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2017 summer commencement speech by professor Kate Kaup

 

Professor Kate Kaup

Summer Commencement Speech

Furman University

August 12, 2017

Congratulations Graduates of 2017!!  And congratulations to all of the family members (parents, stepparents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents), and to all of the friends, faculty, advisors, mentors, administration, and staff who have been with you and who have supported you along the way.

You’ve all worked long and hard to get to this day. Almost half of you are educators, and in just a few minutes you’ll be armed with advanced degrees as you reenter our classrooms and schools: and you reenter at a time when education is more important than ever. Each of you has taken a unique path to get here today. Some of you have been working full time, juggling families, careers, and late nights studying. Your journey may have taken you years to reach this point (and for others, it may have just felt that way!)

Many of you arrived here almost exactly four years ago, nervous and excited about being on your own for the first time. You may have worried whether you could handle the academic workload (especially without Mom or Dad there to remind you to hand in that assignment or study for that test), but you probably worried just as much about exactly what kind of image to project so that you could make new friends, relate to professors, or maybe just instill fear in your opponents on the athletic field or court.

You certainly had a lot on your mind that first week of class, and over the years you’ve struggled with new ideas, new approaches to the discovery of new ideas, and (if we faculty have done our jobs right) you may have even questioned not just what is true and good, but whether such a thing as truth can exist at all.  Taking full advantage of a liberal arts education, you’ve learned to see the interconnectedness of issues, people, and places. Many of you have transitioned through this process from youth to young adults—similar to the person who first arrived here, but not the same.

Over your time at Furman, you’ve wrestled with many new ideas and challenges. And yet, the real challenges begin today, as you head off from Furman with degree in hand. What is it that you want to do now? Why does it matter? What difference can you really hope to make anyway?

So what advice can I possibly hope to give you, all nearly 60 of you, who are such unique individuals with different aspirations and talents? What could I say in twelve (well, actually now seven and a half) minutes or less?

Just as you’re not exactly the same person you were when you arrived here, the world you are entering into today is not the same. Similar in ways, but most certainly not the same. It depends on who you ask, of course, but many describe the world today as increasingly dangerous, social divisions stretched to the breaking point, and a new heated language of divisiveness, fear, and hate running through political rhetoric around the globe. Indeed Freedom House, which has been reporting on the state of freedom around the globe since 1941, this year marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Up until this year, these declines in freedom occurred primarily in existing authoritarian regimes as they clamped down on freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, rights of minorities, rule of law, religious freedoms, and other privileges that most of us have taken for granted in this country for years. Dramatic declines in freedom continued this year in Venezuela, China, South Sudan, the Philippines, and Turkey.

As a political scientist myself, and student of authoritarian, non-democratic regimes, what disturbs me most about Freedom House’s findings this year is that the most recent declines in freedoms have occurred in well-established democracies.  Among the countries generally rated “Free” by the report, there were declines over the last year in freedom in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and, yes, in the United States.

What’s causing the decline in freedom, and why bring this up on a such a happy day as this, your graduation?? What are you supposed to do about it anyway??

As you head off from Furman, whether you plan to teach, work in a laboratory, start your own business, head to law school or grad school, or maybe just head to the beach, you all face choices, and these choices matter. These choices matter, not only to you, but to everyone around you, and at the risk of sounding too dramatic, they matter to your neighbors, communities, country, and the world.

So what to do? In short, BE BRAVE and TAKE ACTION.

Be brave. Take action. What does that mean exactly?

Let’s start with being brave. What does being brave really mean? Webster’s defines bravery as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” We all know someone we think is brave. If we reflect for just a minute on someone who inspires us, someone who has indeed faced danger, fear, or difficulty with grace and strength, each of us is likely to conjure up a very different image. Let’s try it for a second. / Some of you may imagine loved ones facing frightening illnesses or firefighters who risk their own lives to save others. Or maybe you think of Nobel Prize winners like Malala Yousafzai (who was shot in the head by the Taliban when she was only fifteen for demanding education for girls), like Wangari Maathai (who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and inspired women and democracy activists throughout Africa to pursue sustainable development), or Liu Xiaobo (who served years in prison for demanding greater freedom for Chinese citizens and who died just last month, still not free).

I was sitting where you are today, listening to speakers at graduation in 1989, just two days after the Chinese government fired on unarmed demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. I was supposed to head to China that fall, for a fun post-graduation adventure teaching English. While I was off partying with friends after exams and before graduation, more than a million people flocked to Tiananmen Square to stand up for what they believed was right—greater government transparency, rule of law, and the right to assemble. Hundreds, probably more than a thousand, lost their lives on that June 4th, many of them students just like you.  In my book, it’s hard to be much braver than that.

But bravery doesn’t have to be so dramatic. We’re called to make choices each and every day. And the choices we make today will inform both the choices we have, and the choices we make, tomorrow.  Indeed, the choices we make today, will inform who we are tomorrow. Your act of bravery may be as simple as demanding that someone back up her claims with evidence, even as your classmates, students, or neighbors refuse to do so or attack you for being inappropriately “political.” It may be demanding that values be applied consistently: if you really believe in loving your neighbor, why not that neighbor?  It may be refusing to let someone impose labels on others, or to distort the meaning of terms we all use—be careful that words like “patriot” and “the people” and “democracy” are used appropriately and inclusively.

