Column by Hallie Beard, Junior from Louisville, Ky.
Before you cringe, know this is not a column about greasy-haired John Mayer’s song “Say,” in which he sings the line “say what you need to say” more than 30 times in mere minutes. (Sorry, John Mayer fans – he’s just not my cup of tea.)
This is about speech, and how we as students should face it.
Here’s the gist: if you have something to say, do it like you mean it and don’t be swayed by the crowd.
Part of the millennial struggle, I’ve noticed, is that many of us try to belong too much and too often; we want to be categorized so we can easily describe ourselves.
Explaining life philosophy or moral code to someone is difficult, but it’s easy to say something like, “I’m a rightist liberal Buddhist fish-eating vegan, with feminist tendencies and an Orwellian perspective on media, in no particular order.”
All jokes aside, that’s what it feels like at times when getting to know someone. Not that having certain labels or affiliations is a bad thing – I think it’s wonderful when we can associate with people who share similar ideologies.
The problem with being labeled, though (and where speech comes in), is that we start to police our opinions if they don’t exactly align with textbook definitions of our proclaimed –ists. We start to put our affiliations over ourselves – which is either a negative thing or a positive thing, depending on your life philosophy – and it can keep us from speaking up about important issues for fear of looking like a traitor.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said in “Self-Reliance,” “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Even if you don’t realize it, you know exactly what Emerson is talking about. Herd mentality, groupthink, bandwagon – any way you spin it, it’s the idea of a collective power trumping an individual power. The desire to comply with the crowd forces us to backtrack on our opinions and speech. While that can seem like a positive attribute (think resume buzzwords: team player, agreeable, easy-to-handle), it ultimately can weaken our defenses and dull our problem-solving abilities.
It’s intimidating to speak an opinion that isn’t crowd-approved, but learning how to face that fear is integral to becoming an independent, well-informed adult.
Especially as college students, we cannot be afraid to say what we need to say.
Forget audience and crowd for a minute– how can we, the often underestimated millennials, build (or perhaps repair) our reputation if it’s steeped in fear?
Go back to the gist, after the John Mayer thing: do it like you mean it and don’t be swayed by the crowd.
Emerson said this in a much more eloquent way in 1841: “Do your work and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself.”
I know in the game of university or job politics it can seem more important to stick to your labels than to speak out and risk alienation, but don’t worry so much about following a script.
Keep on reinforcing yourself, and resist the urge to panic if you can’t affix yourself to a certain group or school of thought; you can always start your own.
So, how ‘bout it? Tear off the crowd-tested stamp of approval and let’s be millennials who say what we need to say, millennials who make waves and millennials who do our work.