Posted: May 21, 2002
Convention places two duties upon a commencement speaker. The first, which I now discharge with the greatest of pleasure, is to congratulate those who are graduating. In doing so I shall not employ the formula of my own university, which is to "welcome you into the company of educated men," or, as it has very recently become, "the company of educated men and women." I do not believe that there are two companies — the educated and the not — and even if there were I could not be entirely confident of my own credentials to welcome you into the right one. I have no hesitation, however, in saying that insofar as you have entered upon the life of the mind, you — and your parents and teachers as well — have reason to take pride and satisfaction.
My other duty is to give you some advice, and I approach that one with apprehension. A commencement speaker is supposed to know what is wrong with the world, to tell you how to set it right, and to exhort you to do so. Frankly, I am not qualified to do any of these things. Things that appear to others as "crises" often strike me as more or less unavoidable features of a situation that will straighten itself out in time. Most social problems, someone has remarked, cannot be solved in the sense that a puzzle is solved: they may be coped with, or got around, or put up with, but they cannot be solved. Sometimes they have puzzle-like components, but these usually constitute a small, even trivial part of the whole. Besides, we rarely have the knowledge needed to solve such puzzle-like elements of social problems.
And when we tinker with complicated social arrangements (and all social arrangements are endlessly complicated), we run a grave risk of making good matters bad and bad matters worse. Even if I knew what is wrong with the world and how to set it right, I would be unwilling to exhort you. Our presence here in these gowns is evidence that we are committed to a most egalitarian principle — that of reasonable discussion. For me to try to persuade you of something on other than reasonable grounds would be to violate this principle egregiously. Besides, exhortation is usually a waste of time. What good would it do for me to urge you to be prudent if you are in fact headstrong? You would heed my advice only if you were prudent to begin with.
Perhaps because of the inherent difficulty, if not downright impossibility, of telling the public, or some part of it, what is wrong with the world and how to set it right, most of what passes for advice on public occasions is in my opinion nonsense of one sort of another. I should like to exhibit examples of some of the common, garden varieties.
To begin with, there is the stringing together of mere words — non-sense in the strictest sense. I clipped this example from the newspaper the other day:
Unless we get a strong national commitment that really wants to make the necessary changes we're going to lose this battle. I think this country is doomed.
Never mind who said it or about what. This is what may be called standard non-sense of the sort routinely talked by many important people much of the time. How can a "commitment" want to change anything? How indeed can it "want"? And what by the way is a "national commitment"? I know what a constitutional amendment is, or an act of Congress, or a report of the Gallup Poll, or a plank in a party platform, or a statement by the President that he intends to do this or that. But a "national commitment"?
The advantage of words like that is that they mean everything and nothing. The man who said that words were given us to conceal meaning could not have had these in mind, for surely this speaker had no meaning to conceal!
"Doomed" is certainly such a word when applied to the United States. Does it mean that we will be physically obliterated, all of us? Or that we will be annexed to some other country? Or that there will be fighting in the streets — more of it, that is, than usual? Or does it mean that the speaker deplores the social arrangements he thinks likely to prevail 50 or 100 years hence?
One can give advice that is nonsensical but not strictly speaking non-sense — merely by talking at an excessively high level of generality. Consider, for example, the following, taken from The Recovery of Confidence, a book by a man [Common Cause founder John W. Gardner] who professes to know, without going before the voters — indeed, precisely because he does not go before them — what constitutes the public interest in all of the most vexed issues of the day. He writes:
In the inner city the police must be in touch with the people and responsive to their anxieties.
That is a good example of nonsense that is not non-sense. It contains no absurdities, like "commitments" "wanting" something. Yet it is about as empty of content as any sentence can be. The police, he says, should be "in touch." It is "the people" that they should be in touch with. The police should also be "responsive." That does not mean that they should come quickly when someone phones in a complaint, for it is "anxieties" that they should respond to. I know that at least one of you thinks of becoming a police officer: it is work that calls for men who are enlightened in the way that I trust many of you are. If you join a police force, let us hope that someone — your sergeant, perhaps — tells you just how to be "in touch" with a man who has brutally beaten his wife and children and "responsive" to the "anxieties" of the wife and children, especially if she declines to file a charge against him.
Figures of speech, especially metaphors, are peculiarly serviceable to people who give advice about social problems. The use of them tends to create an emotional response in the listener that enhances the urgency of the "problem" thus raising the value of the putative "solution" that the advice-giver offers. I sometimes wonder if we could have an "urban crisis" without a good supply of metaphors. Suppose that a writer could not speak of "decaying neighborhoods" but instead had to say what he meant straight out — say that the well-off have moved away from aging unfashionable neighborhoods, that this has given the less well-off opportunities to move into housing better than they formerly had, and that they, for obvious reasons, are in most instances disposed to spend less on the repair and maintenance of houses than the former occupiers were. Or suppose that a United States Senator instead of saying, as one recently did, that "the cities are mortally sick and getting sicker" and that the "states are in a state of chronic crisis" had to speak plainly — in this instance, perhaps, to say that although in the last decade the cities and states have increased their revenues by a factor of three, there are nevertheless many voters who would like to have more spent, provided of course that the taxes are paid mainly by others.
