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Daniel Staelgraeve's Senior Speech

Daniel Staelgraeve '21

In your time as a Cadet, you will listen to over 2,400 minutes of senior speeches - that’s over 40 hours. 40 hours of listening to what your peers have to say… should be simple, right? Well, I challenge you to list 10 notable senior speeches and what they were about. Can’t do it? I probably can’t either. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t notable senior speeches. The problem, I’ve found, is not with the content of these speeches, but with our ability to listen. The instant something stops becoming relatable or goes against what we believe or simply becomes boring, we begin to tune it out.

Now, there’s not much to be done about the boredom except to refocus your listening on what the speaker is saying. It’s the other two that are the real problem, and these have a name: Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search out and favor information that confirms what you already think or believe. In small settings, this can be advantageous as we surround ourselves with like-minded people. By doing this, we are able to build thoughts upon each other’s to come up with stronger ideas. But the confirmation bias that causes you to quickly tune out another person’s speaking is one taken to an extreme. By practicing this, we begin to get rid of anything that does not agree and become increasingly invested in the idea that the opinion we hold is the ONLY right opinion. As we do this, those around us only confirm our thoughts and it snowballs. This is seen on a small scale here in formation during senior speeches but is seen on an even greater scale in our current socio-political climate.

The current world of politics and social interactions within the US is staggeringly polarized. We are a country built on democracy, but in order for that to work, there need to be positive and open conversations with compromise and discussion.  President Biden’s first 16 days in office saw him overturn 16 of former President Trump’s executive orders. But this lack of compromise isn’t just a problem with the left-wing, because Trump did the same when he succeeded former President Obama. Contrary to what our elected officials on capital hill would tell us, this is NOT what progress looks like. No, this back and forth battle of bills and orders is far closer to the back and forth bickerings of two young siblings than the forward movement of a world superpower.

But with confirmation bias and polarization, we will never move away from this. Political parties and their members have become so fixated on their ideas and opinions that they cannot accept that the other party may be making a fair point. Their bias has shut out even the notion that others may be correct.

Moving away from politics, there has been a recent development in our society that perfectly illustrates the danger of confirmation bias: cancel culture. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, cancel culture is the practice of groups of people, typically gen Z, destroying people’s careers and lives, usually based on events of their past. Why do they do this? Because that person made a statement or performed an action that did not agree with the mass’ or an individual’s preconceived ideas and opinions. One bad action has tainted everything good the person did.

Recently, the San Francisco school board went through an effort of change to update the names of schools and facilities to better reflect what the district stands for. One of these names that were stripped was President Abraham Lincoln’s. The justification: Lincoln ordered in 1862 the execution of 38 Dakota Native Americans. In your junior year here at Saint Thomas Academy, you read Over The Earth I Come, which recounts the Sioux uprising for which these natives were executed. In this, you learn that 306 were scheduled for death, but lincoln cut that down to the 38 that died. This complex ethical issue paired with the widespread good that Lincoln is regarded to have accomplished as president begs the question: is canceling the correct response? Another example of this was the canceling of author J.K Rowling after she made anti-transgender comments. Were either of these things good to say or do? No. But through canceling them we are only building our own confirmation bias by getting rid of anything that challenges it. This snowballs on and on until we become completely blind to what others are saying. Instead, we need to have open conversations. We need to start asking questions such as “why were these things said” and have a discussion about what will move society forward. Bad or not, these people’s opinions deserve to be heard in order to paint a more full picture of why they developed such ideas in the first place. Without talking about our disagreements, it is impossible to find a common ground and to educate each other on various topics of controversy.

Now, you, like myself, may be sitting there wondering how on earth you will affect the polarization of an entire country. In truth, one individual probably can’t. That is just far too large a job for a highschooler. What you can do is work on your own polarization and confirmation bias.

As we interact with each other and members of our community, I urge you to do two interconnected things. First, expand the group of people you talk to. This promotes more conversation throughout the community and will set an example so others do the same. It will also help you hear the voices of others and see what they have to say; everyone’s thoughts and opinions are valid. The second thing is to keep your mind open as you have these conversations. Keep listening as people say things you could never agree with. Keep listening as they say things that seem to disagree with you on multiple levels. And once they have said their piece, respond in a constructive way. Respond with how your opinion disagrees and why you support that angle. Help educate the person on your side of the argument and then listen as they do the same to you. By doing these two things, we can work towards a place where those with different thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are still unified and can still become friends and hold interactions.

The change of a country’s issues are not solved by one individual, but by the actions of many individuals. As Michael Jackson put it in Man in the Mirror,

“If you want to make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself, and then make a change”

The change starts with us boys.

 

Thank you, and God Bless.