When acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was asked what ultimately drove him to create his film The Wind Rises, he pointed to a quote by Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the gorgeous Zero fighter planes that were infamous during WWII for their unparalleled killing capabilities. Wracked with guilt from the pain his creations had unleashed on the world, the engineer apparently once made one of the most simple yet poignant statements to ever go unheard by the world at large:
“All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”
Whether or not Horikoshi fully grasped his complicit nature in the devastation to come remains a point of contention. But we know one thing for sure: The moment he was selected for such an honorable task, a swirl of manipulation and distorted expectations descended upon the young man until, whether by his own design or not, he had become an instrument of war, and his planes the harbingers of terror. This illuminates a sad and universal truth: Along with all of the euphoria, affirmation and self-assuredness that accompanies leadership and prestige, crippling vulnerability and self-doubt are often not far behind.
Leaders can be some of the most flawed individuals in this collection of flawed creatures we call human beings, often succumbing to the allure of trivial petulance as easily as anyone else. I have seen this manifest in so many different, disheartening capacities that my only solace, ironically, has been my own comparable hypocrisy. It’s always been refreshing to immerse myself in self-reflection and whisper quietly “At least you’re no better.” Needless to say, there’s a reason I am such a resolute introvert: Navigating the sea of humanity can be an exercise in perpetual disappointment, and I’d rather be disappointed in the one person whom I can control.
As leaders, we should understand that when the dominant force guiding our actions is not noble, then our cause will fall prey to improper execution. We cannot view the systems that we critique through the biased lens of our discontent, lest we risk conjuring up inaccurate perceptions of those same systems and replicating the very dynamics that we claim to repudiate. I expect my predecessors to make a concerted effort to be fully transparent and objective so that I can make informed decisions about my future. Vitriolic slandering and fallacious depictions of would-be “competitors” should be cast aside so that we as leaders can instead turn towards that which matters. There is evil pervading this world. And while we may find it both easy and comforting to cope with entities like the White Students Union by laughing at their absurdity or denouncing them outright, we fail to see the subtle, undeniably human traits that undergird their existence. The same foolish pride that leads to this blatant evil can creep, casually costumed as benevolence, into the upper echelons of our most esteemed circles. We can deny its existence, but that will not dampen its incendiary and counterproductive impact.
Yet the same goes for those being criticized in the first place (for better or worse). We cannot become so obsessed with defending our own merit that we inadvertently neglect to at least consider the criticisms being levied against us. When we are too strongly endeared with institutional memory — this hallowed idea of “what has been, is all that can be”— we allow it to hover untouchably over our response to present-day realities. Silent disapproval and passive dismissal of those who do not belong to the same esoteric constituencies as us will have a net positive effect of zero. The boldness of our rhetoric should be reflected in equally bold actions. Or, at the very least, we should ask ourselves the tough questions. What do we want our future relationships with other leaders to look like? Does knowing all that we know about our peers’ institution invalidate the goodness of their work?
There is much to concede here on my part. Admittedly, I tend to be impatient, not always granting people enough time to reflect before acting. I am as much one who has betrayed my own values as anyone else, sometimes rushing to make poor, dishonest decisions based purely off of limited perspective. In these cases, the knowledge that I can never truly rectify the situation is about as powerful of a reminder as I can have of the consequences for my unethical actions. But you can rest assured that, from now on, I will ask the right questions and challenge my peers from within. Should I be met with resentment, then I will have no choice but to leave, because I know from my own mistakes how dishonesty breeds drama, which begets discomfort and ultimately perpetuates negativity. Leaders should not focus their collective energy on negativity, but on the issues that matter. Progress should be unhindered by pomp and panache, but rather bolstered by a collective moral consciousness and a commitment to truth.
At the end of the day, I will never know everything about anyone, but at the beginning of every day, I will always wake up knowing myself. I know that whether I am Amiri Banks, Cornell Student; Amiri Banks, Stanford professor; Amiri Banks, unemployed drug addict; or Amiri Banks, Kroger cashier, life will carry me towards the path that can only be walked by Amiri Banks. I will regret nothing about the qualifiers or affiliations I embrace or reject while walking that path, only what I do with the powers I wield. All I ever wanted was to love all people, to share my joy, to critique myself rigorously, inviting the same from others, and to appreciate the scope of wonderful art available to me. Perhaps not as elegant as Horikoshi’s quote, but just as sincere.
Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.