Commencement speech

The following is the text of the speech given by graduating BYU senior Ashley Sanders at the BYU alternative commencement. It is posted with permission.

A lot of people have asked me: if you disagree with what BYU or the government does, why don’t you just go someplace else? (A favorite suggested location is Berkeley.) I only know one way to answer them, which is to tell them that I love this place, and want it to be what it can be. After I answer this way, there is always another question: If you love it, why do you criticize it? My answer is the same: because I love it, and because I believe that integrity requires a mix of staying and going, charity and chastisement, and because I want to go to a school and live in a country that let me do all of the above.

I am an English major, and so I have taken the liberty of choosing the most dangerous and endangered word in the English language–integrity. I think it is the most dangerous word because it is one of the few words that requires us to critique everyone and everything equally, including ourselves. So I am here today at commencement to defend an endangered word, and to save a place for it in our political and academic dictionary.

I am certain that integrity requires great vision and great compassion, but I fear that these virtues are often poor friends. It is tempting for people with great vision to leave the places that need them most, and it is tempting for compassionate people to accept places as they are.

I believe that integrity is an ambivalent condition, and that people earning it believe painfully that people and places are good but that both can also be much better. This kind of person has two kinds of vision: one that sees the beauty in what is, and another that sees a beautiful urgency in what could be, the scrutiny of a seer and the prescience of a prophet. This compassion and urgency moves a person to critique herself, and then to critique because she wants them to be as much as they promised that they would be. Integrity requires the creation of community, and that is what we see here today.

Our schools, churches, and political parties are supposed to act like communities, but most usually teach us only how to survive. They might keep us from the worst things, might get us some jobs, pave a street. If they teach us much beyond that, it is a cruel kind of questioning, and interrogation that includes and condemns everybody but ourselves. But if we love what is and what is possible, and if we feel equally responsible to both, than I believe we will start with questions for ourselves and our institutions and our answers will not let us wait to be good. We won’t be content to survive; we will change our surroundings by becoming whatever is missing. But we will not stop there, and can’t. We will go further, because we will not agree to the survival of anything. We will stay and build a community, a place where things we live for — art, expression, beauty, fairness, striving, and giving — will not be eclipsed by the things that get us there. We will stay on as creators and participators amidst other creators and participators, responsible for each other as we are and for what we could be. Any other kind of staying is less of a straight look around and more of a lingering look back or sideways, more salt pillars and less salt of the earth.

Integrity isn’t staying or going, it is staying or going with all our might, without confusing the ugliness inside us for the ugliness outside of us, and trying to fix both. Integrity is not about leaving, surviving, or even questioning, but about giving our abundance to the poverty that we see. Integrity is how you stay or how you go, and a generosity in both.

But having vision means waking to an imperfect world, and what do we do with our dreams after that? Nothing good, until we learn that loving and criticizing amidst imperfection — our own and others — is not a hassle on the way to the point but the point itself. Knowing that, integrity isn’t just a question for people, but a question for politics and religion and heart, a question we must say yes to alone and then yes to together. If there is heart left, I think it would be difficult to stop integrity at the limits of our own body. The body singular would always be the body politic, and all our acts would have the creative motion of bringing, improving, and togethering.

But all is not well at BYU or in America if our fossilized feelings give us the righteousness of the already-finished, the now-to-be-endured, the soon-to-escape.

It is not noble to survive; it is noble to create and revise. Integrity is not smug separation, and it is not the worship of a rhetorical fossil. Integrity requires the ripple of revision, reform, restoration, and recreation. It requires the sacrifice of superiority and the awakening of awe. It reminds us that we should be stunned to be here at all, to be here with others, and to have something to give or restore.

I believe that survival is an insult to human beings. I am told that people need food, and water, and shelter, and that is easy enough to believe. That is what people need. But humans need to create and to be responsible for something, to love it and give back to it. Humans want to participate and, if they are sincere, to leave themselves everywhere.

The above has been my philosophy and my burden. It is my answer to why I have stayed at BYU and why I have organized this alternative commencement. I believe that if we do not shut ourselves against the horror of the modern world — its poverty and its corruption and its cruel economy — we would feel compelled at all moments to be generous so that everyone could be equal. This generosity includes criticism — fundamentally includes it. Criticism is admitting that we are living without eyes, and considering it a surrender to live happily with what gouged them out.

I am part of this commencement because I want people to have the chance to speak, and to speak better because they have had to listen. My school and my country do not allow enough of this, and they hurt themselves for that. I believe that ordinary people know what is best, and I believe that organizations that don’t allow ordinary people to improve them from the inside will be less vibrant, less fair, and less humane.

