23 May, 2014, New School University, New York
Welcome graduating class of 2014 and congratulations. You did it! You made it! How do you feel?
I guess I can only hazard a guess which means thinking back to my own graduation in England in 1997, and extrapolate from it. Did I feel like you? I should say first that some elements of the day were rather different. I wasn’t in a stadium listening to a speech. I was in an eighteenth century hall, kneeling before the dean who spoke Latin and held one of my fingers. Don’t ask me why.
Still the essential facts were the same.
Like you I was finally with my degree and had made of myself - a graduate. Like you I now had two families, the old boring one that raised me, and an exciting new one consisting of a bunch of freaks I’d met in college.
But part of the delightful anxiety of graduation day was trying to find a way to blend these two tribes, with their differing haircuts and political views, and hygiene standards and tastes in music. I felt like a character in two different movies. And so old! I really believed I was ancient. Impossibly distant in experience from the freshmen only three years below. I was as likely to befriend a squirrel as a freshman. Which strange relationship with time is perhaps unique to graduates and toddlers. Nowadays at aged 38, if I meet somebody who’s 41, I don’t conclude that friendship is impossible between us. But when I was 21, the gap between me and an 18 year old seemed insurmountable. Just like my four year old daughter, who’d rather eat sand than have a play date with a one year old.
And what else? Oh the love dramas. So many love dramas. Mine, other people’s. They take up such a large part of college life it seems unfair not to have them properly reflected in the transcript. Any full account of my university years should include the fact that I majored in English literature, with a minor in drunken discussions on the difference between loving somebody and being ‘in love’ with that person. What can I tell you, it was the 90s. We were really into ourselves. We were into self curation. In the 90s, we even had a year called ‘Year of Trousers’ which signified any kind of ethnic or exotic pants one wore back home from a distant (ideally third world) country. And these trousers were meant to alert to a passing stranger that we’d been somewhere fascinating, and thus adding further colour to our unique personalities.
Personally I couldn’t afford the year off but I was very compelled by those trousers.
In short, the thing I wanted most in the world was to be an individual. I thought that’s what my graduation signified, that I had gone from being one of the many, to one of the few. To one of the ones who would have ‘choices’ in life. After all my father didn’t have many choices, his father had none at all. Unlike them, I had gone to university. I was a special individual. Looking back it’s easy to diagnose a case of self-love. People are always accusing students of self-love, or self obsession. And this is a bit confusing because college surely encourages the habit. You concentrate on yourself in order to improve yourself. Isn’t that the whole idea? And out of this process hopefully, emerge strikingly competent individuals, with high self esteem, prepared for personal achievement.
When we graduate, though, things can get a little complicated. For how are meant to think of this fabulous person, we’ve taken such care of creating. If university made me special did that mean I was worth more than my father, more than his father before him?
Did it mean that I should expect more from life than them? Did I deserve more?
What does it really mean to be one of ‘the few’?
Are the fruits of our education a sort of gift, to be circulated generously through the world, or are we to think of ourselves as pure commodity, on sale to the highest bidder? Well let’s be honest you’re probably feeling pulled in several direction right now. And that’s perfectly natural.
In the 90s the post graduation dilemma was usually presented to us as a straight ethical choice, between working for the banks, and doing selfless charitable work. The comical extremity of the choice I now see was perfectly deliberate. It meant you didn’t have to take it too seriously. And so we peeled off from each other. Some of us, many of us, joined the banks. But those that didn’t had not special cause to pat ourselves on the back. With rare exceptions, we all pursue self interest more or less. It wasn’t a surprise. We’d been raised that way. Born in the seventies, we did not live through austerity, did not go to war like my father, or his father. For the most part we did not join large political or ideological movements. We simply inherited the advantages for which a previous generation had fought.
And the thing that so many of us feared was the idea of being subsumed back into the collective from which we’d come. Of being returned to the world of the many. Or doing any work at all in that world.
In my case this new attitude was particularly noticeable. My own mother was a social worker, and I had teachers in my rowdy state school who had themselves been educated at precisely the elite institution I would later join. But amongst my college friends, I know of no one who made that choice. For the most part, we were uninterested in what we considered to be ‘unglamorous pursuits’. We valued individuality above all things. You can thank my generation for the invention of the word ‘supermodel’, and the popularisation of ‘celebrity’ and ‘lifestyle’, often used in conjunction with each other. Reality TV - that was us. Also televised talent shows. Also ug boots - you’re welcome, millennials! And when the fussier amongst us detected in these visions of prestigious individuality something perhaps a little crass and commericalised, our solution was to go in some ways further down the same road, to out individuate a celebrated individual.
