Yo Yo Ma to students: You have witnessed power and abuse

From the cellist’s commencement address to Dartmouth College:

I’m sure that in the course of your lifetime, including the last four years, you have witnessed power and its abuse. When you were young, you probably saw it on the playground. You’ve seen it on this campus. We certainly have all seen it in our nation, and around the world.

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen too many people make decisions that put themselves before their community, before society, before the health of our planet. I’ve seen too many people who choose to build walls rather than bridges.

Sometimes it’s because of the arrogance of their certitude, or because of simple, blissful unawareness. Sometimes it’s because of their ego, or self-deception, and sometimes it’s a deliberate act of revenge. Other times, it’s the primal, addictive pursuit of conquest—conquest of all kinds.

What’s worse is that we come up with a lot of excuses for this behavior. We tell ourselves that we’re making decisions based on efficiency, on the balance sheet, on superior intelligence or unique talent and understanding. We tell ourselves it’s for the protection of our tribe or our trade. But by reducing decisions to these standards, we are forgetting about the empathy we are born with, about the trust others have put in us, and about the obligations to one another as human beings.

That is why culture is so important. Culture resists reduction and constantly reminds us of the beautiful complexities that humans are made of, both individually and collectively. The stories we tell; the music we make; the experiments and buildings we design. Everything that helps us to understand ourselves, to understand one another, to understand our environment—culture.

But, it’s not just the culture we learn about in textbooks or see in a museum. It’s the arts and sciences; all the different disciplines that ask us to try, to trust, and to build. It’s culture that inspires deep learning and curiosity, that makes us want to seek the universal principles that drive everything.
 

Full text here.

 

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  • Jaime Herrera says:

    Ma should get together with the pope – the pope can tell him a thing or two about walls and power – very thick walls and very great power.

  • Ricardo says:

    Excellent speech. Thank you Yoyo and thank you NL for posting.

  • Marguerite Scheepbouwer says:

    “gems” from YoYoMa– a load of patronizing, vapid rubbish.

  • Nick says:

    Would be very beneficial to ALL when and if the celebrities, no matter which field, would STICK TO THEIR DIRECT BUSINESS, something that they know, talent (or none of it) that they were blessed with from Above, and not venture into politics or social justice/injustice issues. Nothing is more dividing people than this ridiculous and, frankly, plain stupid interference, be it Alyssa Milano, Cher, Streisand or Yo Yo Ma. Stick to your damn business folks, don’t muddy the waters. You are no gods, and even less of politicians!

  • Amos says:

    Can’t wait to read the tweet from the White House. He’s a loser, he’s low IQ, doesn’t even play golf… Then again the subject being a cultural ambassador and Harvard grad I’m quite certain he’ll escape notice. Timely address.

  • Wladek says:

    Typical hogwash speech given at all these events.
    It is interesting to note how cleverly he as usual makes
    this about himself in brining along the cello. Now all can
    go home feeling good.

  • Freddynyc says:

    No shortage of irony in his statement given that his mentor was Isaac Stern……

  • Gustavo says:

    Yo Yo Ma says “That is why culture is so important. Culture resists reduction and constantly reminds us of the beautiful complexities that humans are made of, both individually and collectively. The stories we tell; the music we make; the experiments and buildings we design. Everything that helps us to understand ourselves, to understand one another, to understand our environment—culture.
    But, it’s not just the culture we learn about in textbooks or see in a museum. It’s the arts and sciences; all the different disciplines that ask us to try, to trust, and to build. It’s culture that inspires deep learning and curiosity, that makes us want to seek the universal principles that drive everything.”

    Beautiful speech – just one problem, there’s no mention of God or some divine being or book(s) that gives us an objective morality of how to act and conduct our lives. For all the beautiful and brilliant music there is in Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and all the other great composers and all the beauty there is in learning instruments and playing and perfecting and sharing it with others there’s nothing in the music itself that tells me how to lead my life or how to be a good person. In fact a lot of musicians and music professors and music teachers I’ve encountered in my life were pretty horrible, selfish, and haughty people. The only good thing I can say is that when we play music we keep ourselves out of trouble (for the most part). Nazi Germany had the most advanced culture of science and the arts in the world at that time and still descended to the most horrific depths of human depravity. So there’s got to be more than culture that will tell people not to abuse their power. I don’t think people are born basically good, we are all really out for ourselves, it’s our human nature. We need something objective to tell how how to treat each other fairly and not take advantage of each other. And it has to be objective otherwise we can always bend or justify it to suit our own circumstances. Sure we have laws of our respective countries that we need to abide by but we also need a guide to interpersonal relationships and how to treat each other. So I think Yo Yo is missing a much bigger picture here.

