as his own research with bonobos, historically called pygmy chimpanzees.

Sense of humor

“If I were a young student now, I would probably start studying sense of humor in the primate,” de Waal said. “If you have a dog at home — unless it’s an old boring dog … (you know that) dogs have a sense of humor when they’re younger. … They have these playful responses to unexpected events.”

de Waal showed another video. A man performed a magic trick for an orangutan, and after the trick, the animal looked very surprised, let out an amused laugh, then rolled backward.

The next video featured a mother and son chimpanzee. The son is using the only rocks to open his nuts, so the mother starts grooming him. de Waal said chimps usually return groomings, so when her son lets go of the rocks to groom her and looks away, she gives a mischievous smile and laughs, taking the rocks for herself. 

In de Waal’s own study, one of his coworkers put on a panther mask and continually popped his head out of the bushes, frightening and angering the chimps. When he stood up and took off the mask, the apes started laughing.

“At unexpected moments, that’s also what happens in humans, humor. The punchline of a joke is an unexpected ending at unexpected moments,” de Waal said. “In gorillas and chimpanzees, you may have a high-ranking male, a fully adult male, who gets chased by a baby, and has this laugh face as if he thinks it’s awfully funny to be chased by a little baby.”

And human laughter is very close to chimpanzees. Laughter makes people lose control of their bodies, making them weep, breathe hard and fall down. He then showed a video of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton. Clinton starts hysterically laughing, crying, moving around and leaning on Yeltsin, who also starts laughing and crying along with the audience. 

“Laughter is a social thing, and that’s why you cannot stop laughing when you see somebody’s laughing,” de Waal said.

Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, speaks Tuesday, Aug 3, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Conflict resolution

de Waal started his research studies with conflict resolution. Two male chimpanzees fought, met on top of a tree and embraced and kissed. He said this was the way the chimps resolved a conflict. They aren’t the only animals to have processes of moving past conflict within groups.

“They depend on each other. They depend on their relationships. They need to fix relationships when they’re broken,” de Waal said. “So in social living animals — and many of them are — you cannot just walk away from a problem; you need to fix the problem.”

After having and resolving conflict, two chimps often become more attracted or friendly to each other.

This same trend can be seen in young human children, too. de Waal said when children get into fights in the playground and reconnect afterward through play, they tend to be closer. 

Adults usually reconcile their differences with conversations. One famous example is President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. After McCain criticized Obama publicly and the two had been disagreeing for around two years, Obama approached McCain on the Senate floor, shook his hand and made a face of regret. de Waal said this budging lip face is common in humans, and also in chimpanzees. 

“It’s an expression of regret, or of losing. It’s a very common expression in humans,” de Waal said. “It’s a human male expression. It doesn’t occur in women. It’s either because women never regret anything, or because they don’t have the expression.”

Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Nature of empathy

Empathy has two layers, de Waal said: The emotion, or body, channel and the cognitive channel. The second requires understanding the problems of the other and is seen in humans and animals with large brains, such as dolphins, elephants and apes. 

The first is more physical, such as laughter spreading through a room, or one baby’s cries making a plane full of babies cry. In humans, de Waal said research has shown this physical empathy is seen more in young girls than boys. 

The contagious nature of yawning is also caused by physical empathy, which is seen in animals from dogs to fish.

“If you want to get the Nobel Prize, you discover why animals and humans yawn, because we really don’t know,” de Waal said.

In one study, chimps watched videos of other chimps yawning, which caused them to yawn. They were more likely to yawn, however, if they saw a chimp they knew yawning, and humans are the same way. 

“Empathy is very biased to individuals who are familiar and similar,” de Waal said. “That has a negative side, meaning that we have a lot of trouble with empathy for individuals who are not like us; for example, different language groups, different races, different ages, different genders.”

And empathy has to be fostered in apes. In a research center in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, orphan chimps were often sold in local markets, and researchers brought back as many as they could to the center. These orphan chimps reconciled with other chimps half as much as ones reared by their mother.

“That fits a bit with the human data — that if you are raised in deprivation of contact, which is what happens sometimes with the orphans, you have more trouble having empathy for others,” de Waal said.

Chimps can learn later in life, and de Waal said the orphans can slowly catch up to their counterparts. 

Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Social experiments

de Waal then showed multiple videos of experiments to see how chimps behaved when given a choice to help another chimp. One experiment showed that chimps, given the choice of a green object that would feed them and the other chimp, would more likely choose that option than the other, which would only feed themselves.

They were more likely to choose the green option if the other chimp made a fuss, but less likely if the other chimp got too obnoxious, such as slamming the cage or screeching for long periods. 

And de Waal was part of the team that first learned about capuchin monkeys’ devotion to fairness. 

“No one had expected this phenomena. We had not expected it, by the way,” de Waal said. “We discovered, by accident while working with capuchin monkeys, that they care about what somebody else is getting.”

His team put the capuchin monkeys in cages next to each other and gave them different food for completing a given task. The one who received less tasty food, such as cucumbers instead of grapes, would yell and often refuse to do the task.

One video, which he said was downloaded 200 million times, showed two capuchin monkeys receiving different foods. The researchers would hand them each a rock and when the animals handed them back, one would receive a grape, which the monkeys liked, and the other would receive a piece of cucumber. 

As the video went on, the capuchin monkey that received a cucumber became angrier and angrier, hitting the rock on the cage, trying to rip the barrier down and throwing the cucumber back at the researcher, all while the other capuchin monkey never made a noise. 

His team received a letter from a philosopher saying that animals could not have empathy, because empathy was invented during the French Revolution. de Waal believes morality is based on basic emotions.

“That’s why our moral reactions are so emotional. We get upset about morality because the emotions are involved,” de Waal said. “It’s not like it’s some sort of principle that has been formulated by some old philosophers in Paris or something. That’s not how morality works. It bases itself on these very basic emotions.”

Human children also have a similar reaction to unfairness. One mother who watched the video recreated the experiment with her young children, giving her son a cookie and her daughter half of one. The daughter immediately started crying and dropped the treat on the ground. 

Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Mama’s last hug

Chimpanzees have both patriarchs and matriarchs. The males in charge gain their power through physical dominance in their peak years, whereas females gain power through social connections, often becoming more powerful as they get older. This is the reason Mama, the chimpanzee in de Waal’s book, was able to rule her group for around 40 years. 

When Mama was dying, researcher Jan van Hooff entered her cage to say goodbye. de Waal said researchers never enter animals’ cages, especially chimpanzees, who can be three- to five-times stronger than humans. 

But because Mama was dying, and van Hooff had known her for so long, he entered the cage. Mama smiled at him, and reached out and patted the back of his head. de Waal said this is a common gesture chimpanzees do to calm each other, and van Hooff was probably nervous going into the cage.

“Mama noticed, and she is the kind of figure who will immediately calm you down if you’re upset,” de Waal said. “So I think that’s what’s going on here, is that it’s not only that he’s saying goodbye to her, but that she’s calming him down.”

While people know chimps understand when other chimps die, scientists are not sure if the animals understand their own mortality.

“They sometimes don’t eat for a week or they’re very upset when somebody dies, and they know it’s irreversible. But whether they have an understanding of their own mortality — that is not something we know,” de Waal said. “I’m not 100% sure that for Mama, this was a farewell. That was a farewell for van Hooff, but maybe not for her.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked de Waal how other chimps in her group reacted to Mama’s death.

He said that zoos in the past used to dispose of the bodies of dead animals without showing the others. They have changed that procedure for animals that show signs of understanding death, such as chimpanzees.

The researchers let the other chimps in to see Mama’s body. Some of the male ones took longer to recognize that she was dead, while females were quicker and gentler with her body.

One female, which Mama adopted and raised, was very protective of the body, not letting others near it.

“They also were completely silent,” de Waal said. “The interesting thing is, chimpanzees are not normally silent.”

‘Dear Sugar’ columnist Cheryl Strayed explores ways to craft more empathy



Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and co-host of the “Dear Sugars” podcast, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Cheryl Strayed is an empath, meaning she intensely feels the emotions of other people. As a child, whenever her sister was hurt and crying, Strayed cried harder. “What would happen is that my mother would come to help us, and she would invariably go to comfort me because I was crying way harder than my sister,” Strayed said.

Her empathy led her to a love of literature. 

“Whether you’re writing about yourself as a character or a fictional character, you can’t do it without having empathy for that fictional person that you are writing about,” said Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was the first selection of Oprah’s second book club.

Empathy also led her to “Dear Sugar,” her initially anonymous internet advice column on The Rumpus, where strangers would ask her questions. The column was started by Steve Almond, who asked Strayed to take it over because nobody read it; the job came with no paycheck. 

She wasn’t a psychologist or a therapist, but she said she essentially prepared her whole life for this endeavor through writing and reading. 

“I trusted my gut, and I started writing the column,” Strayed said. “I was going to put the full force of that spirit that wept and wailed when my sister got hurt, into helping other people.”

She then quoted James Baldwin: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connect me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.”

As well as being a renowned author, Strayed is the host of The New York Times podcast “Dear Sugars” and has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon and The Sun, among others. She is also the author of Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, which is a collection of the best “Dear Sugar” columns. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday in the Amphitheater, Strayed opened the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Six theme on “Building a Culture of Empathy.” She explored how society can create more empathy, and also the great need to heal from generational suffering. 

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and co-host of the “Dear Sugars” podcast, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Risk vulnerability

Strayed had strips of paper in a coffee cup on the Amp stage. The papers had answers to the question, “How do we build a culture of empathy?” She first pulled one that said to risk vulnerability. 

“What I mean about vulnerability is really quite simply telling the truths about yourself as often as possible and as boldly as possible,” Strayed said. “We are very often afraid to do that, for the simple reason that we will be shamed or condemned or shunned or told that we’re not right; we’re not OK; we’re bad; go sit in the corner.”

People often assume showing vulnerability is a form of weakness. Strayed said in order to revise this assumption, people need to start sharing truths about who they are.

“Empathy lies in that moment where you speak your true sentence, where you dare to slip out from behind a façade,” Strayed said.

During writing workshops, Strayed often sees her students decide what their classmates are like early on. As the class continues, and they explore questions about love and other subjects, these assumptions are disproved and the students feel connected, often saying that it is like magic, that this group of people somehow came together.

“I always say, ‘I hate to break it to you — this is not magic,’ ” Strayed said. “It’s not magic. It just feels like magic, because you assume that that’s not what happens when we’re honest with each other. The way you make magic is to be vulnerable.”

She admits sharing personal information is always scary. In Wild, Strayed wrote about the healing journey along the Pacific Crest Trail she embarked on after her mother died, and after spreading her mother’s ashes. 

“I was scattering her ashes that were more like little pebbles, and I came to this point where I just have the last little bit in my hand and I could not let them go. They were the last material aspect of my mother. The last bit of her in the physical realm,” Strayed said. “I couldn’t drop them and let them go into the dirt, I wouldn’t let them go into the wind. So what I did is I put them to my mouth and I swallowed them.”

The crowd in the Amp murmured to each other, some even gasping.

“Some of you did what I did when I wrote that sentence. It was as if I had been electrocuted. I jumped from the computer and the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘That’s too much. You will delete that line before this book is published because it’s too much,’ ” Strayed said.

She didn’t delete the line.

“I realized this is the work of writing. This is the work of empathy in the world. It is to say the sentence you are most afraid to say because other people need to hear it,” Strayed said.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and co-host of the “Dear Sugars” podcast, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Unconditional positive regard

Strayed said people need to accept each other for who they are, even if they disagree. She practiced this aspect of empathy many times in her column. She’s had people tell her about lying to their partners, cheating, screaming at their children and even one woman who flung her child onto the lawn. 

She said listening without judgment is almost always the right move. 

“It opens up space for you, in your own heart, in your own life, in your own living to see who you are, and it opens up space for their truths, and it empowers that person to change, to have empathy for themselves and make change,” Strayed said.

Strayed said she first heard the phrase “unconditional positive regard” in her late 20s when she worked at a middle school. The main goal of her work was to ensure the girls in the community would graduate high school. The primary reasons why many girls do not finish high school are pregnancy and incarceration, so Strayed simply did fun activities with the girls, such as rock climbing and making food for homeless shelters.

“When I first started the job, my coworker said to me, ‘We hold the girls in unconditional positive regard,’ ” Strayed said. “I love that part of the phrase: We hold them. So, what that meant is, whatever was true in their lives, I wasn’t going to shame or judge them go for it.”

A little empathy went a long way in Strayed’s former job. 

