Graduating into a Post-Truth World

This is a draft of a commencement speech I’ll be giving to New School Environmental Studies graduates. I’d love critical feedback:

I must begin by apologizing for not being a celebrity commencement speaker. I will be talking a bit about celebrity, or at least what it means to graduate in a world where celebrity, and its values, remain overwhelming priorities. But I am not a celebrity, just a professor who was not at the meeting when they decided on the commencement speaker.

I am professor of the design side of this uniquely triangular degree program (the others being science (ecosystems science) and policy (urban environment planning)). Design is weird, as perhaps some of you now know. Rather than being an attempt to understand the truth of this or that thing, design just makes things, or as Elaine Scarry once put it, it makes things up and then makes them real by pretending that they were never made. Design makes something true; from design’s point of view, truthfulness is something you have to construct. I want to talk a bit about what it means to graduate into a world with design’s kind of truthiness, what non-celebrities call constructivism.

Commencement speeches are occasions for platitudes. Something like: ‘To thine own self be true,’ for example.

I really hate that one.

I hate it because when I was at high school I was invited to participate in a prestigious competition – the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition. You are given a topic 15 minutes before making an 8 minute speech. I was selected to compete because I was a good debater. But I quickly discovered that there is no correlation between disputation skills and oratory skills. (I also discovered that you win by preparing a couple of speeches that could be easily modified to the kind of generic topics you get given at events like this.) My topic was ‘To thine own self be true,’ and I bombed. So that epithet is not going to be the one I give you.

And this is ironic because I now live in the land of ‘To thine own self be true.’ Self-knowledge seems to be one of the highest imperatives around here. Losers on reality TV shows are always declaring, ‘I didn’t come here to make friends, but I’ve learned so much about myself.’

Instead of this Shakespearean maxim, I much prefer the Ancient Greek one, from Pindar, but much worked over by Nietzsche: ‘learn to become who you are.’ There is something dynamic and othering about that phrase, with its emphasis on becoming, in the future, rather than merely knowing, about the present. It is paradoxical, containing the provocation that it is a challenge to be, to be in sync with your own existence – to be, you could say, sustainable.

This talk of truth and self, or authenticity, reminds me of an article I remember reading a few years back that really gave me a new way of seeing the world.

(I think that it is really important to always ask yourself when was the last time I really learned something from something I read; what was last thing I read that influenced me, that didn’t just add to my knowledge, but that caused me to change. Actually, you could say this even of verbal arguments. When was the last time that your mind was changed by someone.)

One of the pieces that did this to me a few years ago was by David Runciman in the London Review of Books. The article was specifically about two parallel succession fights, one in the United Kingdom, between Blair and his 2IC, the recently ousted Gordon Brown, and one in Australia, between John Howard and his 2IC. The specifics matter less than the conceptual distinction that Runciman makes, later expanded into a book. Runciman claims that political weakness today comes from being perceived as a hypocrite. This is something different from lying. In a strange way, lying, boldfaced, is something that, these days, gets read as being strong. Precisely because everybody knows that you are lying, because you apparently have the courage to lie, outright, you cannot be accused of being a hypocrite. By contrast, hypocrites are all about denying and concealing. They lie also, but with the pretense that they are not lying, concealing the principles that are actually organizing their work and ways of living.

Runciman’s article made sense for me of something that had been troubling me ever since I had finished my doctorate in 2000. Being a product of, and thus staunch believer in, the institution that is the university, I had enormous faith in the inherent power of truth. And yet, throughout the naughties, nothing seemed more impotent than truth. Whether it was Clinton and that woman, or Bush and Blair and their Weapons of Mass Destruction, or Howard and an Australian fear of ‘illegal immigration,’ lying seemed to have no consequence; the world seemed content to grant mendacity impunity. Runciman corrected my recent graduate naivety, explaining for me why truth does not have automatic agency.

Runciman’s theory explained a lot. It explained for example, celebrity. Performers are professional liars. And invariably, the most spectacular performers lie not only in their professional work but in their messed up lives as well. And they are loved the more for it – as long as they avoid being hypocrites about it.

And Runciman’s theory explains media phenomena like ‘climate gate.’ Climate scientists come out looking like hypocrites when neo-conservative pundits patently lie about climate change being some sort of liberal elite conspiracy; or Transport Commissioners look like hypocrites when faced with ridiculous lies about bike lines being part of a UN conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty of the US and drive (excuse the pun) the middle class back into urban tenements.

Now, while I hope that this precis of Runciman’s argument convinces you of never, ever being a hypocrite, I am obviously not advocating that now that you have graduated you should embark on a successful career of defiant lying. You have not just completed a business degree after all.

I am, I hope obviously, still exhorting you to be champions of the truth that your time at a university should have made you love.

But, Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary degree program, one that combines science, policy and design in the complex context of urban environments. That interdisciplinarity is all about the fact that the ‘truth is NOT out there.’ It is the complex outcome of a mix of practices that is only ever more or less robust. You will see this now in the work of the seniors.

