Commencement speech: “Searching for what’s real in a virtual world”

Dan Charles

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Commencement address by Daniel Charles, food and agriculture correspondent for National Public Radio, at the 115th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 28, 2013


Thank you so much, President Jim Brenneman. Thank you faculty and staff of this college. Greetings to you, graduates! Congratulations!

It’s a privilege to stand here at a commencement of Goshen College. It’s also extremely daunting to me, personally because Goshen has played a really important part in my own life.

I grew up in a Mennonite community in Lancaster, Pa. – a farming community. I always knew about Goshen, out there in Indiana, and my best friend from high school came here to study.

I didn’t. I had my own personal issues to work out. First, I had to stay home for a year after high school to help milk the cows. Then, when my oldest brother came home, to take over the farm, and I could leave, I wanted to really leave. And the cheapest, safest way I could find, to go as far away as possible, was a work exchange program in Europe that the European Mennonites had set up. I worked on a farm in France, which I have to admit, was kind of disappointing because I wanted to get away from farming and then at a retirement home in Germany washing dishes and sweeping floors.

After that, I decided I wanted to study something international, and I transferred to a university in Washington, DC: American University. After I graduated, I stayed in Washington, figuring out a way to earn a living. And that’s where Goshen came to my rescue; not Goshen directly, but graduates of Goshen.

I was in my early 20s; many of you will soon be in your early-20s. I’m not sure I even realized that I needed to find other people who understood me, who shared some of my story, some of my questions, and who were on a similar path.

But I realized it when I finally met them, through friends of friends, at parties or concerts or weekend volleyball games. We were all a similar age, all trying to find our place in the world; figuring out things like jobs and friends and beliefs.

I was drawn to a network of people who already knew each other from Goshen. They were kind, generous, interested in the world, and I felt like I could trust them. They became my closest friends. They still are. Some, I see at church; Others, I get together with for lunch or dinner every few weeks. Some have moved away, but we still stay in touch through mail, e-mail or the occasional phone call.

This is why I’m grateful to Goshen. I feel like it created a community that became my community. So that’s my main connection to this place.

Let me stick with this personal story for a bit, because it’s connected to the title of my talk: This idea of searching for what’s real, what’s authentic.

When I went off to Europe, and then when I moved to Washington, my parents, I’m pretty sure, were a little anxious about me. Maybe some of you have felt that cold draft of anxiety from your own parents from time to time. Maybe you’re just starting to feel it now that you’re graduating.

What were they anxious about? That I’d lose my way, I think or that I’d lose my connection to them, and to things that they felt were really important. They probably wouldn’t have used these words, but I’ll put it this way: They were worried that I was wandering away from a life that was genuine and real; as real and true as the hay that we stacked in the barn every summer, the clothes that my mother sewed, the weeds and the green beans that grew in our garden. Also, as authentic as relationships – good and bad relationships – that are pieced together from shared experiences of living across the fields from each other for 30 or 40 years; from sitting together in church, going to each other’s weddings and funerals, helping each other out when sickness comes, or a barn burns down.

They worried that when I ran off to the big city, I was entering a kind of make-believe world; a world where – to borrow an advertising slogan from many years ago – image is everything; where people earn their living from words that ultimately are just empty words; where nothing is quite what it seems, because people work so hard at creating an impressive facade; communities where people come and go. They all seem very nice, but you really only see one side of them – the side they choose to show you; where relationships are superficial; not authentic.

Just imagine: They worried about this – and Facebook wasn’t even invented yet!

Now, my parent’s fears were not realized – at least I don’t think they were, partly because I found friends like the ones I mentioned. Also because I found out that you can, in fact, build communities in the city that are just as strong as those in the country. I even met someone in Washington who also grew up without television. Brigid and I fell in love, got married, and had children. My friends and I, we’re also watching our children grow up together, and we’re going to weddings and funerals together.

