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More Wisdom, Less Harm

A Commencement Address to the Class of 2018

Good afternoon students, parents, staff, teachers, guests, and of course the amazing class of 2018, arrayed before us here today. Congratulations to you for completing this stage in your lives and your education. Each of you is outstanding in your own right, but I want to commend you as a group. I have watched you throw yourselves, headlong, into every task, be it class discussions, presentations, Socratic seminars, group essays, skits, school plays, choir—anything really. Even if you were exhausted, depleted, overworked, flu-ridden, or otherwise indisposed, you embraced your work with determination and, well, gusto. Therefore, I’d like to thank you for working with me, and with all of us, day in and day out. You brought academic curiosity and a willingness to hone your critical skills to the classroom with you, and there’s little more a teacher can ask from a group of students than that. Thank you.

Because I am so very fond of this class, I can’t stand up here and lie to them about their futures. I can’t pretend that this is just another group of young people, one link in a shining chain adjoined to the anchor of history that we are lowering into the depths of the world to do the kinds of things that people have always done when they reach adulthood. There is a difference now. There is a whole herd of elephants in this room that I’m not supposed to mention—for we live in a civilization that is in severe decline, though we rarely consider this truth. No one person caused it; no one person can fix it.

Since you are entering a future that is deteriorating ecologically, economically, and ethically, the most important thing for you to remember as you enter the world is to be a person of integrity and to strive to do no harm. This may seem like a platitude, but our current way of doing just about everything has degraded our world, so every path you choose can feed more harm into the system. Your career and life choices are vitally important if we are to change course, and changing course means working against every day systems. In short, being a person of integrity and striving to do no harm are radical acts.

These seniors know the truth about the kind of times they are headed for. We have spoken of it now and again. In their junior year, they studied a work by Calvino in my class entitled Invisible Cities. In it, the famed explorer, Marco Polo, describes to Kublai Khan the many cities in the Khan’s crumbling empire. Mostly, the cities are complete fabrications, but the Khan listens anyway, as Polo recounts each one. Calvino writes:

Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long (75).

The class of 2018 knows they live in Octavia, a place that will surely fall, probably in their lifetimes, resulting in displacement, economic insecurity, and the beginning of unknown times.

That’s the first stretch of the road to being an ethical person: recognize the truth that is all around you. To do otherwise, to turn away or distract yourself, is just stumbling down the path of ignorance and narcissism. It isn’t easy to accept or even see the truth. Knowing and speaking truth is a form of defiance. In George Orwell’s novel 1984Winston, the protagonist, discovered this when O’Brien interrogated him in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien kept asking him to acknowledge that the four fingers he was holding up added up to five. Winston speaks first:

“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston…. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane” (250-251).

This passage shows what it’s like to challenge the culture, to try to learn the truth. There will be push-back, and you will be gas-lighted, that is, made to feel like you are the crazy one or the one without reason or authority. It also shows how human beings tend to view the world: we will deny what is clearly true in order to maintain a condition that serves power.

We have created ecological and social decay because our civilization was built on the unstable foundation of fossil fuel consumption, exploitation, endless growth, short-term profits, and rugged individualism. Moving forward in this type of world is disheartening for ethical people, not to mention confusing. If we want to live with integrity, what are we supposed to do? Obviously, going forth into the world as most people before you have done, pursuing careers that make you great sums of money, can’t be all there is to existing anymore. That’s how we got into this mess.

Perhaps a place to start is to stop valuing the things that have contributed to our society’s turmoil. Why not begin with the way we congratulate ourselves and others for their abilities? We value intelligence to a lopsided extent. “Oh, she’s such a smart student; she’ll go to Harvard some day.”

I would feel prouder if someone called me wise. If we are to lighten the effects of our uncertain future, shouldn’t we be speaking and acting in ways that reflect a wise outlook rather than a smart one? Smartness is one’s ability to exploit opportunity. Wisdom is the holistic view that is the basis of so many indigenous cultures; wisdom values all people, not just the individual; wisdom considers the preservation of the environment to be more important than preserving profits for a few.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck would call this kind of shift in thinking a seed for revolution by moving from “I” to “We.” Steinbeck, here, addresses rich owners as if to warn them. Quote:

…This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—“We lost ourland.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction…. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we” (151-152).

One of the pitfalls in our culture that keeps us in an “I” mindset, instead of the “we,” is the need for external validation. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “I want to be rich and famous” or “I have to be the best—otherwise, what’s the point?” then you may be trapped in the pit of external validation. If you pursue a discipline, be it history or chemistry, visual arts, what have you, make sure it is because you have a passion for that discipline, not a desire for the rewards that might come with it. The “I” culture of smartness over wisdom tells us that we are nothing unless we are celebrated or have at least 20,000 followers on Instagram. Those kinds of rewards may seem to assuage your insecurity, but they are hollow achievements. If you live ethically by wanting to make things better for everyone, not just yourself, you know you are living a life of integrity, and that, not praise from outside yourself, will validate your existence.

Thoreau believed human beings could pull themselves out of the stupor of blindly following selfish pursuits that separate people. He believed that all we needed was a jolt, some kind of catalyst to start us down the path of wisdom. In one of the earlier chapters in Walden, Thoreau notices a snake in a torpid state, presumably coming out of winter hibernation. Quote:

It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life (26).

