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2016 Commencement Address

Thursday, May 19, 2016
Javits Center North

Congratulations, Class of 2016! This is your very own glorious day. As I look around you—even into the distance of this vast hall—I see the beaming faces of your friends and families—all of whom share in this special moment. All—including your professors here on the podium—take pride in your accomplishment.

I want to welcome all of you: families, friends, our faculty and administration, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests. I want to offer a special welcome to Dean Nevin Gursoy from Istanbul Technical University who joins us today with her distinguished faculty colleagues to celebrate the 26 students who graduate as part of FIT’s dual degree program with ITU. Each person who is here today adds to the joy of the moment for our graduates.

You know, it inevitably falls to a college president to provide a piece of parting advice, perhaps even wisdom, for those of you leaving our command. But you, my friends—you have come of age at the start of the 21st century. You are— famously— the Millennials, and if the research on you is right, perhaps we Boomers and Gen-exers should be turning to you for advice. I will get to that in a moment. But I want to dwell first on the world into which you are being launched—the hyper-linked world we offer you now that the 20th century has come and gone.

It is a world of great confusion, noisy and rancorous—a world whose soundtrack, as we see so painfully in this election year, is filled with anger, discord and disrespect. President Obama tells a story of having received a letter from a kindergarten child in Virginia. “Are people being nice?” the child asked.

Are people being nice?

Let me try to answer that. While you were still toddlers, TV talking heads turned into screaming heads, each outshouting the other with no pretense of real debate. Today, TV judges routinely call litigants “morons” and “idiots.” Which is nothing, really, compared to what we continue to hear from radio shock-jocks…who fill the air with hatred targeted at anyone and everyone…even the disabled. Rappers degrade women; politicians toss polarizing insults at each other—this one is a fascist, that one a communist…yet another a “baby killer.” Bloggers bully and spew venom at everyone from elected officials to work colleagues to vulnerable adolescents. Members of congress are spit upon and threatened with death. The President is called a “traitor” and a “feckless weakling.” Are people being nice?

Is it any wonder that in this election cycle, our candidates feel free to slur and demonize and infect the public arena with locker-room vulgarities? As one observer noted, in-your-face aggressive rudeness is commonplace today throughout our culture—and civility, if not dead, is “on life support in intensive care.”

This ugliness…this incivility: it is not new in America or anywhere else in the world, especially in times of change. Our own turbulent history is studded with examples of demagoguery, yellow journalism, hysterical hyperbole and character assassination. Andrew Jackson’s wife was famously called a “wench” and his mother a “common prostitute.” In the run-up to the Civil War, a U.S. senator was caned—and left unconscious—by a member of the House. And as all you hip-hop fans know, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr after Hamilton called Burr “despicable.”

So, no…incivility itself is not new. But the way in which it is communicated today is—and its impact is far more universal, far more destructive. If there is an insult to be hurled, it will happen in a nano-second thanks to the transformative technology of the 21st century and everyone on earth will be able to hear it, to see it, to react to it. Thanks to this 24/7 echo-chamber in which we now live, incivility is in the very air we breathe.

For a democracy, this is alarming—even dangerous. And poll after poll shows that the American public agrees. In a nation this diverse, a nation made up of more than 300 million people, democracy is inherently difficult—it is, as President Obama has said, “messy, contentious and complicated.” But if we value it—and surely we do—then we have no choice but to bring civil discourse back to the public arena. “We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down,” the president said. We must “maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate.”

Words matter. They can, as one observer said, clarify or cloud…inflame or inspire. They can exacerbate intolerance…or they can heal, as Abraham Lincoln’s did when he spoke of “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” Yes, democracy is difficult….and so is civility. It is, as one educator put it, “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called upon to make for the sake of living together.” It requires self-restraint… self-censorship…respectful engagement… good will…and what is sometimes called “a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”

Indeed, in order to build a culture that nurtures this democracy we cherish…a culture in which civil discourse can again take place, we need to be able to step back and think critically…we need knowledge… we need facts…both about ourselves and about the “others”—whoever they may be… all those “others” we feel so free to denigrate. Most essentially, we need that quality of character called empathy…an ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of another.

I think of a story that you may be familiar with, one about a deeply religious man who, in 1959, answered the biblical call to “bear one another’s burden.” He was a journalist…a white man who had his skin darkened medically…and set out on a six week journey through the Jim Crow South as a black man to answer questions that had long been haunting him. What would it be like, he wondered, to “experience discrimination based on color”…what “adjustments would he have to make”…to live in a black man’s shoes.

The man was John Howard Griffin—and his was not idle curiosity. He was a Southerner deeply disturbed by the racial injustice he witnessed all around him. He got his answer. In his book called Black Like Me, he recounts in intimate detail the new world he entered—a world of fear, alienation and loneliness…a world in which he moved with profound trepidation…threatened and bullied on streets and buses…the constant target of slurs and of what was called, among blacks, the “hate stare.” All of the basics of daily living became humiliating, time-consuming struggles: finding a place to eat or buy goods; a rest room; a place to sleep. Seeking work wherever he went, he was constantly rejected. “We don’t want you people,” a factory foreman in Alabama told him. “Don’t you understand that?”

In the six weeks of his journey, Griffin learned, with despair, that “blackness was not a color but a lived experience.” And from that he wrote his searing memoir that remains in print today, decades after it was originally published, available in bookstores, on line, taught in schools—still relevant after all these years. Still relevant—perhaps more than ever—today. And this brings me back to where I began this morning…and why I think we Boomers should be turning to you, our graduates, for advice.

You see, everything we know about you—as a generation—points to great promise. As Millennials, you’ve been researched to death—and you may be tired of hearing about it, but it is really all good. First of all, you are the largest generation of the modern era, so you carry great political clout. You are the most educated generation in our history. You are idealistic, liberal in spirit and open to change. You are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. Indeed, you are the most socially tolerant of the generations…and blessedly, the least self-righteous. You have a receptive, respectful attitude toward our vastly diverse society and its multiple lifestyles. What a gorgeous generational profile.

Now, having attended FIT, you—in particular—have some additional advantages. In your years with us, you worked, studied, lived and played in a heterogeneous city and college community that exposed you daily to people unlike yourselves. You were taught by faculty that demanded the development of the critical thinking that is so essential to civility. You also have the gift of creativity…of imagination. Without it, you would not have been admitted to FIT. With it—you have the inherent ability to better grasp the human condition and to appreciate our universal brotherhood.

And brotherhood…isn’t that what we are talking about? It is celebrated in one of our country’s most beloved patriotic songs: “America America…God shed his grace on thee…and crown thy good with brotherhood…from sea to shining sea.” The words were written by the poet Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. And when asked, many years later, why she thought her poem endured, her answer was simple: “Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.”

Class of 2016, I want to believe this is true even today—and that you, with your confidence, optimism and open-minded idealism can become the change agents our country craves. Indeed, you have all the tools you need to repair the angry, inflammatory and infinitely sad soundtrack of the 21st century—to return civility…brotherhood… to our lives—and to help make our democracy thrive…from sea to shining sea. I wish you good luck on your journey…and I wish you God speed.