Governor's Commencement Speech Explains The Best Way To Spot An Idiot — 'Look For The Person Who Is Cruel'

He said that kindness is what makes an "advanced society."

Governor J. B. Pritzker speaks to Northwestern's class of 2023. @wen_livin via TikTok

What makes someone an "idiot?" It's an offensive word to call anybody, often referring to those who are not book-smart. But during a university commencement speech, the orator had a different definition. 

J. B. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune and Governor of Illinois, delivered Northwestern University's Class of 2023 commencement speech which not only attempted to change the way we perceive kindness but also urged the graduating class to do away with cruelty and embrace kindness and empathy in a world where such values are often dismissed as weaknesses.


He explained that "the best way to spot an idiot" is to "look for the person who is cruel."

"The best way to spot an idiot?" he said, looking out into the crowd of students. "Look for the person who is cruel." 

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He elaborated that our earliest survival as a species hinged on suspicion of the unfamiliar, leading to an inherent propensity for fear and judgment.


"When we see someone who doesn't look like us, or sound like us, or act like us, or love like us, or live like us, the first thought that crosses almost everyone's brain is rooted in either fear or judgment or both," he said. "That's evolution."

The governor asserted that it is necessary to overcome these instinctual fears and biases to be kind.

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Empathy and compassion, he said, are signs of an evolved society that has transcended its baser instincts.

"In order to be kind," he said, "we have to shut down that animal instinct and force our brain to travel a different pathway. Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being. They require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges."


He expressed concern about the modern narrative that views cruelty as a tool for power and sees kindness and empathy as weak. 

With conviction, he denounced such a viewpoint, saying, "Our society has come to believe that weaponized cruelty is part of some well-thought-out master plan. Cruelty is seen by some as an adroit cudgel to gain power. Empathy and kindness are considered weak."

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J. B. Pritzker commencement speech 2023Photo: @wen_livin via TikTok


Pritzker painted a picture of a society where the vulnerable are exploited for personal gain. He showed clear disdain for this mentality, expressing that what makes a society advanced is not what we typically think of, such as technological innovations, but rather the amount of empathy within it.

"Many important people look at the vulnerable only as rungs on a ladder to the top," he said. "I'm here to tell you that when someone's path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society." 

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He stressed the importance of moving past primitive fears to nurture creativity and imagination.

He credited the years in politics and business for giving him unique insights into the human condition. From his experience, he gave a simple yet powerful statement: "The kindest person in the room is often the smartest."


Often, we perceive intelligence as unconnected to kindness. There are plenty of people that we deem smart, yet their character is cruel.

As those Northwestern graduates go out into the world to find their footing and make a living, his words hopefully will serve as a reminder never to let money or success get in the way of kindness. However, not just young people but all of us can take that meaning with us as well.

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Ethan Cotler is a writer and frequent contributor to YourTango living in Boston. His writing covers entertainment, news, and human interest stories.