Speaking Truth to Power and the Value of Counterpoints: Madeleine Albright’s Surprising Commencement Address
By Maria Popova
As I was preparing to deliver my Annenberg commencement address, restlessness of a very different kind and caliber was taking place on the other side of the country.
When Scripps Women’s College announced that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — a person with whom I disagree politically on many counts — was invited to deliver the 2016 commencement address, student protests broke out across campus. Some had hoped for a woman of color as the graduation speaker, some went as far as calling Albright a war criminal, and there was a general outrage centered around her politically charged remark that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Unlike Villanova University, which sixteen years earlier had disinvited legendary journalist Anna Quindlen after students protested her liberal political views (with the result of Quindlen’s spectacular undelivered commencement address going “viral” long before social media), Scripps proceeded as planned. Albright traveled to campus early to meet with the students and faculty and hear out their dissent in order for them to accept her as a speaker. Even so, some of the faculty refused to participate in the ceremony.
On the morning of May 14, the day before her 79th birthday, Albright took the podium clad in cap and gown, tension and unrest still suffusing the air. She was greeted by a few tepid claps. Students wore buttons on their gowns bearing slogans like “Hell is Albright with me.” The class valedictorian prefacing the commencement address ended her speech with these words: “And if there’s a special place in hell for us, magical, radical, change-making us, then so be it.”
But what happened next — as relayed to me by my dear friend (and frequent collaborator) Wendy MacNaughton, who was in attendance as the cousin of a new graduate — is an astonishing lesson in courage, dignity, integrity, and transformation under the unlikeliest of circumstances.
After beginning by addressing the student directly with the warm response that “there is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power,” Albright proceeded to speak about the perils of latching onto our preconceptions, the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind, the importance of surrounding ourselves with counterpoints, and the vital distinction between information and wisdom in an age of instant, reactive opinions.
What emerges is a sublime addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time and a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s assertion that “words are events [which] do things, change things… transform both speaker and hearer… feed energy back and forth and amplify it.”
At the end of the speech, something palpable had shifted — the few tepid claps had been transformed and amplified, erupting into a thunderous applause as Albright walked off the stage. Wendy watched one graduate remove the protest button from her gown. “Great speech, huh?” she said to the young woman, who rolled her eyes, then nodded.
Transcribed highlights below.
A generation after Adrienne Rich observed that “truth is not one thing, or even a system, [but] an increasing complexity,” Albright considers this growing complexity of truth’s multiplicity and mutability:
Truth can be a blunt instrument and, at times, a dangerous one. In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth-tellers in prison — or worse. It is also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time, completely wrong. There are people in our world today who are ready to die — or kill — for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights than on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears.
We have also learned through history that supposedly eternal truths can, in fact, go out of fashion. The Earth is flat; the Sun is a golden chariot; there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Pluto is a planet; and women are the weaker sex.
So truth is a complex topic — but, for an educated person, it is an inescapable quest.
Here at Scripps, the alma mater talks about “searching and exploring the life of the mind.” You cannot do that without trying to separate what is true from what is not. But this mission begins with an important premise — that we do not already know everything there is to know.
That can be hard for many of us to admit.
Bertrand Russell called this “the will to doubt” and Albright illustrates it with the example of her own formative years as a college student in a distant cultural era “about halfway between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire”:
At the time, I knew that I had much to gain from the words of my professors and from the books that they would assign, but I neither questioned nor doubted the fundamental values with which I had grown up. This is the way it is for most of us — after all, the only completely open mind is an empty one. We all have our opinions and prejudices, based on who we are, where we come from, what we have experienced, and how we have been taught.
The key to further education is not to put aside what we think we know, but to employ that knowledge as a platform for learning more.
This means that we should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.
Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt’s clarion call for our individual role in social change, Albright turns to the litany of global problems facing us today — climate change, income inequality, genocides, wars, and the various monumental and subtle erosions of our dignity — and urges the next generation:
The principal challenges of the future are not going to be surmounted solely by any one country or small group — a new era of collaboration is required that will extend to every corner of the globe. And the responsibility for forging such a network does not belong to governments alone. Everyone must participate in solving shared problems — including corporations, academic institutions, religious leaders, civil society, and individual citizens.
A summons of this nature is easy enough to proclaim, but it cannot be answered without a healthy approach to truth, because we are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality.
To me, this is the great divide in the world today — not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others, [but] between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.
One of the great advantages of serving as Secretary of State was the perspective it brought — it was my responsibility to defend U.S. positions, but also to listen. And I can tell you that the way the world looks depends almost entirely on your vantage point.
For example, a resident of Claremont, California will ordinarily have a far more favorable view of the police than a democratic activist who is trying to avoid arrest in Cuba or an African American teenager in Cleveland. A child growing up in Pakistan will have a perception of history that varies widely from that of a boy or girl whose home is across the border in India. One’s sense of urgency about world hunger will be affected by whether one lives in a nation whose families can’t afford to buy bread or where diet books are best sellers.
The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives — for that is not possible. The challenge is to manage them — and when necessary, moderate them — so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart.
Albright ends by returning to the question of truth and the frame of mind most conducive to its clear-headed conquest:
I am not suggesting that [you] cast aside your own opinions or downgrade the value of your perspectives on life. I ask only that you make a real effort to keep learning more. And learning, by definition, means exploring areas of existence and opinion with which you are not already familiar.
Instead of choosing to read or to listen only to the people whose views make you the most comfortable — which is becoming easier and easier to do — choose instead to study those who make you the most upset. Instead of surrounding yourself with friends whose experiences are similar to yours, reach out to people whose life stories are unknown. Instead of repeating over and over again the opinions you have expressed in the past, stop venting for awhile, ask yourself why you believe as you do, and submit your own conceptions of truth to the rigorous standards of critical thinking.
Two millennia after the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry and five centuries after scientific method founding father Francis Bacon’s insistence that we should “read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider,” Albright concludes:
Above all, I ask you to understand that there is an enormous difference between entering into an argument for the purpose of proving how smart you already are — and engaging in research and discussion for the purpose of stretching your mind and giving free rein to your conscience.
One path may earn you a reputation for brilliance; but the other will lead you toward wisdom.
In saying all this, I am not conceding that all truth is relative or that every point of view is equal in merit. On the contrary, I am proposing that we place our greatest faith in principles that have proven themselves through decades of testing and struggle. These are principles that bring people together, instead of driving us apart; principles that challenge us to think not once but continually; principles that demand the best from each of us while honoring the rights of all. These principles include a commitment to justice, a belief in freedom, respect for the dignity of every human being, the capacity for forgiveness, and a desire to pursue the truth wherever that journey might lead.
Complement with Parker Palmer’s wise and wonderful Naropa University commencement address about the six pillars of the wholehearted life and Toni Morrison’s Wesleyan College commencement address about how to be your own story in a culture that constantly tries to tell you who you are.
Published May 19, 2016