Every May, a new crop of college grads puts on their caps and gowns, ready to dive head-first into the "real world." And every May, there's a corresponding crop of notable graduation speakers—politicians, authors, celebrities, etc.—armed with fistfuls of index cards and enough inspiring quotes to keep your Pinterest fully stocked for years. As part of the University of Virginia's Finals Weekend, Ed Helms of "The Office" and The Hangover—two things that, FYI, aren't a great idea to mix, new graduates—graced UVA's historic Lawn on Friday (May 15) to dole out wisdom and usher the Class of 2015 into life after undergrad.
As expected, the speech was hilarious; not expected, though, was the a cappella performance that closed it out. In a move made even more fitting given that Pitch Perfect 2 opened in theaters nationwide the same weekend, Helms was joined on stage by one of UVA's a cappella groups, The Hullabahoos—a group, Helms revealed in his speech, he has personal history with, having sung together on an episode of "The Office." (Fun fact: The Hullabahoos also make a cameo in the first Pitch Perfect movie and are major characters in the original book on which the franchise is based.) More than just entertaining, though, Helms' speech is a welcome reminder of his tenure as a "Daily Show" correspondent. Punctuated with laughs throughout, he deftly addresses the harrowing year these graduating UVA students have seen in their final year at college, as well as topics not specific to the UVA community like identity, pluralism, and challenging authorities, traditions, and institutions. You should absolutely watch the full thing, beginning to end, for yourself, but here are the highlights.
He digs at the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents who reportedly brutalized UVA student Martese Johnson.
"I don't know if you're aware of this, but UVA has had quite an impact on Hollywood recently. It turns out, orange and blue are the new black, and the Virginia ABC officers were the inspirations for the 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop' movies."
He defends the millennial generation but urges young people to reject the "millennial" label.
"Here are some ways that people are trying to define you. You are millennials, which is the biggest generation in U.S. history. I thought it was hard for me to find a job—it's gonna be like 'The Hunger Games' out there for you. They say millennials are uninterested in the burden of ownership and prefer to be part of the sharing economy, that you're exercising more, eating right, and using apps and data to track your health. ... At best, these generation descriptors are just an absurd reduction. So, take note: As you go out in the world, you'll find that people are always quick to define you, to pigeonhole you, to whittle you down to their preconceived notions, which brings me to my point. Never let others define you, define yourselves."
He skewers Rolling Stone and its now redacted "A Rape On Campus" story.
"I know the UVA community has some experience with being defined by outsiders. It has been said that a rolling stone gathers no moss. I would add that a rolling stone gathers no verifiable facts or even the tiniest morsels of journalistic integrity. Rolling Stone tried to define you this year. As a result, not only was this community thrown deep into turmoil, but the incredibly important struggle to address sexual violence on campuses nationwide was suddenly more confusing than ever and needlessly set back."
He shines a light on another reductive label—"thug"—and its use in media coverage of the city of Baltimore's response to the death of Freddie Gray.
"Sadly, Rolling Stone's rush to define is just the tip of the iceberg—we see it everywhere in the media. Less than three weeks ago when Baltimore was erupting in violence, Erin Burnett on CNN argued with a local resident, insisting that the rioters be defined as "thugs." Wolf Blitzer did the same thing. Over on FOX News, reporter Nick Vitter prattled on about how violent the people of Baltimore were, but City Councilman Nick Mosby wouldn't have it. In a testy exchange, he defined his own community, saying, 'This is about the social economics of poor, urban America. These young guys are frustrated, they're upset, and unfortunately, they're displaying it in a very destructive manner. When folks are undereducated, unfortunately, they don't have the same kind of intellectual voice to express it in the way other people do, and that's what we see through the violence today.' That's a much bigger, more complex analysis, and it strikes me as the real news story. Either way, the reductive labels aren't helping, and we better stop applying them because there are a lot of Americans in a lot of pain. Those riots weren't happening in Kiev or Benghazi; they happened a mighty pleasant three-hour drive from right here."
He throws in a feminist twist to the ol' "girl takes glasses off and is suddenly more attractive" movie trope.
"We're all guilty of this. How many times do we label someone with our first impressions only to be proven wrong? The tattooed motorcycle guy who turns out to be a teddy bear. The buttoned-up coworker who actually knows how to party. Or the mousy librarian who takes off her glasses to reveal she's a bloodthirsty alien from a distant galaxy."
He defines "pluralism" and probably upsets some parents in the audience.
"This may sound contradictory, but F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.' And that's precisely what all of you did. This community didn't fall for the fallacy that just because Rolling Stone was wrong, everything here must be perfectly peachy. You all had the courage to understand you can be outraged by Rolling Stone, and still ask yourself some hard questions: When sexual violence does occur in our community, do we have the best possible protocols and resources available to our students? UVA is charging forward to answer those questions, and you should be proud of that. Questioning something, doesn't mean you repudiate it. To the contrary, we should question most the ideas and institutions we cherish most. We can question a sitting president without disrespecting the office. We can question our foreign policy while still supporting our troops. We can celebrate the honor and courage of our dedicated police while questioning some of their tactics. And of course, we can love our parents and respect their desires while charting our own courses. Sorry, moms and dads, but maybe that's a good one for you to hear, too."
He makes a plea that we all confront our ideological blind spots and those of the people around us.
"If you need any more reason to be humble, there is a terrifying new study out by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues that paints a very scary picture of how our minds work. I suggest looking it up, but the gist of it is that very smart people are confounded by very simple math problems when the results of the math problem challenge their politics. In other words, our beliefs make us irrational. Many of our most brilliant thinkers have had shocking blind spots, spaces where they chose to ignore what was right in front of them. Our founding fathers were obsessed with liberty, and yet, at the same time, they owned slaves. We can marvel at how blind they were, but maybe we should also ask ourselves, 'Where are our blind spots today? Which of our positions will look equally absurd to generations to come? What are we rationalizing or refusing to see?'"
He flat out says that the world is a frustrating place but warns against nihilism.
"Pain, suffering, and ignorance make no sense, but guess what—neither do beauty, compassion, and love. They're two halves of the same pomegranate, and whichever side you decide to chomp down on will define who you are. Remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said? Well, this is the mother of all opposing ideas for you to hold in your head at the same time and still function. Here are a few more: The world is not a meritocracy, but merit still matters. The world isn't fair, but being fair still matters. The world is unkind, but being kind still matters, perhaps more than anything. We can't eliminate human nature from humanity, so we must embrace it, accept ourselves—the good, the bad, our brilliance and our ignorance—and simply strive to improve."
Like, I said. He closes with an a cappella group!
"Ladies and gentlemen of the University of Virginia Class of 2015, each and every one of you has a vibrant, courageous soul, and a depth of power, creativity and wisdom you are only just beginning to tap into. That is your light. It is the light within you, and you have to let it shine because when you do, I promise, it will illuminate you, your family, your friends, your community, your country, and the entire world. Don't let that light die. Every day wake up and say to yourself, 'This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.'"