“Their parents were drug addicts. Their parents were incarcerated. Their parents had abandoned them. Their parents had done what we all identify as bad things, and there was no way that a child whose parent has done that has not internalized that,” Strayed said. “The transformative act of being able to treat somebody who lives in that kind of profound shame is immeasurable.”

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and co-host of the “Dear Sugars” podcast, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Heal wounds

Healing, Strayed said, goes further than bettering ourselves and feeling happier: It impacts the world. 

“When I see certain leaders of our nation speaking, I think, ‘You were really wounded as a child,’ ” Strayed said. “And we are all paying the price, because we wound others in places we are wounded — unless we heal that wound.”

Strayed saw this in her father, who would beat her mother and siblings. 

“We didn’t have a funeral for him because he wasn’t, I mean — it’s a horrible sentence to say out loud, but nobody loved him when he died,” Strayed said, “and it was because he didn’t heal his wounds.”

All of Strayed’s siblings were estranged from her father before he died. Her own estrangement came with an exception: “ ‘All you have to do is say you’re sorry. All you have to do is acknowledge where you’re wounded.’ And because he didn’t do that work, he died alone and nobody grieved him.”

To become more empathetic toward others, people need more empathy for themselves. She said emotional wounds often get passed down to children, and this intergenerational sorrow is hard to curb. 

Though, she said, love is also passed down. 

“The way you love the people in your life changes their lives,” Strayed said.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and co-host of the “Dear Sugars” podcast, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Ask yourself: What kind of person do I want to be?

Strayed has two children, both of whom wanted to go para-gliding, an activity where one is strapped to a professional and flown down a mountain. She and her husband used every parenting trick in the book to convince the children they couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, her sons used every pestering trick in the book, too.

So Strayed was honest with her sons. She said she knew them, and after she paid the money, she knew they would back out at the last moment.

Her son disagreed, saying that he did not want to be the kind of person to not do something because it scared him. Strayed was shocked by this maturity and paid for the para-gliding.

“They did,” Strayed said. “They went up there. They leapt into the sky. They landed and they had these kinds of smiles on their faces that I hope that you all do when you reckon with that question of who you want to be, and you live it, and you leap.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Vice President of Advancement and Campaign Director of the Chautauqua Foundation Amy Gardner asked Strayed what other strips of paper were in her coffee cup. 

The first was to use one’s own power to help others.

“You can say, ‘I’m going to help. I’m going to tell my story. I’m also going to make space for you to tell your story and ask other people to listen to it,’ ” Strayed said.

The second was to apologize.

“When you have to ask for forgiveness, when you practice asking for forgiveness, you feel how humbling, painful and embarrassing that can be,” Strayed said. “I think we can look at others with more kindness and generosity, when (you know what it is like when) you’re the one who’s doing the apology.”

Former ‘New Yorker’ cartoon editor Bob Mankoff draws on career to talk visual humor



Bob Mankoff, former cartoon editor for the New Yorker, gives a morning lecture about his life and career as a cartoonist Wednesday July 29, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A singular cartoon gave Bob Mankoff the money to put his daughter through college. It’s of a businessman on the phone, looking at a planner. The caption reads: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”

Mankoff, the former comic editor of The New Yorker, said comedy helps people cope with growing older. Mankoff shared three jokes he came up with when he turned 70.

“I’m 70. The good news is, it could be worse. The bad news is, it will be.”

“I’m 70. The good news is, 70 is the new 50. The bad news is, dead is not the new alive.”

“When you’re 70 and you’re a guy, you wake up stiff everywhere but where you want to be.”

Now, at 77, Mankoff runs a website called, the largest online compilation of cartoons in the world which serves as the definitive archive and online store for cartoons. He also runs the humor section of the online magazine Air Mail. At 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, Mankoff presented his lecture, titled “Laughing All The Way: My Life In Cartoons,” as part of Week Five’s theme of  “The Authentic Comedic Voice: A Week in Partnership with the National Comedy Center.” He explored his life journey and career path, as well as the ins and outs of creating cartoons.

Mankoff grew up Jewish, but he said he didn’t get his jokes out of the Talmud. He got them from the Catskills — listening to Jewish comics like Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis and Buddy Hackett.

“When I was courting my third, last and best wife — who is not Jewish — I thought I was having this normal conversation. She said, ‘Why are you arguing?’ and I said, ‘I’m not arguing, I’m Jewish,’ ” Mankoff said. “There’s an old saying, ‘Two Jews, three arguments.’ I think that arguing, that frame of mind, is part of what’s essential to humor and comedy.”

Mankoff didn’t become a comedian because there were few accessible comedy clubs during that time. So instead, while attending the High School of Music & Art, Manhattan, he doodled a lot — particularly with dots, one of the first styles he developed as a cartoonist. 

“This is something I would just do. I have no idea why I did it, but I did it. So I drew these kinds of images to pass the time,” Mankoff said. “Later, that would actually become my style.”

Next to Mankoff in his senior yearbook was Edward Burak, who in his picture held a pipe. Mankoff looked him up later and realized he is now called the dean of American pipe makers.

“Then I thought, ‘What could I have accomplished?’ ” Mankoff said. “I saw him with a pipe, I could have stole that bit. I could have been the dean. But that wasn’t the case. ”

Bob Mankoff, former cartoon editor for the New Yorker, gives a morning lecture about his life and career as a cartoonist Wednesday July 29, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Instead of creating pipes, Mankoff went to Syracuse University. He showed a picture of himself in college.

“People look at that picture and say, ‘Did you do drugs?’ And what I say is, ‘Not enough,’ ” Mankoff said. “If I had a time machine, I would go back and do — not a lot, but more than I did.”

In graduate school, Mankoff studied experimental psychology. He never went to class, except for tests, and one day he walked into the final late, wearing leg weights — because, he now thinks, he wanted to be able to dunk a basketball. He took one of the blue books, sat down, and the instructor came over and asked who the hell he was. Mankoff said, “I could ask you the same question.”

“This whole class, in their blue books, breaks into laughter,” Mankoff said. “It’s just so great — because humor is a kind of courage to say the joke. And for that moment, you’re liberated. For that moment, all of the bullshit is blown away.”

Later, Mankoff was on the cusp of earning his doctorate — “the world’s longest cusp,” he said. He knew he wanted to quit and become a cartoonist, but his parents wanted him to get a job.

Eventually, they loosened their expectations. Mankoff’s mother said she didn’t care what he was, as long as he was the best. He could even be a garbage man. 

“I said, ‘You know, Mom, in New York City, there are over 12,000 garbage workers. That’s hard. That’s really hard, to be the best. You ever see how some of these guys can unload and identify garbage from non-garbage?’ ” Mankoff said.

His father considered Mankoff’s proposed career, but he said newspapers “already had people to do that.”

“I said, ‘But one of them might die. All I got to do is read the obits. And then I’m johnny-on-the-spot, and I got that guy’s job,’ ” Mankoff said. 

Bob Mankoff, former cartoon editor for the New Yorker, gives a morning lecture about his life and career as a cartoonist Wednesday July 29, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Mankoff quit psychology and began pitching 10 to 15 cartoons a week to different newspapers. The Saturday Review was one of the first publishers to accept his cartoons. It was of a jester chained in a cell, telling the guard, “Please tell the king that I remember the punchline.” It took him around eight hours to draw this particular cartoon in his early dot style. 

And he used a technical pen during this time. Sometimes students ask Mankoff what kinds of pens he uses, and he always says, “Get one with ideas in it. The pen is not the critical thing here.”

“I submitted and submitted and submitted to The New Yorker between ‘73 and ‘77. Now sometimes I say I submitted 2,000 cartoons and sometimes I say 500. I don’t know,” Mankoff said. “Rejection, rejection, rejection, I had my whole bathroom papered with (rejection letters).”

Like many young artists, Mankoff got his start by being influenced by and imitating other artists — in his case European cartoons. These ones didn’t have captions and had a far-reaching audience because, like silent movies, they could reach anyone no matter what language they spoke.

These wordless cartoons often relied on logic and piecing together the joke. He shared a few: one was a man who was eating his breakfast and reading a newspaper that was coming straight out of a printing press, and another was a woman carrying three buckets, two labeled “H” and one labeled “O.”

Later in his career, Mankoff switched to relying more on captions. One cartoon he shared was of a man and woman in a living room. The caption read, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we’ve been married?”

“One of my ideas is just to take something and exaggerate it to its endpoint,” Mankoff said. “It’s a truth that comes out through exaggeration, and a lie, in a way.”

Another cartoon he created had the caption “Yes, you did catch us at a bad time.” The drawing was of a man, hiding at the side of a couch, answering the phone, while his wife shoots a gun at him. Another was a man and a woman in a bed, and the man asks, “What do you think of some-sex marriage?”

Sometimes Mankoff will know there is a joke somewhere within a common phrase, like “same-sex marriage,” and be patient.

“I’ll write the phrase down, and that joke will not be there immediately,” Mankoff said. “Eventually your unconscious mind, when you’re a comic or comedian or cartoonist, is always, always working on it.”

Mankoff, like many cartoonists and comedians, will often make jokes about current events and issues.

“I don’t try to hit it straight on,” Mankoff said. “I try to look at it a different way. I’m not an editorial cartoonist. I try to look at the human foibles behind it all.”

Comedy naturally targets hard topics like health care, he said, because humor is always about sadness.

He then showed a cartoon of people waiting in line to get into heaven, obviously impatient, while in the background, others zoom through a gate labeled “E-Z pass.” Another cartoon’s caption was “The military’s solution to last week’s puzzle.” The drawing was simply “KABOOM.” 

Bob Mankoff, former cartoon editor for the New Yorker, gives a morning lecture about his life and career as a cartoonist Wednesday July 29, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“You are mashing up different frames of reference. You’re putting things together that don’t usually go together,” Mankoff said. “I think John Locke said judgment is about making very fine distinctions between things that are very close. Humor is about bringing things that are very disparate together.” 

Mankoff had several rules when he judged cartoon submissions for The New Yorker. The first: originality is overrated.

“What people like is novelty within a frame that they’re used to,” Mankoff said. “That’s why all jokes sort of sound like other jokes in some way.”

Every art relies on clichés, from love songs to action movies, and he said every artist uses a common cliché at least once in their career.    

The second rule was to play favorites, as in favorite cartoonists. The audience wants to see the same people again and again, as well as see them grow as artists, but this plays into the next rule: Not so much that nobody else gets to play.

His last rule was to keep in mind location. The New Yorker, he said, was an empathetic newspaper that covered harsh topics, so the bar is much higher than in other publications. 

The Rejection Collection specifically publishes cartoons that would never make it into The New Yorker, such as a ventriloquist, drunk, whose puppet is also throwing up.

He ended his lecture by stressing simplicity, with a simple cartoon. It was of a sign that said “Stop and Think,” and two people saying, “It sort of makes you stop and think.”

“I hope I have made you stop and think a little bit, but more importantly, laugh,” he said.

As part of the Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked Mankoff how the digital age has changed the cartoon field.

Mankoff said the rise of the internet has created a mix of a golden and lead age for cartoonists. On one hand, cartoonists can reach such a wide audience now without the need of going through a publisher. On the other hand, most of the money their work creates goes toward social media sites, and not the artists. 

This is one of the reasons Mankoff created His website helps artists copyright their own work, and also earn money.

Hill asked Mankoff what his advice is to young people dreaming of becoming cartoonists or graphic designers.

“I would often say, especially if there were young people in the audience,” said Mankoff, to the laughter and applause of listeners. “I didn’t mean that joke. For you, it’s too late. But, there’s always reincarnation, next time around.”

He said it is hard, that they would have to put in as much energy as possible when they are young and have the energy to stay up late and meet deadlines. 

“The office will always be there. Don’t do the office first. Use your energy for it,” Mankoff said. 

He quoted Wayne Gretzky: “You miss all the shots you don’t take.”

“As a parent, you should definitely let them take that shot, support them,” Mankoff said. “You’ll really never regret it because some of them will be successful and they’ll be eternally grateful to you for giving them that chance.”

Yes, And Laughter Lab co-founder Caty Borum Chattoo talks science, impact of comedy



Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Caty Borum Chattoo started her lecture by asking the audience to play a game. They would turn to the person next to them and say what their perfect birthday party was. The other person would respond by saying: “No, but.” 

Then they would turn to another person, tell them what their perfect New Years’ party would be, and the other person would say “Yes, and,” expanding on their ideas. 

As ideas and energy in the air changed the atmosphere in the Amphitheater, people seemed more relaxed and focused. Borum Chattoo, an award-winning media producer and executive, said this exercise is all about play and silliness. 