This requires something. It requires ethics in the present tense. As a nation and as a community we are too comfortable with ethics in the past or future tense. We are comfortable with revolutionaries who no longer threaten us, and with someday-people who will solve the problems that we are unwilling to address. As college students and community members, the best thing we could learn is that change always occurs within a context of cyclical arguments, manufactured virtues, and reasons not to act — not to be shocked or horrified. The barest fact is that everyone has a vested interest, and the barest virtue is to divest ourselves. If we learn this, we will be able to do the right thing at the right time, even when truisms and fallacies are ranged against us.

And so we should get to work, and spare no one our love, our help, or our ideas. We should consider it an honor to work, to sweat for something, and to give a brave offering to the imperfection around us.

Until we do this, we will live, for the most part, under Berger’s sacred canopy of the status quo. If we do not learn to live deliberately, to give a hard look to our institutions and assumptions, and to commend people who look, we will repeat history again and again. We will reinforce survival — unimaginative, task-oriented survival. We need to live looking around, deciding whether our institutions are doing what we designed them to do. Are our schools and our churches and our families places where we learn how to transform ourselves, where we are free to apply the lessons of history in the present, and where we are rewarded for thinking and not merely obeying, where we can be creative and thoughtful and human? If they are not, then we are not finished. We could start finishing by following Auden, who told it to me plain in a poem: “There is no such thing as the State/We must love one another or die.” We could start by using our integrity the way it ought to be used: to evaluate ourselves and others equally, and with love.

Comments

  1. endlessnegotiation says:

    I find it sad that an english major graduating from a four year university does not understand the meaning of the word “integrity.” Does she even own a dictionary? Truly sloppy.

  2. Frederick Douglass had a pretty good definition of integrity:

    I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.

    Don’t mind the ridicule, Ashley.

    More Douglass:

    If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

    It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

    I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

  3. Latter-day guy says:

    Ouch, endlessneg. That was rather harsh. I liked the remarks and felt that they were a positive look at dissent from a standpoint of faith. That being said, I did not agree entirely with the aims of the alternative commencement, and was hugely disappointed with Nader’s remarks. It’s sad that it cost $12,000 to have our religious leaders criticized; can’t we find people to do that for free? Had there been more (or only) student speakers, it would have been much more positive (perhaps not as well-attended, though).

    The one off-putting thing about this speech is the I’m-a-martyr-to-the-lions-of-the-establishment air it carries; sadly, that attitude was inherent in many of the remarks of those on campus swept up into the gotta-have-a-cause syndrome of the past few weeks: that tinge of dramatic self-sacrifice did not help their cause, however noble it might have been.

  4. Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

    One statement I am not too sure is consistent with the underlying feeling of the comments was the following:

    I believe that ordinary people know what is best, and I believe that organizations that don’t allow ordinary people to improve them from the inside will be less vibrant, less fair, and less humane.

    There is little to argue about with regard to orgainizations needing to allow the individuals within the organization to “improve” the organization from within. But does the speaker really believe that “ordinary people know what is best”? What about when the ordinary people want to go to war with Iraq or lower taxes? Which ordinary people know what is best? The statement is too populist to be workable if consistency with a certain political ideology is imagined, which the context of the speech shows to be the case.

    (And the people who make any given organization such that it needs to be changed are also ordinary people.)

  5. I was at the alternative commencement, and I heard Nader say something to the effect that Mormonism was born out of dissent and rebellion. Does anyone remember how this quote went?

  6. Nader: “The Mormon Church was born from revelation, rebellion and dissent”.

    From a Newsnet article: http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/64171

    A commenter here on BCC cited it as “The Mormon church was born from revelation, rebellion, and dissent. Some of the contemporary successors are having trouble with the First Amendment.” (http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/04/graduation-day-2007/feed/)

  7. While do find that speech sloppy. I will say that I, for one, am glad that there was an alternative commencment.

    I don’t think it has spoken well of the church to do as it has done. I asked three different good friends over for dinner with the missionaries one politely said he has something else planned and two of them replied essentially, “Isn’t your church the one giving Cheney an honorary Doctorate?” When I replied that it was BYU that was giving the degree they replied, “If that’s someone that they want to give a doctorate to and put on the stage with your prophet, it doesn’t seem like something I’d want anything to do with right now.” And these guys are far from what I’d consider raving democrats, or even liberals.

    I did explain that not everyone was happy about and there was at least an alternative commencement. Both of the naysayers were pleased by it saying it was healthy to have a show opposition as one put it, “They’re not all sheep.” However, the one that was most impressed was so impressed he went out and did some research on the alternative commencment and the reaction, about having to be far away and not being allowed to have any signs against BYU the church or Bush or Cheney. He complained at me rather empathically about it.

    All week, I’ve had non-mormons coming to me asking about the whole Cheney thing amazed that the church would give him a doctorate. In all I don’t consider it one of the church’s finer moments. So while some say it waste of money to spend 12k to oppose it, I’d say it’s worth it in that I can point to it and tell others, “See? Not everyone agrees.”

