The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Overdoing meaning

There was a time when commencement speeches were widely spread over the internet and had an impact beyond their direct audience. There are lists of the best commencement speeches that invariably are very different. The Time will name the best 10 and start its list in 1941 with a speech by Winston Churchill. Others start in 1963 with a commencement speech by John F. Kennedy and feature Bill Gates twice. Leaders liked to give them. They saw them as an opportunity to share their learnings or wisdom with an interested crowd. Some found a way to make them funny, others were short, others were profound, and for some all of it was valid.

Over the years I’ve listened to some of them, some that impacted me, some I reread, and others that become impressive when connecting the dots looking backward.

But things change.

It may be the current setting in US colleges where campus protests have taken the stage. But it may also be the growing polarization of opinion. It’s becoming difficult to see one’s opinion be accepted as an opinion or learning. Consequently, it is becoming hard to be rewarded for sharing it. To still find ways to respond to requests, some CEOs change the format of their appearance. They choose a way to be on stage that allows them to stick to their main message and make only short statements.

But it might not take long before people find a way to protest and explain that even those presentations will lead to evaluations that what has been said wasn’t enough or was too much. Searching for meaning, people will also take up the way people are dressed or signs they make to discuss if it was a statement of some kind and debate if that was right.

Ever since there have been commencement speeches, some people liked them, and others disliked what had been said. This is what humans do and how they react to others.

However, what is disturbing is how this is now impacting people’s willingness to share their opinions and ideas. One can have long debates on freedom of speech. But whatever the law says, when the content of a speech leads to oppressive reactions, there are two hypotheses one has to think about. One is that the quality and the content of the speech are not acceptable to that society. The other is that society has split into parts where the groups identify so much with their side that it has become important to win over the other or prevent them from speaking.

The amount of courage it takes to speak up is an indicator in every organization. It impacts the ability of knowledge to flow and be shared. It also impacts the type of leadership that can be used.


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