George Will to Princeton graduates: The antidote to the overabundance of anger in America is praise

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George Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who earned a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton in 1968, gave a Baccalaureate address extoling the virtue of praising others. Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
George Will addresses graduating seniors at Princeton University on Sunday. Photo by Denise Applewhite, courtesy of the Princeton University Office of Communications

Political commentator George Will told graduating seniors at Princeton University on Sunday that he is alarmed by the infantilization of America and the culture of contempt.

“Today, there is a serrated edge to America life. The nation is awash in expressions of contempt and condescension,” Will said. “What are called social media — and which might more accurately be called anti-social media — seem to encourage snarky expressions of disdain.”

Will, a 1968 graduate of Princeton University, was addressing seniors and their guests at the university’s baccalaureate service, one of the school’s oldest traditions. He began his speech, held in the Princeton University Chapel, recalling another recent graduation where he spoke at Sing Sing Prison. “The 37 men were incarcerated because they had committed serious crimes. But during their incarceration they had earned college degrees. They did so in order to show, as one of them said, that prison was ‘not a landfill but a recycling center’,” he said.

“The striking thing about the 37 prisoner-graduates was that when they talked about their crimes they all — to a man — used the same vocabulary. They said they had made bad choices,” Will said. “This recurring phrase, this emphasis on choice, affirmed their agency, their status as moral actors. These men, many of whom had not had what you and I think of as a childhood, were adamantly insisting on their adulthood.”

Will said he mentioned his visit to Sing Sing Prison because he is “alarmed at the infantilization of America,” and by what Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse calls “the vanishing American adult.”

“This cultural phenomenon matters because, as has been well-said, politics is downstream from culture, and there are deleterious political consequences from the weakening of the adult culture of confident, measured and generous judgments about people and events,” Will said. “Sasse, a Yale history Ph.D., reminds us that there was a time, before people commuted to work, when Americans in a mostly rural nation worked where they lived. Before the ‘generational segregation’ of modern life, children saw adults doing the adult activity of work, often physical and gritty, and sometimes hazardous. Seeing this, the children learned an important truth. It is a truth expressed by a Princetonian, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said: ‘Nothing any good isn’t hard’.”

Children in the proximity of hard-working adults learned that adults are not just enlarged children, he said. They learned that adults do praiseworthy things, and the children learned to praise and admire.

“In this age of rage, disparagement is the default setting for many Americans. They seem to think that expressing admiration for someone or something is evidence of deficient critical faculties. To these habitual disparagers, maturity means a relentlessly-exercised capacity for contempt,” Will said. “Intelligent praising is a talent. It is learned. Like all virtues, it is habitual. It is a habit. And it is a virtue we need more of, right now. It is the virtue of recognizing virtue, and saluting it.”

Will said we live in what Arthur Brookes has called a “culture of contempt” that is rooted in envy. Envy, Will said, is the desire to see others diminished, even if we gain nothing from their diminishment. “Envy is, therefore, the opposite of praise, which is the act of celebrating others without feeling oneself diminished,” he said.

Praise is how people articulate admiration. Developing a talent for admiration is how people become less susceptible to feeling envy that stokes anger, he said.

“Praising is an activity that does benefit the people who praise. It helps them to flourish by recognizing and savoring admirable attributes wherever they occur,” he said. “Praise is, therefore, an antidote to something that today’s America has too much of: anger. One reason we have this unpleasant surplus is that anger has become fun for many people.”

Will cited Arthur Brookes, saying that anger can trigger dopamine in the brain, creating a potentially addictive pleasure. “And the addiction to anger, like an addiction to heroin, must be fed by ever-more intense doses, until the anger-addicted person feels fully alive only when he or she is incandescent with indignation,” Will said.

He then gave an example of how someone was triggered and went on Twitter to express indignation about a Ku Klux Klan sign at a ball park, when the three Ks the person saw actually represented a strikeout. “What really interests me is how eager the person on Twitter was to be angry about something — anything. And how eager this person was to think the worst of others,” he said. “I doubt that this person is given to generous praising.”

Students who are taught how to praise are taught the standards by which society decides which people and things are praiseworthy, Will said. They learn the pleasure of praising, which is the pleasure of savoring the acknowledgement of excellence. “This is a pleasure more durable, more lasting than the curdled pleasure of anger,” he said, adding that praising can help people make good decisions.

“It is more than my hope, it is my assumption, that you who are now leaving this university have been equipped by it to become, yourselves, standards of excellence in your professions and in your lives. You will be more apt to do this the more you exercise your talent for praising others who deserve emulation,” he said.

Will then recited lyrics from “Old Nassau,” the Princeton University alma mater: “Tune ev’ry heart and ev’ry voice, Bid ev’ry care withdraw; Let all with one accord rejoice, In praise of Old Nassau. “

“Note well the words ‘rejoice in praise’,” he said. “These are words to live by — delighting in excellence, and in acknowledging excellence.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

13 Comments

  1. Though there’s a good point in here about our preoccupation with people worthy of contempt, it should be noted that, at least in Krystal’s rendering of the speech, Will doesn’t actually do much praising. He praises praise itself while remaining safely within his normal mode of criticizing others. It’s important to note that the prisoners he praises, for acknowledging their past wrongs, have actually suffered consequences for their poor choices.

    George Will, on the other hand, has spent his life writing columns that express contempt for others, particularly liberals. Now that the conservative movement that he worked so hard to promote in the 1980s and 90s is endangering democracy and the planet with its flight from reality and self-scrutiny, Will could have come to Princeton and shown contrition for his own life-long contributions to a “culture of contempt.” He could have acknowledged that he was wrong, for instance, to mock those who have long warned about the dangers of global warming.

    Instead, what people witnessed, according to Krystal’s writeup, is a man so self-unaware that he projects his own failings onto society. Look beneath the surface of the words, consider who is speaking them, and you realize that the message of George Will’s talk was that people like him bear no consequences for their bad choices, and can continue indefinitely to fool the public, and themselves. This is the disturbing lesson in entitlement that graduates apparently received that day in the Princeton University Chapel.

  2. Perhaps in the social media age, we should revert to the life lesson offered by many of our parents and grandparents “If you can’t say something nice…..

  3. Sad to see such hypocrisy coming from the pulpit at Princeton University Chapel. Here’s a snippet from one of George Will’s columns–part of his lifetime devotion to expressing contempt for others:

    “Consider Barack Obama’s renewed anxiety about global warming, increasingly called “climate change” during the approximately 15 years warming has become annoyingly difficult to detect. Secretary of State John Kerry, our knight of the mournful countenance, was especially apocalyptic recently when warning that climate change is a “weapon of mass destruction.” Like Iraq’s?”

    Praise goes to the prisoners who had acknowledged making bad choices. Wish we’d see the same sort of admission from the likes of George Will.

  4. @ njpany It wasn’t a graduation speech. And he was referring to the intolerance found throughout society. It was educational if you listen.
    @ Michael. Yes, you’re being suitably snarky.

    Both of you are examples of the problem with today’s society. Anyone who is willing to say anything is immediately personally attacked. This is a reason that our society has become so uncivil.

  5. I would be annoyed if I spent all that money to attend Princeton, studied my butt off for 4+ years, and then got THAT as a graduation speech. It wasn’t uplifting, it wasn’t even educational; it was just a lecture. Some guy got a soap box to stand on and instead of being inspirational, he decided to tell a room full of millennials how angry/childish millennials are. That’s pretty sad for everyone involved.

  6. “relentlessly-exercised capacity for contempt,” huh. I’ve read and watched George Will for decades and I recall a great deal of contempt coming from him. Seems like he’s still at it. But it’s other’s contempt for the right wing that George is upset about, isn’t it? I read that he’s upset with Cadet Bone Spurs too, which is ironic since he helped create him. That snarky enough for you?

  7. @MichaelBowe Are you intentionally trying to be an example of the abundance of anger in America?

  8. Very well said Mr. Will. There is an entire industry that is stoking America’s anger and its proponents are rewarded very well for their success. All praise to those who can stand up to this onslaught of anger and say enough. We must respect the dignity in all Americans and we will be rewarded with the success of a nation.

  9. Why did they have this condescending nitwit speak at Princeton. So I guess his message is that as long as you’re civil and use a high falutin vocabulary you can lie and be as snarky as you want.

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