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Commencement Addresses

A Defense Against the Dark Arts (2013 Spring Commencement Ceremony Sunday Morning)

  • Date: 05/12/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Many of you grew up reading, or watching movies based on J.K. Rowlings’ popular series of novels about a young wizard named Harry Potter.  You may recall that, when students at the Hogwarts School matured, they participated in an ominous-sounding course named, Defense Against the Dark Arts.  That is because in Rowling’s fictional tales, graduation thrust students into a world where they might encounters trolls, werewolves and other malevolent beings that would do them harm.

    I am happy to say there is nothing quite like that waiting for you outside the doors of this building.

    Well, not literally.

    As you begin or further develop your professional life, you may well encounter adversaries who might harm not your person, but your reputation.  In Potter's world they launched their attacks with spells and incantations.  In our world they do so with – insults!

    Therefore. . .your final University of Akron lesson shall be . . .A Defense Against the Dark Arts of Derision, Disrespect and Insult!

    There are several methods for countering unprovoked verbal attacks.  The most obvious, the most instinctive and, as you’ve probably already learned through experience, the least effective, is something I call the verbum duellum: the duel of words.

    It is as old as the armed duels of ancient times and tactically similar.  Your assailant attacks, you parry and riposte, and before you know it, both of your reputations are soiled and bleeding.

    While the verbum duellum is enormously entertaining for spectators, it usually is counterproductive for the participants.  Allow me to illustrate with a few examples.

    The author Edna Ferber was known for wearing tailored suits, a quite daring fashion statement in the 1920s.

    One day while so attired she was approached by the English playwright Noel Coward who said,  “Why Edna, you look almost like a man.”

    To which Ms. Ferber replied, “Why Noel, so do you.”[i]

    They say there was no love lost between the authors Dorothy Parker and Claire Booth Luce.  One day both women happened to arrive at a doorway at the same time.

    Luce stepped aside and waved Parker forward, saying, “Age before beauty.”

    As Parker walked by she supposedly replied, “Pearls before swine.”[ii]

    But what happens when the duelists are evenly matched in wits?  The outcome is always in doubt. Consider this purported series of exchanges between two of histories’ most famous rhetorical antagonists, Winston Churchill and Lady Astor, the first female member of the British Parliament.

    Churchill is supposed to have told Lady Astor that, having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom.  Lady Astor reportedly replied, “Mr. Churchill, you are not handsome enough to have such fears.”[iii]

    Another time, when discussing a masquerade ball, Churchill wondered aloud how he might effectively disguise himself.  Lady Astor suggested, “Why don’t you come sober?”[iv]

    Despite such formidable wit, Lady Astor suffered defeats as well, as demonstrated in perhaps their most famous exchange.

    Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I would put poison in your tea.”

    Churchill’s reply?

    “Madame, if you were my wife, I would drink it!”[v]

    As you can see, it is best to avoid a battle of wits: there is always the possibility you may be outgunned.

    Another response to insults is one you no doubt heard from parents or teachers: “Just ignore them, and they’ll go away.”  This approach is discussed at length by William Irvine, in his recent book, “A Slap in the Face.”[vi]

    Indeed, “the pain caused by insults is really just a symptom of a far more serious ailment: our participation in the social hierarchy game. . .We are wired so that it feels bad to lose social status and feels good to gain it.”[vii]  Thus, one solution is to practice a form of “insult pacifism,” in which the individual “is a person who refuses to respond to verbal violence with verbal violence.”[viii]

    Although preferable to the verbum duellum, this approach has its difficulties as well.

    First, contrary to the claims of the old nursery rhyme, words can indeed hurt as much as sticks and stones. 

    Second, practically speaking few of us can tolerate a prolonged assault, be it physical or verbal.

    Third, to truly withdraw from the social hierarchy game, you also must become equally indifferent to praise as you are to insults.  Once again, that sounds good in theory, but it is difficult to put into practice.

    I believe the best strategy for defeating the dark arts of derision, disrespect and insult is the winning combination of humor and self-respect.  Laughter and personal dignity can deflect even the worst of insults.

    As the late author Hugh Sidney once observed, “A sense of humor... is (like an) armor. Joy in one's heart and some laughter on one's lips is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life.”[ix]

    Today you add an academic degree to the list of personal achievements that give substance to your sense of self-respect.  Find the right balance of humor and self-dignity, and you will be able to stride confidently and securely through life, indifferent to any trolls you may encounter on your way.

    [i] History’s Great Replies.” Drmardy.com http://www.drmardy.com/repartee/historygreatreplies.shtml

    [ii] Drmardy, Ibid.

    [iii] Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor – New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nancy_Astor,_Viscountess_Astor

    [iv] New World Encyclopedia, Ibid.

    [v] New World Encyclopedia, Ibid

    [vi] Akst, Daniel. “Speaking Ill, With Skill.” March 1, 2013. The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323549204578318642878358354.html?KEYWORDS=Speaking+Ill

    [vii] Irvine, William B. “Why Insults Hurt – and Why They Shouldn’t.” March 8, 2013. Time. http://ideas.time.com/2013/03/08/why-insults-hurt-and-why-they-shouldnt/

    [viii] Akst, Ibid.

  • Topic Category: Commencement Address
  • Tags: insults, laughter, self respect, William Irvine, Churchill, Lady Astor. J.K. Rowling
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