    • Hmus says:

      It’s best virtue is that it does not mention a God. If, inorder to behave well to your fellow beings, you need to be either threatened with damnation or bribed with Eternal Life, it does not speak well for your character.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed.

        The nazi horrors are in the same category of the horrors committed by ‘religiously inspired people’ both in history and in the world of today. The good side of human nature is implied in the arts – the real arts, and not explicitly screamed right into your face. If there is a god, ‘it’ influences human nature indirectly and not through fixed religious texts which have been written by people anyway. In the reality of life, moral laws are learned through experience, not through instruction.

        • Jedidiah says:

          Many many many more people have died in atheistic societies than religious ones. I think the Jews have an incredible tradition passed through their generations in centuries and millennia that prove their Hebrew bible is divine. God’s revelation to the Jews on mount Sinai was in front of a nation of more than a million people. No other religion claims that. That they have survived through so much persecution with their Bible and Talmud intact is truly one of the great wonders of our world. No wonder they are hated so much , they brought the idea of a God we cannot see who is the creator of everything and the objective moral arbiter of truth and justice. People do not even want the Jews to have a homeland to call their own. The one indivisible God of the Israelites more powerful and beyond our understanding is a threat to many people who want to do what they want to do without consequence.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Actually, the Jews claiming a divine covenant from God are not unique. This is how most members of religious communities think of their religion (at least historically).

            Just one example: in ancient Greece, the definition of who counted as Greek were those people who were allowed to participate in Greek religious festivals.

      • Potiphara says:

        OK fine then why have laws at all in our society?
        Maybe a good number of us would treat each other well but history shows that others will take advantage and use their power to oppress. Our laws threaten us with punishment if we steal, cheat or kill. They threaten to take away our freedom if we break them and promise us a good life if we keep them, not much different than the person following God’s laws and commandments because he’s afraid of punishment or wants to be rewarded with a long life. The laws of our society may not act as a deterrent to the most criminal among us but they do to the average person considering acting on a dark impulse. And even in situations where there is no law to be broken, for instance I don’t legally have to stand and give my seat to an elderly person with a cane on the bus or train yet most will agree it’s the right and moral thing to do. Yet what if I’ve had an exhausting day and I’m just not feeling like giving that old lady my seat no matter how frail she looks. I think a book like the Bible that commands us to to stand for an elderly person even when we are tired reveals itself as the superior system to support a just society otherwise without God we can just act subjectively in every situation to suit ourselves.

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      “there’s no mention of God or some divine being or book(s) that gives us an objective morality of how to act and conduct our lives.”

      God doesn’t give us an objective morality. It’s just one person’s, or three persons’, preferences.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Well, the man is right.

  • liene says:

    ‘Don’t abuse power’?…
    But he only seems to find ivy league students worth talking too because he deeply believes in class, he believes in the inherent superiority of coastal elites. ‘Build walls not bridges’… Yeah for the Dartmouth future technocrats this means self rightousness gesturing, for the non ivy-league class this means your labor becomes valueless due to globalization. Just look how he constantly speaks to the elite classes in a way that presupposes how morally superior they are.
    BTW, nice apple watch he’s wearing, probably made by a slave in china. Well, when it comes to politics, he appears to be just another Clinton era dinosaur speaking in cliches. It’s time to move on because this kind of speech and politics will not beat trump, but will just continue to fan the flames of the right wing wave currently overtaking the west.

    • John Borstlap says:

      To move on to – what? Nationalism, extremism, provincialism? With artists locked-up in silence? More jungle mentality?

  • Simon says:

    Then reduce your performance fee! You know, for the greater good of humanity. No? Didn’t think so.

  • Anon says:

    Good for Yo Yo for highlighting the elephant in the room for many professional orchestras. Especially the London ones where bullying is at an all time high, resulting in resignations and early retirement.

    • Rgiarola says:

      I agree with you on it, dear Anon. Sarcastically accurate. Sometimes, I still feel as the old sherrif Georgiadis is still around saying “You are not that good, watch your step!” to Giulini. Lololololo

  • Petros Linardos says:

    The interesting part of Yo Yo Ma’s speech is not in the excerpt quote above, but in tribute to Pablo Casals, and the way the great cellist lived his life.

  • Guest says:

    Excellent and timely message from a true humanitarian.

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