The most uncouth criticism of an individual that I have heard at the United Nations in my time there this summer was spoken during the opening session of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development on July 9 at the United Nations headquarters.
This criticism came from Mr. Alex Steffen, a “planetary futurist”1, “eco-crusader,”2 writer, speaker, and consultant with interest in sustainability and social innovation. He has “advised institutions, investors, philanthropists, and NGOs,” according to his website.1
Mr. Steffen, a keynote speaker in the opening session, discussed solutions to the issue of sustainability, with a main point that the speed of advancement towards sustainability is of the utmost importance.3 He then gave a statement which caught my special attention.
“Failure is possible here. Some say it’s likely. I don’t believe that, because I think that as we see these solutions accelerating we are also seeing the acceleration of political will. Don’t let what is happening in my country fool you. Donald Trump is not the future, Donald Trump is a road bump.”3*
I suddenly realized that Mr. Steffen had just called his own President a “road bump” in front of the entire world at the United Nations Headquarters.
At the end of his speech, Mr. Steffen asked listeners to “pardon [him] for speaking just plainly and from [his] heart,” but he did not seem perturbed by his unnecessarily disrespectful and distasteful comment.
Most certainly, Mr. Steffen and all Americans have the right to criticize the government, to hold government officials accountable, to call out injustices when they see them, to speak up for what they believe, and to encourage our government to fight for what is right. These are necessary and vital features of democracy and crucial for protecting freedoms.
However, none of those freedoms necessitate disrespect or rash statements towards another person. If someone desires international change, the way to accomplish that is not to drag one’s own country or leader through the mud in front of the world. Problems should be identified, even in front of other countries if necessary for accountability, but that does not have to occur in a manner of utter disregard for the humanity of the speaker. Mr. Steffen, let’s remember that the country whose leader you are publicly denigrating on a world stage is the one which gave you the freedom to sit on the podium and speak “from your heart” in the first place.
This is not an issue because of who is in office – whether we are talking about a Democratic President, Republican President, or a person mopping the floor of the White House, all human beings deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of power or position. A powerful position does not make a person immune to humanity.
All human beings deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of power or position.
I pray we find America, her people, and her problems worth more than witty slander. My hope is that we can have productive conversations with equal weight given to calling out issues and to presenting solutions.
The event caused me to reflect on my own way of viewing the humanity around me. One thing I have had to remind myself many times while living life in New York City is that people are not obstacles. Those around me have souls, just like I do. As I am attempting to return home after a long day at work, or on the 4th of July when the entire subway platform is packed shoulder to shoulder, or in a line at Trader Joe’s so long that people shop from the shelves as they wait, or even just trying to squeeze by someone – I must remind myself that every one of those people is a human being with their own agenda and timetable. They have dreams and goals and hopes for the future, just like I do. They have somewhere to be and people who love them waiting on them, too.
People are not obstacles. Those around me have souls, just like I do.
The other weekend, one of my best friends came to the city to visit me. Her cousin joined us while we waited for their train at Penn Station. A gentleman approached us asking for money, and my reaction was to ignore him. My friend’s cousin said something afterwards that struck me – she said she has found that people begging for money appreciate when she makes eye contact and says no to them. I was immediately convicted. At first, it surprised me that even what would seem to be a negative interaction (refusing to give money) would be appreciated. However, her point was that completely ignoring the homeless or those who beg for money dehumanizes them, while looking them in the eyes and saying “no, thank you” at the very least acknowledges their humanity. Such a simple gesture, but so meaningful. My heart was softened, and I pray I may do better at spreading love and respecting the humanity of those around me going forward.
From the world stage to the street corner, every single person on this earth was created by God and made in His Image. From the very smallest, most humble child to the most powerful world leader, let us recognize and respect the souls around us. And please, Mr. Steffen, kindly refrain from calling anyone a piece of pavement in the future. Respect will generate much greater returns towards a better future for our planet.
(*Mr. Steffen’s entire speech is accessible here via UN Web TV at approx. 59:16:00 into the recording of the opening session, with the quoted segment occurring at approx. 1:06:20).
- “About.” Alex Steffen, http://www.alexsteffen.com/about.
- “Biography: Alex Steffen.” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/05/04/steffen.biog/.
- “Opening.” High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, United Nations, 9 July 2018, United Nations Headquarters Conference Room 4, New York, NY. Conference Main Session Presentation.
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