She then quoted play scholar Miguel Sicart: “Play is disruptive. It disrupts the normal state of affairs. Play is escape and engagement. Through play we experience the world. We construct it and destroy it. And we explore who we are and what we can say.”

Though Borum Chattoo isn’t a comedian, she was a “bad” kid growing up, even failing algebra because she would not stop telling jokes in class. Early in her career, she worked with Norman Lear, the iconic television producer, who turned 99 the day before the lecture. Lear was one of the first people to talk about social issues through comedy on television. 

“For me personally, he was the first grown-up person I had met who was successful and was also really silly,” Borum Chattoo said. “For me, this is the best because I was able to be myself. I didn’t have to choose between being serious and kind of brainy and nerdy, and silly.”

She knew she was curious and wanted social change, but she noticed social movements, philanthropists and non-governmental organizations did not take comedy seriously, which meant they didn’t believe in the power of the art form. Borum Chattoo and others noticed that traditionally marginalized groups, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, needed more shows about their own experiences. So they took action.

Borum Chattoo is in partnership with cultural strategy group Moore + Associates, co-founder and co-director of the Yes, And … Laughter Lab, a group that establishes partnerships across the entertainment industry and uses comedy to promote social justice.

At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 28 in the Amp, Borum Chattoo presented her lecture, titled “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good & Justice,” as part of Week Five’s theme of “The Authentic Comedic Voice: A Week in Partnership with the National Comedy Center.” She discussed the science and social research around comedy, and how the art form is used to create social movements and change.

Social justice, she said, is about righting wrongs within institutions, and requires people to see the world differently and believe that there can be a better one. Borum Chattoo said comedy is symbiotic with justice. 

“The reason that we laugh is because a comedian takes a reality that we recognize and bends that reality just enough so that we laugh,” Borum Chattoo said.

Comedians have unique artistic processes, and this creativity is often missing within boardrooms and businesses. 

“It’s so radically open and becomes deviant and naughty before it becomes something that we experience,” Borum Chattoo said. “We need that to happen.”

Marjory Lyons plays a game of “Yes, And” with NPR TV Critic and Tuesday lecturer Eric Deggans during Caty Borum Chattoo’s lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She said creativity is the most important ingredient for innovation.

“We have never innovated as a culture without creativity,” Borum Chattoo said. “I know sometimes we don’t give this kind of thought enough space because it sounds soft to us. We’d like to think that we only progressed through rational information.”

Borum Chattoo has read and synthesized more than 300 studies of comedy, from fields of social science, geography and biology, and delved into many of the different powers that the art has, both on individuals and cultures.

She talked first about the power to give individuals easy entry into taboo subjects, such as conversations about HIV in South Africa. The country has high rates of the virus, and it is frowned upon to talk about HIV.

“Sometimes humor is the only way to broach that kind of topic,” Borum Chattoo said.

It also gives hope and acts as a gateway to more traditional forms of information over time. 

“That’s pretty amazing, right?” Borum Chattoo said. “Sometimes I get people say, ‘Are you saying we should do all comedy and not journalism?’ No, I’m just saying: Also pay attention to comedy.”

Another comedic power, Borum Chattoo said, is its memorability. She said people like “Flo from Progressive” commercials not because of the company, but because she is funny. This is why humor is the most important marketing strategy. 

She also said comedy persuades. 

“When we watch comedy, we experience hope and optimism because we’re busy being entertained,” Borum Chattoo said. “Those emotions in turn are correlated with our attitudes, and even our actions, over time. Comedy can be powerful.”

And comedy has much broader cultural powers, like social critique and civic engagement. When Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show,” he did the first of these very well, essentially teaching a generation of young Americans media literacy and how to question what they hear on the news. Currently, Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, is taking steps to make the show his own while also critiquing society, and so are a plethora of other late-night shows.

“I would argue that there’s a special role that comedy gets to play in that because comedy invites us to play, and often correct dehumanizing images of people in communities,” Borum Chattoo said. 

Borum Chattoo shared two examples: “Ramy” and “Rutherford Falls.”

The first is about the title character who, according to IMDB, “begins a spiritual journey, divided between his Muslim community, God, and his friends who see endless possibilities.”

“Unfortunately, this is somewhat of a corrective because we know from decades of research that a way that our entertainment media and our news has dehumanized Muslim communities quite dramatically so that we need a lot of those stories. ”

The second is about a small, Northeast town in an ongoing debate about moving a historical statue. She then paraphrased Jana Schmieding, one of the show’s actors and writers, who said they were tasked to not show the long-suffering Native American trope that American media has shown forever, but instead, “We’re showing how funny we are.”

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Another power on cultures is allowing audiences to imagine a different world.

“It’s not enough for social change to talk about what is wrong,” Borum Chattoo said. “We have to show what the world looks like and imagine it when it’s better.”

In “Schitt’s Creek,” the show’s creators purposely didn’t include any in-world prejudice against gay characters. Part of the reason was one of the show’s creators, Daniel Levy, who said he didn’t have any patience for homophobia. Though Borum Chattoo said this may seem too utopian, the creators received a lot of letters from fans thanking them for showing a world without homophobia they never imagined.

Then Borum Chattoo discussed what she and others are doing with this information, and creating a “Think and Do Tank.”

“I like to create things,” Borum Chattoo said. “We never want to do research and just have it sit somewhere because that sounds very boring.”

Sometimes when companies hire comedians to help with events or social movements, the performers are treated as jesters, performing 10 minutes of stand-up at the beginning of the event and then given no other responsibilities.

This is where the Yes, And … Laughter Lab enters. Comedians apply, pitch and, if they are chosen from a pool of around 400 applicants, produce their own comedy shows that shed light on important, underrepresented issues. 

The winners this year include Meredith Casey, Ayman Samman, Abdallah Nabil, S.J. Son and Woody Fu.

She ended with a quote from Bernard De Koven, an American game designer and fun theorist: “Imagination offers us the ability to connect compassionately. It helps us understand and relate to one another’s lives and loves regardless of social strata, ethnic inheritances, physical or mental ability. It is a gift that restores us to the best of our humanity.”

As part of the Q-and-A, Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer (interim) and vice president of performing and visual arts, asked Borum Chattoo what important shows are currently airing. 

Borum Chattoo said “Modern Family” was important for many reasons, then asked the crowd if it was still ongoing. Some people in the crowd said no.

“Thank you, Eric Deggans,” Borum Chattoo said to Deggans, NPR TV critic and the lecturer of the previous day, who was sitting in the second row. They then pointed to each other.

Borum Chattoo said “Black-ish” has been quite influential because it has a predominantly white audience. 

“Chances are, if we live in a Black family in America, you have talked about these issues, you have to talk about racism,” Borum Chattoo said. “But for a predominantly white audience to hear a Black family talking about police brutality, I think that is profound.” 

She said shows that can reach an array of audiences can create change.

“I think about, not a magic bullet theory of comedy. You don’t watch something and immediately think, ‘Well now all of my views are changed,’ ” Borum Chattoo said. “But over time that cultural landscape and sort of montage of messages that we receive is meaningful.”

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans charts Black representation in TV through decades



NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eric Deggans admits he has a cool job. As NPR’s first full-time TV critic, Deggans is paid to watch television and talk to directors and actors.

But he sees the real purpose of his job as more expansive.

“We can really get a sense of how the country feels about race, how we feel about each other, based on what we enjoy, what were big hits, how TV shows were cast, what kind of stories were told,” Deggans said.

“Evoking Oprah,” Deggans asked the Chautauqua crowd why people should care about representation in entertainment. One person said it was because what people watch is what they believe, another said it impacts thoughts and feelings.

Deggans said they were right, but that shows teach society how to dream. An example is how after Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert played the role of president in their respective works, “2012” and “24,” people were able to imagine a Black person as President of the United States. 

“These filmmakers were saying to people, ‘In the future, we can imagine we’ll have a Black president,’ and before too long, we had one,” Deggans said. “So it allowed people to vote for a Black president and think it could happen, and it allowed young Black children to look at a candidate for president and think that maybe they knew him, too.”

And TV shows and movies affect how people treat the Other.

“If you are in a moment where you have to make a split-second decision about whether you’re going to apply force or find out more information, the images you have in your head about the person that you’re confronting may have a deep impact on which choice you make,” Deggans said. “These depictions can have very real-world consequences for how much we can dream, who we vote for, what kind of society we have and who rises up, doesn’t, who gets killed, who doesn’t.”

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Deggans took the crowd on a tour through Black representation in TV shows from the 1950s to modern day and showed how to spot racist stereotypes and caricatures. His lecture, titled “The List: The History of Black Voice and Image in TV Comedy,” was the second of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Five theme, in partnership with the National Comedy Center, on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.”

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The 1950s and “Beulah”

The list started in the 1950s with Hattie McDaniel in “Beulah,” a show about a Black woman who is the maid to the 1950s’ version of the perfect American family.

“Perfect maid, unquestionably happy,” Deggans said.

Deggans said Beulah was a “mammy figure,” a stereotype based on the jobs often forced on Black enslaved women. This stereotype is depicted as an overweight, dark-skinned caregiver who serves white children more than her own, with a “deference to white glory.”

Another stereotype in this decade of TV shows was the “coon figure,” depicting Black men as “happy-go-lucky, childlike, dimwitted, lazy, inarticulate,” and putting the welfare of white people and the white families they serve over their own families’ needs.

“This is a stereotype taken from minstrel shows where white people often dressed in blackface to portray Black characters: dark skin, white lips,” Deggans said.

One show in the 1960s, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” was popular with white audiences but was ultimately canceled due to numerous complaints from the NAACP about this stereotype being used. 

One of the show’s problems was that it did not have any white characters.

“They lived in an all-Black world and there were no white people, so they didn’t even have to deal with the deference to white authority, or the difference between Black life and white life,” Deggans said. 

This show established the trend of casting Black people in comedy. 

“It established comedy as a nonthreatening venue for showing people of color,” Deggans said. “There’s been a sense that until relatively recently, people of color are more often shown in TV comedies because that’s a nonthreatening venue; in dramas, you have to take those characters more seriously.”

Deggans said this left actors between a rock and a hard place; they knew they were portraying racist stereotypes, but there were no other acting jobs for Black people.

He then paraphrased McDaniel, who herself was the first woman to win an Oscar with her performance in “Gone with the Wind,” who said she would rather be paid $800 a week for playing a maid than paid $70 for being one.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The 1960s and 1970s

When the ‘60s rolled around, many white producers wanted to reverse the stereotypes of the previous decade. While Deggans said these white producers were well-meaning, they created a new stereotype, which he called “The Super Negro.” He said this character is often extremely talented, so there is no question that they should be welcomed into white society.

He said these characters are divorced from Black culture and often have no Black family or friends that appear in the show. In “Julia,” the title character only is around white people, the plot glosses over race issues, and the audience accepted the show because it was more of a reflection of white culture than Black culture. 

Deggans then talked about the ‘70s and “Ghetto Coms” —  sitcoms about Black families who lived in poor areas.

“I loved ‘Good Times’ when I was growing up. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, and I grew up in a house where my dad wasn’t around; my parents had split up before I was born,” Deggans said. “To see a show of a Black family with a Black father in the house doing his best to take care of his family, working hard, was really important.”

Deggans said that this era of TV often addressed realities of problems, such as lack of money, and Black actors starred in lead roles. The negatives, however, were that this era was still full of many stereotypes, such as the “coon figure” and abusive Black fathers, and portrayed ghettos to be safe, fun places. 

In “Good Times,” the character J.J. Evans was popular with white fans, but Deggans critiqued him as a “coon figure.” The character was written as dimwitted and greedy, with barely any other characterization. The cast of “Good Times” even critiqued the show because actors Esther Rolle and John Amos were promised by producers that the show would be progressive. Amos was later fired for arguing too much with producers.

The 1980s and 1990s

The theme of Black representation in the 1980s was respectability politics.

“So what respectability politics are, is this idea that in order for Black people and nonwhite people to succeed in America, they need to conform to America’s idea, white America’s idea, of what being upwardly mobile and successful is,” Deggans said.

To talk about 1980s’ television, Deggans had to talk about Bill Cosby.

“Now, it’s tough to talk about Bill Cosby these days as a pioneer, because he has been convicted (although the conviction was overturned) of some horrible crimes,” Deggans said. “That’s what’s so difficult in talking about Bill Cosby — because he really did have an impact on television,” he said. 

In terms of representation of Black people, “The Cosby Show” had positive effects by showing smart, successful, fully-developed Black characters. But the show also largely ignored racism. 