People can lie about issues of sustainability because there is no single extant truth to sustainability. It is rather a project, an ongoing project. The truth of sustainability is something that needs to assembled and defended. It is something that you have to commit to, something you have to become, something you have to be true to.

What this means in the end is best captured I feel by what Michel Foucault toward the end of his life was calling, following the Ancient Greeks, parrhesia. This is often paraphrased as ‘speaking truth to power.’ But I prefer, in the context of not-being-a-hypocrite, and in the era of facebook, to call it ‘speaking truth to friends.’ Here’s a quote from Foucault’s Fearless Speech:

So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger.

I hope that your learning of Environmental Studies at the New School has made you sustainability parrhesiastes. Not people who look for the big glory political moment to speak truth to power, but people who, knowing that that spectacular arena of politics is increasingly irrelevant, look for the everyday opportunities to speak often about need for things to be changed so that they are truer to sustainability. Get micro-political about ecological sustainability. Live toward that truth, but moreso, speak often about that, making it true.

Let me leave you with two versions of this exhortation.

The first concerns what many of you know that I am most interested in at the moment: sharing. I am convinced that it is true that moving from an ownership society to one that is structured around use-without-ownership is the best way of reducing societal material intensity. But sharing, whether community-based or commercial, requires higher levels of cosmopolitanism. People need to relearn how to get along with people, especially people different from them. To find trustworthy people you have to start trusting; you have to take a risk.

I hope that all you Environmental Studies graduates, having been in New York for the past few years, are now, and will continue to be, no matter where you are, the sort of people who are forever starting conversations with strangers. While you wait for a bus, while you wait for your laundry, while you sit in a café, I hope that you will always be the sort of parrhesiastes, the non-hypocrites, who start talking about your sustainability politics to whoever. This reaching out is not just about proselytizing about sustainability; it is about relearning to become who we are, interpersonals.

Another final way to put this occurred to me when I once read a critique of higher education. It said that it is an indictment of most academic programs that their best students are the ones who go on to become teachers in those programs. The argument was that the best products of good teaching should be those who go on to practice what they have been taught, rather than turn around and teach it. But I always felt that this critique was an error in emphasis. It is true that we academics should not only value those students who become academics; but that does not mean that we should not aspire to all our students being in their own ways teachers, outside the academy, in the café or Laundromat or at the bus stop. We environmental studies faculty do, and I believe rightly, expect all our students to leave us reteaching the truth about what it means to live in interconnected but finite systems.

In my experience, this is what these Environmental Studies graduates we honor today currently are: they are kind of people who take risks to learn and teach about how to better our urban environments. May they continue to be true to that.



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5 responses to “Graduating into a Post-Truth World

  1. Maxime Leroy

    As a quick crit:
    – Awesome idea of inspiring the students who are just graduating to “be/do something” very tangible. Here, being sustainability parrhesiastes. It has a way of connecting these years of study to something else than just “I am sure you will all get a job” (or at least please do so for the sake of the News School Career Opportunities stats)
    – Michel Foucault is so missed as a social theorist and philosopher that his quote is perfectly related to the Sharing example you give. I would even more connect the two when you state the example of sharing and stressing the idea of trust and taking risk.
    – Only crit is that the part around Runciman’s theory could be too long or maybe we loose the connection between this theory and the idea of telling the truth behind it. I don’t know exactly if it should be cut a little or just more rooted on examples and principles (related to students) as you did for the parrhesiastes. Like what is the Clinton and woman or Blair/Bush weapons lies equivalent for design? urbanpolicy ? Maybe Cop15? I don’t know.

  2. Cameron, start your talk with a personal story that illustrates your following points and engages your audience emotionally. There is no substitute. Just talked to John Hagel three hours ago at the Institute for the Edge in Palo Alto, and he gave me the same advice, advice given to me by other smart folks that confirms the wisdom of this approach. -Neal

  3. Leslie

    Hi Cameron–

    As always, a really brilliant, and “true”, piece of wisdom to pass on. I think the point might be more apparent if you can get to it sooner. The plot really picks up once you begin discussing Runciman. Good luck!

  4. Duncan

    If you want a couple more beautiful renditions of the same idea – and haven’t read them already which I know is doubtful! – Stengers article ‘Wondering About Materialism’ in The Speculative Turn is one of the only articles recently that has made me ‘truly’ think! The stuff about wonder, invention, “matters of concern,” “exceptional practices,” and learning from the seemingly trivial and non-institutionally sanctioned practices like Haraway’s work with Cayenne in agility trials in “Wonderful”…

  5. Your story about bombing the oratory is good. I would consider starting your talk immediately with that story. Start in the action of it, just like the way a good movie opens. No prelude. Airdrop the listener into this scene.

    And actually tell it as a story, do not describe what happened, tell it as if it’s happening just now to put the listener with you at that moment. They will connect with you over this story.

    Then you can unpack why your story is relevant and how it supports they ideas you present.

    This means you could cut almost all of the existing opening, though you could put some of those sentiments after your story, though the story does some of that work for you.

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