“My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever,” director Steven Spielberg told Harvard graduates Thursday.
To create a better future, Spielberg instructed the graduating class during Harvard University’s commencement ceremony to seek out and understand the past.
He quoted friend and “Jurassic Park” writer Michael Crichton, who said, “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.”
To understand who we are, Spielberg said we must understand who we were. “We are a nation of immigrants, at least for now,” he said, which means that there is a vast number of stories to hear and tell.
“Heroes and villains are not literary constructs, but they’re at the heart of all history,” Spielberg said. “This is why it’s so important to listen to your internal whisper.”
He said that this whisper is what compelled Abraham Lincoln and Oscar Schindler to make the correct moral choices, and he warns against letting this whisper get drowned out by convenience or expediency.
“Love, support, courage, intuition: All these things are in your hero’s quiver, but a hero needs one more thing — a hero needs a villain to vanquish,” Spielberg said. “And, you’re all in luck. This world is full of monsters.”
These monsters manifest themselves as racism, homophobia, ethnic hatred, class hatred, political hatred, and religious hatred, he said.
Spielberg shared as an example that when he was a child, he was bullied for being Jewish. And anti-Semitism is only getting worse, he said, citing the number of Jews — nearly 20,000 — who have left Europe over the last two years “to find higher ground.”
His desire to confront anti-Semitism compelled him to found the Shoah Foundation in 1994, which has since taken video testimonies from 53,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The organisation has expanded its mission to also take testimony recounting genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, and Nanking.
“Because we must never forget that the inconceivable doesn’t just happen — it happens frequently. Atrocities are happening right now,” Spielberg said.
There is no difference between anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, he said. “It is all one big hate.”
Spielberg said hate is born of an “us versus them” mentality, and thinking instead about people as “we” requires replacing fear with curiosity.
“‘Us’ and ‘them’ will find the ‘we’ by connecting with each other, and by believing that we’re members of the same tribe, and by feeling empathy for every soul,” he explained.
He also warned against simply feeling empathy without acting on it, either by voting, peaceably protesting, or generally speaking up for those who aren’t being heard.
“I’ve imagined many possible futures in my films, but you will determine the actual future. And I hope that it’s filled with justice and peace,” Spielberg said.
“And I wish you all a true Hollywood-style happy ending: I hope you outrun the T-Rex, catch the criminal, and, for your parents’ sake, maybe every now and then, just like ET, go home,” he concluded.
Watch the full commencement speech below:
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