“We didn’t see much about systemic racism, prejudice, and it convinces white audiences that if you just work hard and you’re respected, then you can succeed in America, even though Black people know that often is not true,” Deggans said.

The beginning of the 1990s was also the start of counterprogramming. Executives at Fox, in order to compete for advertising views, decided to run shows about people who were different from those on Must See TV on NBC, which had all-white casts.

This was also the time that Deggans began his career in television criticism. He said that he could ask his white coworkers about popular Fox shows like “Martin” and they would have no idea what he was talking about. When he asked his Black friends about “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” they would have the same reaction. 

He said it was as if people lived in two different worlds, with two polarized viewing experiences. 


When television viewership started to decrease, the industry decided to target specific demographics more directly. Deggans said Black people, proportionally, watch TV more than any other demographic, and, within Black families, he said Black women most often make purchasing decisions. 

Despite many steps in the right direction, racist stereotypes are still depicted on television. Deggans gave four ways to identify a character that falls into a stereotype. The first was if they are primarily defined by their race and no other attributes. The second was if their entire role is to make a sacrifice for white characters.

The third is if the character acts in a stereotypical manner without reason. Sometimes, though, writers will play into a stereotype in order to challenge the audience’s perception, which Donald Glover does many times in his show “Atlanta.”

The last was if they are isolated from other people of their race. A recent example of this is Raj from “The Big Bang Theory,” who Deggans said mainly was shown hanging around an all-white cast, and his own family rarely featured.

Though Black actors, directors and producers are doing great work currently, Deggans did not want to detract from the work of Black actors in the past, even ones who portrayed racist stereotypes. 

“Those shows were funny because those performers were funny. And they took these horrifically stereotypical situations, and somehow made them funny,” Deggans said. “I think that’s the story of Black people and comedy on television, for much of its history — is talented Black performers and elevating whatever they get and making them iconic.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Deggans if there is any shared experience viewing now like there was in the past. 

Deggans said the two worlds of television viewership in the ‘90s were a harbinger of things to come. He then asked the crowd if they had seen “M.A.S.H.” and many people raised their hands.

“I love this audience because you guys have seen all these old TV shows that I love.When I’m talking at colleges and I say ‘M.A.S.H.,’ they’re like ‘What?’ ” Deggans said.

The finale of “M.A.S.H.” brought in 109 million viewers. Currently, with many streaming services using subscription models and algorithms that suggest shows based on what the person already watched, Deggans said it is hard to have a society-wide viewing experience.

Though, he said, people can take the initiative to break out of their algorithms by looking up and watching shows they normally wouldn’t experience. Deggans said that people now have more power and choice than any other time, especially with the shows they watch. He then quoted Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

With NPR’s Eric Deggans, ‘SNL’ cast member Ego Nwodim discusses comedic journey, importance of representation in industry



“Saturday Night Live” cast member Ego Nwodim joins in conversation with NPR television critic Eric Deggans Monday in the Amphitheater, launching a week on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Ego Nwodim’s parents wanted her to be a doctor, since much of her family works in the medical field or are engineers. Nwodim chose to study biology — but across the country so she would have the room to explore acting.

When Nwodim graduated, she made a deal with her mother — give Nwodim four years to make something of herself. 

“I didn’t,” said Nwodim, a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” “But there was really no turning back at that point.”

And her dream? To become an actor.

“I’ve never seen anyone close to me pursuing any sort of art or anything outside of the sciences, so I truly didn’t even think of comedy as a possibility for me,” Nwodim said.

Eventually, her manager convinced Nwodim to take an improv class, something that she had no interest in.

“I begrudgingly took my 101 improv course,” Nwodim said. “It took two years of convincing from a manager I had. I wanted to get them off my case, so I was like, ‘I’ll take the stupid class.’ ”

She fell in love with it.

“I sort of stumbled into improv comedy, but I think once I discovered it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is where I want to be. This is what is most true to me,’ ” Nwodim said.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full-time TV critic, interviewed Nwodim for the Chautauqua Lecture Series week “The Authentic Comedic Voice,” in partnership with the National Comedy Center. Deggans also will deliver a solo lecture at 10:30 a.m. today, July 28, in the Amp. 

In their conversation, Deggans and Nwodim discussed her career, from her biology undergraduate degree to becoming a main cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” and representation of Black people in comedy and entertainment, as well as their own experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A large challenge lay in front of Nwodim: getting into the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a program whose mainstage shows are said to be harder to get into than Harvard. A UCB Diversity Fellow, she also dealt with the lack of diversity among her peers. To succeed with improv, Nwodim and the seven other actors in her group needed to be on the same page, to know the references and cultural touchstones they each used. Nwodim was the only nonwhite person in the group.

“Those seven did (understand each other), and I was oftentimes on the outskirts,” Nwodim said. “I didn’t feel supported, I didn’t feel they understood my voice or what I think is funny.”

The crowds were sometimes rough, too. They were often composed of people who didn’t make it into the UCB programs. Nwodim had never quit anything in her life, even things she hated, like her biology undergraduate. The day before a big performance, she called her brother, telling him that she would quit. Now it was her brother’s turn to make a deal with her — before she quit, give that performance all she got.

So Nwodim decided to do something new: be loud, be annoying, be heard.

“I remember that night saying to myself, ‘I am not going to be ignored onstage by my teammates. I am going to be very loud. I am going to be so loud that if you ignore me, you look like an idiot,’ ” Nwodim said. “So I went out and did a show like that and it was such a game-changer for me. It gave me the permission and encouragement to be loud.”

Deggans asked Nwodim to talk about her one-woman show, Great Black Women … and Then There’s Me.

Black women in entertainment, Nwodim said, are often portrayed as two extremes: Oprah Winfrey and Kimberly Wilkins, the woman behind the “ain’t nobody got time for that” meme. In her show, Nwodim asks where the room is for Black women to be average.

“It sort of ends with me trying to decide which I am,” Nwodim said. “Am I excellent or am I not excellent?”

Deggans asked Nwodim about her experience working and filming during COVID-19. 

When the cast of “SNL” worked from home during the early period of the pandemic, Nwodim and others received equipment to set up in their houses, such as cameras and greenscreens. 

“I was doing everything in my power to stay sane and centered. Doing shows from home completely upended that,” Nwodim said. “I live in a studio (apartment), and the green screen took up the entire studio, but I didn’t know how to close it. Every time they told me I was going to shoot with a green screen, I’d go, ‘Oh no.’ ”

Despite this change, their work was still rewarding. 

“Ultimately what was rewarding was hearing people say that seeing ‘SNL’ attempt to do shows from home represented some sort of normalcy and offer them some sense of calm,” Nwodim said.

As a fan of Nwodim’s work, Deggans said she really hit her stride on “SNL” in the most recent season. He asked Nwodim how she found her comedic voice.

“Saturday Night Live” cast member Ego Nwodim joins in conversation with NPR television critic Eric Deggans Monday in the Amphitheater, launching a week on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“In short, I would say that my comedic voice is that I enjoy playing disruptive, indignant, loud, wrong people,” Nwodim said.

Everyone knows what they, themselves, find funny, but comedians have the task of balancing their own voice with what the audience finds funny. Nwodim also had to balance “SNL” ’s 47-year long aesthetic with her own voice, as well as talking to the writers to make sure skits showcase her talents and skills. 

Deggans then asked Nwodim about her experience auditioning for “SNL.” 

She said the first audition didn’t go well. 

“They were actually looking for a white guy. … They said, ‘Oh, we thought you were a guy because of your name,’ ” Nwodim said. During the audition, she remembers being very still and nervous. 

This was not the case with her second audition in 2018. Nwodim felt much more comfortable. She had created several characters to perform: Maya Angelou telling “yo mama” jokes, a 911 dispatcher who gossips about calls she receives and a mother at Lebron James’ I Promise School who only sent her child there so she could meet the basketball star. 

In the audition itself, Nwodim felt like she could talk more freely and have more fun. And then she got the job as a featured player.

Deggans then asked Nwodim about her sense of “SNL” ’s relationship with Black women, both when she started and currently.

“When I was coming in, I tried to be as present as possible,” she said. “I am telling you guys, this was the most stressful time in my life. I was worried about a million other things.”

Nwodim was the seventh Black featured or cast player on “SNL,” which had at that point run for 44 seasons. She was promoted to a full cast member in 2020.

“I said I would like to make it easier for the next Black woman joining the cast,” Nwodim said. “I want to position myself in a way that the audience doesn’t watch us like, ‘What are you doing up there?’, and they are excited for us in the same way they are excited for other cast members.” 

As part of the Q-and-A session, Emily Morris, senior vice president and chief brand officer, asked Nwodim what aspects of pandemic life she wants to take forward with her, and which ones she wants to leave behind. 

Nwodim said the pandemic gave her a lot of time to slow down — mainly because nothing was happening. 

“What was really nice was being forced to slow down, and realize all the benefits of slowing down, and how powerful that is — to just be showing up in the world to do my job as a daughter, sister and friend,” Nwodim said.

But she would like to leave behind the immense isolation. 

“I’d like to get back to a place where I am getting together with friends more,” Nwodim said. “I feel like if I do one activity in the city, I think, ‘What a full day.’ ”

Morris’ last question to Nwodim was: What would she like to be remembered for?

“I want to show young girls that look like me that their goals are possible,” Nwodim said. “Keep on going, fight through adversity.”

Beginning again: Evoking James Baldwin, Princeton scholar Eddie S. Glaude explores need to accept truth of America’s racist past in joint lecture, CLSC presentation



New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. began his lecture by quoting Toni Morrison.

“If my work is to be functional to the group, to the village as it were, then it must bear witness and identify that which is useful from the past and that which ought to be discarded. It must make it possible to prepare for the present and live it out and it must do that not by avoiding problems and contradictions, but by examining them. It should not even attempt to solve social problems, but it certainly should try to clarify them,” Morrison said.

Glaude said America has an old myth when it comes to Black people — that Black people are inherently lesser, and white people are inherently more morally just.

“This vision of this new Black subject makes sense only if we are to understand a certain view of white people in this country — how white people are valued more than others and how that valuation dictates the distribution of advantages and disadvantages,” he said.

Glaude is the chair of the Department of African American Studies and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 22 in the Amphitheater, Glaude concluded the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Four theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.” This was a joint presentation between the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Glaude’s most recent book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, was a CLSC Week Four selection.

During the lecture, Glaude used Baldwin’s writing to discuss how embedded racism is in America, how the country has failed to address it in every era, and the need for society to accept truths about ourselves and others. 

“The idea of American democracy John Locke imagined, shorn of its need for this staid character of  Black people, has yet to come into fruition,” Glaude said. “We still live in a society where some of us believe that this country must remain a white nation in the vein of old Europe, where the stock assumptions about Black people continue to circulate.”

Glaude said the Jan. 6 insurrection was the latest expansion of the notion that the country belongs to some more than it does to others. 

“What was revealed and continues to unfold right before our eyes, at least to me,” Glaude said, “is clearly a different register of civic expression, a different kind of citizenship, of those who have a right to dissent, and who can claim ownership of the country, while the rest of us are expected to shut up and be grateful because the country belongs to them.”

He quoted Baldwin: “The horror is that America changes all the time without ever changing at all.”

Glaude said it is time to admit that everyone is not treated equally in this country and everyone is not policed in the same manner. 

“All we have to do is think back to Jan. 6 and compare how the police responded to that mob and how they responded to some of the peaceful protests last summer,” Glaude said.

Glaude described the deep division in the U.S. as a “cold Civil War,” in which there is a fear that increasing diversity means white people’s power is diminishing, and that they are at risk of being replaced. 

“History reveals itself not as determination, but as a kind of inherence,” Glaude said. “Not as continuity, but as connection and relationship where one event echoes or carries the imprint of another, and calls it all into view.”

Glaude said the country has been here before. He talked about the Civil War and Reconstruction, when lawmakers in Mississippi, who Frederick Douglass called the “Apostles of Forgetfulness,” created Jim Crow laws after the 13th Amendment was ratified.

Glaude said this “Anglo-Saxonism is in all of us,” meaning the idea that old European cultures are model societies. 

“We see the ideology of Anglo-Saxonism guiding our imperial efforts across the globe. At the very moment we were consolidating racial apartheid in the American South, we were bringing millions of people of color under our rule in Cuba and the Philippines,” Glaude said.

Glaude said that every time America has faced a moral reckoning like the current one, society has “doubled down on our ugliness.”

