Commencement Speech

Allen Ginsberg once said, "Whoever controls the media, controls the culture." On a day like today, these words couldn't be more relevant, for we all aspire to be key members of the media and we all want a grip on the strings controlling culture. But many of us still don't realize how great a responsibility we're taking on. What kind of messages will we send to our culture? In what direction should we steer it? How should we change it? When I find myself asking these questions, I find answers in something Leo Tolstoy said: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Yes, we must change ourselves before we take on the responsibility of changing our culture, and one of Tolstoy's books, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, tells us how.


The story is about a high court judge named Ivan who lives his life according to a social blueprint. He works a respectable job with a good salary, lives in a respectable neighborhood with other respectable neighbors, and fancies dancing and card games in his spare time as a respectable well-rounded citizen should. Ivan never thinks of transcending this normal, "respectable" lifestyle and embracing his free will as a human being until it is too late. It isn't until hours before his death that he realizes how meaningless his life was, how the social goods, constructions and institutions he valued failed to give his time on earth meaning. The moral of the story is paradoxical: we must acknowledge our inevitable death in order to live our life properly. Selling out our soul for material wealth and prestige is selling our self short of the fruitful meaning we can bring to our life in the scant amount of time between our birth and death.


It is important that WE understand Ivan's tragic error more than anyone else, for if we live our life with meaning, our mass audience will live their life with meaning too. As gatekeepers, we have the power to steer the entire culture away from the harmful entertainment of today and redirect it onto a more meaningful pathway. Now, when I say "harmful entertainment," I'm not referring to movies like The Matrix, music by Marilyn Manson or videogames like Grand Theft Auto. Ironically, my idea of harmful entertainment is the very media that our society perceives as harm-LESS. Today's evening news teams and other infotainment, popular tabloid newspapers, reality television and most major studio movies have all succeeded in imposing an impenetrable set of norms on our culture and instilling fear in anyone that dares penetrate them. Their illusory portrayal of reality has become a skewed model for how a "normal" society functions. If we're not physically gorgeous like all the men and women in the media, then we're not normal. If we're not tattooing our lower back with butterflies or piercing our navel with rings, then we're not normal. If we're not freaking out about terrorism, SARS and killer bees, then we're not normal. The media creates the illusion that they're the ones we have to listen to in order to stay normal. In fact, they make their money off our fear of becoming ABNORMAL. This, my friends, is harmful entertainment. It is as harmful as evil itself. Well, perhaps it is evil itself.


We must think twice before giving our television programs, motion pictures and news articles the green light. Do they impose norms on our culture and scare us into adhering to them? If the answer is 'yes,' then we've discovered evil. But it's not as easy as it seems; evil is tricky. Even if we see through its seemingly "harmless" disguise, it will retaliate by bribing us to let it pass, either in the form of money, a brand new BMW, or a promotion. But when it does, we must remember Ivan's tragedy: when WE grow old, we will search for meaning in our life, and if all we can extract from it is material wealth, prestige and other empty socially constructed illusions, then we won't die happily. Ivan didn't have time to redeem his wasted life; we do. If we understand how to live our life, then we'll understand how to control our culture. Class of 2004, I wish you the best of luck in controlling our culture.


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