  8. Latter-day guy says:

    ronito,

    It cost 12,000 to get Nader. Other (more effective) means of dissent would have been much cheaper. Look at the nasty dichotomy one might draw:

    Either you are with the “church” (the BYU board of trustees is too much a “who’s who” of LDS leadership at the highest level to disassociate them) and their tacit approval of Cheney by allowing the speech in the first place, AND THEN (finger in the eye to BYU Democrats) going to the extent of giving him an honorary degree, OR you are with Nader whose comments were critical of those leaders to the point of being divisive.

    It was Nader’s comments that would allow people to reach that conclusion. If all the speeches had been like the student speech listed here then it would have instead highlighted the room for faithful (rather than antagonistic) dissent within the church.

    No matter where you stand on the issue, Nader’s remarks were polarizing and lessened the credibility of the students involved. They could have saved a lot of money while still showing people that “not everyone agrees.”

    (And if your non-member friends have real problems with this, just wait until they research mormon history! We have bigger skeletons that Cheney hiding in the closet.) ;-)

  9. Latter Day Dude. I completely agree whole heartedly. When I heard there was going to me an alternative commencement I was like “YES!!” and then when I heard Nader was speaking my reaction was “NO!!!”

    Why him? He’d only polarize things. They could’ve gotten any number of perfectly fine speakers without seeming like hippies. I read a few articles in the SL Tribune by a BYU professor that was against the whole thing. Was he not available? Seriously, they only hurt themselves by having such a polarizing figure. But still, I do have to commend them for at least doing something.

    As for my friends, you might be right. But still I guess we’ll never know now.

  10. Having heard about how Nader treats the people around him, I think I would much prefer to spend the day hunting with Dick Cheney than in a room listening to Nader bloviate.

  11. Peter LLC says:

    It was Nader’s comments that would allow people to reach that conclusion…. No matter where you stand on the issue, Nader’s remarks were polarizing and lessened the credibility of the students involved.

    Even modern society needs to push the odd goat over a cliff now and again.

  12. Latter-day guy says:

    What a cryptic thing to say. Do you envision Nader as the odd goat?

  13. riverstone says:

    First of all, I would like to commend Ashely for her amazing courage. Not only for helping to organize and carry out the alternative commencement, but for giving voice to the importance of struggling for change even when it is uncomfortable and painful. This is not something most people want to confront and it is not a popular idea. Furthermore, she expounded on the idea of yearning for a better world by connecting it to the universal, innate desire to love. In my experience, loving myself is synonomous with a continual striving to be better. Seeing the good, but also seeing the many parts of myself which hold me back and keep me from being who I really want to be. Why is it that I have not loved my community in the same manner? Is it because I am afraid I will be treated like others who stand up and admit all is not well in our communities? Is it because I am too lazy? I think it is a mix.
    Thank you Ashley for reminding me in such beautiful language that I need love to others as much as myself and be willing to lose myself in the process.
    My take on the Ralph Nader invite is that he was invited not because he is the most inspirational speaker, or person for that matter, but because he is a good representative of the value conveyed throughout the program. All of the people invited to speak are outstanding examples of following beliefs even when unpopular, challenging the status quo, and taking action to make a difference in the world. They are not always right, but they are trying.

  14. Even modern society needs to push the odd goat over a cliff now and again.

    Ah the nuance, not only do they not drive Chevettes, but they don’t drive any of motorized vehicles in Israel during Yom Kippur. Isn’t Nader Lebanese?

    but because he is a good representative of the value conveyed throughout the program. All of the people invited to speak are outstanding examples of following beliefs even when unpopular, challenging the status quo, and taking action to make a difference in the world.

    Dissent for the sake of dissent? Nader is a quack, an anti-consumerist hypocrite who has amassed a multi-million dollar personal fortune through stock market investments. He is certainly not someone to be held up as an example.

  15. Latter-day guy says:

    All of the people invited to speak are outstanding examples of following beliefs even when unpopular, challenging the status quo, and taking action to make a difference in the world.

    That’s as may be, but under this criteria Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would also qualify. He follows his beliefs, challenges the status quo (most of us think the Holocaust really did happen, but his brave leadership is “challenging” that), and if he is successful with Iran’s nuclear program, there will be a huge “difference in the world.”

  16. DavidH says:

    “No matter where you stand on the issue, Nader’s remarks were polarizing”

    Well, they weren’t polarizing from my perspective.

    Congratulations Ashley on putting together a fine alternative commencement.

  17. Melissa says:

    The first 3 or 4 uses of alliteration in this speech were cute, the following 20 or 30 not so much.

  18. What’s wrong with a little alliteration?

    bunch of nattering nabobs of negativism …

  19. Eric Russell says:

    Well she is Maxwell’s granddaughter; apparently an inclination towards such language is in the genes.

  20. Anybody catch the the UMass commencement action?

    Wonder if Andrew Card was regretting he hadn’t asked BYU first?

  21. Latter-day guy says:

    How… classy.

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