The Public Intellectual as Poet: A Conversation with Margaret Somerville, part I

Stretching the imagination of a secular society.
September 3 rd 2015
How many scholars require RCMP escorts when giving a speech? Margaret Somerville’s career as a public intellectual is an illustration of Richard Weaver’s maxim that ideas have consequences. In this remarkable conversation about communicating ideas in public, Somerville and Comment editor James K.A. Smith talk about the imagination, Leonard Cohen, medical ethics, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and how she communicates with her cat, Didjeridon’t.

JS: When I look over your body of work, it’s interesting to me how much attention to language is a persistent theme. In a way, you point out that our culture wars are often word wars about who gets to name what, because naming defines and claims in some sense. You often mention the way that a secular society lacks words. We lack a vocabulary to preserve dignity or community. Is that part of what compels you as a writer, then?

MS: Well, Jamie, if I could have been what I really wanted to be, my number-one choice was to be a poet. I do write poetry, and I have an American poet friend who kindly looks over my poems and critiques them. Now I didn’t go that track, but I think that in my writing I don’t inhibit my imaginative projection. I’ve come to the conclusion that people who have values like I do, and like you do, we haven’t moved our language sufficiently to show that what we’re talking about is actually a support and expansion of what I’d call the human spirit. And it’s not just a restrictive, negative, “you can’t do this,” “everything is bad” approach to living life but is meant to help us to do so as fully and richly as possible.

A big theme of my work at the moment is this search for how can we get people to have experiences of amazement, wonder, and awe no matter what their values or worldviews are—whether they’re religious or not, and if they’re religious, whichever religion. How can we interpret that experience such that we adopt an ethic that respects not only what we know, but perhaps even more importantly, the vast universe of the unknown, what we don’t know?

That’s why I talk about our fear of mystery. In a way, you have to have a certain comfort and respect for mystery to be able to enter into that experience of amazement, wonder, and awe and to participate in it. What I’m looking for—although it’s a funny word, because it makes you think about fairies at the bottom of the garden—but what I want is what I’d call a “re-enchantment” of the world. It’s a feeling of peace, of a certain very special kind of joy, of being one with everything around you, especially living things, of having this concurrent perception that you are this tiny little nothing existing in only a minute fraction of historical time and yet you are enormously important and unique. It’s all of those things.

This is what I try to get at with my concept of “the purple pink middle.”

JS: What do you mean by that?

MS: I developed this in a convocation address at a university where I was getting an honorary degree. I try to convey to young people how absolutely extraordinarily important these experiences and perceptions are. I called the convocation speech, “Spacing Out and Spacing In, Searching for the Purple Pink Middle.” Spacing out was what we’ve learned from outer space and astrophysics and cosmology. Spacing in is what we’ve learned through genetics, molecular biology. If you look at how much our spectrum of knowledge has expanded, it’s absolutely mind-blowing. This should make us acutely aware that there is a vast unknown; I call it the “mystery of the unknown,” which we need to respect in living our lives.

So then, in order to do that, I encouraged the graduating students to search for “the purple pink middle” because purple pink is actually the colour of the imagination. If you go to the Epcot Center at Disneyland, in the Kodak Pavilion there is a pavilion of the imagination. At least there was. I don’t know whether there still is. But it was done in purple pink, and that’s where I got the idea about how could I use that colour to deliver the idea I was trying to communicate.

In our debates or our disagreements or our discussions, we tend to construe matters as black and white. What we’re probably almost always searching for some accommodation. But then if you look for where that accommodation will be when you’ve got black and white poles, it’s in grey, the color of depression. Whereas if you make the poles red and blue—most people don’t care if they’re red or blue—then what’s the color that would result from an acceptable accommodation to both sides? It’s purple pink. The accommodation is the product of imagination—as well of course of all our other important ways of human knowing. I’m trying to think of ways that I can talk to people and put them in contact with what I feel we all need for living a fully human life. I think that’s what people are looking for and are not sure they can find.

JS: What’s the receptivity to that? Even if we live in a naturalized universe, nobody really wants a disenchanted one, right? They look for all these alternative enchantments, in a way. The imagination is obviously also an ongoing theme here. You’re basically trying to invite people to imagine their world anew, but in doing so, you’re tapping into some sort of inchoate and tacit longing, it seems to me, which is why then you need language that has almost a poetic flavour about it, that’s not just didactic and instructive.

MS: Yes. I think this idea of longing is very important, because I think the longing is associated very strongly with a search for meaning and a feeling of a loss of meaning.