But I still sympathize with my parents’ worries. In fact, I now share them when it comes to my own children. And I think a lot about this question of what’s real and not real; what’s authentic and not authentic; what’s true and not true, because Facebook, and Photoshop, and online dating – they now do exist! But also, I think about this because of my work.

I’m a journalist.  I tell stories on the radio. And there are two ways in which my kind of work is connected to this search for what’s real.

The first way is pretty obvious. Something isn’t real if it’s not true, if it’s a lie. And we journalists, part of our job is to try to figure out what’s factually true. We all hear all kinds of things and we have a professional responsibility to ask: What’s the evidence for that? How do you know that?

If somebody says, “I heard it from my neighbor,” we say, “OK, who’s your neighbor? I need to find out how he or she knows this.” We need to find the person who saw this thing first hand and then check with other people who were there, to see if they saw the same thing.

If it’s a scientific kind of fact, we ask to see the evidence, and not just the I-read-it-on-Wikipedia sort of evidence; actual here’s-the-data kind of evidence. Because we know, from bitter experience, that people believe all kinds of things that aren’t true.

I was working on a story about coffee just a few months ago, and I kept coming across this fact: Coffee is the world’s second-most valuable traded commodity, after oil. I read this statement in a book; I saw it on a Fair Trade Coffee web site; in a column in Time magazine, all kinds of places; so many places, in fact, that a lot of people figured it must be true.

But it’s not. If you take the trouble to look up the actual statistics of traded agricultural commodities, kept by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, coffee actually comes in at number 16, tucked in between chicken meat and sugar, and way below soybeans, wheat, and palm oil. That’s not even considering other, non-agricultural commodities, like steel or copper.

OK, so it doesn’t really matter that much where coffee ranks in global statistics, but this kind of thing happens a lot. People believe things just because they heard it somewhere, and it sounds good or because it fits our prejudices or because we have to believe it to get along with our friends.

I’ll mention just one more example – again, sticking close to something that I write about:  Genetically engineered crops. Every time I do a story about these crops, and it shows up on NPR’s web site, people jump in on the comments section and start an argument over whether GMOs – genetically modified organisms – are good or evil.

Some say, on the one hand, that GMOs produce sterile seed; if you try to replant that seed, it won’t grow. Others explain that the company Monsanto is suing farmers who happened to be growing some Monsanto’s genetically engineered soybean varieties in their field, even though those varieties just blew in on the wind; the farmers didn’t know those plants were there and didn’t want them there, but they get sued anyway. On the other side of the argument, people write that genetically engineered crops are absolutely essential to feed the world’s growing population or that they’re necessary to improve the lives of poor farmers in Africa.

I get depressed when I read the comments section. I get depressed partly because the claims, at least as stated, aren’t really true. I’m not going to go into the details of why I say that. It would take too much time, and I’m not really here to do a seminar about GMOs. Also, it’s not the main thing that I find depressing.

The really depressing thing is that I get the feeling that the people who write these comments aren’t even interested in knowing whether or not what they think is true. They seem to simply reject, out of hand, anything that would challenge their own beliefs.

The only really important thing in this debate, like many other debates, seems to be simply which side you’re on. Once you’ve picked a side, your brain can only absorb information that’s in line with what you already know – or think you know.

Now you’re probably thinking: OK, but there are a lot of cases where it’s not clear what to believe, because we can’t know for sure. That is exactly true. We don’t know, absolutely for sure, whether, say, new charter schools in the poorest parts of Chicago are going to be make life better for children there or whether a law requiring background checks on people who want to buy guns really will reduce the amount of killing in this country.

But there’s always at least some information that can help us make decisions about these things, and improve our chances of doing something sensible. And our job – not just my job as a journalist, but the job of all of us – is to search for the best, the most true and useful knowledge and understanding that we can, not fake facts that sound really good, like that amazing statistic about coffee.