What better condition for the “spring of springs” is there if not the deterioration of our civilization to bring about a shift from smartness to wisdom, from “I” to “We”?

Part of living with integrity is to strive to do no further harm. To accomplish that, we must reduce consumerism, with all its resource inputs and waste. Choose careers that tread lightly upon the Earth. If engineering, then design only sustainable creations. If you start a company that makes products, be sure the product is a necessity, and if it is, be responsible for it throughout its lifespan. How can your profession do no harm upon this ailing planet? This is a radical idea because it is a radical change.

My favorite one-paneled cartoon depicts a man sitting on the ground in front of a campfire, wearing a tattered business suit. He is speaking to a group of three dirty children seated opposite, the faint jagged teeth of a ruined metropolis looming in the background. In the caption, the man says to the children:

Yes, the world was destroyed—but for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for share holders.

That cartoon haunts me. It reveals our unspoken attitudes behind nearly all our actions: profit over people; profit over planet. It is so easy to put on that business suit and just churn out bucks for share holders. Your work will be what you do for the majority of your life, and it contributes to either the well-being or the further deterioration of our society. There are ethical implications in the work you do. Your job or the company you work for contributes directly or indirectly to the socio-economic and environmental problems in our world – for good or for ill.

It isn’t always easy to identify the harm our work causes, however. In Orwell’s 1984, we, as readers, with the advantage of living outside Orwell’s world, can not only see the harms of Winston’s work, but we can observe the way in which his career is so compartmentalized in his mind that the harm he causes is completely invisible to him. Orwell writes:

Winston’s greatest pleasure in life was in his work. Most of it was tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in them as in the depths of a mathematical problem—delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say (43).

The “forgery” that Winston performed was to change history for the sake of The Party by dropping all evidence of the past down a memory hole, where is was incinerated, and replacing it with creative lies that were more palatable to his masters.

Like Winston, we use our intelligence to great effect in our workplaces, and we “created a lot of value for shareholders,” but as we do so, our wisdom lies dormant, less than an afterthought—for isn’t it true that today we often see wisdom as an embarrassment? How could we carry on with our lives if we were to question the morality of our daily routines?

To help avoid the truth of what we do, we change the words that refer to it. Here is where Newspeak comes in handy. Newspeak is the language in 1984 whose purpose is to restrict dissent by restricting the vocabulary of dissent. Orwell writes:

…the process will continue long after you and I are dead. Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason for committing thought-crime (52).

Of course, the thought-crime in our society would be to consider questioning a way of life that we know will, one day not so far from now, end that way of life. This is because our ability to tell truths to one another, which is necessary for dissent, is not only muted, but is no longer in our lexicon. It is Orwell’s Newspeak, but instead of it being forced upon us, we have been invited through consumerist enticements, and as we immerse ourselves into these diversions, we lose the capacity to discuss the herd of elephants in every room. If we create a language that cannot question our materialism or narcissism, leading to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation, then we never have to question our complicity in the decay of our civilization.

It reminds me of the Demotivator poster that depicts a placid lake with one beautiful drop of water splashing into it. The caption reads:

No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood.

Part of our language deficit is caused by how we argue, or fail to argue, in contemporary society. As David Foster Wallace put it in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” another work read by this class, quote:

…we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation…. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotion impact, from pathos) have now pretty much collapsed—or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it nearly impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone (116).

When confronting the truth, it is now necessary to couch it in such a palatable way, that the truth becomes less important than how it is delivered. Our consumer culture has run with this insistence, creating all sorts of venues through which to “acceptably” communicate. Our preoccupation with the online world results in an attenuation of discontent, which is emotionally satisfying, but removes us from reacting to real concerns unless it is through unreal means. In other words, we have willfully muted ourselves, and it is by design, so we will continue consuming and not question or think critically or take brave action.

To move beyond our failed paradigms, you will have to accept that the world is an absurd place, and that you have a choice about how you create meaning within it. You can legally do a lot of harm to people and the environment through every day living. Recognize the harm and veer away from creating it, regardless of what others choose.

The reality of the future doesn’t have to depress you just because it will be hard. The decline is going to happen—it’s happening now. You don’t have to pretend two and two is five or avoid the inevitable through distraction or manipulation of the truth or old broken paradigms.  The way you live through the turbulence can be faced if you act with integrity, if you employ wisdom, if you move from “I” to “We.” These are radical acts because they defy the present course of our society.

This group of young people before us will have to navigate this new world. It’s going to be arduous, but I have watched them throw themselves, headlong, into every task with determination and gusto, so I, for one, know they are brave enough, ethical enough, and wise enough for the challenge.

So, to the courageous class of 2018: stay strong, choose with wisdom, and be radical!

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. William Weaver, translator. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1974.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics: Penguin, 1950.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin 1939.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Dover, 1995.

Toro, Tom. http://tomtoro.com/cartoons/#jp-carousel-135

Despair.com. https://despair.com/products/irresponsibility

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and other Essays. Back Bay Books, 2006.

Carl S. Mumm is a fiction writer and an English teacher. He currently teaches both Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Arcata, CA. He may be reached at: csmumm@gmail.com. He blogs when he can with his wife, Dr. Kristine Mattis, at rebelpleb.blogspot.com.

 

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