We became hipsters. Defined by the ways we weren’t like everybody else. One amusing, much commented upon consequence of this was that we all ended up individuals of the same type. Not one-of-a-kind, but one ... of-a kind.
But there was another aspect I now find melancholic. We isolated ourselves. It took us the longest time to work out that we needed each other. You may have noticed that even now we seem somewhat stunned by quite ordinary human pursuits, like having children or living in a neighbourhood, or getting ill. We are always writing lifestyle articles about such matters in the Sunday papers. That's because, until very recently, we thought we were going to get through this whole life thing purely on our own steam. Even if we were no fans of the ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, we had unwittingly taken her most famous slogan and embedded it deep within our own lives. 'There is no such thing as society,' she said. We were unique individuals. What did we need with society? But then it turned out that the things that have happened to everybody since the dawn of time also happened to us. Our parents got old and ill. Our children needed schools and somewhere to play. We wanted trains that ran on time. We needed each other. It turned out we were just human — like everybody.
Now I might have this completely backward, but I get the sense that something different is going on in your generation. Something hopeful. You seem to be smarter sooner. Part of these smarts is surely born out of crisis. In the '90s we had high employment and a buoyant economy. We could afford to spend weeks worrying about the exact length and shape of our beards, or whether Kurt Cobain was a sell-out. Your situation is more acute. You have so many large, collective tasks ahead, and you know that. We had them too, but paid little attention, so now I’m afraid it falls to you. The climate, the economy, the sick relationship between the individual prestige of the first world and the anonymity of the third —these are things only many hands can fix working together. You are all individuals but you are also part of a generation and generations are defined by the projects they take on together.
Even at the level of slogan you decided to honour the contribution of the many over the few, that now famous ’99 Percent’. As far as slogans go, which is not very far, yours still sounds more thoughtful to me than the slogans of my youth which were fatally effected by advertising. Be strong. Be fast. Be bold. Be different. Be you ... be you, that was always the take away. And when my peers grew up, and went into advertising, they spread that message far and wide. ‘Just be you,’ screams the label on the shampoo bottle. ‘Just be you,’ cries your deodorant. Because you’re worth it. You get about fifty commencement speeches a day, and that’s before you’ve even left the bathroom.
I didn’t think you’d want any more of that from me. Instead I want to speak in favour of recognising our place within ‘the many’. Not only as a slogan, much less as a personal sacrifice, but rather as a potential source of joy in your life.
Here is a perhaps silly example. It happened to me recently at my mother’s birthday. Around midnight it came time to divide out the rum cake, and I, not naturally one of life’s volunteers, was press ganged into helping. A small circle of women surrounded me, dressed in West African wraps and headscarves, in imitation of their ancestors. ‘Many hands make short work,’ said one, and passed me a stack of paper plates. It was my job to take the plated slices through the crowd. Hardly any words passed between us as we went about our collective tasks, but each time we set a new round upon a tray, I detected a hum of deep satisfaction at our many hands forming this useful human chain. Occasionally as I gave out each slice of cake, an older person would look up and murmur, ‘Oh you’re Yvonne’s daughter,’ but for the most part it was the cake itself that received the greeting or a little nod or a smile, for it was the duty of the daughter to hand out cake and no further commentary was required. And it was while doing what I hadn't realised was my duty that I felt what might be described as the exact opposite of the sensation I have standing in front of you now. Not puffed up with individual prestige, but immersed in the beauty of the crowd. Connected if only in gesture to an ancient line of practical women working in companionable silence in the service of their community. It's such a ludicrously tiny example of the collective action and yet clearly still so rare in my own life that even this minor instance of it struck me.
Anyway my point is that it was a beautiful feeling, and it was over too soon. And when I tried to look for a way to put it into this speech, I was surprised how difficult it was to find the right words to describe it. So many of our colloquial terms for this ‘work of many hands’ are sunk in infamy. ‘Human chain’ to start with; ‘cog in the machine; ‘brick in the wall’. In such phrases we sense the long shadow of the twentieth century, with its brutal collective movements.
