Opinion guest column

Response to Jeremy Poindexter: On conversation

The core civic value

I have the pleasure of knowing Jeremy, and we generally feel the same way about many issues. However, in some places we would disagree on the specifics or at least place different importance on various aspects of a topic, which is a good thing for our conversations.

Generally my problem with, “Are we ready to commit?” is that everyone will answer yes to that question, but at the same time, no one will commit. Even when we know what is in our best interest, we often take actions that are antithetical towards reaching our goals. That’s human nature. A real simple example would be eating junk food even when you’ve expressed a desire to have a more healthy diet. But this list extends to saving for retirement or even deciding what car to buy; I recommend reading Nudge.

Here is what I will commit to; I’m committed to good conversation. Only one thing is necessary for good conversation: try to prove yourself wrong. Find the weak points in your beliefs. DO NOT attempt to reinforce your beliefs.

Conversation is the missing element for sustainable human progress. I haven’t heard/had a real conversation on diversity, climate or mental health at MIT, which worries me. Maybe everyone is on the same page and we assume it’s all taken care of. “More diversity,” “stop climate change,” “improve mental health.” Everyone knows the right answers. But the devil really is in the details. Jeremy brings up points where MIT is not achieving certain goals, though we both know MIT shares those goals. That’s why the heart of the problem must be in the details of achieving those goals. Getting into the weeds is not fun.

Here are some of my brief thoughts on the issues. Remember that I’m not right, but neither are you. If all goes well, through conversation we will both get to a better understanding.

Diversity — I understand the main draw of diversity, and I am not against diversity. I just have no idea what success in diversity looks like. Are there specific demographic targets to reach? Or is is success more complex than that? Is diversity achieved when there are more people like me, or is it when there are fewer like me? What are the most important dimensions of diversity?

Diversity would be a result of an equitable system. But I’m not sure that increasing diversity is the same as making a system more equitable. A lack of diversity feeds into the system, perpetuating a lack of inclusion, but diversity still seems more like a symptom and less like a root cause of inequity. I don’t know of any MIT policies that unintentionally reduce diversity — there would be none that do so intentionally.

Climate — This is the big one. In case you didn’t know, this is the most difficult challenge humans have ever faced. If you want a purpose in life, work on solving climate change. Jeremy mentions Harvard’s commitment to be fossil-free by 2050 and carbon-neutral by 2026 as a great success. However, MIT seems to be on par with Harvard in current GHG reductions. Plus it’s not a competition; everyone has to do their part. MIT’s innovative power purchase agreement flew under most people’s radar last year, but is hugely significant model for how less powerful groups can coordinate to make large investments in sustainable energy. Also noteworthy that the investment was in a region with much dirtier grid energy than MA, which makes a more significant impact on the environment.

Institutions can’t turn on a dime, and change will take time. And it is so convenient to sit back and wait for MIT to solve our problems. I wonder about learned helplessness surrounding individual responsibility in climate change. We’re conditioned to think that our personal choices make little impact and that this problem can only be solved by big institutions. You try to be green, but it puts a large burden on your life compared to your peers. I’ve tried and failed many times at small changes towards living sustainably. I’ve stopped using disposable containers and cutlery, stopped eating meat, all on and off. The burden is more social than physical. We tend to minimize how hard it is to swim against the current. We’d like to think we’re all perfect nonconformists, but actually conformity is part of our psychology. What stops me from eating out of a tupperware? Nothing. Except basically no one else does it. Something doesn’t feel right.

I want to change the man in the mirror. The ubers we take, the water we waste, the meat we eat, the factory farms, the monocultures. It adds up. I don’t think we should go back to being hunter-gatherers, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Our quality of life costs energy. If you live in MA, you’re lucky; we have a relatively clean electrical grid through probably no work of our own. Assuming unlimited clean energy is available, I would still like to know what a modest life consists of? Is having a modest life a core value for American citizens?

Here is one change I would like to see MIT dining make: Serve meat only three days of the week. Baby steps.

Mental Health — MIT seems to take this seriously and pours huge resources into this area, as they should. Still, students seem unsatisfied, though I’m admittedly not informed enough on the specific grievances or their validity. What I do know is that it is really taboo to talk about this stuff. I’ve maybe had one conversation about suicide in my entire time here. I agree with Jeremy that most students struggle with the work-life balance, but it certainly runs deeper than “microaggressions.” There are internal and external reasons for that. One external reason is the rapidly-changing technological environment. We’re starting to notice that social technology enables as many harmful behaviors as it does beneficial ones. An internal reason is that students’ success and happiness goals are not well aligned. Getting good grades, high paying jobs, whatever thing you want, won’t bring lasting happiness.

There is more to say on each of those topics, but this essay is about the importance of conversation. To cement that point further, I’ve written out my thought process in steps. I expect these steps to resonate with most people.

  1. I’m not perfect

  2. Some of my held beliefs must be wrong

  3. I can become better if I correct wrongly held beliefs

  4. Identify my erroneous beliefs

    1. Find people who disagree with my beliefs

    2. Discuss varying viewpoints with others

  5. Repeat 4

I think most of us walking around are sure that we don’t know everything, but we’re also sure that what we know is true. This is certainly one of our society’s biggest faults. Everyone walks around in the echo chamber. As much as we’d like to admonish the other side — the “other” — we are just like them — never questioning ourselves, never doubting that we’re right.   

My name is Stephen Filippone. I’m a third year PhD student in materials science. I’m committed to becoming a better citizen.

Stephen Filippone is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science.