A tried and true technique of the advice-giver is to restate a problem so as to make it sound like a solution. "The best solution in South Africa," the Archbishop of Canterbury recently told the press, "would be a radical change of policy and the growth of progressive influence." This, it seems to me, is on a par with saying that the best solution for the problem of alcoholism would be the growth of temperance. Those who write about urban affairs tend to give that sort of advice. The author of The Recovery of Confidence writes, apropos of the fiscal problems of the cities:
…leaders must have the courage to propose — and citizens the vision to support — appropriate tax measures.
He also says, almost in the same breath, that leaders do not have that courage. It is the politician's lack of guts, as much as anything, he says, that constitutes the fiscal problem. It puzzles me how an author could prescribe as a "solution" something the lack of which he maintains is the cause of the problem.
Frequently the advice-giver lays down a thick fog of moralizing behind which he performs his magic. By "moralizing" I do not mean giving any advice as to what is right and wrong; there is nothing to criticize in that. What I mean is advocating, as a basis of action, moral principles which cannot be applied as criteria for choice in the concrete situation in which the action has to be taken or which cannot, by themselves, be the basis of decision. The moralizer averts his gaze from those features of the real situation that constitute the problem and then proceeds unembarrassedly to say how one ought to act. The author of The Recovery of Confidence, for example, says that we should build 110 new cities, adding:
Cities, I would specify, that relegate to history the outworn nonsense of residential segregation.
Now the sad fact is that, although there are not nearly as many bigots as there used to be, there are more than enough to make the building of 110 unsegregated cities — or even of one sizeable one — a political impossibility for the foreseeable future. What, I wonder, can be the point of pretending that this is not the case — of giving the impression that only lack of imagination or good intention prevents the government from building those new cities? Does the moralizer really mean to maintain that the government ought to do what he well knows it cannot possibly do?
One of the signs that a moralizer is at work is a profusion of "musts." Must is a word that works wonders in engendering confusion about whether one is talking about what ought to be or about what is or is probable. I quote again from the same source:
We must soon have metropolitan or regional agencies empowered to plan and act for all modes of transportation.
Does the author mean that such agencies are inevitable? Both statements allege a fact or at any rate a judgment of probability. But perhaps what he means — I feel pretty sure that this is the case — is that he would prefer a centrally planned transportation system to one such as we have now. If this is what he means — if he is expressing a value judgment rather than a factual one, why does he use the ambiguous term "must?" I am afraid that the answer is that he uses it precisely because he wants to confuse matters.
I have noticed that people who give silly or nonsensical advice about public questions go to great lengths to be "constructive." When they say that the country is doomed, they take care to leave a trail of "ifs" leading to a "solution," albeit very likely one that is absurd or idiotic. To illustrate, I draw this time on a recent work by former Attorney General of the United States [Ramsey Clark] titled Crime in America. In the first paragraph the author lays it down that,
Crime reflects the character of the people. This is the painful fact that we do not want to face. Other premises are easier to accept, other causes easier to control. There is no simple reform for defective character.
You might suppose from this beginning that it would be impossible for the author to reach a conclusion in any way encouraging. Not so. At the end of the book, in the epilogue in fact, he gives us a fair amount of encouragement.
With vision, courage and compassion, America can unleash forces that will bring us throughâ€¦.
Need I ask the obvious, awkward question? If our problem is a defective national character, is it at all likely that we shall unleash the forces that have been leashed by the defective character — and the unleashing of which is necessary to its improvement?
Essentially the same question was posed three-quarters of a century ago by William Graham Sumner who asked, "How can we get bad legislators to pass a law which shall hinder bad legislators from passing a bad law?"
If i were an advice-giver (that is, properly qualified for my present role) I would tell you that one of the world's troubles is that too much nonsense is talked about public matters — the "crisis" of too much nonsense, I would call it. The solution, I would say, is for people to talk about public matters only when they have something sensible to say — for them to be more reflective, more aware of the complexity of things — in a word, more serious. Then I would urge you to go forth and lead the fight against nonsense. With faith, vision, and hope, I would say — and the expenditure of "massive" sums by the government — the amount of nonsense talked about public affairs in this country can be reduced to tolerable levels within a few years.
But, as you will realize, I cannot say any of those things. Nonsensical talk does a great deal of harm, I am convinced of that — but it does not constitute a "crisis." Indeed it has its good side — values that we all cherish are inseparable from it. If talking nonsense exposed one to ridicule or to some other heavy penalty, many people with a right to feel important would not get to exercise that right; democracy as we know it would be at an end. Besides, the talking of nonsense is inevitable — any "solution" to the problem is itself nonsense.
The talkers of nonsense are mostly people who have some sound reason of their own for talking or else cannot tell the difference between sense and nonsense. As for advising you to crusade against it, that would be an impertinence on my part — and bad advice, too, for it is only by listening patiently to a great deal of it and by producing a great deal of your own that you are likely to get very far in the world. Something I hope and trust you will, if that is what you want.