A Special Assembly Address by Jeff Hooper
One of the perks of my job is to run assemblies on Fridays, which means I get to choose what we talk about and reflect upon together. Sometimes I get a little bit preachy, and today is one of those days. I would like to talk to you about a collective ambition that I think we should embrace, why it’s an impractical and naive goal, and why we should pursue it anyway.
The ambition is this: to construct a community that is free from interpersonal harm. That sounds a little jargony, so first, I want to define what I mean by interpersonal harm. It is a range of actions and words whose impact is to hurt, diminish, marginalize, exploit, or dominate others. This can be egregious or subtle. It’s bullying and racial stereotyping, name calling and sexual assault. It’s hazing and objectification, snide comments and physical violence. It’s both micro and macro and can be face-to-face, behind someone’s back, or online. Regardless of when, where, or how it happens, it is of concern to our entire community because when we tolerate or ignore these kinds of harms, we are all diminished, individually and collectively.
Although I disagree with this notion, and I’ll explain why later, some may believe it’s foolish to think we can be a community free from interpersonal harm. First, there is the entire scope of human history, which could be cynically but defensibly understood as a history of interpersonal harm. Further, we operate in the context of today’s polarized public discourse, which basically has interpersonal harm baked into its assumptions. Finally, despite our noble purpose and core values, we know that our own Thacher history includes many instances of interpersonal harm, often predicated on the abuse of power and privilege—the power of being an adult, the power of being white, the power of being male, or simply the power of social capital. If this ambition were easily realized, we’d have figured it out by now.
But I would encourage us to think about it a little differently. Interpersonal harm is born of three things: a lack of concern for others, ignorance, and cowardice. Understanding this is reason for hope. First, concern for others is both the price and the benefit of membership in the Thacher community. Whatever your role here, in joining this close community you implicitly promise to have concern for all other members of the community, and you are granted the same in return. That doesn’t mean you have to like every other person here, but it does mean you have to care about them. It’s hard to do this at scale, but it’s one of the reasons that we are intentionally small. Further, as an institution, our entire purpose is education, and we strive to inspire and summon courage in ourselves and each other. So interpersonal harm is not some inevitable world (or Thacher) order, rather it’s the product of choices—some big but most small.
So how do those daily choices, even those that may seem small, help perpetuate interpersonal harm in our community? They show up as sexist jokes unchallenged, a casual comment that perpetuates a racist stereotype, a social media post that marginalizes a group, and when a leader chooses political expediency or comfort over principle. These acts are not inevitabilities, they are choices; it’s not the human condition, it’s moments of weakness, ignorance, and cowardice.
It’s reasonable to suggest that, given the scope and scale of this challenge, it makes more sense to focus on the most serious kinds of interpersonal harm. Indeed, lots of rules, policies, and laws are designed to deter and/or punish such offenses. But we do well to remember that those most egregious acts rest on a foundation that tolerates more subtle offenses. Thus, we should strive to confront this issue at its roots.
To be a community free from interpersonal harm must be a forever ambition. Although not easy to achieve, it is essential—and especially urgent for people like me, whose identities have been privileged here and elsewhere for a long time—that we strive for it together.
Schools are places for idealism, and our scale, purpose, and interconnectedness are advantages in achieving this goal, so I invite you to embrace this mandate and join me in the noble quest to create and steward a community free from interpersonal harm.
Jeff Hooper is the Interim Head of School for Thacher.