“At every turn when a new America is about to be born,” Glaude said, “the umbilical cord of white supremacy has been wrapped around the baby’s neck, choking the life out of it.”

Many Americans breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was elected and believed that their work was done — but Glaude said the work doesn’t end based on who is in the White House. 

“I pray that we do not trade one fantasy for another. That somehow the election of a politician affirms America’s inherent goodness and puts a grateful republic back to sleep,” Glaude said. “Presidential elections — elections period, no matter how momentous — do not settle the question of who we take ourselves to be. The answer to that question, and it is a moral as well as a political question, will emerge as what we do now.”

New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

What society needs to do now, Glaude said, is to tell the truth about America, from its flaws to its triumphs. He said the country’s original sin wasn’t slavery, or even its genocide against Native Americans, but the belief that some people matter more than others. 

Part of the way people can help tell the truth of the country is by telling different stories about history. Truth requires courage, Glaude said.

He also said the truth will require people to grow up. 

“This is the root of our unadmitted sorrows. The terrors and panics that we experience today have everything to do with the gap between who we imagine ourselves to be and who, deep down, we really are. That the nation actively evades confronting this gap locks the country into a kind of perpetual adolescence where those who desperately hold onto the American myth refuse to grow up,” Glaude said.

People will also have to come out of their comfort zones and imagine themselves in a new way, he said, or risk doubling down on ugliness.

“The future of the world depends on everyone in this room,” Glaude said. “Imagination is a source of the good. There’s those who would want you to believe that our world is all that is possible. We must dare to imagine ourselves differently.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts, asked Glaude about the backlash seen throughout history whenever steps are taken to uphold people’s civil rights, even now with suppression of voting rights.

Glaude said he doesn’t use the term “backlash” because it carries the implication the movement asked too much.

“One of the questions that James Baldwin loathed was this question: How much more does the Negro want?” Glaude said. “And I do, too, because if you thought we were human beings like you think of yourself, you would know we want the same thing as you.”

Glaude said what is happening is not a backlash, but a betrayal.

“It shows in America there’s still an argument to be had,” Glaude said, “and you still have to fight.” 

New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ton-Aime then asked Glaude what the outrage around critical race theory is really about.

Glaude said in the early 1900s, large, public swimming pools were built in different cities to help bring together different communities and cultures. He said when Black people came to share the pools, fearful white people filled the pools with concrete and turned them into grass fields. White people were scared of being displaced by people of color, and this fear still permeates society.

“There’s a sense that the ‘browning of America,’ ” Glaude said, “left certain Americans behind, that they’re being left behind, and could be displaced, replaced.”

Some people argue that critical race theory removes them from history, and, Glaude said, and fills “(white) children’s heads with ideas they are somehow responsible for the ugliness of the world.”

He said that one prominent conservative tweeted that they want to use the outrage around the term “critical race theory” to cause a broad ban on everything they do not like.

“This is part of this ongoing effort to narrow our conception of America,” Glaude said.

Ton-Aime asked Glaude how he keeps going in the face of trauma.

Glaude recalled one particularly difficult day that drove him to a emotional  verbal outburst, “just cussing at the top of my lungs, you know.” He had to compose himself in time to deliver an online lecture. 

“It’s hard, but you have a sense of calling, a sense of vocation, a commitment to building a world that is better for our children and our children’s children,” he said.

He said there is so much about the world that conspires to make people small, to conform. 

“The question you have to ask yourselves, over and over again as the world tries to make you small — will you be complacent? Will you be complacent?” Glaude said. “Good old Melville comes to mind, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: ‘I prefer not to.’ ” 

John Coltrane also came to Glaude’s mind. He told the story of a recording of “Giant Steps.” Coltrane played the introductory solo to “Giant Steps,” and the musicians around him had never heard something like it in their lives. On the track, the pianist is so confused that he is just tapping keys. 

“So, if the world conspires to make you small, to make you conform,” Glaude said, “then what you should do is take ‘Giant Steps.’ So how do I keep going on? How do I muster the energy to stand in the tradition that makes me possible? I refuse to conform to the world as it is and I am going to give my life to make the world as it could be.”

Public opinion scholar Katherine Cramer explores rural resentment of urban communities, how listening disrupts cycles of demonizing



Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In one of her first listening sessions during her research on the views of rural Wisconsinites in 2008, Katherine Cramer drove 26 minutes from her Super 8 Motel to a gravel lot in a hamlet. She parked her Volkswagen Jetta among a row of pickup trucks and saw the local service station — where a member of the local county board told her a group of people gathered every morning to talk.

“It’s this beautiful, old, vintage service station,” said Cramer, professor of political science and the Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “these old gas pumps, no longer in operation, but big plate glass windows, kind of that lime green color, probably hadn’t been repainted since the ’60s, and I could hear the laughter.”

She walked in to see four men wearing big sweatshirts and baseball caps and sitting in plastic lawn chairs with plenty of Milwaukee Brewers memorabilia around. Cramer introduced herself, told them that she was a professor and asked if she could join them. 

The men, retired public school teachers, chuckled and said, “Sure.” Cramer asked the men what the major concerns were for the people in the area. The men told her their worries: The state legislature had been taking the money allocated for the highway and spending it elsewhere; the state liquor tax was low and they were concerned about drunk driving in their area; the price of gas was too high, and so was the price of health care.

These concerns were similar to what she was hearing in small communities all across Wisconsin — a resentment toward those in cities, where all the decisions were being made without care of those in rural communities.

“(The government doesn’t) know what our lives are like,” Cramer said she heard. “They don’t understand the challenges that we’re facing. Maybe they pass through as tourists, but that’s not the same as knowing what it feels like to live, yes, in a beautiful tourist place, but having to work two or three jobs during tourist season to make ends meet.”

As well as being a professor, Cramer is the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 21 in the Amphitheater, Cramer presented her lecture, “Listening to Disrupt,” as part of Week Four’s theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.” Cramer, who spent time listening to groups of people across rural Wisconsin, noted the deep disconnect between demographics in cities and small towns. She stressed the importance of listening — not to convince, or even change one’s own mind, but to open oneself up to the possibility of what society can achieve together.

The divides Cramer saw appeared in both Democratic and Republican communities. Far, “way up there,” in the northwest corner of Wisconsin in Bayfield County, in a very left-leaning, touristy and artsy community, Cramer talked to a group of women retirees. 

After the conversation, one woman showed her a notebook and said, “This is a list of all the families who had to move away from here because of property taxes.” The notebook had 60 families’ names. 

Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

She explained to Cramer that because of people moving in and buying big vacation homes, property taxes were raised, and people who had lived in the community for generations were forced to leave because of prohibitive costs. 

Property taxes and a lack of jobs were also problems faced by the group in the service station, and all of rural Wisconsin. One day in 2012, during one of Cramer’s many visits to the small town, none of the pickup trucks sat in the gravel lot and a note hung on the door. It was an apology from the owner, who had quit because he got a similar job with better pay. 

The Bayfield women were tired, too. Cramer asked them how much attention the government paid to the people’s approval of their decisions. 

There was a long pause. One said the government was starting to get it. Another, named Dorothy, disagreed.

“Dorothy says, ‘I think it’s in the beltway. Madison might listen to Madison people. Washington, D.C. is a country unto itself. I know it. I’ve lived there. They haven’t got a clue what the rest of the nation is up to. They’re so absorbed studying their own belly button,’ ” Cramer said.

This divide between urban and rural Wisconsin surprised Cramer. Her intent was to study how the differences between social class identity affects the way people view politics, but that wasn’t what she found. Instead, she found statewide resentment, some of which took the form of racism.

“The racism is important, but I’ve waited until now to bring it up, because it’s important in a scary way. … Notice how it’s woven into people’s understandings here, all of our understandings,” she said. “These notions of who works hard in our population are so important because they’re so bound up in our political culture with who is a ‘deserving’ American.”

Cramer said some people she talked to assumed that certain races were lazy. And, in 2016, she noticed the rhetoric in her discussion groups changing.

“I was kind of amazed at the rhetoric that I heard, because I had heard some blatant racism in the conversations before, but the tone was different,” Cramer said. “There was more of it, and a lot more conversation about immigrants.”

Before the 2016 presidential campaign, when Cramer asked about immigration, she would get little response. During the campaign and afterwards, she never even had to ask. 

“I heard a lot about immigrants and immigration, and a lot of it wasn’t pretty,” Cramer said. 

Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

After President Donald Trump was elected — and won Wisconsin along the way — family, friends and strangers, shocked, reached out to Cramer asking her to explain why the rural parts of the state voted this way. 

“Well, if you have been asking yourself that, and you’re this far into my talk, I encourage you to just take a pause,” Cramer said. 

And then Cramer talked about the pandemic. Cramer’s pandemic project was spending time with her 13-year-old daughter and building trees. In the corner of her living room, Cramer created “a willow that glows” made of chicken wire, papier-mâché and spray paint, with green felt and holiday lights on the ceiling with green fabric draping down. 

“Trees felt good. They were bigger than me. They were something to aspire to,” Cramer said. “They also communicate with one another, through these underground systems, so that trees warn each other of danger. They figure out how to share resources. They figure out how to devote resources to those most in need. There are  trees that operate like mothers and make sure the saplings get what they need in order to thrive.”

Cramer also went into the forest to learn to identify trees, and noted the many different kinds of trees at Chautauqua. 

“What a restorative thing to surround myself with, to immerse myself in,” Cramer said, “and not just because of all the things that we have been experiencing together on this planet, but because I had been studying resentment for 13 years prior to when the pandemic started.”

To help bridge gaps within society, she said people need to build in little gaps of reflection in their schedules, even if it is just a little bit. 

“I think we need a deeper understanding of why that is the case, what it is that listening does for us. The reason we need more listening is not to become like one another,” Cramer said. “The reason we need more listening is that listening opens us up to what we can become together. It interrupts the process of ramming ahead, exactly like we have been doing: building lies, demonizing the Other.”

Cramer then returned to the forest metaphor. 

“Trees and fungi might grow these connections naturally. Not in modern society — we have the capacity, it’s in our DNA. We have the capacity to love and to look out for one another — but we don’t do it,” Cramer said. “If anything, we are growing things that disrupt those connections. We are not making life-sustaining ways of communicating with one another. So we have to intentionally figure out how.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Jordan Steves, director of strategic communications, asked Cramer how the pandemic changed her work. 

Cramer said she listened to a lot of talk radio from different parts of Wisconsin. She noticed many people from small communities were angry with the COVID-19 guidelines, especially given that many of them lived miles away from their closest neighbors, as opposed to the closeness that people in cities lived in. 

Steves then asked Cramer if the data supports the beliefs of the people she talked to.

She said in some ways it does, and some ways it doesn’t. For example, rural communities receive more money per person from state and federal taxpayer money.

“Probably, as you picked up from my remarks, and David French and Amanda Ripley too this week, that it’s not about facts. It’s about people’s perceptions and their perspectives,” Cramer said. “If you’re looking at the world through a lens of, ‘People like me, we don’t get what we deserve,’ facts that you encounter — you interpret through that lens.”

Author and journalist David French illustrates deep divisions and long road to heal hearts



David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

David French hopes he was wrong. The thesis of his book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, was that every force in the United States is pushing people apart more than they are pulling together. 

“When I wrote my book, I thought, ‘Lots of people are going to think I’m too alarmist,’ ” said French, a journalist and author. “Now, when I talk about the book, the question I get is: When is it going to happen?”

Even with the pandemic, when society had a singular enemy in COVID-19, cultures were warring. 

“It might be the most remarkable cultural war in the history of the culture wars: over whether or not to wear a mask in a pandemic spread by droplets in the air,” French said. “Ten to 15 miles south from where I live, if you wore a mask, you could be smeared in public.”

As well as being an decorated author, French is the senior editor at The Dispatch and a columnist for Time. During his lecture, “Divided We Fall: Understanding and Healing a Broken Land,” at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 20 in the Amphitheater, French discussed three major causes of increasing polarization; he said the way forward was healing the heart of America, though this process will take multiple years. This was the second lecture of Week Four of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.”

We can be the seeds of something new. We can be the seeds of renewal.”

– David French,
Senior editor,
The Dispatch

Big Sort and Overton Window

Recently, The New York Times released an online test that showed how dense people’s ideological bubbles are. It works by checking voting records and party memberships by state and county.

So French checked how big his own bubble is and realized that his area is 85% Republican. Then he checked other places he has lived, from Manhattan and Philadelphia to Tennessee and Alabama, all of which were 85-90% a particular party.

“I’ve lived in nothing but a bubble,” French said.

