When Jimmy Carter entered the stage at Memorial Church, to an event hosted by Harvard Divinity School last week, everyone waited for his words on tenterhooks. So popular was the former president that the first twenty rows were filled half an hour before the event even started.
Carter has had a long track record of impact. As the 39th president of the United States, he signed the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977. He witnessed the Egypt-Israel treaty in 1979 and deepened US diplomatic relations with China. After leaving the White House, he set up the Carter Center to combat human rights violations. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price.
In his speech, Carter discussed gender inequality and the importance of fighting against the discrimination that women face in the world today. For example, in 2012, there were around 26,000 reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military and only 3 percent of those were brought to justice. Around the world girls are sold involuntarily as commodities and sexual slaves. The perception that women are inferior is still rampant in societies all over the world.
Carter urged students to seek the truth even if it is difficult. "We tend to distort the truth in order to benefit ourselves," he noted. "And that doesn't just include people who are persecuting others, but also people who sit quiet while others are persecuted."
Carter argued that most people don't want to know what's going on, raising examples and emotion. I wonder, though, how many people who attended actually did something, even if was as little as raising awareness.
We are all guilty of this. As Dale Carnegie wrote in his 1936 classic How To Win Friends And Influence People, "A person's toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people. A boil on one's neck interests one more than forty earthquakes in Africa." Don't appeal to people's reasons, the argument goes, appeal to their self-interest.
Awareness is the first step. But in order to make a difference, you need to do more than merely be educated. When you have found a topic that rouses you, and you have gathered the facts, then you need to ask yourself what you can do about it.
This was originally published at The Citizen, the student newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School.