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.

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.

And it was not an easy time, when most of you began here. Two weeks in and the golden city was bombed and bereaved and burst into flames and then smoked for weeks after, so that the smell of something burning even reached this far north. Dean Denburg remembers being downtown less than a week afterwards, on Fifth Avenue, and coming upon a group of students wearing Barnard tee shirts, passing out leaflets calling for tolerance for people of all backgrounds and all religions at a time when tolerance was the last thing on most Americans minds.

What a brave thing to do. What a Barnard thing to do.

I have a Barnard tee shirt, too. Many of them actually, but the one I like best is the one I wore this winter to midnight breakfast. It says: Barnard: you got a problem with that?

There is a wealth of subtext behind the slogan, but the most elemental is this: don't mess with me. I am a woman who was educated at the epicenter of education for women, a woman who grew to adulthood in a place that told her, every day, that her opinion was not only important, that it was absolutely required.

People write all the time to my places of employment with the suggestion that someone should have put a stop to my declarations long ago. They have dismissive words for a woman who does the job I do. Opinionated--a word used only for women, usually meaning having strong opinions when one ought not to have them. Bossy--taking charge, but without benefit of a Y chromosome. Feisty. Ooh, it makes my skin crawl. It's a word that suggests the petite who argue, perhaps in very high voices.

All three are apologetic terms. I'm so sorry I have strong opinions. I'm so sorry I take the lead. I'm so sorry I refuse to take no for an answer.

I say to you today: No apologies. Graduating from Barnard means never having to say you're sorry.

There is plenty to fear out there. Last year I gave into it myself, writing a column at just this time called "An Apology to the Graduates," telling the class of 2004 how sorry I was about the unremitting stress they have been under all their lives.

In part I wrote:

There's an honorable tradition of starving students; it's just that, between outsourcing of jobs and a boom market in real estate, your generation envisions becoming starving adults. Caught in our peculiar modern nexus of prosperity and insolvency, easy credit and epidemic bankruptcy, you also get toxic messages from the culture about what achievement means. It is no longer enough to make it; you must make it BIG. You all will live longer than any generation in history, yet you were kicked into high gear earlier as well. Your college applications looked like the resumes for middle-level executives. How exhausted you must be.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus