Graduation ceremonies always lift my spirits, so after a tough weekend confronting the reality of white supremacist hate in America, I was glad to be able to set that aside and recognize the achievements of over 1,000 Wake Forest University undergraduates (including my youngest son) who completed their final two years of college under extraordinary circumstances.
As I told my own students on the final day of class this semester, I hope that the challenges they face make them stronger, more resilient, more creative, and more compassionate people.
The commencement speaker this year was Van Jones, who is best known as a CNN political commentator. His address hit all the right notes for me. Here I want to highlight just a couple, but you can watch the entire address on YouTube or read it at the Wake Forest University commencement site.
Despite the evident conflict in America today, it is good to remember that what we are trying to achieve as a nation is an audacious and unprecedented experiment in diversity. And considering that, it works pretty well.
Jones made this point in his address:
Especially now in a time of division, I say it because you are the most diverse generation of Americans. Ever. You are the most diverse democratic republic ever. And you mostly get along. Don’t let the algorithms fool you. Don’t let the news fool you. You mostly get along. . . . Your generation has every faith ever, every racial group ever, every gender group ever, every sexuality ever. Every kind of human being ever born is in your generation right now. And you mostly get along. I’ve been in countries that have two ethnic groups, and they fight all the time. You have 30, 40, 50 groups and you mostly get along. That is a miracle in human history. What you do every day, learning about each other and trying to figure it out when it gets messy and it gets frustrating, is a miracle in human history.
The “it” that Jones is referring to in the first sentence of the passage above is “Be a Bridge.” This was the first of his three major points and the most important for me. (The other two were: “Don’t just make a point; make a difference” and “Be encouraged.”)
As someone who came into gun culture just over a decade ago from the blue bubble that is academia (and the bright blue of sociology), I often find myself straddling the divide between the two sides in the Great American Gun War.
With this blog and with my “Light Over Heat” YouTube channel, I try to be a bridge between the warring factions. As I have emphasized before, it is important to build bridges, not walls.
At the same time, Jones’ address reminded me that focusing too much on the two factions in the gun war turns attention away from the ways that we as Americans mostly get along, regardless of our gun ownership status. Most who don’t own guns still support the rights of those who do and most who do own guns are appalled when they are used in harmful ways.
As Van Jones explained to the Wake Forest University Class of 2022,
You don’t have an awful-people problem. You have an awesome-people problem. And it is a problem you are in a position to solve. You can find the good in people. You can reason with people. You can look past the 99 things you don’t agree on and find the one thing you do agree on.
This is not to deny that divisions do exist in the United States, but it is possible to set aside our differences from time to time and focus instead on what we have in common.