“Was it too sentimental?” His questioning eyes, a bit damper than usual, stared into mine. It had been a long day. The conference on state violence, impunity, and democratization had generally fallen into the trap of most conferences in trying to cram too much into a day, limiting break times, and featuring endless panels of knowledgeable folks droning on too long with wordy presentations while often spectacularly never getting to the point. And there were a few bright spots along the way that made the whole thing worthwhile. A respected professor, he was the last speaker on the final panel - a place of honor as his remarks were to bring the entire conference full circle. While several panelists throughout the day had spoken with various levels of frustration, anger, and disgust, few had spoken with passion. After a day discussing injustice we had finally circled round to the topic of memory and memorialization, which had also been tackled with the same frustration and lack of sentiment as the other topics. As is his wont, he engaged the audience, told stories, elicited chuckles and laughter, slyly commented on taboo topics, and artfully deconstructed language. And he spoke with passion, both controlled and not. I watched and listened, immediately enveloped in the weight and magnitude of what he was feeling and saying. And I knew this had been missing from the day.
How can we discuss these sorts of topics without sentiment? Does it really serve us fully to hover at an academically aloof distance from the very real pain and power of injustice and memory? Can we honestly believe that more court cases will completely fulfill this complex need? We stoically talk of what can be done and the meaning of various potential actions, all while carefully guarding the holes in our own souls that cry out for more than an intellectual answer. It is not often that we see our respected elders show sentiment. Our cultures tend to relegate emotional expression to the young and the weak. Watching him speak, I’m sure some saw weakness. Yet I saw strength and courage. The strength to show emotion. The courage to be vulnerable and allow others to glimpse personal pain. The courage to step out, ready to connect on a very human level. And the strength to give and invite empathy, knowing that we all have pain and that sharing it can bring us together. And I realized: with the backdrop of his years of experience, he was now choosing to lean in to the emotional destruction of injustice and live heart wide open - a both deeply rewarding and terrifying state of being. Unexpectedly, I had felt it as we chatted before his panel, and here he was brazenly broadcasting it to the world. The audience reactions were varied. Some missed it completely while others connected at various levels. Yet I hope all left thinking about the role of sentiment, the strength of feeling, and the courage of connecting with the past, the present, the future, and each other. “Was it too sentimental?” “No, professor. We need more sentiment.”