I was given the chance — surprisingly — to give the student speech at my graduation ceremony on the 20th of December. I submitted a version of my speech for approval but couldn’t miss the opportunity to make some additional remarks on the day. I gave a plug for divesting from fossil fuels and I also thought it was worth mentioning the appalling decision by the ANU to threaten me and some other students with disciplinary action for a satirical piece in Woroni earlier in the year (see my final contribution to Woroni or just Google any combo of: ANU, Islam, censorship, Koran, Woroni, rape fantasies).
Anyway, here’s the text of my speech as it was delivered on the day (roughly accurate, I made some off the cuff changes too; hopefully I’ll have video of it soon [EDIT 25-02-14: video of the speech now available here). My themes, were two of my favourites: scepticism and self-reference.
Thank you Vice Chancellor and good afternoon to all the friends and family joining us today and also of course the Chancellor, distinguished guests up here and graduates. Everyone in a funny hat.
When considering what to speak about today I naturally ran through the usual options and then naturally watched a bunch of graduation speeches on YouTube for inspiration. In doing so I noted that graduation speeches follow a familiar form and obey certain conventions of style and content.
Having now completed my second honours year in Arts, I naturally fell back on what I feel comfortable with and considered making my graduation speech an incisive critique and deconstruction of the graduation speech genre itself. But even a cursory survey of the literature (Youtube, again) demonstrated that even that is now something of a cliche. And if there’s one thing I should have learned in my English literature major, it’s that a big part of good writing involves avoiding cliches.
So there’ll be no hackneyed attempts here at self-deprecating arts humour, relating to future joblessness; no trite in-jokes about spending the night at this or that local nightclub instead of doing the essay; there won’t be any commonplaces about how it’s not what you learn that’s important but the journey you took; an aphorism so pithy, it’s barely even true.
A keen student of aesthetics will also of course realise that it’s quite tedious to become overly self-referential or “meta” — but I’d say I’ve already violated that principle of good writing merely by mentioning it in the foregoing sentence — and the current sentence is even more self-referential — especially this bit…We’re straying somewhat from the thrust of this speech.
But then again, let’s not under-sell the value of self-reference either. It’s the self-referential aspect of language that allows us to say half of the things we say. Computer science is impossible without self-reference and recursion; and Mathematics and logic are in some sense only about themselves. Moreover, arguably the defining feature of consciousness itself is that we can think about ourselves, thinking. It’s this reflexivity that demands we always interrogate our own views. We interrogate them based on new facts about the world, gained from experience and we talk to people and read books and learn what others think. But ultimately it’s ourselves who decide what is right and good — albeit warped by cognitive biases, cultural imprinting, historical context, discourses, linguistic structures, ideology, the mirror stage, et cetera. All of those things we learned that make certain knowledge impossible.
The self-referential self is our gift but sometimes it’s hard to appreciate if you’re the kind of person who does constantly question themselves, who, like me, lacks confidence, who constantly feels inadequate, who wonders why with such privilege, it’s still possible to be miserable, who feels that gifts are being squandered if one doesn’t use one’s affluence and education to cure cancer, reverse climate change and write the great Australian novel — who, in short, endures the standard neuroticism of the best arts students. But that’s infinitely preferable to the alternative: which is the abdication of the responsibility of trying to figure out yourself and the world. Most frequently this responsibility is arrogated to some religious dogma, a political ideology or some horrible abstraction like a national identity. The constant questioning of the fretful humanist is a position of massive integrity compared to those who have sold out for the comfort of someone else’s version of truth.
Maintaining scepticism and self-criticism may seem tiring, it may seem like there’s nothing to hold on to — but the worst that can happen is that you become something like a jaded philosophy professor. There are worse things you can do. Much worse. People do horrible things when they think they know something for certain, because they can never keep it to themselves, can they?. The temptation is too great apparently, to tell gay people that their form of love is illegal, to tell women they’re inferior to men, to tell children they’ll burn in hell if they think the wrong thing. These people have no sense of scepticism, or irony, or style and we give them a level of respect incommensurate with the meanness of their ideas.
Institutions, too, have to be self-critical and indeed this very university, for all its gifts, could look no further than to divest from fossil fuels for an easy piece of self-improvement, which I offer as a suggestion. Or its decision earlier in the year to threaten disciplinary action against some students for a satirical piece in a student publication. But props to the university, because they did invite one of the students to give a graduation speech today. So that decision either signals the offer of an olive branch of reconciliation, or demonstrates a lack of ability to sufficiently Google me. It isn’t clear.
What does this diatribe have to do with getting a BA you ask?
Well, when I applied to be a speaker at this ceremony (a particularly self-indulgent act) I had to fill out a little web form summarising what I would talk about. And so in an act of ultimate and literal self-reference, I’ll now quote from myself: truths — Freestone writes — may come in various forms and The Truth is ultimately a chimera, but the pursuit of it is both the object and reward of higher education.
That’s studies in the liberal arts in a nutshell. You can’t know the absolute truth; anyone who thinks they do is dangerous and should be called-out on it; but you still have to keep trying to figure it out, or else there’ll be no one to oppose the absolutists. I hope this endorsement of scepticism doesn’t itself sound like a tired cliche, because it’s the only thing I do know for sure. And happily, it doesn’t stop when you walk out of here with a funny hat and some letters after your name, to do whatever it is you’ll end up doing. Surely we’ve all seen as arts students, that there’s nothing stopping us reading stuff and questioning it and thereby questioning yourselves. There actually isn’t anything more important than that.
Thank you and good luck to all the people graduating here today.