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Author Topic: "You are not special."
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Probably most of you have heard of the now viral ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4&feature=related ) speech given by David McCullough Jr. (son of the famous historian) in which he tells the high school graduates of affluent Wellesley Massachusetts "You are not special."

After some thought I think the "Published Hooks and Books" board is where this discussion belongs, because this speech may go down in history as a masterpiece of American rhetoric. The text of the speech can be found here: http://www.theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/ .

The structure of the speech reminds me somewhat of an ancient Greek funeral oration, which had the following parts:
  • Preamble -- addresses audience expectations and speaker's inability to meet them.
  • Ancestry -- recalls where and who the city came from.
  • Praise for the honored dead, describing their devotion and exemplification of civic ideals.
  • Epilogue -- comfort for the family of the dead, dismissal of the mourners to carry on their private mourning and public citizenship.

McCullough's parenthetical preamble is oddly subversive. It's superficially jokey, but borderline inappropriate in its light treatment of the grim divorce statistics:
And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.
Attentive listeners would be paying especially close here, because it's signalling that he is using his lame comedian act to set the audience up for the sucker punch:

Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

At this point McCullough's delivery changes. He's no longer doing stand-up.

Now that he's got the audience's attention, he proceeds to the ancestry part of the oration, which tells audience where they come from:
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have.
Note the extravagant overkill: in four sentences he lists twenty-five ways in which people have taken care of (enumeratio). Note how the absence of conjunctions (asyndeton) gives a drumbeat like quality to this part.

In an epitaphios logos oration, the next bit would be where the orator recounts the deeds of honored dead and how they exemplify the ideals of the city. McCullough turns this on its head, and delivers instead an indictment of the ideals of society:

In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.
And then he moves on to healthier ideals:
Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself.
Finally the time comes for the epilogue in which the audience is dismissed:
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Apart from the political audacity of this speech, I think it is worth studying for its literary value. Despite it's deceptively jokey opening, it's remarkably polished and rhetorically sophisticated.

[ June 14, 2012, 08:36 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Robert Nowall
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I thought it a kinda bold notion to say something in these "everybody should feel good about themselves" times, but I hadn't seen a link to the full text before. (Also missed out on the "who" of it, which kinda punches my buttons.)
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And true.
Except everyone is special in their (too often unrealized) capacity to achieve the goals Mr. McCullough enumerates: to serve others and thereby realize the sweetest joys and pleasures in life.

Dr. Bob

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Thanks for posting this, MattLeo. It's cool when someone knows what they are doing and when you recognize it (on top of the important message).
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I've heard excerpts from the speech but not the whole thing. I agree with what he wanted to do but at the same time there is a fine line there I think. Evidently he made himself clear at the end which is good.
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Let's not forget that 'everyone is special' is an artificially designed trend. As was 'every child is capable of directing their own growth'. It all comes from arrogant p***ks who think that human population is their personal playground and they playfully insert their own fetishes in its development.
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Well everyone is special to a core group of people. There are very few that are significant to anyone beyond family and friends and maybe a few co-workers. Don't most people know that? I guess I don't get what is so outrageous about this speech. He's kind of stating the obvious.

Oh and thanks for the analysis, Matt. I never really thought about what makes a good speech. Thanks for breaking it down for us. Very interesting.

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"Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him."
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