Anna Quindlen: 'Be Not Afraid'

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

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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.

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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.

You understood this message in your marrow even four years ago. You had to have some essential bravery to even choose Barnard. It is not the easy choice; many of you have had to explain yourselves--the university, the city, the single-sex institution. At its core it must have spoken to something within you that was daring, that was confident, that knew that you knew best what was best for you.

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Anna Quindlen
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