This is part of the “big sort,” which French defined as people naturally becoming stuck in ideological bubbles, based on geography, political affliction and other factors. 

Eighty percent of Americans live in ideological bubbles because of people’s tendency to choose to live in places with like-minded neighbors. French said this is a large reason that most districts in the U.S. are “landslide districts,” meaning that they vote for a particular party or candidate with 80% of the surrounding population.

And this phenomenon doesn’t end with elections and politics. French said that TV viewership can be mapped using ideological views of the audience, such as the biggest show on television for many years, “Game of Thrones,” which was primarily watched by Hillary Clinton voters. 

“By itself, it’s benign. By itself, it’s very understandable,” French said. “You tend to like people and like to be around people who share your common interest. It’s just human nature.”

Coupled with the big sort is the Overton Window, which refers to the concepts that are inbounds and outbounds for a particular conversation and group of people, meaning that there are acceptable words a person can use in conversation.

A positive effect of the Window is that it gives society a common language to discuss complex issues and has largely eliminated the use of blatant hate speech and racist terms in popular discourse.

“We have now moved into team red and team blue so sharply that in many areas we don’t even have one window anymore. We have two windows of discourse,” French said. “So that the language that you use in one community disqualifies you from even consideration … in the other community.”

However, French has experienced the negative effects of the Overton Window, on both sides of the aisle. He said that if he uses the term “systemic racism” in more Republican crowds, then all the ears will shut.

“If you talk about systemic racism as a concept (to those audiences), you are then outside the bounds of acceptable discourse; you have identified yourself as a member of the opposition and you are not somebody worth listening to,” French said.

David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Law of Group Polarization

French defined the Law of Group Polarization as the tendency of groups of like-minded people to become more extreme when they gather.

“If you go to a meeting that is designed to combat climate change, and you’re brainstorming ideas for things you can do in your community to combat climate change,” French said, “are you going to leave the meeting less concerned about the state of the planet? No.”

This can cause every member of the group, after the gathering, to become more extreme than the most extreme member before the meeting, which French called a cascade. He said this was prominently the case with President Donald Trump.

“I was living in rural Tennessee when the rise of Trump occurred,” French said. “In fact, the identification, and the affiliation, and zealous loyalty to Donald Trump was evidence of this cascading effect upon polarization.”

French said that some of his neighbors went from saying Trump was their last choice for president, to supporting the president avidly. 

While in years past, graphs of American ideological views had a bell curve, with the majority in the middle and a few at the extreme left and right, French said the graph now looks like a “U.”

“Even large-scale differences can be manageable, if not accompanied by large-scale animosity,” French said.

Many people are now more motivated to vote by a distrust of the opposing party than they are by faith in their own party. French said 82% of Republicans strongly or somewhat disliked Democrats, while 78% of Democrats strongly or somewhat dislike Republicans. And 20% of America would be OK if a large percentage of the opposing party died — “I’m not saying they would kill them,” French said; rather that those respondents think if those with whom they disagree “just went away,” things would be better.

“Twenty percent of Americans are now ascribing dehumanized characteristics, animalistic type characteristics to their opponents,” French said. “And it’s not the quiet 65 million.”

And social media is doing little favors. French said social media has nationalized “all our beefs, all our dramas.” Even in times of great national strife, local events mainly stayed local, such as in 1968, when French said there were two to three political bombings a day in the U.S., yet the national newspapers rarely covered them. 

Now, people can see almost everything in real time.

“So what ends up happening is we have instant access to every political atrocity in the United States. No, no, that’s not actually correct,” French said. “We have instant access, because of our curated feeds, to every atrocity committed by another side.”

French defined this as nutpicking, when people take an extreme example and portray it as typical. One example of this was when First Lady Barbara Bush died. While most people from both sides of the aisle mourned the beloved mother and wife of two presidents, one liberal professor from California, with a few thousand followers, tweeted she was glad Bush died. 

“She becomes this symbol of all that’s wrong with the left,” French said. “So for about a week, she is the most famous professor in all of America.”

Unfortunately, Twitter and other platforms have no shortage of extremists, which French likened to “a never-ending amount of fuel.”

To combat the polarizing nature of social media, French started to follow a progressive user for each conservative he added. His bipartisan Twitter feed allowed him to realize how stark the difference was between the world conservatives and liberals saw on social media. 

During the protests following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, French saw this divide in real time. The right side of his feed showed violence, people burning down buildings and attacking police officers.

“You would think that every city in the United States of America is being systematically destroyed and looted,” French said.

The left side of his Twitter feed told a different story: police officers attacking peaceful protesters. 

French said he was not saying everyone is equally at fault.

“No, I only saw one team take the Capitol on Jan. 6,” French said. “There’s a justice to the matter here. The justice of the matter is one side tried to overthrow the government of the United States and is now in the business of minimizing that and pretending it didn’t happen. That has to be opposed.”

David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

What can we do?

French said people need to recognize the reality of the state of polarization in the country. He said the U.S. needs to de-escalate partisan politics.

“That’s not going to happen anytime soon,” French said. “And the reason is we’re locked in such a partisan struggle that every conflict, as I said, is national. Every conflict is national.”

It’s going to take more than policy reforms.

“We have to have a reform at the heart level,” French said, “then dissolve this animosity and then engage with true tolerance.”

He ended his lecture with two quotes from the Bible. The first was a favorite quote of President George Washington and was featured in the musical Hamilton.

“Every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one will make him afraid.” — Micah 4:4.

French said people need to know they have a place in this country and not fear for their livelihoods based on who the president is. 

The second, French said, dealt with how to reach a society where everyone has their own space under a fig tree. Chautauquans knew this quote, and many of the crowd recited it along with French. 

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” — Micah 6:8.

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked French what small acts people could take.

French said to take his last Bible quote to heart, and truly love mercy.

“We can be the seeds of something new. We can be the seeds of renewal,” French said. “America has faced dark grim times and dark, grim division, and it’s emerged from the other side, not perfect by any means in any stretch of our history, but better. But better.”

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley shares keys to supporting good conflict



Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends before they were political adversaries. Adams took a young Jefferson under his wing, and the two collaborated to write the Declaration of Independence. But even the strongest connections, whether between family or friends, wither under the pressure of high conflict.

Amanda Ripley, a New York Times-bestselling author, defined high conflict as a period of argument or disagreement in which the conflict itself becomes the focus, instead of the logical facts or even feelings.

High conflict has three key features: group identities, humiliation and outside conflict entrepreneurs. Both Adams and Jefferson initially opposed the idea of political parties, then were swept into different factions, until they stood as competing candidates for president. 

Running against his protégé in the 1796 presidential election and almost losing was a public humiliation for Adams. Ripley, quoting Nelson Mandela, said, “You mustn’t compromise your principles, but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than the one who is humiliated.”

The last nail in this conflict coffin came from Jefferson’s camp, specifically from another future president, James Madison. When Jefferson drafted a letter apologizing to Adams, Madison recommended he not send it because it could damage Jefferson’s reputation if it got leaked. 

“For the sake of the young country, there was a lot they should have discussed,” Ripley said. “But that’s not what happened, because this was high conflict, in which everyone suffers to various degrees.”

And, well over 200 years since Adams and Jefferson, much of society lingers in this trap of high conflict: 80% of Americans are stressed about the future, half have stopped talking to someone about politics because of the person’s beliefs and two-thirds hold a political view they are afraid to share. 

As well as her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Ripley’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many others. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 19 in the Amphitheater, Ripley discussed the nature of good and high tension, the hard trek of bridging divides and multiple real-life examples of people in different fields, from politics to organized crime, working toward a better-connected society. 

Her lecture, “The Conflict Trap,” opened Week Four’s theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides” of the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Around five years ago, Ripley realized facts weren’t enough and traditional journalism wasn’t equipped to bridge the growing fragments of the U.S.

“I wish I recognized this earlier: Our perception matters more than the facts all the time,” Ripley said. “I hate that it’s true, but it’s especially true in conflict.”

So she sought out people who had a lot of experience in high conflict situations, from health care workers to politicians to soldiers. Through these conversations, Ripley saw how conflict can transition from good to high. 

Good conflict, as Ripley defined, is dynamic, when both sides discuss, listen and act. Even if the arguments are tense and emotions are high, good conflict leads somewhere. 

“People do escape high conflict. They don’t suddenly agree, and this is important: They don’t surrender their beliefs. They don’t censor them, either,” Ripley said. “Instead, they do something much more interesting. We become capable of comprehending that with which they disagree. And that changes everything: Curiosity returns, IQs go back up, conflict becomes necessary and good instead of destructive.”

Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ripley noticed a pattern in her conversations. In times of high conflict, people were able to break out when they are able, or are forced, to pause. Usually, this is the point where people realize they are losing more than they are gaining.

This point could occur when a child becomes sick when parents are fighting, or a catastrophe during wartime. For 10 years during the Colombian Civil War, Ripley said 52,000 people left the armed conflict voluntarily.

“People left the conflict when they reached a saturation point. Sometimes it was when their side experienced major casualties. Sometimes it was when their unit ran low on money,” Ripley said. “Misery can create opportunity.”

Ripley said during soccer games, the Colombian government ran ads inviting rebel fighters to come home and watch games with their families. The day after each soccer game, there were 20 extra demobilizations — 10 times the daily average.

“But, really, the best defense against high conflict that I’ve seen is to create a counterculture of good conflict. That sounds so starry-eyed, I know, like a fantasy,” Ripley said. “So to prove that it’s possible, I want to tell you one last story today.”

B’nai Jeshurun, an influential Manhattan synagogue, had major tension among its congregants after the rabbis praised a United Nations vote favorable to Palestinians. Some members adamantly supported Israel, while others held harsh critiques. The conflict landed on the front page of the The New York Times, members withheld their donation and left, and others remained silent.

“The rabbis were stunned. It felt like an earthquake,” Ripley said. “People they loved and respected and thought loved and respected them were saying terrible things very publicly.”

So the leaders of the synagogue decided to bring in outside experts on conducting conversations. 

“So it wasn’t ‘Kumbaya;’ it was more like training for an Ironman competition, just to be clear. It was hard. There were structured workshops and intensive staff training, in-depth sessions with the rabbis and the board,” Ripley said. “The goal was to understand, not to agree: a huge, but underappreciated, difference.”

Ripley said that being heard often makes a person more willing to listen to others. People shared personal stories about their “connections to Israel, about feeling torn between their sense of justice and their sense of duty.”

“One woman explained how so many of her relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. She’d been raised to believe that any criticism of Israel was sacrilegious,” Ripley said. “This didn’t make other people agree with her suddenly, but it’s helped them to be less mystified by her.”

After months and months of listening sessions, the synagogue discovered the underlying conflict: fear for the future and a fear of speaking out. Ripley said most had ambivalent feelings toward Israel, with some changing their opinion day by day depending on how questions were asked. 

The discussions, for three years, barely resembled those of a high conflict. The synagogue continued to use these methods through many different conflicts and discussions. Then something different came along: Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

“This didn’t seem to be a conflict they could lean into. It felt unique,” Ripley said. “How could they cultivate good conflict with people they’ve never met?”

Most of the synagogue’s congregants voted for Hillary Clinton, so they couldn’t resolve this conflict without reaching outside their organization. Very far, in this case — all the way to Michigan, where 16 conservative Christians who worked in a prison were willing to join in deep conversations. 

The program worked like this: First the members of the New York synagogue would live with the Michiganders for three days, then a few months later, the reverse would happen. Ripley talked to and interviewed both sides, and saw similar fears. 

Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The New Yorkers expected bigotry; one was fearful they would be shot. The Michiganders, on the other hand, expected condescension; one was fearful they were inviting Antifa into their homes. 

“It occurred to me that it might have been less nerve-racking for these Americans to host actual foreigners rather than fellow Americans,” Ripley said. “But, for reasons none of them could fully articulate, about a dozen New York liberals and a dozen Michigan conservatives signed on, and they all agreed to let me come along.”

Despite their political, geographic and religious differences, the two groups grew to understand each other. Some of the New Yorkers even took their companions to Trump Tower to buy memorabilia. 

“It was a strange encounter to behold, slightly contrived but less awkward than it sounds. I had left Washington D.C., where the politicians remain locked in combat, to watch these Americans doing something much more interesting: Coming together with copious misunderstandings and many questions. Despite everything, they still wanted to make sense of each other.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked Ripley what the first step is to escaping high conflict. 

