THE BLOG

Why Bobby Rocks A New Generation

06/05/2008 11:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's something poetic, unnerving, or both about the fact that Barack Obama has secured the Democratic presidential nomination in the same week as we're remembering Robert F. Kennedy.

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Hillary Clinton took an absurd amount of flak for mentioning him and the month of June in one breath, but I'm doing so because I believe Bobby still rocks -- maybe more than ever.

I was born after he died, so maybe I'm not supposed to care about him. Truth is, though, my generation has something timely, even urgent, to learn from his advice to the world's youth.

On June 6, 1966 -- exactly two years before his murder -- Kennedy visited the University of Capetown. Without losing sight of South African apartheid or American segregation, he adopted a different focus.

Kennedy extolled the "common qualities of conscience and indignation" in students. Hinting at honorary membership in their ranks, the 40-year-old New York senator anointed youth "the only true international community."

But his message that day was not merely about the virtue of sticking together for social justice. Almost presciently, he challenged the tribal politics of race, gender and sexual orientation so fashionable on college campuses today.

Out of Kennedy's soaring rhetoric about solidarity came this dare: Risk backlash from your own for the sake of a greater good.

It's a 21st-century dare because our multicultural era often reduces the individual to an unsolicited mascot of this or that group. The result is conformity on various fronts.

Either you're a liberal or you're a conservative. Either you're a consumer or you're a loser. Either you swallow the dogma of your ethnic, religious and professional clan, or you've sold out. While many of us hunger to defy orthodoxy, only a handful of us give ourselves the permission.

Bobby Kennedy didn't sanitize the reality of human compliance. In his University of Capetown speech, he acknowledged that "few men brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society." Those who dare are agents of "moral courage."

We're not talking run-of-the-mill gutsiness. "Moral courage," Kennedy observed, "is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence."

After all, speaking truth to power requires standing up to your own. This is always more intimidating than pointing fingers at the faceless, unfamiliar enemies on the outside. Indicting outsiders comes with the affirmation that you belong to a circle of insiders. But when you expose injustice within, the security blanket of instant belonging disappears. Then what?

Kennedy's appeal for moral courage illuminates one of the most vexing leadership questions of our time: How do we transform our culture of polarization into one of genuine pluralism? In other words, how can individuals develop their unique voices and expand diversity, rather than cave to groupthink and feed fundamentalism?

For clues, Robert F. Kennedy could have invoked his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. As an agent of moral courage, King confronted the peddlers of insularity and insecurity within his tribe of religious progressives.

Eight liberal clerics in Alabama alluded to Reverend King as an "outsider" whose street marches fomented extremism. Because he took the fight for equality beyond the courts, they accused him of undermining a "constructive and realistic approach to racial problems." The title of their statement: "A Call to Unity."

King cleverly distinguished between unity and uniformity. In his now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, addressed to "Fellow Clergymen," the civil rights icon wrote: "I must confess I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth."

He was referring not to personal growth, of course, but to that of wider society. If this greater good emerged at the expense of solidarity within the movement, so be it. Like Kennedy, King believed that Americans could do better and be better than many of their religious mentors gave them credit for. So, breaking ranks became an act of faith in community, not a repudiation of it.

Therein lies a tough but relevant lesson for my generation. As we struggle to transcend the us-versus-them politics that force us into tidy and artificial camps, let's remember Bobby Kennedy's concept of moral courage. It teaches us that when we exercise our authentic voices, we're liberating possibilities that would otherwise be lost to self-censorship.

You better believe that's a recipe for heresy. Whether in the corporation, at the church, or on the campus, progress demands nothing less.