JS: Do you ever worry, then, that a society could lose the capacity to even hear the meaning of these words? I think it’s in the beginning of Death Talk, you say, “I worry that our society has even lost the ability to imagine community or the common good.” I was thinking about Wittgenstein’s quip that even if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him. I wonder if you ever feel like a lion speaking.

MS: Actually, I don’t agree with Wittgenstein because I understand my Siamese cat. Seriously, I tell Didji (his name is Didjeridon’t) . . . I say, “Didji, I wish I could speak cat or you could speak English.” Even so, even though we speak two different languages, he can definitely tell me what he wants and what he’s upset about and what I’ve done wrong. He’s got a range of communications. A meow is not just a meow.

JS: That conviction, then, gives you a certain degree of hope, even in a society that maybe has lost a lot of the scaffolding to make sense of these words. You feel as though there’s probably always something enduring there that you could reactivate in the language that might wake people up to remember, or something like that.

MS: On the first page of Bird on an Ethics Wire, my new book, I was going to quote a few lines of Leonard Cohen’s song [“Bird on the Wire”], which was not the inspiration for the title. It only came to me much later that the song’s lyrics could echo with the book. I wrote to the Leonard Cohen copyright people and they went ballistic and told me that I shouldn’t call the book Bird on an Ethics Wire and that they would not give permission to quote his song unless I changed the title of the book. I took out the few lines and didn’t make any reference to Leonard Cohen, and they said they were satisfied.

JS: What do you make of their reaction?

MS: I think they were terrified of being associated with me, which partly answers your question about what happens when you’re a public intellectual, so-called.

MS: In Cohen’s song, he says, “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I’ve tried in my way to be free.” I talk in the book about how a bird often represents a longing to be free for somebody who feels imprisoned in some way. And in a way, I think our society is imprisoned in materialism and consumerism. I think there’s a longing to be free of that, but people are frightened of doing it because we’d been given such a grounding—we’ve got to make sure we’re going to be okay when we retire and that we’ve got money, and we’re fearful about another depression and such. People are losing their jobs, and there’s a huge transition going on, and great uncertainty about even what you can get as a job because of the impact of technology, so we’re in a major societal transition and as a result personal ones.

In a way, paradoxically, you are more in need of deep traditional roots when that’s true than when it’s not true. You can afford to play around on the margins with, for instance, musing about whether to change our shared foundational values when the base is solid. When the base is fluid, as it is at present, you have to take that into account and be more careful—you’ve always got to balance that off: The more fluidity you’ve got in your base, the stronger the structure you need to help you to navigate any change safely.

JS:That’s why I think you suggest in the new book that, in a way, people might not even realize they’re longing for “fettered freedom.” The longing for freedom that characterized the prior generation was still living off the borrowed capital of certain traditions and inheritances. In a generation in which all of that is lost, what we might not realize is we are looking for that anchor, that foundation, that solidity, to be free. Not to reimprison ourselves.

MS: In a way, Jamie, if you look at people in the 1950s and 60s—and you look at that as the start of the postmodern values transition—they could afford to play around in the imaginative sphere because they still had that base. But generations since have managed to deconstruct that.

JS: This raises interesting questions about the role of the public intellectual. What do you make of your reception, then? You’re deeply motivated by convictions about human nature and helping people to realize flourishing by learning something about who we are. How then do you deal with folks who don’t want to hear it and the resistance you’ve experience?

MS: Well, Jamie, I don’t know if you know the whole story. Again, there’s a paradox. Because I was against same-sex marriage, the gay community in Canada went absolutely ballistic about me. Prior to my “coming out,” as it were, I’d been invited to give the 2006 Massey Lectures, which are a renowned lecture series in Canada. Then in 2006 I was offered an honorary doctor of science degree at Ryerson University, which is a very avant-garde university in Toronto. A whole lot of the academics at Ryerson were outraged, as was the gay community in Canada, and they tried everything to stop the university from conferring this degree on me. It became a national front-page issue. In a Saturday issue of the Globe and Mail, the whole of the editorial column had a title that said, "How Ryerson Failed Margaret Somerville." The Globe was unflinchingly and strongly pro-same-sex marriage, but it said, “This is a disgrace that because somebody has an opposite view, that there would be this sort of harassment.”

