Anna Quindlen: 'Be Not Afraid'

None of what you've learned in college means anything without the courage to use it in the world.

BY: Anna Quindlen


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And it took similar courage for the trustees of this college to conclude, while institutions like us were being absorbed by others or changing their essential natures, that we must and would stand firm, that the level playing field was still a utopian ideal and that a college for women still had, not just a place, but a preeminent place, in modern America.

But all of that would just be the stuff of history if we did not have at our disposal living examples of commonplace courage in the person of the women who are our graduates, whose sisterhood you join today.

Make no mistake about it: you are going to need to work hard not to let fear rule your lives. It takes courage to prevail in arenas that are unaccustomed to the full participation of women, to wield the scalpel, to wear the badge, to run for the Presidency. And it takes courage to be a supremely educated woman and to eschew those arenas, to embrace the teaching of fourth graders or the care of small children.

The world has changed in remarkable ways for women in your lifetime. But we still live with the pinched expectations of a culture of conformity. If you decide at some point in your life that your vocation is to raise your own children full time, you will surely be criticized by those who think you're wasting your intellect. And if you decide to combine full-time work outside your home with a family within it, you will be criticized for not juggling as well as a circus performer. We live in a country that trashes poor women who will not leave their children to go out to work, and trashes well-to-do women who will.

Only a principled refusal to be terrorized by these stingy standards will save you from a Frankenstein life made up of others' outside expectations grafted together into a poor semblance of existence. You can't afford to do that. It is what has poisoned our culture, our community, and our national character. No one does the right thing from fear. And so many of the wrong things are done in its long shadow. Homophobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia: they are all bricks in a wall that divides us, bricks cast of the clay of fear, fear of that which is different or unknown.

Our political atmosphere today is so dispiriting because so many of our leaders are leaders in name only. They are terrorized by polls and focus groups, by the need to be all things to all people, which means that they are nothing at all.

Our workplaces are full of fear: fear of innovation, fear of difference. The most widely used cliché in management today is to think outside the box. The box is not only stale custom. It is terrified paralysis. It is not only that we need to think outside it. We need to flatten it and put it outside for the recyclers.

In my own business, fear is the ultimate enemy. It accounts for censorship, obfuscation, the homogenization of the news when sharp, free, fearless news is more necessary than ever before.

Without fear or favor the news business must provide readers and viewers with stories even if those are stories the powerful do not want you to hear or believe.

And, as important, when we've gotten it wrong we must say so fearlessly in the public square, with full and frank disclosure.

I hope some day all institutions, particularly government ones, will vow to do the same.

Too often our public discourse fears real engagement or intellectual intercourse; it pitches itself at the lowest possible level of homogenization, always preaching to the choir, so that no one will be angry. Which usually means that no one will be interested.

What is the point of free speech if we are always afraid to speak freely? Not long ago I asked professor of religion Elizabeth Castelli what she did to suit the comfort level of the diverse group of students in her class. "It is not my job to make people comfortable," she said. "It is to educate them." I nearly stood up and cheered. If we fear competing viewpoints, if we fail to state the unpopular because of some sense of plain-vanilla civility, it is not civility at all. It is the denigration of the human capacity for thought, the suggestion that we are fragile flowers incapable of disagreement, argument, or civil intellectual combat.

There are no fragile flowers seated before me today. We are smart and sure and strong enough to overcome the condescending notion that opposing viewpoints are too much for us to bear--in politics, in journalism, in business, in the academy.

Open your mouths. Speak your piece. Fear not.

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