B. Commencement Address
Essay by Tone M. H. Petersen
Most people know that it is important to show kindness towards other people and it might seem like a very trivial piece of advice to give people if you tell them to remember to be more kind. However sometimes in the grand scheme of things and in the overpowering and overwhelming light of our own ambition and need for success we still let opportunities of kindness pass us by. This is what George Saunders1 addresses in his commencement addres that he delivered in May 2013 at Syracuse University in New York State.
In his speech Saunders uses 2nd person singular/plural, 1st person plural, and 1st person singular. The use of 2nd person plural makes it clear that Saunders is addressing the audience directly and that he wants them to think, take action and be responsible. The use of 1st person plural (“we”) creates a bond between Saunders and the audience:
“Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions […]: (1) we’re central to the universe […]; (2) we’re separate from the universe […] and (3) we’re permanent […]. Now, we don’t really believe these things - intellectually we know better. (ll.19-120)
In this quote we can see how he includes the audience in his statement and therefore he is also stating that what he is saying applies to everyone, even himself - and that they all know better, meaning that they are collectively responsible. The values that he are advocating are relevant to everyone and therefore, by using 1st person plural, he does not cut anyone off from receiving the message. In the speech he also makes use some of his own life-experiences and therefore he also uses 1st person singular. This makes the text more personal and subjective because the audience is allowed a glimpse into Saunders own life which somewhat makes him more equal to them:
“Do I regret the occasional humiliaiton?” (ll. 33-34)
This quote and the following story about a hockey game shows how Saunder takes himself down from the ‘pedestal’ he is put on as a professor and speaker. By doing this he makes sure that he does not come across a know-all attitude, which he wants to avoid in order to get his message across to the audience. Saunders also starts off his speech with a very sarcastic comment: “Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me).” (ll. 3-6). This comment sets the tone of the speech right of the which is cheerful and humourous because it also shows that he is as normal as everyone else. With the joking nature of his language in general he also makes sure to counteract the audience’s possible perception of him as a boring, old and unimportant university professor. In a sense he takes them by surprise by taking advantage of the prejudice that he might expect and making a joke out of it by speaking of himself as “an old fart”.
The main value that Saunders advocates is kindness. In the beginning of the speech he speaks of regret and the “mistakes” he has made — but that he does not regret. What he does regret are all the times where he failed to be kind towards another person. He tells a story about ‘Ellen’, who was shy and nervous. She got ignored and teased and eventually moved away. This bothers Saunders. What bothers him is the lack of kindness he showed towards her. Even though he did not tease her he regrets his “failure of kindness” (l. 88). What he means by that is that a missed oppotunity of kindness towards another human being is as bad as if he had teased ‘Ellen’. In contrast to kindness he speaks of selfisness and he uses a metaphor to describe the relationship between the two:
“There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive, even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf - seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicine […] for the rest of your life.”...
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