Graduate Commencement 2005

Address by President David E. Maxwell
May 14, 2005

In thinking about my remarks for this afternoon, I found myself confronted with a very real dilemma. There aren’t many people who have this opportunity—to talk, uninterrupted, to several hundred highly accomplished and highly intelligent people who are about to go out and do good and important things. But you’re also very disparate and varied in your interests and professional aspirations—pharmacy, business, education, and public administration. What you have in common is Drake University and your experience here. That’s an important thread though, particularly since you are very likely to follow in the footsteps of the Drake graduates who came before you, and become not just successful professionals, but leaders and change agents. So there was the challenge: I have a group of future leaders in front of me, a captive and perhaps even attentive audience (as long as I keep it short)—what’s the one big thing I’d like you to think about as you leave us?

Some of you may know that I have three degrees in Russian literature and in a former life was a professor of Russian. You probably don’t know that aside from my professional interests, several 19th Century Russian authors (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov) have had an immense influence on the way in which I see the world, and on my values and principles. So, like any good disciple, when faced with a challenge I turned to my masters for inspiration and guidance—and I’d like to share with you a passage from a letter that Chekhov wrote to his publisher in 1888, when he was only 28 years old—a passage that for decades has been part of my own personal “scriptures:”

The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. . . I hate lies and violence in all their forms. . . Pharisaism, dull wittedness, and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.

So drawing on Chekhov’s words, I’ve decided that I want to talk to you—briefly—about labels. From a semantic perspective, labels are a good thing—they are a highly efficient method of communicating a whole bundle of attributes with one word.

When applied to things, labels are almost foolproof. Almost. Sometimes the misapplication of labels can be rather humorous. When Chekhov died of tuberculosis in Baden, Germany at the age of 44, his body was shipped home in a refrigerated railroad car that had a huge sign on it reading, “Fresh Oysters.” He would have loved it.

But when we apply them to people, we start to run into trouble—precisely because each label has a set of assumptions behind it, and these days those assumptions are not always widely shared. Labels applied to people have come to mean very different things, depending on who’s using them. When a conservative labels someone else a conservative, it’s usually meant as praise; when a liberal calls someone a conservative, it’s usually meant as criticism.

Labels can also be shields, a protection against having to actually listen to what someone else is saying. By placing a label on them (and it’s usually meant as a pejorative term), you can relegate them to conceptual confinement in a place of your own definition—in essence, saying, “I don’t have to listen, because I already know what you are, and you’re wrong.”

But labels can also be very confusing, particularly when a political movement manages to appropriate an otherwise ordinary word or phrase and claim ownership of it, imbuing it with a whole constellation of new meanings. For instance, regardless of your own political and moral views, don’t you find it ironic—at least linguistically—that surveys show that the majority of people who label themselves as “pro-life” are in favor of the death penalty? Or that people who label themselves as “pro-choice” might criticize you for the choices that you make?

What’s more, even the intended meaning of the label changes with time—a classical conservative would hardly recognize today’s neocons as kindred spirits, any more than a mid-20th-century liberal would have much in common with the Democratic Party of 2005. Where labels once might have been useful as an efficient way to communicate complex ideas, they no longer can count on a corpus of shared understanding. Can you imagine that we now use the terms “Blue States” and “Red States” with a straight face, as if those labels represent something useful?

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the ability to talk intelligently in public about important issues—or to listen thoughtfully to the ideas of others, especially when we disagree. The level of public discourse has sunk to an all-time low. The concept of civil discourse in the public arena has become an historical artifact. We don’t seem to exchange ideas any more, we exchange labels. More accurately, we seem to throw labels at one another as a form of attack—instead of real intellectual engagement, a real exploration of the immense complexity, the immense ambiguity, of most of the issues that face us—public discourse has taken on all the sophistication of a boarding school food fight, with people heaving labels indiscriminately, hoping for the biggest “splat.” The talking heads, in breathless pursuit of the holy sound bite, have found a way to turn complex ideas into simplistic—and simple—labels that they bellow at each other, in the apparent belief that decibels are more convincing than thought, and that labels are preferable to ideas. Labels have become weapons in a rhetorical war in which we are all, ultimately, the losers.

Well, why am I telling you all of this? Because I have every reason to expect that you will emerge as leaders in your profession and in your community, that you will be change agents and opinion leaders. I know that you have the knowledge and the habits of mind to engage in reasoned discourse with those with whom you disagree, and to use that disagreement to explore and discover new truths. My hope for you is that you will provide leadership examples of what it means to be an intelligent, educated, and reasonable human beings. My hope also is that you’ll take a public stand—that you will demand of our public figures that they stop the food fight, stop turning complex issues into labels, stop using labels as tactical weapons of rhetorical combat. The challenges that we face as a society are too complex, too urgent, and even too frightening to continue burying them in a hail of clichéd and antagonistic utterances that ultimately lead us nowhere.

So, in essence I’m asking you to lead the good fight—as professionals, as leaders, as members of your communities. I know that you can do it—after all, you are about to become Drake graduates, and that’s a label that still has a lot of meaning. Congratulations on all that you’ve accomplished thus far, and best of luck as you go forward.

Today at Drake
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Fifty Des Moines Public Schools students will participate in a week-long symposium at Drake University to discuss the unique challenges that students of color face when preparing for college.