I’m pretty sure that I’m just reminding you of something you already know. You’ve certainly heard some version of this before. This is, after all, that core value of Goshen College that President Brenneman and others have been talking about from the very first day of classes this year, repeat after me: Passionate learning.

It takes passion to sort out rumor from truth; to be willing to consider evidence that contradicts our assumptions; to spend the time searching for answers to hard questions.  It takes passion to really learn.

That’s one side of this search for what’s real. There’s a second side of this that I’d also like to talk about, and I think it’s actually a little more difficult or at least the road isn’t as clearly marked. This is not so much a search for what’s true, but what’s authentic?

And here, I think, journalists like me aren’t great role models because there’s an aspect of what I do for a living is really quite inauthentic.

I’ll try to explain this with a little thought experiment. Would you say that I’m talking to you right now? Are you hearing me? Seems like it, right?

OK, let me step away from the mic for a second. Do you hear me now? No? You can’t hear me? Obviously, you weren’t really hearing me before. You were hearing the loudspeaker, a reproduction and amplification of my voice.

You may be saying to yourself: This is kind of a silly distinction, but let’s think about this. Our real voices have limitations. I can’t talk loudly enough to fill this room. So we call in technology to help; in this case, microphones and amplifiers and loudspeakers.

But that technology changes the nature of what happens here. This is not a conversation; you can’t talk back. But at least you know that this is really me standing here, talking to you. Even if you aren’t hearing my real voice, you can be pretty sure you could, if you were close enough.  And then we could have a conversation.

OK, now let’s think about my work. People tell me, “I heard you on the radio.” But they didn’t, really. They heard a reproduction of my voice duplicated millions of times by radio speakers and ear buds in homes and cars and offices. That can’t be me, obviously. There’s only one of me.

And you know what? Most of the time, when somebody tells me that they heard me on the radio, the next thing they say is, they can’t actually remember what I was talking about. If we were talking face to face, I think they would remember.

This is what technology does. The radio or the Internet magnifies my voice incredibly, but it also changes the quality of the communication and you completely lose any sense of a personal relationship.

Now think about conversations that happen by means of your favorite screen: Your cell phone or your iPad or whatever. How authentic are those conversations or the relationships that you create through that form of communication? What are those relationships like?

How much of you gets communicated through text messages? To put it another way, how real is the version of the world that you encounter through that screen?

These are tricky questions, and I’m not even going to try to answer them today. I will just leave you with a few ideas to stimulate your own thinking.

I’m part of a church that’s small enough that we’ve never needed an amplifier. We call it House Church, even though we don’t meet in each other’s living rooms anymore. But we stick with the name, in part, I think because we want to act like we’re still meeting in houses.

I think it does make a difference that we don’t speak through loudspeakers. I have a feeling – I can’t prove it – that when we’re talking in our normal voices, the way you would around the dinner table, we’re a little less likely to say things because that’s what we’re expected to say in church. I think we’re a little more likely to say what we really think, to be authentic.

Or think about music. It’s a totally different experience, when someone is standing here singing, or there’s an orchestra playing, compared to when we’re listening to a recording. From a recording, we expect unnatural perfection; there’s no drama, no uncertainty about what might happen next.

I’m not saying stop listening to iPods or the radio. I’m not saying stop going to any church with a microphone and loudspeakers or stop looking up things on your iPad. Technology is amazing and wonderful and useful.

What I am saying is: Don’t use it to replace actual life with something that’s endlessly entertaining and always at our fingertips, but less authentic.

What I wish for you is the same as what my parents wished for me. This authenticity I’m talking about is connected to values that they treasured – values that also are at the heart of the religious tradition that built this college: humility, honesty, community.

Those are values to live by, even today – especially today.

So cook a meal. Have your neighbors over for dinner. In fact, make that dinner a regular tradition. Plant a garden. Make it a community garden. Sing a song. Play an instrument. Paint.  Use that iPad to make your own movie. Build a life that’s true and real.

Thanks for listening. And best wishes to you.