Commencement Address Wesleyan University

May 22, 2005 - Commencement Address Wesleyan University


Thank you, President Bennet.

Congratulations to the great class of 2005!

I am greatly honored to join Edward P. Jones, William Barber, Bill Belichick, and our fellow graduates as alumni of Wesleyan University.

I am thrilled that Coach Belichick and I are receiving our honorary doctorates together, even though, since moving to Philadelphia, I have become an avid Eagles fan. I have fought off any impulse to rattle Coach Belichick on behalf of a wounded Eagles nation. I promised President Bennet that I would show perfect etiquette.

"Why behave?" he asked. "This is Wesleyan!"

Thanks to the Wesleyan Argus, I know I am professionally challenged not to speak as an envoy from the ivory tower, but rather as a "real person."

As the Argus editorial so tactfully lamented: "We wish we had someone really prepared to send us into the real world and usher us out of our academic past."

On the list of preferred commencement speakers, this means that I trailed such real-world emissaries as Oprah Winfrey, William Safire, and Kermit the Frog. But there is hope: Last I checked, I was comfortably ahead of Miss Piggy and Paris Hilton. Well, Paris Hilton, anyway!

In all seriousness, my fellow graduates, the academic world is part and parcel of the real world. Outstanding Wesleyan faculty have sharpened your minds. Your fellow students have taught you equally valuable life lessons.

So, as the poet said, "Instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know you realize that life goes fast. It's hard to make the good things last. You realize the sun doesn't go down. It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round."

Graduates, many years from now, when your children ask who was your commencement speaker, you'll say, "Don't remember her name - but she quoted Flaming Lips!"

You are leaving Wesleyan with the strength of mind and character to flourish as engaged citizens and wise leaders in our democracy. Today, I want to talk about the most important quality of mind that our democracy needs even more than ever before. It is an attitude that can be summed up in two words:  mutual respect.

Mutual respect is not about playing down differences. Rather, it is about giving serious consideration to our differences and disagreements and working through them. It is about pursuing common goals in a constructive spirit of engagement - even when many differences remain.

Mutual respect is the lifeblood of democracy. It allows you and me to pursue our own happiness also for the benefit of our fellow human beings. It allows even fierce adversaries to seek common ground. 

Think about the great champions of democracy and freedom. Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa. They hated unjust laws and institutions. And they fought with all their might to overthrow them. But they never acted hatefully in confronting their adversaries.

Alas, these are not the best of times for mutual respect. We are witnessing a steady erosion of respect for the opinions of others and for the institutions and democratic traditions that have helped to safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The signs of disrespect are all around us. In the ferocious assault on the judiciary. In the shrill debate over Terri Schiavo. And worst of all, in the hateful, ad hominem attacks that issue daily from radio and TV talk shows.  

We are living in a smash-mouth culture in which extremists dominate public debate to the point of hijacking it. You cannot have a reasoned discussion about abortion when one side is slandered as "baby-killers" and the other side is smeared as "religious wingnuts."

It is hard to pursue a reasoned debate about the Iraqi War when opponents of the war are accused of treason and the President of the United States is compared to Hitler.

Reach across the aisle, pursue collaborative solutions, or explore the shades of gray on any charged issue, and you are likely to be ignored or dismissed as indecisive. That's if you're lucky. More likely, you will endure crude and often malicious attacks on your intelligence, faith, and patriotism. You may even face death threats - as Judge George Greer did after ruling on the Schiavo case.

What a waste of the privilege of living in a free society.

Do not get me wrong. Extremism has its place. If you are confronted with a pure evil or absolute injustice, do not compromise. Confronted with slavery? Call in the abolitionists. Accept the Taliban? I'm behind our troops. Engage Holocaust deniers? There is nothing to debate.

But most issues are highly debatable. We need massive doses of deliberation and mutual respect if we are going to move our society and world to a better place.

This does, however, raise a difficult question: How do we distinguish between a viewpoint that warrants our condemnation and one that merits reasonable disagreement?

