May 19, 2017

Address to the Class of 2017 Advanced Degrees Commencement Ceremony

Simmons College

Remarks as prepared

To President Drinan; Provost Conbo; distinguished deans, faculty, and staff of Simmons College; and, most importantly, to the Class of 2017: Congratulations!

Graduates: For years now, you have worked hard to acquire knowledge and develop skills in a subject that you care about. That’s an amazing accomplishment.

As someone who went to graduate school myself, I can think of only one thing more challenging than getting an advanced degree: Living with someone getting their advanced degree. So, congratulations to all of the friends and family who are here today. This is your triumph, too!

I’ve always wanted to see Simmons College—and I am especially honored to be on this beautiful campus today—because a remarkable friend of mine graduated from Simmons forty years ago: The extraordinary journalist Gwen Ifill, who inspired me and countless others across this country. We lost Gwen last November, but I know she would have been so excited to welcome you into the wonderful family of Simmons alumni.

Today, I’d like to talk about a topic that was near and dear to Gwen’s heart: Freedom, and how, with the freedom of speech, comes the responsibility to listen.

Part of the reason why I wanted to talk about this today is that right now our freedoms and our democratic institutions are in crisis. Around the world, inequality is rising. Untold millions are not free from hunger, or cold, or poverty. Too many fear persecution for their religion or beliefs. Others simply fear for their lives.

Authoritarian governments seek to stamp out democratic freedoms, like the right to protest or to a free press. Even here in the United States, essential democratic institutions—including the media, civil society, and universities—are under attack.

And yet, it’s worth remembering that while today’s threats to democracy are unique, they are not unprecedented. Consider the great threat to democracy of the last century—the Second World War.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined what he called the “Four Freedoms.” These are the essential freedoms that all people should enjoy:

Freedom of speech.

Freedom of belief.

Freedom from want.

And freedom from fear.

These freedoms inspired a famous series of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. They open the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And they are central to our American experiment.

It seems fitting to focus on the freedom of speech here in Boston, where the American fight for freedom was born. Where protestors gave their lives at the Boston Massacre, and made a statement at the Boston Tea Party.

It’s no coincidence that the Massachusetts Compromise ensured our Constitution would include a Bill of Rights. Or that Boston was home to a righteous abolitionist movement.

It was here that Frederick Douglass said, and I quote: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

There’s a reason why the freedom of speech is enshrined in the very First Amendment, and why it is the first freedom of FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” The freedom to express oneself is actually a prerequisite for all our other freedoms.

Without freedom of speech, there’s no preacher in the pulpit, or defense at a trial.

Without freedom of speech, we do not get to cast our vote, or call our representatives.

Without freedom of speech, there is no women’s suffrage or March on Washington; no marriage equality or Black Lives Matter.

Without freedom of speech, you would not be able to pursue your education at a place like Simmons, or gather freely at an event like this.

I certainly understand that, these days especially, it’s complicated to come onto any college campus in America and talk about freedom of speech. But what amazes me is that, hundreds of years after our founding, the freedom of speech is still vital to the functioning of our democracy.

And we now have more ways to exercise this freedom than ever before. The internet allows us to transmit our ideas to an unknowably large audience of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, devoted readers and disgruntled trolls, alike. Our smartphones let us make this connection anywhere, anytime—even during this ceremony.

But this amazing technology has also accelerated a few unsettling trends. For one, more people feel entitled to exercise their free speech without restraint; harassment has become more commonplace; and public figures who express unpopular opinions receive a flood of hateful messages in their inboxes and Twitter mentions.

So even though the internet has given us more opportunities to speak, producing more speech is not the same as more productive speech.

I would argue, speech cannot be productive if everyone is just shouting over each other, and we lower the quality of our discourse by upping the volume on our disagreements.

For our freedom of speech to work, we need to listen to one another. In fact, we have a responsibility to listen, because listening allows us to extend the freedom of speech to others.

This is not just true of free expression, of course. It’s a part of the larger agreement we make when we choose to live together in a democracy. “We, the People” means that my freedom depends on your freedom. And when we live in a free society, we are charged with protecting freedom for one another through our responsibilities to one another.

Just think about this in the context of the Four Freedoms.

Freedom of belief means we have a responsibility to accept the beliefs and differences of others.

Freedom from want means we have a responsibility to serve others.

Freedom from fear means we have the responsibility to act on behalf of others.

And yes, freedom of speech means we have the responsibility to listen to others.

Unfortunately, these days, it’s easy to not listen to each other. It’s not even clear that we want to listen to each other. Instead, we tend to curate the information that comes our way, while social and commercial media try to give us what they think we want. We engage with stories that confirm our assumptions and biases, that do not challenge or expand our view of the world.

The algorithms figure out what we want, what is comfortable, and they just keep feeding us more of the same. Meanwhile, alternative media outlets sow doubt and confusion based on what they want us to believe—even if it is not true.

So, how are we supposed to make good use of our freedom of speech if we are not listening? And how are we supposed to have productive conversations if we can’t even agree on what is true?

This brings me back to my friend, and your fellow Simmons grad, Gwen Ifill.

Gwen was a shining light in journalism. She covered politics for the Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC, and was anchor of the PBS News Hour. She understood the problems our world faces better than anybody. And in her life and work, Gwen embodied this special relationship between our freedom of speech and our responsibility to listen.

The week Gwen passed, her colleagues aired a powerful tribute to her. Many, many great things were said about Gwen, but I was struck when one of them said: “No matter how complicated and how fraught the conversations I have with people, Gwen taught me how to listen.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Gwen’s eagerness to listen was something I got to see in person on many occasions. One of the last times we were together was in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march on Bloody Sunday.

That night, we had dinner with our hero Congressman John Lewis, who was only 25 years old when he was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Gwen just wanted to hear the Congressman talk. She asked questions. She listened. And by the end of the night, Congressman Lewis had really opened up. He told us story after story until we all had in tears in our eyes.

But here’s the thing: Gwen didn’t want to listen to Congressman Lewis just because he’s a famous civil rights leader. She wanted to listen to everyone!

She cared about people, and making sure their voices were heard. Even if she didn’t agree with you, she stayed resolute in her capacity to listen.

Gwen wasn’t just listening for herself. She was listening to others, and for others, and for the sake of our highest ideals. It’s what made Gwen so great at her job, and it’s also what made her such a good friend and a good person. Listening is what made Gwen, Gwen.

As I mentioned earlier, Gwen graduated from Simmons forty years ago. I hope that, along with your Simmons degree, you take some of her spirit with you—and that you accept your responsibility to listen.

Seek out stories you may not want to hear, and opinions you may not completely agree with. Have a difficult conversation with someone in your life, and rather than turn away, let them tell you their side. As I’ve found through many of these conversations in my life, you don’t have to change your position to change your perspective. I’ve always learned something from listening to others.

And that’s the thing.

Listening is not a passive act of simply staying quiet; it’s an active choice to engage, to be critical and compassionate.

While it is important for our media to listen, it is essential that we embrace our own individual responsibility for listening.

Because only when we listen can we find common ground.

Only when we listen can we forge compromise and a common future.

And only when we listen can we begin to heal the divides throughout this country, and build the bridges that our democracy today so desperately needs.

So, Class of 2017, congratulations to all of you on this major milestone in your life. And thank you all for this honor, and for listening to me today.