Ripley said a good first step is to create a non-aggression pact. While this is a step short of a full peace treaty or resolution, rules of engagement often stop tensions from starting. One example is an agreement between gangs in Chicago to not taunt each other on social media, and for gang members not to go to areas they did not control. Ripley said this was a very important first step because 70% of gang conflict in Chicago starts on social media. 

“So, basic parameters … create that cause of the conflict,” Ripley said. “Then here’s the interesting thing: Someone always violates the pact. Always. But you have a process in place to slow down the escalation.”

This was the case in Chicago. One gang member posted a photo on Facebook of him with a gun on a street corner, “mocking the organization who had this territory,” and mediators were able to contact the other gang and ask for a two-hour window before retaliating. Within an hour and a half, the photo was taken down, and the situation ended without any shots fired. 

“So, this is an example of how you can slow down those forces of humiliation especially,” Ripley said.
“Why would we ask traumatized young men in violent situations to do something we have not asked the members of Congress to do?”

Hill then asked Ripley if COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 insurrection could not interrupt the high conflict in the U.S., what can?

“I do think that some people did escape high conflict in the aftermath of both of those shocks,” Ripley said. “… (There were) families that were estranged, and then the pandemic happened and they’re not anymore.”

When she wrote about polarization for The Atlantic, researchers would half-jokingly tell her that if an alien invasion happened, society would have a common enemy and unify to solve a lot of its problems.

“Then we got it. But we have conflict entrepreneurs in charge,” Ripley said. “So that was a missed opportunity, not in every place, but in a lot of places. Unfortunately, there will be more opportunities, I promise you.”

MIT’s Deb Roy analyzes divisions caused by social media-dominated world



Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Social media has a unique phenomenon: Even though technology allows people from across the world to connect, it has ultimately fragmented society’s interactions. 

And this isn’t unique to Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Even the telegraph and the train, technologies that allow humans to travel great distances, create psychological distance, in the same way people yell at each other during traffic.

Deb Roy, executive director of the MIT Center of Constructive Communication, said this phenomenon is partly due to the lack of negative feedback loops on social media. He said these feedback loops are vital for society because they make people aware of mistakes they make and provide them an opportunity to improve. But now, many people only become aware of their mistake when it is too late. 

“(Social media) breaks down that ability to self-regulate, but it doesn’t mean there are no consequences,” Roy said. “It just means the negative signals are diffuse and the actors are not aware.”

As well as working at the center, Roy is a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 15 in the Amphitheater, he presented his lecture, titled “Social Media and Democracy,” as part of Week Three of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ theme of “Trust, Democracy and Society.” Roy discussed how social media has caused societal fragmentation and degradation of human interactions, and laid out a way forward using a new technology he helped develop. That technology has already proved its worth by forging local connections across the country and assisting in a police chief search in Wisconsin and the mayoral race in Boston.

Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Roy wanted to know how exactly people tend to interact on social media. So in 2015, using artificial intelligence, he helped create a map of every single mutual follow on Twitter. The graph looks like a circle on one side and an-almost crescent shape on the other, with little connections between. 

The circle, colored red, represented people who followed President Donald Trump’s account. This group had little mutual follows with people outside the circle, but many connections with others in the circle. The first part of the crescent were people who followed multiple candidates, and the second was Hillary Clinton followers, who were much less connected compared to Trump followers. The last portion of the crescent was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ followers, who had quite a few connections with Trump followers. Then, Roy and his team marked the public Twitter accounts of thousands of journalists; even the most right-leaning of them, some who worked at Breitbart News Network and Fox News, were not in the circle of Trump followers. Roy said part of the many journalists’ surprise at the results of the 2016 election stemmed from the mass fragmentation.

And there is a lot of toxicity and divisions within the social media platforms. One of Roy’s colleagues had particular problems with an online troll. His colleague is a Muslim woman of color, and this troll was relentless, saying phrases that the colleague wouldn’t repeat to Roy. She eventually figured out the troll was from Kansas and offered to get lunch when she was passing through.

And, as she sat in the restaurant, a mother of two wearing a cardigan walked in and sat with her.

“After a few awkward words of exchange, they entered into a real conversation,” Roy said. “They talked about their lives, about their jobs.”

The mother stopped her trollish ways — for five weeks. 

“It’s a sad ending, but I share this story with you to make two points. The first is: same two people over Twitter versus in person — what a different outcome. Maybe there’s just a little glimmer of a (personal connection) that emerged in that lunch, and it actually had an effect for weeks,” Roy said. “The second is one-time interventions, one-time fixes won’t do it. We have to actually create new life habits.”

So if singular interactions don’t cut it, how can people forge connections in the age of social media? Roy said it starts at a local level, “a place that we can make substantial change.” 

To forge these connections, Roy helped develop technology and a practice that helps bring people together, instead of driving them apart. Roy and the center paired small group meetings with engaging with local leaders and their own invention. It’s called a Digital Heart, a device that transcribes conversations and sorts the audio based on topics, such as education or fear of police. During conversations, the facilitator will search for audio from another recording about the same topic, effectively bringing a new voice and viewpoint into the discussion. Then the participants will respond to that viewpoint. Roy shared a recording of one such interaction this technology spurred in the town of Madison, Ohio. This is from a teacher, who is white, in Madison:

“My experiences with officers in the schools is that they do everything they can not to arrest kids,” the teacher said. “They’re extremely kind and very, very, very positive role models for kids in schools. The schools I’ve worked in, some of the resource officers are people of color, and they’re working with students of color, and they’re able to see a police officer in a responsible role, being good with kids, being supportive.”

A facilitator of another conversation asked their participants, who were all formerly incarcerated men, to respond to this quote. 

Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

One man said he couldn’t see how police in school were effective. He said when he was a teenager and in an institution, he had a “teenager temper tantrum, and I was just out of control.”

“I remember a guy by the name of Bruce. He grabbed me, because I was out of control. He just grabbed me, put his arms around me and just held me, and I was trying to get away and all of those things, he just didn’t let me go,” the man said. “He didn’t allow me to hit him or none of the above. Ultimately, I just tired myself out, and I just cried.”

Bruce didn’t hurt him.

“He didn’t disrespect me. He didn’t belittle me. He allowed me to calm down, and then he started to talk to me. And I say that because to this day that was an act of love. And it was not an act of disrespect,” the man said. “And so I think when it comes from the family and from the community, it’s a better perspective versus it coming from the police, because police can’t do just that — they’re gonna police.”

This technology can be used for specific tasks as well. After Madison, Wisconsin, police officers shot a Black man named Tony Robinson and the police chief suddenly retired, the Madison Police and Fire Commission asked Roy’s group to help the department listen to the community and use the people’s voices and concerns to craft questions, and do so in a transparent, trusted way.

He said his group worked closely with local community members to engage with marginalized communities and people who do not routinely show up to town hall meetings. He said town hall meetings can be sometimes performative, especially given the three-minute speaking limit and the requirement to speak in front of a large crowd, and that smaller, group conversations are often effective in welcoming new voices. 

“We heard a very different kind of perspective, (from) people who would not show up (to town hall meetings), or even if they did, would not share in the way that they did through these smaller conversations,” Roy said. “They knew they were being recorded. They were actually wanting their voice to create a durable record that was transparent and accountable.”

Roy’s group pored through the audio, with the help of artificial intelligence, and sorted recordings into different themes. Here are some of the voices that shaped the questions to the Madison police chief candidates: 

“It’s hard to get away from how powerful the institution and the badge and having a gun is and how much that emboldens individuals,” said Carla, whose quote was sorted into the fear theme.

“Growing up, one of the first values and principles that I was taught was to never trust police in any situation or the circumstance. That was kind of proven to me around age 12 and 13, when I saw a family member be shot in the back eight times,” said James, whose quote was sorted into the trust theme.

“They are police and they police. That’s what they do. They’re not counselors, they’re not social workers, and so all of those factors (are) not even in the equation,” said Felix, whose quote was sorted into the scope theme.

“The police in this community and the communities across our country don’t look at people who need support, and people who need someone to guide them, or just be there for them through their struggles — they see them as a problem. They’re not a problem. They are people,” said Kimberly, whose quote was sorted into the disabilities theme. 

These quotes were then used to help craft questions during public interviews. Roy said the public had access to how they came up with these questions and could even listen to the full conversations they sprouted from. 

Currently, Roy’s group is assisting in the mayoral race of Boston, a historically segregated city, in a similar way.

“I hope you will also consider this simply as a case study of how some of the same technologies, where we see some of the problems in social media, can actually be leveraged to create new possibilities,” Roy said.

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, ended the lecture by asking Roy one question: How can people get involved in this work? 

Roy said they are looking for more communities to get involved in, particularly ones that have “experience or the capacity to facilitate conversation and dialogue.”

“We would love to hear from you,” Roy said, “because we are really set up to provide training and support and try to grow these kinds of efforts.”

‘Commentary’  writer Christine Rosen discusses fall of civil discussion and rise of cancel culture



Christine Rosen, senior writer for Commentary, delivers her lecture “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The divide in the United States over cancel culture is more of a gap between generations than it is between political parties, said Christine Rosen, senior writer at Commentary, an opinion magazine founded in 1945. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 40% of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from publicly makingly offensive statements against minority groups, versus 24% of baby boomers. 

In contrast, in 2018, a majority of college students said that diversity and inclusivity was more important than free speech, that there should be punishments for people who make racist remarks, and safe spaces established on campuses. 

This is true for young Republicans as well: 70% say they need safe space on their campuses.

“Talk to college students, if you know any,” Rosen said. “The most deadly sin one can commit is to offend. Identity politics on college campuses has created hierarchies of oppression, which are rigidly enforced, and it’s unmoored from the complicated realities of how those people live.”

Rosen compared the experience of college students to those of “the shell-shocked soldier just navigating the minefield.” Students will equate certain ideas and phrases to physical violence, she said, and silence is another form of violence.

According to Rosen, this has brought about a misunderstanding about what it means to be tolerant.

“A tolerant person is someone who listens to things about which he or she might have personally disapproved,” Rosen said. “Tolerance is something one exercises from strength or character, not something they demand out of fear or seeking of power. It doesn’t prevent us from judging the behaviors or opinions of others. It simply insists that one accepts the reality that not everyone will always agree with you.”

As well as being an opinion writer, Rosen is a chair of the Colloquy on Knowledge, Technology & Culture at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her lecture, “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture,” was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Three theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.” At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14 in the Amphitheater, Rosen discussed the harm that shaming and cancelation has on discussion and society, and how social media fueled this culture. 

Rosen discussed those affected by the quick trigger of cancel culture. Former New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet was fired for publishing an article from Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, which Rosen said made other members of staff feel unsafe.

“So even if you accept that some of what’s happening here is a new form of accountability,” Rosen said, “this method of needing our justice and holding people to new norms builds to some of these long-term consequences of cancel culture.”

Alongside firing people who seem to have done nothing wrong, Rosen said, cancel culture — particularly self-censorship — undermines the First Amendment and self-expression. 

When Rosen says self-censorship, she does not mean when a person tells someone else a term makes them uncomfortable, and the other person listens and apologizes. 

“That’s civility. That’s conversation. That’s how we used to do things,” Rosen said. “Not always successfully.”

Christine Rosen, senior writer for Commentary, delivers her lecture “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Self-censorship refers to a person refraining from questioning an argument, or giving their side of it, in fear of being targeted. 

“There are certain times where you shouldn’t say everything that comes to your mind,” Rosen said. “But again, the rules can’t be made out of fear; they have to be made out of empathy.”

Rosen said people sometimes place morals unnecessarily onto conversations for self-promotion, such as a person posting on social media for likes and attention — but also as an “expression of dominance.”

“These people use moral talk to shame or silence others and to create fear,” Rosen said. “They verbally threaten and teach to humiliate — and humiliation, in particular, has a tendency that I think to be taking too much hold on our institutions, particularly politics.”

She blamed social media platforms, which prompt an “engagement by loudness” and reward younger people for tirades through likes and shares. 

“All of these platforms privilege immediate reactions, not contemplation,” Rosen said. “They encourage the development of an outer-directed self that becomes reliant on validation from others.”

She then gave the example of online quizzes, like “Which Harry Potter character are you?” or “What is your spirit animal?,” which Rosen said are harmless by themselves. But, she said these quizzes signaled to her that this generation, lacking a sense of who they are as people, look outside to find themselves. 

“The younger generations, who have been raised with smartphones and the internet, have also been raised to value speed and immediacy, which are the opposite (of) the kinds of things upon which communities and institutions need to grow,” Rosen said.

