It's commencement season, and for speechwriters like me, it's a busy time of year. Most professional speechwriters collect the best graduation speeches, from all kinds of speakers and colleges. One of my favorites is from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, when U2's Bono asked students this question: "What's the big idea? What's your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?" He told them that a line from the great Irish poet Brendan Kennelly never leaves his mind: "If you want to serve the age, betray it."
Bono explained what it means to betray the age: "Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will." Slavery, for example, he said, and the people who best served the age were the ones who called it what it was—inhuman. There was a time in our history when women could not vote or hold office, until a few brave souls stood up and betrayed the age. More than half a century ago, the Supreme Court betrayed the age when it decided Brown v. Board of Education and said that separate cannot be equal.
"What are the ideas right now worth betraying?" Bono asked. "It might be something simple. It might be something as simple as our deep-down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. Each of you will probably have your own answer, but for me that is it." Bono isn't the only one who has woken up to the idea that in a fast-paced age that feels increasingly dehumanized and impersonal, there is value and dignity in every single life.
When I was a kid, most people supported a good cause by sending a portion of their paycheck to the United Way; maybe you went down to the Red Cross and gave blood occasionally, or sent used clothes off to the Goodwill. There didn't seem to be very much face-to-face interaction with the most vulnerable in our society. Things have changed.
Volunteering among Americans is now at a 30-year high across most demographic groups, and growth in charitable giving is outpacing economic growth in the United States. In 2011, over 64 million Americans volunteered at least once, which comes to more than a quarter of the population age 16 and older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while some of those hours were spent fundraising, many were spent directly teaching, coaching, or feeding others. There's been a sea change over the last 20 years or so in America. It seems as though people are less interested in big, bureaucratic solutions and are moving toward flexible, targeted responses to specific individuals in need.
Bono's worldwide campaign against poverty in Africa began when one Ethiopian man begged Bono to save his son's life by taking him back to Ireland. Oprah Winfrey has been moved by similar stories, founding more than 55 schools for kids in 12 countries, as well as helping victims of natural disasters rebuild their lives. Others have started grass-roots campaigns to put a stop to bullying, or promote literacy, or distribute lifesaving vaccines, or end obesity. Here's how the Gates Foundation puts it: "Our belief that every life has equal value is at the core of our work."
That commitment to every human life also explains two interesting polls that came out last month. First, Gallup reported that the number of Americans who consider themselves "pro-choice" has hit a record low of 41 percent. The share identifying themselves as "pro-life" stands at 50 percent. There are still vocal minorities who want abortion legal in all circumstances (25 percent) and illegal in all cases (20 percent), but the majority (52 percent) want it to be legal only under certain conditions. And, new this year, more independent voters identify as "pro-life" than previously, by 47 to 41 percent. But here's what has not changed over the last decade: A majority of Americans continue to believe that regardless of whether it is legal or not legal, abortion is morally wrong. A large part of that could be attributable to the fact that over the last two or three decades, most Americans have seen a prenatal sonogram, and understand what it means when they hear a heartbeat on the audio feed—that what they're seeing and hearing is a human life. And that every life has value.
A second Gallup poll showed that half of Americans now support legal same-sex marriages, with the same rights as traditional marriages. By 50 to 48 percent, Americans support gay marriage under the law, with independent voters supporting it 57 to 40 percent. In 1996, when Gallup first began polling on the question, Americans overwhelmingly opposed gay marriage, 68 to 27 percent. The speed with which many Americans have changed their minds on this says a lot—about how many of us have been influenced by gay friends in committed relationships, longing for the validation and acceptance that marriage implies. Over the course of the last few years, many have come to feel that gay couples deserve the same as the rest of us. We can't have two classes of citizens in this country. Again, every life has equal value.
Standing up for the equality of every human life means different things to different people—whether we are answering a pollster's questions on issues like abortion and gay marriage, or whether we are donating organs or coaching a sports team or driving the Meals on Wheels van. But what's clear is that we are seeing more and more Americans spending their moral capital on the value of every human life. They are, in the words of the poet, serving our age by betraying it.
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