Date: 
Thursday 12 October 2017

Author

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Speech to graduation ceremony, University of Technology, Sydney
12 October 2017

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What an honour it is to be joining you on this happy occasion. To all those graduating, my warmest congratulations. I hope you enjoy celebrating today with your families and friends.

In America, they refer to graduation as a commencement ceremony. The idea being that the occasion wasn’t so much about marking the end of your studies, but the commencement of your life beyond your years in education.

I rather like this way of looking at things. Because, graduates, while you are entitled to be proud of your accomplishment, you should also regard your graduation from here as only the beginning and not the end. Having a university degree doesn’t mean you have exhausted your quest for knowledge and wisdom.

Whenever I reflect on my own experience, I’m struck by how so many of the things I learned happened outside my studies. This isn’t at all to disparage universities or the idea of a university education. I say what I say as someone who spent almost nine years studying at university, and a further three as an academic.

For example, no amount of training as a political philosopher prepared me for one encounter I had some years ago with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The Duke was visiting Australia along with the Queen. At a state reception, we had the chance for a conversation. The Duke asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I replied that I was a political philosopher. The Duke responded, ‘So what do you do?’ I told the Duke that I researched questions of patriotism and national identity. The Duke responded, again, ‘So what do you do?’

Taking pause, I asked what he meant: ‘What do I do every day?’ After the Duke said yes, I reflected and told him: ‘Well, I sit, I read, I think and I write.’ To which the Duke said, ‘And they pay you?’

This was a lesson, if you will, about the importance of clarity. Having a university degree means little if you can’t actually explain what you do to a lay person – or, in my case, a Duke. Many of you graduating today are, of course, graduates in communications and in education. I don’t need to remind you of the importance of getting your point across clearly.

There is power in clarity. It helps to have clarity of purpose: to know what you want to do, and know what you believe in. Yet this can be elusive. People don’t always admit it, but you can spend years or even a lifetime in search of meaning and purpose. In life, there are some things you cannot rush; sometimes you have to let things come to you, in time.

This isn’t always easy. You need patience and perseverance and, most important, courage.

Courage is something you can’t be taught through a degree. It emerges from experience and adversity. And by courage I don’t mean physical courage. Rather I mean courage of the moral kind.

Robert Kennedy said that, ‘for every ten men who are willing to face the guns of an enemy there is only one willing to brave the disapproval of his fellow, the censure of his colleagues, the wrath of his society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.’

Kennedy here refers to a certain type of courage: that of conviction. This is the strength of being able to hold your ground. The courageous are those who don’t buckle under criticism. They can withstand scrutiny. They can defy opposition. They have thick skins.

There is another type of courage. People are courageous when they do things knowing there is no guarantee of success or assurance of safety. They take action even when they know they might well fail, or come to some harm.

In my work in countering racism, it is a challenge to get people to have the courage to speak out against prejudice or stand up against discrimination. Not because people don’t know that racism is wrong, but because acting against racism can come with consequences that hurt.

And then there is a third type of courage. It’s the courage of humility. Being courageous isn’t always about being strong; it can sometimes be about admitting your weakness. However, most of us are proud. We don’t find it easy to say we are wrong, or to say we don’t know. That’s why we often get half-sincere apologies these days. People tend to say, ‘I’m sorry for any offence you may have taken’, rather than, ‘I’m sorry I did wrong.’ Even when we say sorry, we can turn the blame on to others.

Again, in much of my work, I get to see how hard it can be for people to be humble. I am often struck, for example, by the certainty with which many people make pronouncements about racism, when they may not necessarily have experienced racial discrimination themselves. Or the confidence with which many would say that our society finds race invisible, without realising that not everyone gets to live their life without being reminded constantly of their visible racial difference. One reason we still have some way to go in combating racism is too many people are too arrogant to listen to the lived experience of those who are different.

As with any virtue, courage is something we get better at with practice. To know courage, it’s not enough for you to read or think about it. You must exercise it. You must do it.

This is true not only for us as individuals, but also as a society. When you contemplate the big questions of our time – how we give expression to equality and dignity; how we deal with the catastrophic threat of climate change; how we educate our children and citizens; how we define the boundaries of our society – it’s not always the case that the answers aren’t there. Sometimes, it is just that we don’t have the will or resolve to act on them.

So, graduates, as you now commence your careers – in education, in media, in business, in government, or in civil society – remember that your real examination has yet to come. You have, of course, passed some of your early examinations here at UTS. But, as you now step outside the University, I hope that you will be able to find that clarity of purpose, though remember it could take a while.

In the meantime, be courageous. Don’t be afraid to back your conviction and judgment. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or even failing. Don’t be afraid to admit to your imperfect humanity. But always remember that your most compelling qualification in life is never your education, but your honour, integrity and compassion.

Address

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