Duke University professor John Rose, an instructor at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, is one of the people standing up for the values of freedom of speech and expression. In a poll of his students at the beginning of the semester, Rose discovered that many shared the same problem of needing to self-censor, no matter their political party. One wrote that it was difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist at the university, and another said that though they agreed with most of the ideas of Black Lives Matter, they couldn’t have a conversation that lightly criticized the movement.

So Rose created rules in his classroom to ensure the safety of discussion, such as letting students talk about how they are no longer allowed to talk. Students would have no social or professional penalties for what they said in the classroom.

“That used to be something that goes without saying in the classroom,” Rosen said.

Rose indicted both political parties for the state of civil discussions in the classroom and the country: He blamed progressives and liberals, who dominate these institutions, for defending moves that suppress free speech; and he blamed conservatives for quickly writing off universities as “irredeemable bastions of progressive privilege.”

Rosen quoted Rose: “We’re all wrong. What we need to do is create these spaces where genuine debate can occur, and students can have disagreements in civil fashion.”

As part of the following Q-and-A session, Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer, asked Rosen if it was possible to argue that cancel culture has always existed — looking to McCarthyism as a prototype. 

“It is human instinct to ‘cancel’ one’s opponent, ideologically and politically,” Rosen said.

Rosen said society is talking about cancel culture more because social media is such a powerful tool, and institutions cave immediately to very small groups from within their own organizations.

Follansbee then asked Rosen when it is appropriate for social media to censor people. 

Rosen said she is fine with private companies, like Twitter and Facebook, censoring people.

“I think any of those platforms can ban anyone they want,” Rosen said. “What they can’t do is say that they are doing it out of either rules broken, principles crossed, and then not be consistent in their application.”

‘The time is now’: Media scholar Meredith Clark outlines need for reparative journalism



Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Meredith D. Clark was growing up, she wondered why newspaper photos of Black people always looked off. 

“I could never quite figure out why the newspaper couldn’t print more flattering photos of people who looked like me,” Clark said. “But then I began to work in the field.”

She later learned that it was because the industry used “Shirley Cards,” photos of white women that are routinely referenced to calibrate light, shadows and skin tones.

“Which means if you are darker, even if you are more pale, the camera doesn’t quite see you as you are seen. It doesn’t quite pick up on the intricacies of your appearance. Similarly, news media is calibrated this way,” said Clark, who previously was an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Virginia and was recently named associate professor at Northeastern University’s College of Art, Media and Design.  

A recent opinion piece by Brent Staples of The New York Times, titled “How The White Press Wrote Off Black America,” delves into how newsrooms have historically had primarily white, well-off reporters who targeted white, wealthy audiences. This lack of diversity caused wide gaps in coverage, such as a correction that ran on the front page of Clark’s own hometown newspaper when she had recently graduated college. 

It read: “It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”

“It was in this moment that I began to understand exactly why our preacher called the Herald-Leader the ‘Herald Misleader,’ and why my parents refused to subscribe,” Clark said.

She said journalism schools, which were also founded by white, land-owning men, always teach the importance of objectivity.

“How objective could it be, leaving out entire swaths of the American populace?” Clark said.

And she said this wasn’t just a journalism problem: Everyone has a role to play.

As well as being a professor, Clark is the author of DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of Cancel Culture. At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 13 in the Amphitheater as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, Clark explored the importance of reparative journalism, the role that Black women play in the movement, and ways society can move forward. The lecture, titled “The Time is Now,” was the second presentation of Week Three’s theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.”

Visionary, not reactionary, and grounded in the history of the ignored

Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Clark said she was radicalized on Jan. 6, 2021, when she saw the U.S. Capitol riots on TV. 

“Jan. 6, for an American, was one of the most difficult days of my life,” Clark said, “because it was the day that I learned that the principles that I had been taught my entire life could be for sale — that they were available for purchase to the highest bidder.”

And the highest bidder wasn’t the president or the rioters, Clark said. It was the news media.

“The news media … is subject to a cycle of 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making sure that there is something on the television, on our screens, in our newspapers that will keep us angry, afraid and on edge,” Clark said. “It took a while to recover from this hurt.”

What is needed and has been needed for a long time, she said, is reparative journalism: reporting that not only acknowledges the mistakes of the past, but actively repairs the gaps in coverage and treatment of underrepresented communities. She identified six key traits that journalism needs to strive for: It needs to be visionary, not reactionary; grounded in the history of the ignored; critically intentional, and comprehensive. It needs to find alternative funding and, what she said is usually the most controversial point, redistribute power.

In terms of the first two, Clark said journalists need to approach stories from a bottom-up mindset, interviewing those most affected first. She said that, currently, the trend in news media is to interview people in charge, and then slowly, if at all, move down the ladder of power.

“How do you begin to see the world differently when you look from underneath?” Clark said.

Journalism also needs to move away from reacting and waiting for events to happen, Clark said, and move toward actively seeking stories. 

“We know that there is plenty of uncovered news and information that the world needs to know,” Clark said. “That’s why we celebrate unknown stories and unknown histories when they come to light.”

Though there has been more of a push in recent years for more diverse newsrooms, people in power have known about this problem for decades. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a review of the dividing society in America. This report, called the Kerner Commission, found that “Our Nation is moving toward two separate societies, one white and one Black, separate and unequal.”

Clark said that the report also put much of the blame on the growing divide on the news media, not because it was sensationalizing or fear-mongering, but because “the news media simply did not have the depth of understanding that it needed to communicate to different sectors of society, what it was like to live outside of privilege.”

Critically intentional and alternative funding

Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Black women, Clark said, are at the center of the push toward reparative news and being critically intentional in order to better represent every part of society.

She defined many key features of Black feminism. Black feminists have historically been a part of an oppressed group, from journalism schools not admitting Black women until the 1950s to Black women, currently, having a disproportional amount of college loan debt.

“They were subjected to the same sort of oppression that white women experienced with the added layer of racism. … Black women experience disparities in terms of health care, maternal mortality, and even their opportunity to move in the ways that this country says we can be effective in terms of social mobility,” Clark said.

Another key point is that Black women are a diverse group with different beliefs, class, education and age. 

“I mentioned this to help us remember that when we see people from different backgrounds, who are held up as an exemplar of what the Black community is or does or what the LGBTQ community is or does, we have to remember that we are talking about a range of experiences — with some commonality,” Clark said.

Black feminists throughout history have found alternative ways of making progress, such as organizing child care during the civil rights movement so that people could attend protests and, now, utilizing hashtags on social media to spread information. 

And Clark said the journalism industry, like Black feminists, needs to find alternative ways to progress, especially when it comes to funding. With print advertising decreasing, local journalism shrinking and large corporations taking over small newspapers, she said, this is a large issue the industry is trying to address, and that she did not have the answer. 

Comprehensive work and redistributing power

In 2019, the Associated Press changed their stylebook to say that journalists could write that things were racist — something that was actively discouraged previously. It was a good first step toward reparative journalism, but more should be done, Clark said.

“It’s not enough to simply repair the surface issues. We must look beyond, into the wounds that have been leveraged against our respective communities and find what needs to be addressed,” Clark said.

As well as being comprehensive, Clark said reparative journalism requires a redistribution of power, not through violence, or even through one side losing, but simply by thinking about who is put at the center of stories. 

Clark said this is part of the hard work ahead, for journalists, executives, economists and readers. 

“Reparative journalism, like the struggles for freedom, for justice, for equality, is the work of generations,” Clark said. “It begins with us today. It continues long after we are gone, and I invite you to join us into this great work.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Clark to discuss the role of transparency in reparative journalism.

In a study Clark conducted in 2018, she talked to people in communities who didn’t pay attention to the news media.

“They said one of the reasons that they didn’t was because it was so artificial, that there was no transparency about how stories came to be,” Clark said.

She said readers want to know how the article was created, and for the writer to acknowledge their own biases. 

Ewalt then asked what the ideal structure for journalism could be.

Clark said that the perfect structure isn’t known yet. She said that the industry, as it currently exists, supports many jobs and families — so upending it isn’t realistic.

“We cannot wait for one system to become obsolete in order to take up this challenge. Some of that work has to begin where we are right now, and so there are pushes that are happening from inside the house that help with that regard,” Clark said. “I will never say that I see a singular model or a singular form for reparative journalism.”

Richard Edelman, creator of eponymous Trust Barometer, opens Week 3 by tracking trends in trust over past 20 years



CEO of global communications firm Edelman, Richard Edelman, during morning lecture on Monday July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

People’s trust can be viewed as a pyramid. Previously, said Richard Edelman, the government and those with power held the top as the most trusted. Now, it is flipped, as people turn more to those closest and share news articles with those in their political bubble.

So, Edelman, CEO of the global communications firm Edelman and the creator of the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey of trust in government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations, said businesses are now more trusted than governments — even in addressing systemic racism, climate change and health care reform.

On the most recent Barometer, business is 40 points more trusted in competence and 20 points more trusted in ethics than government.

“When the pandemic hit, the way we all absorbed this was (asking) which institution can actually make a difference and save us from this horrible scourge a year ago — the government?” Edelman said. “Well, the government failed us. The government failed in terms of getting vaccines to us at the right times. The government failed in terms of living up to its halo.”

Though businesses are seeing a rise in trust, society as a whole is also becoming more fearful.

“Every generation has felt that they can do better than what their parents did. It’s not true anymore,” Edelman said. “Fears have eclipsed optimism. They’ve made hope disappear and the pandemic is actually accelerating fears in general.”

Edelman has been at the forefront of mapping trends of people’s trust through the last 20 years, heading the eponymous global communications firm that his father founded in 1952. During his lecture “Recommitting to Trust” at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 12 in the Amphitheater, Edelman illustrated trends in national trust in different institutions — such as business and media — opening up the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.”

There are five key factors to build trust: ability, dependability, integrity, purpose and sense of self. In recent years, ability has been deemed less important, going from 75% of what determines trust, to 25%.

“It’s the dependability part that is the big question mark,” Edelman said. “Can I rely on these people to do what they say? Can I actually believe that they have integrity of their soul, as opposed to the next quarter’s earnings? Do they have a purpose?”

The Great Recession helped spark this change.

“The Great Recession really showed how empty the promise was to the 13 million Americans who took subprime debt and lost their houses,” Edelman said.

Richard Edelman delivers his morning lecture, “Recommitting to Trust,” to open Week Three’s theme on “Trust, Society and Democracy” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Many experts thought the economy would recover from the 2008 recession in three to four years, as it had from past recessions. Edelman said this wasn’t the case. Thirteen million people lost their homes, and the automobile industry took a large hit.

Edelman said the distrust in politicians shown during the Great Recession led to President Donald Trump’s election, showing that many voters were fed up with traditional politicians; and the Brexit referendum, that showed voters distrusted experts and were influenced by nationalist rhetoric. 

The government is doing better than the media, however, in terms of trust — traditional media has the lowest score among all the institutions Edelman tracks, including government, business and NGOs. News organizations are facing a multipronged threat, including society’s heavy dependence and distrust of social media and many platforms’ “bubble-like” nature, meaning people only share articles with others that agree with them.

“The perception is that the media is biased, that it’s chasing clicks, that it’s desperately clinging for attention. That’s a dysfunctional relationship with its customer,” Edelman said. “It’s not really serving its customer. It’s serving its customer candy.”

To rebuild trust, Edelman said, people are going to have to be brave, speak their grievances, and admit they are wrong or don’t know all the answers. He also said that there is value in talking about uncomfortable history, such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Edelman believes that stories like these should be taught in schools because acknowledging and sharing the truth is essential in repairing trust.

Richard Edelman delivers his morning lecture, “Recommitting to Trust,” to open Week Three’s theme on “Trust, Society and Democracy” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Edelman said he is an optimist by nature, and that two-thirds of people polled by the Barometer this year believe that the future will be better after COVID-19.

“Tomorrow demands trust,” Edelman said. “We have work to do to get there.”

During the subsequent Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked why Edelman started the annual Trust Barometer.

Edelman said it became apparent that a marker of trust was needed. He said he saw shifts in trust throughout the country during U.S. globalization in the ’90s, and later during the Iraq War and Great Recession.

“A lot of our illusions have been smashed, and we demand answers,” Edelman said. “Well, we should.” 

Hill asked how people can move away from tribal impulses. 

“I just think we need to have a bit more bravery,” Edelman said, “and stop going to our little opinion bubbles, and stop being self-referential and recognize that the other side probably has some valid points.”

He also stressed the importance of listening, especially from those in power.

“We should listen more and not just talk,” Edelman said. “The more senior we are, the more we should listen.”

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