Speech

Judith Butler’s 2013 McGill University Commencement Speech.

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“We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”

 American philosopher Judith Butler delivered the Honorary Doctorate Commencement Address to the graduating 2013 class at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

30 May 2013, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Judith Butler’s 2013 McGill University Commencement Speech Transcript

I’m most honored to be here and would like to thank McGill University for conferring on me this honor. Je suis tres vraiment heureuse aujourd’hui d’etre a Montreal sur cette occasion. I come here thinking about you. Some of you are completing your education at this time, on the threshold of entering a new life or, at least, a different world. So it may well be a moment to reflect upon the importance of the kind of education you have received, and how you will bring it forward into the world you find and the world you help to make. I remember when I was in your position, I was always asked what good it would do to have majored in philosophy and to have spent all that other time studying literature. And now, most certainly, there are new voices of skepticism asking, What value do the humanities have? Are they useful? Can we measure their impact, their output, their profits?

I want to suggest to you that both of us are very lucky to have been able to take such courses, to learn to read carefully, with appreciation, and with a critical eye. To find ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of the ancient texts we read, but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting, and reflecting that belong to times and spaces we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?

Perhaps what we ourselves share today is a sense of the enduring value of careful interpretation and critical thinking, of backing up our claims with evidence, but also, perhaps, to become dislocated from our own cultural and historical perspectives only to return to them enriched by an understanding of other lives, with greater clarity and with knowledge of why and how people seek to know and make the world as they do. Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read only to return to ourselves transformed, and part of a more expansive world. In short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and in our acting.

Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read only to return to ourselves transformed, and part of a more expansive world. In short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and in our acting.

It may not be altogether clear that studying the humanities and critical thinking has something to do with becoming a citizen, or becoming publicly engaged, or learning how best to change and to preserve this world. Yet these are precisely the immeasurable values that critical thinking brings to the university. We cannot quantify such knowledge without losing the very value that such knowledge has for us. Learning what it means to practice citizenship, and learning what it means to be without rights of citizenship, either having lost them, or never having been granted them in part or in full; learning, in other words, what it means to live in the shattered world of non-recognition, and how best to counter it, ethically, legally, and politically. As we know, an active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts, but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across forms of media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory. We have to continue to shake off what we sometimes think we know in order to lend our imaginations to vibrant and sometimes agonistic spectrums of experience: this is one part of the way toward understanding the global complexity of who we are.

This means, I think, that even as we seek to affirm ways of acting and transforming the world, we also have to affirm ways of being thoughtful, ways of reading, listening, learning: to continue learning, even as we leave the university, and to take those critical practices with us onto the street, into those spaces of work and love, and into our public lives. For as important as freedom of expression is—and it most surely is—so too it is important to know what it is we want to express, and why. And as important as freedom of assembly is—and it most surely is, as we saw so dramatically in Montreal’s student movement last year—it remains equally important to know why it is we assemble, and for what purpose. This means that even in the space of activism, there has to be time for reflection. And in the world of practical matters, there has to be a way to consider what we do, and why, and how it affects our world.

For as important as freedom of expression is—and it most surely is—so too it is important to know what it is we want to express, and why.

As much as the university is inevitably politicized—and we can think of many political issues: effective policies on sexual and racial harassment, funding for the study of native peoples, investment policies that damage the environment or contribute to the subjugation of others—the university is also a place where we can actually learn about gender, sexuality, the environment, race, indigeneity, economics and justice, to name but a few of those issues. I am made hopeful by the fact that you had this quite marvelous chance to take this time to learn, to question, and to discover, and that you could actually take the time to consider this world in which you live, and for which you now assume a rather awesome and exciting responsibility. You will need all those skills as you move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment. The first steps toward non-violence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think carefully and to ask others to do the same.

To live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.

I thank you for your time, your willingness to hear, and for this great honor to be among you today on this special occasion. Je vous souhaite un avenir vivant et transformatrice. Merci bien pour votre patience. Merci.

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