Your liberal education at Wesleyan taught you to make those distinctions. You learned to open your hearts and minds to viewpoints you may never embrace ... and to leave room for reasonable disagreement.

This goal of mutual respect may seem tangential as you embark on your first full-time job or begin graduate or professional school.

Yet, without mutual respect, democracy is dead - and so are your prospects for living in a just and peaceful world.

With mutual respect, you can lift society to higher ground anywhere from Cape Town ... to Middletown.

Think about this country's beginnings and the debate over the U.S. Constitution.

It is easy to forget that the Federalist arguments of James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton stimulated robust and respectful debate in the form of opposition letters that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies.

Anti-Federalist patriots, such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and John DeWitt, feared the impact of a strong central government on individual liberty and the power of the individual states.  The Anti-Federalists deliberatively engaged the arguments of those who supported the idea of a strong national government embodied in the new Constitution. 

And the Federalists replied.  Many points of disagreement remained. It took a civil war to settle the question of slavery, a disease that Edward Jones describes so brilliantly in The Known World.

Other disagreements persist to this day - like the size and role of government in people's lives, about which William Barber has written so eloquently.

Still, the deliberative debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was incredibly fruitful and successful. It led to the adoption and ratification of the Bill of Rights! Can you even imagine life at Wesleyan University without the First Amendment?

Indeed, your own history of Wesleyan includes shining examples of respectful debate that led to tangible change. Back in 2000, student members of the United Student Labor Action Coalition were determined to win higher wages and guaranteed working conditions for service contractors.

When they respectfully engaged the administration with reasoned arguments, these students helped to bring about the adoption of new employment standards. 

Mutual respect can even make miracles happen.  I can attest to that. A little more than a decade ago, I met Nelson Mandela in South Africa shortly after he was released from prison. We were both addressing a gathering organized by the Institute for Democratic Alternatives for South Africa.

Standing before me was a man who had spent the prime of his life - 27 years -- as a political prisoner. And he was treating the Afrikaners in our audience who had jailed him with complete respect.

After Mandela spoke, someone in the audience asked, "How can it be that you have no bitterness towards all the people who have perpetrated all these crimes on you?"

I will never forget Mandela's response.

"I could not wish what happened to me and my people on anyone, not on any human being."

Mandela's words and actions made it possible for South Africa to move forward to become a multiracial democracy without a violent civil war.

So consider: If mutual respect is possible even under such trying and potentially explosive conditions, then why is it so hard for us to respect one another under our far more fortunate circumstances?

Alas, the average poll-watching, risk-averse politician will not replenish our democratic soil with vision and respect. Nor will the average radio or cable TV talk show host.

But you can revitalize our democracy. Indeed you must.

Yes, you have your work cut out for you. As someone who preceded me here observed, "The world today ... is embittered, frustrated, and to an unfortunate degree, dominated by fear."

Those words were delivered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren to the Wesleyan graduating class of 1954, the year in which Warren wrote the landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. As McCarthyism and paranoia raged about our land, Justice Warren called on Wesleyan graduates to pursue a deeper understanding of all people and cultures.

Today, I call on you to follow Mandela's example: Make respect for one another your basis for pursuing a higher level of happiness and a deeper understanding of this troubled yet wonderful world.

A 1967 New Yorker cartoon shows a stately couple about to begin their dinner. The husband, of course, is already seated! His wife is holding the phone.

She tells her husband, "It's our Oliver, calling from Wesleyan. He wants a greater voice in something!"

Graduates, you may not have found the Douglas Cannon. But after the national trauma of 9/11, you found your voices.  And how well you have used them!

May you all raise your voices even more vigorously as you venture forth to make the world a better place in which to live!

Today, you are a sensation. Keep your hearts and minds open, and you will become the greatest generation. Ever.

Thank you for allowing me to share this wonderful moment in your lives.  When we gather again on this beautiful campus for our 25th reunion in 2030, let's meet at O'Rourke's Diner for a lively chat. If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage and ideals, then I know we will have something to debate!   Congratulations! And with all due respect, Godspeed!