The Great Hall Gets a Little Truth

By Evan Bubiak (ME ’21)

Last Monday, on the eve of the inauguration of President Laura Sparks, Cooper students, along with invitees from the Aspen Institute and Public Theater, filled up the Great Hall for an evening of truth.

If you’ve been to a Great Hall event, you’ve doubtlessly heard the familiar riff about Cooper being the cradle of powerful, righteous movements, from abolition to women’s suffrage, giving a platform to transformative Americans from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. In celebration of Laura Sparks’ official inauguration, and its theme “truth,” a series of performances, followed by a talk from Michael Sandel, a prominent guest speaker and professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, took place in the Great Hall.

The evening’s works were parceled out between satire, as in humorous readings of Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” and Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”. “When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be truth. For the bullshitter, however, all those bets are off—he is neither on the side of truth nor lies… he is a greater enemy of the truth than lies.”

Sandel’s lecture, or rather conversation with the audience, was the highlight of the evening. “Truth is in trouble, and so is democracy,” he began. “People have the feeling that there is a troubling connection between the two… we are losing hold of the distinction between what is true and what is not. We have a president with a difficult relationship to truth, and growing skepticism about science and the evidence it offers… We worry that in a culture of lies and alternative facts we may even, if we are not careful, be opening the way to tyranny. It weighs like a dark cloud above our politics today.

But then he shifted the tone, asking the audience a seemingly simple question: Is truth all it’s cracked up to be?—and then challenging the audience with several classic scenarios, such as an axe murderer looking for your friend hiding in your house, or the case of a technical truth meant to deceive, such as Bill Clinton’s infamous claim that he did not have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky as President.

Sandel wrapped up the evening with an examination of society’s willingness to believe lies that make them feel better—whether it is platitudes, like “the good guys always win,” or the fighting spirit encouraged in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which a performer of the Public Theater had just sang to the audience. “Truth is more than fact checking,” Sandel closed. “And politics is about rhetoric, the power to persuade people.” ◊

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