But let’s think a little bit more about bravery, what it means, and how we should use it.

Let’s start with the notion of bravery as standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of fear or danger.

The first challenge for us all, then, is to figure out just exactly it is we believe in. And here your Furman education should serve you well. You should understand that to formulate, test, and challenge your own ideas, you have to be open to new ones and open to exploration.

Open to new ideas. This is a tough one, even as I stand up here suggesting that you stand up against, indeed fight against, certain ideas and doctrines.  How do you know which ideas are right? Are we supposed to be completely open to all ideas? Is one idea as good as the next? Most certainly not. Some ideas are just patently wrong. But how do you know, especially when it comes to fundamental debates about right and wrong, about justice and inequities, about us and them? Again, demand evidence, whether it be empirical evidence or coherent reflection on the values that underlie an argument and should at least be consistently applied. If someone presents a view as “the truth” in contrast to “fake news” or “fake facts,” demand that they support their claims with evidence and logic.  Demand precision in word choices and in arguments.

Of course, not all debates can be resolved through recourse to factual evidence, as many of the most contentious debates hark back to fundamentally different values and world views. But do at least engage in the debate of ideas and values—engage in the discussion. As Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Müller reminds us: Talking with those you oppose is not the same as talking like those you oppose. It’s possible to take others’ views seriously without adopting the frame they use to present them. Müller points out how the right-wing French National Front, for example, used the slogan “One million unemployed. One million immigrants.” It’s important to discuss their concerns about unemployment, but equally important to reject their overly simplistic formula that immigrants are to blame for it. Terrorism is certainly a frightening and horrific act, but I, for one, refuse to equate it with Muslims broadly, with immigrants, or with “non-Western civilizations.” Violent crime in this country must be addressed, but I refuse to blame it on the color of a person’s skin or the place of a person’s birth.

As I watch the news today, in this country and globally, I think of the haunting words of German Lutheran pastor Marin Niemöller just after World War II, who wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

So…explore. Explore new ideas, new approaches, new places. And explore precisely in order to compare, to test, to challenge your own ideas and fundamental values. And do this constantly, to better shape and strengthen what you stand for, so that you can speak up and speak out, supporting your views with reasoned evidence.

Next, once you know what you believe and what you feel is worth defending, how do you go about doing it? The second challenge is to think both strategically and compassionately. And, trust me, you do need both strategy and compassion to be successful. Much of what is causing the huge and increasingly violent divisions across the globe, including in the US today, stems from peoples’ fears. And these fears are being manipulated by politicians, who offer overly simple solutions and scapegoats. Their scapegoating drives greater wedges among groups and people, which only exacerbates the divides and adds to the fear in a vicious, vicious cycle. We’ve seen this before.

But fear of what? Well, primarily of change. Globalization and rapid changes in technology have brought dramatic changes to people’s socioeconomic status, changes to the ethnic and racial makeup of populations, and rapid changes in social mores. As a mother of three, I think back to all the times my kids have been afraid—of the dark, of the “boo guy,” or of their cousin Trevor’s Halloween mask. Kids are a great example. You can’t yell the fear out of someone or overpower someone who is afraid with rational evidence—you have to figure out what’s frightening them, and kindly, patiently, help them realize their fears are only making them more afraid, making them ever more afraid to enjoy the world and afraid to recognize the strength and kindness of those around them. Making them too afraid to acknowledge that everyone has fears.

So, be open, explore, and be compassionate. And do all of that not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it will help you be brave enough, and effective, in standing up for what you believe. These are times when we need peace and inclusion more than ever, and it’s important to make your voice heard. Decide what is you stand for, and then develop a strategy for making a difference. Join with others. Write to your representatives, organize and recruit voters, help educate the next generation, help education your generation. But don’t sit by and expect others to do it for you. If it matters to you, do something about it.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, these are troubling times. Real challenges confront real people. While unemployment rates are down in the US, nearly 7 million working-age people are still without jobs. 7 million people. Ethnic tensions are high, hate crimes against Muslims have gone up 600% over the last four years in the US alone, concentration of wealth at the top remains high, our prisons are overflowing, student debt in the US now exceeds 1.4 trillion dollars, health insurance is problematic and expensive, and the list goes on and on. Politicians globally are attacking core foundations of democracy: the free press, independent courts, legal protections for minorities, a vibrant opposition, and robust civil society groups. If we don’t speak up now for these core foundations of democracy, it may become too late.

So, congratulations Class of 2017! You are entering the “real world” right when it needs you most. Be brave and take action. Decide what it is you value most, make a real and compassionate effort to understand the values and fears of others, and have the courage to stand up and speak out for what you believe.

Let me end with two thoughts from former UN Secretary General and Nobel Prize Winner Kofi Annan:

First: “Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity.”

And finally, “We can love what we are, without hating what, and who, we are not.”

Thank you and Congratulations!

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