We do not trust the collective, we’ve seen what submission to it can do. We believe instead in the individual, here in America, especially. Now I also believe in the individual, I’m so grateful for the three years of college that helped make more or less of an individual out of me — teaching me how to think, and write. You may well ask, who am I to praise the work of many hands, when I myself chose the work of one pair of hands, the most isolated there is.
I can’t escape that accusation. I can only look at my own habit of self love and ask, ‘what is the best use I can make of this utterly human habit?’ Can I make a gift of myself in some other way? I know for sure I haven’t done it half as much as I could or should have. I look at the fine example of my friend, the writer and activist Dave Eggers, and see a man who took his own individual prestige and parlayed it into an extraordinary collective action — 826 National, in which many hands work to create educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids all over this country.
And when you go to one of Dave’s not for profit tutoring centres, you don’t find selfless young people grimly sacrificing themselves for others. What you see is joy. Dave’s achievement is neither quite charity or simple individual philanthropy. It’s a collective effort that gets people involved in each other’s lives.
I don’t mean to speak meanly of philanthropy. Generally speaking, philanthropy is always better than no help at all, but it is also in itself a privilege of the few. And I think none of us want communities to rise or fall dependent upon the whims of the very rich. I think we would rather be involved in each other’s lives and that what stop us, most often, is fear.
We fear that the work of many hands will obscure the beloved outline of our individual selves. But perhaps this self you’ve been treasuring for so long is itself the work of many hands. Speaking personally, I owe so much to the hard work of my parents, the education and health care systems in my country, to the love and care of my friends.
And even if one’s individual prestige, such as it is, represents an entirely solo effort, the result of sheer hard work, does that everywhere and always mean that you deserve the largest possible slice of the pie?
These are big questions, and it is collectively that you’ll have to decide them. Everything from the remuneration of executives to the idea of the commons itself, depends on it. And at the core of the question, is what it really means to be the ‘the few’ and ‘the many’. Throughout your adult life your going to have a daily choice to throw your lot in with one or the other. And a lot of people, most people, even people without the luxury of your choices, are going to suggest to you, over and over, that only an idiot chooses to join the many, when he could be one of the few.
Only an idiot chooses public over private, shared over gated, communal over unique. Mrs Thatcher, who was such a genius at witty aphorisms, one said, ‘a man who beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus, can count himself a failure.’
I’ve always been fascinated by that quote. By its dark assumption that even something as natural as sharing a journey with another person represents a form of personal denigration. The best reply to it that I know is that famous line of Terence, the Roman playwright. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. ‘I am a human being. I consider nothing that is human alien to me.’
Montaigne like that so much he had carved into the beams of his ceiling. Some people interpret it as a call to toleration. I find it stronger than that, I think it’s a call to love. Now full disclosure, most of the time I don’t find it easy to low my fellow humans. I’m still that solipsistic 21 year old. But the times I’ve been able to get over myself and get involved at whatever level, well what I’m trying to say is those have proved the most valuable moments of my life.
And I never would have guessed that back in 1997. Oh I would have paid lip service to it, as a noble idea, but I wouldn’t have believed it. And the thing is, it’s not even a question of ethics or self sacrifice or moral high ground, it’s actually totally selfish. Being with people, doing for people, it’s going to bring you joy. Unexpectedly, it just feels better.
It feels good to give your unique and prestigious selves a slip every now and then and confess your membership in this unwieldy collective called the human race.
For one thing, it’s far less lonely, and for another thing contra to Mrs Thatcher, some of the best conversations you’ll ever hear will be on public transport. If it weren’t for the New York and London subway systems, my novels would be books of blank pages.
But I'm preaching to the converted. I see you, gazing into your phones as you walk down Broadway. And I know solipsism must be a constant danger, as it is for me, as it has been for every human since the dawn of time, but you’ve also got this tremendous, contrapuntal force propelling you into the world.
For aren’t you always connecting to each other? Forever communicating, rarely scared of strangers, wildly open, ready to tell anyone everything? Doesn’t online anonymity tear at the very idea of a prestige individual? Aren't young artists collapsing the border between themselves and their audience? Aren’t young coders determined on an all access world in which everybody is an equal participant? Are the young activists content just to raise the money and run? No. They want to be local, grassroots, involved. Those are all good instincts. I'm so excited to think of you pursuing them. Hold on to that desire for human connection. Don’t let anyone scare you out of it.
Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It's a privilege. Don't let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private planes, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don't believe it. We are far more frequently each other's shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world.