For the actual ceremony, they wouldn’t let me walk in the academic procession because they were worried for my safety. I had a security car. I was booked into a hotel away from the university under another name. They asked me whether after the degree had been conferred, I would leave the ceremony and my response was, “What do the honorary degree recipients usually do?” They said, “They usually stand on the stage with the president and shake hands with every graduate.” I said, “Well, that’s what I’m going to do,” which of course worried them. They told me that the security people had done a threat assessment, and they’d asked if I’d wear flat shoes in case I had to run.

JS: My goodness.

MS: Anyway, we get to the ceremony and I join the procession from an underground entrance at the place it enters into the auditorium. We go up onto the stage and all the faculty are sitting behind me, and then they get to conferring the honorary degree, and with that, about a third of the faculty on the stage behind me had brought in under their gowns rolled-up rainbow flags. They took the rainbow flags out, and they turned their backs to the audience and held up the rainbow flags.

Nevertheless, the president conferred the degree, and then I was to give the convocation speech. I walked over to the podium and suddenly, from upstairs . . . There were, I believe, about three thousand people in the auditorium, and I was told there were something like thirty-five television cameras. I was national news. The paradox is they couldn’t have done anything better to make me “famous”—or as they would see it infamous! Anyway, I walk up to the microphone and with that, from upstairs, this very loud male voice rings out in the dead silence: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” With that, this shush started on the right-hand side of the auditorium, and it went like a wave, an increasingly loud wave across the audience from one side to the other. It lasted quite a long time. Also, there were people doing a research project that involved recording how much applause each honorary graduate got when the degree was conferred, and they told me afterward, I think it was three times more than any other single person had received.

Those are important lessons because what they mean is that there’s a huge silent majority out there. Those people might not have agreed with me about same-sex marriage, but they agreed that I had the right to say what I honestly believe and that’s what’s important.

Anyway, I started my speech and I’d decided to use this concept, which I’m sure you know, of “moral regret”—that when you have to do something because you think it’s ethically or morally required but you know it’ll hurt somebody. You don’t say, well, I don’t care about that hurt. You say, well, yes, I know I’ve got to do this, but I regret the hurt it will cause you. I started the lecture by saying, “Over the last while I know that a lot of you have been very distressed by all the fuss that has surrounded my receiving this degree and that some of you have been hurt by my views on same-sex marriage. Although I must stand by what I believe to be ethically required, I deeply regret the hurt this has caused you”. Also, I was worried not to make it a horrible graduation for the people whose only graduation it’s going to be. Anyway, the next day, the Globe and Mail wrote this up and said, “Margaret Somerville was a class act.”

JS: Beautiful.

MS: You see, I think what we have to do is, we have to have authenticity and integrity. You can’t stay stuff you don’t believe just to not cause a fuss. At the same time, you’ve got to do it in such a way that people understand this is not personally against them. It’s because you believe that this is not only what we need now but also what we have to hold on to for future generations. My concerns don’t relate so much to people who are adults now because I think they can decide themselves what they want to do. But what do owe to children? What do we owe to future generations? What do we owe to future societies? This is why I dreamed up the idea we don’t only have a physical ecosystem, we have a metaphysical ecosystem—all our important shared values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, and so on—and we have to make sure we don’t irreversibly destroy that. That’s very close to my heart.

JS: It’d be really easy to live a whole life avoiding having that drama.

MS: You know, Jamie, a lot of people do. Most of my friends totally disagree with me. Actually, I dedicate the book [Bird on an Ethics Wire] to all those who care about the world of the future and, I said, especially to my friends, whether they agree or disagree with me, the latter being the true test of friendship.

JS: Was there a quite intentional season in your career where you decided, “I need to speak beyond the academy?”

MS: Do you know what happened? It was completely amazing. The media suddenly discovered that they had all these issues like reproductive technologies, cloning, Dolly, infant-male circumcision (because there was a lobby that started on that), euthanasia, abortion. I was one of the few people with a health-care background and a legal background who’d done my doctoral thesis almost entirely on medical ethics. My thesis was called “Medical Experimentation on the Person: A survey of Legal and Extra-Legal Controls.” I wrote it in the 1970s, when there was absolutely no law, no literature, nothing on applied ethics in relation to that topic. Nobody had thought about it. I became the go-to person for the media, and in fact some of the people who so strongly disagreed with me, even now quite frequently they write, “Why is the Canadian media so lazy that it’s only got one name in its Rolodex? It’s always asking Margaret Somerville, that horrible woman?!” (laughter) So that’s how it happened.

JS: The public came to you. There’s a lesson in that.


James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017).


Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director Emerita of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal, where she taught from 1978 to 2016, when she returned to Sydney to become Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at The University of Notre Dame Australia.